Another sad passing today as we learn that Ellen Stewart, founder and artistic director of LaMama E.T.C. has taken her show heavenward. There can be no exaggerating her importance to the off-off-Broadway theatre community. Her passing away now at age 92 has a personal irony for me at this moment. Since moving to this city it has been a goal of mine to have a show at Lamama, the birthplace of so much I hold dear. A few years ago, after reviewing a couple of her Greek myth productions, she and I talked about my doing something there, and it’s finally coming to pass. My show opens there on March 17, but it looks now like it will be happening in an entirely different era. Still, there will be much of her in it, I think. The kind of work we’ll be attempting largely came into the world through her midwifery. She is a Godmother with many, many children.
Archive for indietheater
On Friday night, following our attendance at the wretched Gob Squad’s Kitchen, the Countess and I had our faith in the world restored by attending this production at P.S. 122’s Coil Festival. I always felt a special connection to Mr. Gray’s work, seeing as how he was born on the other side of Narragansett Bay from me, spoke with a thick Rhode Island accent, and like me was of Scottish decent and a WASP ancestry that, I believe, like mine, went back to Colonial times. His father was one of the honchos of the firm of Brown & Sharpe, which was headquartered one town over from me when I was growing up. And let’s not forget his roots in experimental theatre. And, uh, the genius of his art — a comic voice as strong and universally beloved (by those exposed to it) as Will Rogers’ or Mark Twain’s.
Stories Left to Tell is a testament to Gray’s brilliance as a writer — and an instructive revelation about the writer’s art. For those who might imagine that Gray’s unique autobiographical writings depended on his own performance, this show will quickly put that notion to rest. Conceived and directed by Kathleen Russo and Lucy Sexton (the latter perhaps best known as one half of the performance duo Dancenoise back in the day), the writings are enacted by a quintet of performers, who simply and honestly deliver the pieces, allowing Gray’s consciousness to shine through. The merging of Gray’s words and the individual performances is like seeing a brood of children with one father and five different mothers. The cast was terrific. Four (Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, Ain Gordon and Bob Holman — distinguished artists all) are the same in each performance; the fifth slot is filled by a rotating celebrity. On the night we attended it was David Strathairn — a perfect choice, given the simplicity and honesty he always brings to his performances. The vivid readings (all done from Gray-like school composition books) seemed to bring the late Gray, so untimely ripped from us, back to life, and brought back fond memories.
Now the bad news. You only have one more chance to see this moving and hilarious show in its current incarnation — today at 4:30! If you can manage to get there, the ticket info is here. But the good news is that a new documentary about Gray is making the circuit. It’s called And Everything is Going Fine and info about where and when it’s playing is here. And, according to his web site, a boxed set of his monologue films is due out later this year.
I fully admit I’m a bit of a misanthrope. I detest opening nights, particularly ones for which some buzz has resulted in a packed house of noisy art sluts. During a quiet moment in last night’s American premiere of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), I whispered in the Countess’s ear “This sycophantic laughter makes me want to spray the audience with an Uzi”. She rewarded me with a sympathetic kiss, and that is why we are a couple. I can usually tell within 20 seconds whether the next 90 to 120 minutes are going to be horrible torture. It often begins with the question, “What the fuck are these people laughing at?” When I strongly suspect that the laughs are not coming from their bellies, but from the calculating part of their brains that wants to demonstrate to the others in the auditorium that they “get” this new thing, great waves of bile and contempt course through my body and spill out my ears, eyes and nose like cartoon choo-choo smoke. You might say that this will spoil my objectivity, that it will prejudice me against the piece at hand, but really the opposite is the case. ‘Cuz if it was funny, I’d be laughin’.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated this thing. Trying to begin is like trying to find a place to grab onto a greased medicine ball. It purports to be a reflection of Warhol’s first films circa 1963-65. The audience watches a triptych of live video feeds, one of which conjures the films Sleep and Kiss, another of which does the same with Kitchen, and a third which recreates the Factory’s famous screen tests. A quartet of fairly competent sketch comedians undermine the stillness and verite of Warhol’s original experiments by chattering endlessly and rather stupidly in a self-conscious fashion about what they ought to be doing. Their rather thin and lame shenanigans produced gales of laughter from the audience, although to my mind the performers were doing far too little to make it clear that their characters – and not themselves – were these vapid, empty, uninformed people. What was it about? Their press material says it was a “reflection” and a “deconstruction” but it certainly was none of those things. It neither deflated nor illuminated the work of Warhol, nor said anything about the human condition period. The creators – or the characters – seemed to know or care surpassingly little about Warhol or the age in which he lived and worked. Or this age. Or anything.
To me the key words that describe their work appear in the program notes: “culturally savvy” and “sharply ironic”. “Culturally savvy” I take to mean essentially “hip”. If that’s a virtue, their most salient virtue, it’s a rather dubious one, about as substantial as a soap bubble. I’m more concerned with this business of touting “irony” as though THAT were also some worthy philosophical stance to tout. Irony I designate to be the disease of our age. I’m guilty of it, most of us are, but I hardly think it’s anything to trumpet. It is a weak-sister substitute for having any REAL CONVICTIONS about ANYTHING. It is the philosophy reflected in the ubiquitous phrase “Whatever”. Nothing matters or affects me. Not art, not life, not emotions, not language, not you, not me. Certainly not the audience, two hours of their lives, or the money they spent on tickets. And so these performers just sort of fuck around for the duration, blissfully enjoying themselves, floating above us on this masturbatory plane of “whatever”.
The evening ends with some sort of statement about throwing out all old values, and people looking back in 100 years and realizing “this was the moment” when that shift happened. But they’ll remember nothing of the kind. The reason the “old values” exist is so that we have something to latch onto. Something. I’m not talking about Aristotle, okay? In punk rock there is anger at least. In the work of Young Jean Lee, as non-linear as it is, there are the playwright’s emotions, her concerns. Gob’s Squad’s Kitchen is so ephemeral that it makes no impression IN THE MOMENT, let alone tomorrow or in 100 years.
Certainly Warhol is largely to blame for the very plague of amorality and nihilism that this production exemplifies. But if the production is supposed to be a critique or “deconstruction” or “reflection” on it, I see no evidence of that. It is just more of it. As the show goes on, audience members (some of whom I suspect were ringers) are drawn into the show and given their own screen tests and 15 minutes of fame. If that is the show’s one stab at profundity, it’s a weak one. I see shows that offer that every week of my life. In fact, to my sorrow and regret, I could have been at one last night – Todd Robbins was packing the house at Play Dead. Oh, why, oh why, wasn’t I there instead?
This just in off the Indie Theatre Telefax — Lord knows why the perpetrators thought it would be of interest to me…”smoking hot babes”, “whips” and “Shakespeare”. Everyone knows I prefer watching stout, middle aged men sitting in arm chairs discussing the finer points of political economy. And, yet, perhaps one should keep an open mind?
The full description reads as follows:
It is 1607, and women aren’t allowed to perform on the English stage…seven swordswomen gather to illegally swashbuckle their way through Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies–to hilarious end. These smoking hot babes are armed to the teeth with swords, daggers, quarterstaves, whips, and of course Rapier Wit! Throw in some singing, some wrestling, some gender-bending, and some audience participation–and you have one heck of a good time! Join our all female fight troupe The Vixens En Garde in a fast-paced fantastical tribute to the Bard of Avon…Rated R for Violence, Sexuality, & Shakespearean Swearing.
We Outlanders tend to move to NYC for one of two reasons: the making of fortunes or the search for excitement. Proximity to my storybook idea of Bohemia was and remains one of my personal goals (although I certainly wouldn’t turn down a fortune). The search for “Bohemia” of course has been elusive. The number of people who put art before every other consideration has been dwindling for decades — that is, if a larger number of such people ever really existed. Still, I love places like Theater for the New City, LaMama and Le Living because they are like conduits to a time that inspires me. I often feel I was born 20 years too late. (This may surprise some people who assume I’d prefer the vaudeville era. But the truth is, my path to vaudeville and the past came through the neo vaudeville musical appreciation of 60s rock and folk musicians, and the camp explosion of the 1970s.)
At any rate, I met Richard West and Lissa Moira at TNC, which venue I’ve been flitting in and out of for the past four or five years. I’ve wanted to do something on them for ages, but haven’t been able to think what (mostly because I haven’t seen any of their shows). But this team of romantic and artistic partners has interested me a great deal.
West has copious street cred. When he name-drops, it’s names like Phil Ochs, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tuli Kupferberg (of the Fugs), Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Taylor Meade, Quentin Crisp, Eric Bogosian, Patti Smith, Reno, Phoebe Legere and Laurie Anderson. A Lower East Side native, he also spent (or mis-spent) a good deal of his youth in San Francisco, where he organized theatre/readings/happenings and had a show on Pacifica Radio. He’s also a songwriter/musician.
Lissa, I hope West will concede, is the more eye-catching of the two. She generally seems to go around wearing a tiara and various other finery like an exiled countess. A child prodigy who graduated from high school at age 14, she joined an artist commune and participated in San Francisco street theatre in the late 70s. She co-wrote the mob-themed 2003 film Dead Canaries starring Charles Durning and Dan Lauria. She is also a talented collage-artist (she does all the artwork for their posters; that’s her work behind them in the photo above).
In the mid 90s they met and started working together. I read the script of their recent TNC show Who Murdered Love (a murder mystery that takes us into the world of dada) and frankly loved the combination of Hawksian dialogue and genuine avant-garde playfulness. Some reviewer wrote about the team’s “weakness for puns” — but it’s not a weakness when the puns (and other wordplay) are smart and funny as these are, so that reviewer was a dope. Moira and West seem to like to smash together Hollywood, burlesque, Tin Pan Alley and Gertrude Stein-like experimentation. The combination of course speaks to me a great deal. On the burlesquey side they’ve done a couple of racey sounding shows. Their biggest success was something called The Biggest Sex of the XX Century Sale, though their show Sexual PyschoBabble included a sketch by Ultra Violet (from Andy Warhol’s Factory).
Their current show Seduction of Mind (x3) opens tonight at Theater for the City. It’s bound to be a sui generis. For info and tickets go here.
One of my favorite companies in the city is the Metropolitan Playhouse (it ought to be, I’m on their board of advisors!) The company specializes in early American plays — in my view an extremely important niche. If there were any justice in this world, this company (or one with its mission) would be ensconced in its own home at Lincoln Center, with armies of schoolkids being bussed in every single day, with evening performances for New York sophisticates who think they know everything. (At the moment, they have a small house in Alphabet City. ) I don’t know if it’s still the case, but when I was in school, when you took any kind of a theatre course, you were essentially taught that American theatre history starts with O’Neill, and that everything before was worthless “artificial melodrama” or equally worthless “adaptations of European hits”. This would be a natural perspective to have if this were, say, 1950. The theatrical movements of the 20th century did bring a certain vitality, a certain richness to the drama. But from where I sit in 2010, I’m just as apt to turn up my nose at Arthur Miller as my forebears were to do at Boucicault. The idea that American theatre begins with O’Neill just ain’t so. Not only aren’t the more modern plays so much better, but neither are the older plays so much worse. And I say this on many levels. Is melodrama “artificial”? Yes – -and so are kubuki, Noh, commedia, opera and a thousand others stylized forms of theatre. The “phoniness” critique, I think, is a value judgment that no longer obtains. Personally, my taste runs to the heightened language of the 19th century. I vastly prefer even the pseudo poetic doggerel of a Victorian hack to “attention must be paid” or whatever’s supposed to be so brilliant about Arthur Miller. And as for the argument about many of the plays being merely adaptations of popular European farces and melodramas…until the 20th century most plays everywhere (including Europe) were adaptations of older scripts. Surely there’s enough horrendous realism out there to make it obvious that there’s no inherent virtue in an “original” story. And lastly (here’s where I guess my NYU education and 6 years at the New-York Historical Society actually had some affect on my stubborn, cantankerous mind) — these are cultural products. As with genre paintings in the history museum, there are many ways to study them: as works of art, certainly, but also as historical artifacts. These plays have much, MUCH to teach us, not just about “then” but about “now”.
It happens that I always want to see everything this company produces, and I attend very few of their shows, mostly because I rarely pay for theatre tickets and I’m hesitant to hit a theatre this small up for comps when I’m not doing a review. But their work is consistently good. Artistic director Alex Roe (one of my favorite actors, and he rarely acts) runs a highly professional shop, with a great knack for hiring talent. Tonight, they’re opening The Return of Peter Grimm, by David Belasco. Go to see it. I guarantee you will be entertained. This is not some boring educational thing. This is a popular, commercial play, a ripping yarn, the equivalent of a Hollywood movie of its day. Furthermore, I know this play. It is delightful. Because, you see Peter Grimm doesn’t merely “return” like MacArthur, from one place to another. Let us just say that he “crosses over” from a…dimension much farther away. And that everything from Blithe Spirit to Ghost would be impossible without it. Buy your tickets now! Here’s how.
This Critic, untrained in “clown”, has always been a staunch defender of what might be termed the Merely Ludicrous Image. It’s always seemed to me that many in the red nose crowd, taught (appropriately) that good comedy comes from situation and character, sometimes work so hard to avoid the unmotivated seltzer bottle that they neglect the meat and potatoes, which is Make the Funny. So the creators of Legs and All, still playing in Horse Trade Theatre Group’s Frigid Festival, won me over in the opening seconds of their hour long piece. A woman in a box. She looks this way. Black out. She looks that way. Black out. She makes her hands relate like a couple of puppets. Black out. No way in hell this registers as funny by reading this, and that’s my point. It looks funny, and funny’s the bottom line.
The woman in the box, Summer Shapiro (whose name, come to think of it, is a kind of Chinese ideogram for “Catskills”) is a riveting marvel. With the perfect placidity that marks all great clowns, she negotiates her way through a toy universe like a Beckett character without the intercession of a wordsmith. Some of it is painfully acquired skill, let there be no doubt. She and her partner Peter Musante prove themselves contortionists many times over. At one point they turn a dinner table on its side and sit at it, giving the audience a perspective from the ceiling, something I’ve enjoyed more than once in the cinema, but never in the theatre. This alone would justify the use of the oft-abused term “magic” in the publicity materials. That’s cool, but it’s physical. You can train anyone with a healthy body to do it, once having thought of it. But you can’t teach how to think of it. That’s the difference here. The fire in the belly, the instinct and will to behave (and misbehave) in front of an audience. The ideas are inspired; so is the performance.
There’s a gossamer cobweb of a plot, but almost as a sop to convention. The two nameless characters spot each other, and like a couple of cellmates in a juvenile insane asylum, begin to petulantly interact. Inevitably they overcome their petty competition and come together, after a fashion. That’s the story arc. But the stronger muscle by far is the pair’s visual ingenuity. The piece is really a bricolage of surreal moments worthy of Tati or Ernie Kovacs. They are like strange little snapshots, very cinematic, helped a long by very funny music and sound cues (theramin music, a silly French narrator, etc)
Some of this leads to other, more populist, places. One character wipes the other’s face with a napkin that magically puts chocolate frosting ON the face, rather than taking it off. When Shapiro inevitably gets the frosting on her own face, we are just as inevitably reminded of Lucy. I love little resonances like this. Comedy is a ritual. A ritual is a thing you go back to, time after time. So I’d gladly check in on this team again to see what inspired silliness they come up with. For info on tickets to the few remaining appearances, go here.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
By now it’s a familiar television subgenre. A familiar setting, say, a small country town (Twin Peaks) or a carnival (Carnevale) is invaded by the supernatural forces of evil through a series of mysterious murders that eventually add up to a small or large scale demonic holocaust. Richard Lovejoy’s A Brief History of Murder treads this well-trodden ground not once but twice in two rather incomplete full-length plays, asking us to connect the dots and fill in the blanks of an intentionally murky picture. The brevity announced in the title is therefore a joke – but so is the history and for that matter the murder.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a beautiful lady cop, (Anne Carlisle) investigates a series of small town killings in which the victims’ hearts have been removed and their eyelids drawn upon. She is aided by a couple of crusty detectives (Danny Bowes and Justin R.G. Holcomb) and a Keltonesque* rookie (Jesse Wilson). Meanwhile, her big city husband whines about neglect and the uneaten dinners he’s cooked (when he’s not working in the studio taking photographs of nude people.)
Furthermore, a brand new aquarium has just been built in the town – one apparently stocked with red herrings. The carnage we are privy to seems at various times to originate from several competing sources, none of whom are the conventional type of serial killer being sought by the police. The audience is able to see what the cops can’t, but that doesn’t help. A literally lupine drifter “the last of his kind” (Timothy McCown Reynolds) hitches into town, snuffing a series of citizens in order to swallow small, glowing orbs he digs out of the back of their necks. Meanwhile, the Janus-faced mayor (David Arthur Bachrach) maintains his cover by delivering hokey press conferences – when he’s not drinking blood and controlling his minions with mesmerism. A trio of mysterious sylphs (Sarah Melinda Engelke, Kathryn Lawson, Eve Udesky) flit in and out of the proceedings from time to time; the suspicion that they are the Three Fates or Furies is thwarted by the fact that one has been recruited from the pile of murder victims. By the slow fade to black, the entire human race (and most of the dogs) appear to have been slaughtered. The bright side is, no one will be around to smell it.
Director Ivanna Cullinan is to be commended for wrestling this beast to the mat, and it looks like it was a job of work: musical numbers, special effects, stage combat, and scenes involving full frontal nudity, and (even more unsettling), foreign languages. The actors all know what they’re doing, they live in the same universe, give truthful performances and don’t step on each other’s feet. If this sounds like faint praise, you haven’t seen much theatre; those are all minor miracles. Yet, in the end, the production fails to transcend a major flaw in the script, one that might have been addressed in the direction.
The flaw is an inconsistency in tone. An internal stylistic civil war mars the play. Mr. Lovejoy’s penchant for undeniably funny jokes are sprinkled throughout the grim drama like skittles in a spinach salad. Revelations of infidelity and scenes depicting the deaths of friends, neighbors and coworkers must swim upstream (or vice versa) against a cop who throws up at the mention of donuts, and a character who asks for help renewing his library book even as he trips over the maimed corpse of the librarian. If the show is meant to be a parody of police procedurals (or their supernatural subgenre), the levity must stretch from curtain to curtain. If it is meant to be a straight genre exercise, there are too many jokes, and the wrong kind. It is as though the staff of Gilligan’s Island ventured to write an episode of Peyton Place, trying really, really hard to be serious. (You can tell I watch a lot of contemporary television).
As realized here these inconsistencies are a problem, but they needn’t be. The path out of the darkness is one that has already been blazed. Director Cullinan would have been better served by swallowing the Lynchian program whole hog. The realm in which word play and undefined menace coexist is dreamscape. For the most part, the cast pursues a tack of realism in their juicy scenes, a literalism that scarcely hints at the extent to which the stars are unaligned in the weird universe Lovejoy has written. I want tics, I want pregnant silences, I want expressionistic atmosphere. I want to see attitudes of vague bewilderment calibrated several notches below what is naturalistically called for, but a couple of notches above deadpan. The problem with playing it straight is that every time a joke pops up it diffuses the tension, and the whole whirligig has to rev itself up again. The script is weird; the tone of the show should be too.
But, even so, is “weird” enough? For plenty of people, maybe, but I do ask more of four hours in the theatre, an expenditure in time I usually reserve for the likes of Mozart and Wagner. Nonsense can be meaningful: that is after all the nature of both poetry and religion. But while there is Mystery…and there are mysteries….there are also question marks…and I’m afraid A Brief History ranks as the latter.
Now then. What was really, really good about it? I absolutely loved the musical number sung the three Portal Sisters and reprised by the mayor (music by Chris Chappell, musical direction by Whitney Gardner, lyrics I guess by Rich Lovejoy [not indicated in the program]). A surreal, crazy lyric set to a vaudevillian tune (with a dance number choreographed by Becky Byers). A couple of performances were stand-outs. Justin R.G. Holcomb as Detective Chamber is an authentic find. I can see him being typecast in a never ending parade of police captains and farmhands but that would avail nothing if he were not so on the money in his measured, specific performance. I await his next stage turn with eagerness. And Sara Thigpen practically steals the show in a comical supporting part as the town busybody. I think we should all start referring to the stereotypical comic trope of an overbearing woman wearing a mudpack as “greenface”.
* The reference is to the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the recurring character Officer Kelton often providing comic relief.
A Brief History of Murder is at the Brick Theatre in Williamsburg, Brooklyn until tomorrow. For info and tickets go here.
My February column is up! Look for capsule reviews of the latest shows by Young Jean Lee, Richard Maxwell and Kamala Sankaram, as well preview tips on the Frigid Festival and shows by Charles Busch, Charles Mee, Reverend Billy, Clay McCleod Chapman (with the Venn Diagrams) and more! For all the info, go here.