Archive for January, 2009

Cornbury

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , on January 28, 2009 by travsd

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I used to shill for a stodgy uptown joint called the New-York Historical Society. (Don’t ask about the hyphen). The oldest museum in New York, its holdings include the complete set of Audubon originals, significant paintings from the Hudson River School, the desk at which Clement Clark Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas”, and relics from 9-11.

Notwithstanding the worth of those objects, perhaps the Society’s most beloved piece is an early 18th century portrait of what appears to be a very ugly transvestite with five o’clock shadow. For years—centuries, really—people thought it was a portrait of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the colonial governor of New York and New Jersey, who was reputed to have a taste for women’s clothing. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on that habit, as well as the identity of the subject in the portrait. However, my motto has always been: PRINT THE LEGEND. As the public relations officer of the N-YHS I always at the very least privileged the legend.

Imagine my delight when I heard that two of my favorite actors, David Greenspan and Everett Quinton, would be starring in Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, a Ridiculous style play about Cornbury’s alleged antics. Furthermore, the play is presented by Theatre Askew, which did such a terrific job lampooning I, Claudius. For this inveterate lover of history, the Ridiculous, and drag (when it’s not on me), this is a fortuitous confluence.

And I’m glad to report the product was everything I hoped for and more. Greenspan, of course, is only ever and always himself, but this role makes an ideal setting for the jewel that he is. Luxuriating around the space, eyelids halfway drawn, sculpting the atmosphere with his hands as he sings out orders to his obedient and put-upon minions, Greenspan’s Cornbury is every inch a Queen. Quinton, who’s played his fair share of similar characters too, acquits himself no less favorably as the nasty, prudish Dutch clergyman Pastor Van Dam, a character not a little reminiscent of the Hume Cronyn-inspired security guard he played in Natural Born Killers. Furthermore, the cast also includes someone named Eugene the Poogene. The rest of the ensemble are also terrific, but they aren’t named Eugene the Poogene, so I don’t mention them.

The play itself was either written in 1976 or is “new”, (both have been asserted) and is penned by some combination of Anthony Holland (who died in 1988 ) and William Hoffman, best known as the author of As Is. The play is terrific in details – the speech is exquisitely accurate and full of double entendre. But as a whole it is somewhat formless, with Cornbury being “dethroned” at the end of the first act, leaving the entire post-intermission as an anti-climax. But that’s merely the plot. Like any good comedy of its type, it is a tapestry of gags. Director Tim Cusack seems to have located them all, including many that probably weren’t there, and deftly dialed up the schtick-meter up to 11, so that when the plot looses steam, there is enough merriment to sustain our interest to the curtain. As an amateur historian, I am proud to say I didn’t learn a thing.

Through February 8 at the Hudson Guild Theatre. Tickets and info: http://www.theatreaskew.com

Theatre is Dead

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , on January 26, 2009 by travsd

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Upon first hearing about Stolen Chair’s latest production Theatre is Dead and So are You, I couldn’t help recalling that twenty years ago my old schoolmate Adam Gertsacov presented a little thing entitled A Cabaret on Death. Of course, he had earlier trod the stage with the handle “Kafka the Clown”. To the young, there is something precocious and attractively “intellectual” and even Brechtian about marrying our nightmares to the pleasant dream of show business.

The concept has its allure. It is an aesthetic problem that may even be solved, thought it would take a Brecht or a Beckett to do it. Come to think of it, they already have. But, as the Senator from Minnesota Stuart Smalley used to say, “That’s okay.” Stolen Chair’s business is form. They have previously “done” their own versions of silent melodrama, film noir (by way of Ionesco), Elizabethan drama, and even a swashbuckler. Here, they present a vaudeville – a loose concatenation of entertainments provided by a fictitious company whose leader lies dead in a casket throughout the entire performance. They sing, they dance, they act, they do a little puppetry – all of it revolving around the unavoidable reality of Death.

This is a big subject. In fact, it’s so big it isn’t even a subject. It’s one half of everything that is. It’s the period at the end of every sentence – and it’s a mighty short sentence. One enters this territory at one’s own risk. You do it justice or you don’t do it all. (You can see where I’m going with this). This production feels sort of like a gang of illiterates had blundered into a storeroom filled with crates marked “explosives”, hung out for awhile, and then left the storeroom. No one is any the wiser, but we’re definitely two hours older. And in the meantime, we were awfully close to some explosives.

The problem, you see, is that this isn’t really a production about death at all. It’s a production about “death”. This is the sort of death play someone would write and present who hadn’t given a minute’s thought to the reality of death. The evidence is palpable in the director’s notes in the program: “After public speaking…death is the greatest fear of all Americans.” Well, actually dying is one’s greatest fear, but aside from the grammatical nicety, all Americans? What about all human beings?What about all life forms who struggle against it with every ounce of their being? The note of hysteria you feel in my commentary is not only real but appropriate – and should have been part of the flavor of this production, if it were really about what it purported to be about. But I know it is not. Because so much in the production (and in this company’s work) is second, third, fourth, and fifth hand. Everything in the show is in quotes. The characters are all dressed in clown make-up, but they are not clowns. They are “clowns” – actors dressed as clowns. They self-consciously parade throughout this mature theme in a manner most artistic, only it is not art, but “art”. And the subject, as we have said, is not death, but “death”. It’s all a jolly game, a conceit.

It’s not because of the intellectualism. Samuel Beckett, without whom none of these death-clowns would have been possible, was the most abstract of all playwrights. In some plays he names his characters A, B, Y, Z, like variables in an algebra equation. He strips them down to human fractions: a pair of lips, a head in an urn, a voice in the darkness. He gives them fragments to speak. And still, STILL, humanity – pain, loneliness, fear – shine through. In Theatre is Dead, we get the arid experience of Brecht’s alienation effect, on top of no plot, on top of no decent vaudeville turns. Instead, the fact of our own mortality is offered constantly as a sort of mirthless punchline that neither chills nor amuses. What is there to do but pray that death will come – for somebody?

One walks away with the suspicion – and this is plausible – that the entire production is meant as an illustration of why the theatre is dead. The outdated jokes, the ironic performances, the scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet, all this and more provide evidence. If this were so, it would be little more than a prank on ticket buyers, and a cruel one at that.

The production’s one saving grace is the presence of David Berent, whom I have known and admired in many other guises, including his performance in The Accidental Patriot, (in which he was also the only saving grace). Every second of Berent’s time on stage is filled with something. Not just bits of business, although he offers plenty of that, but also – for god’s sake—a light behind the eyes. A vulnerability, a humanity, an interior life. Yes, LIFE! A play about death is meaningless, you see, Stolen Chair, unless there is something to kill.

Through January 31 at the ConnellyTheatre. Tickets and info: http://www.theatreisdead.com

First Principles — Redux!

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , on January 21, 2009 by travsd

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My New Year’s Resolution this year (I very prudently only made one) was to respond to a comment made here many months ago by Tom X. Chao, which was, if I remember rightly, “What the hell’s up with this blog?” After a big launch announcement, I’d gone on to commit the cardinal sin of all Web logs – neglect. A log being a log, its writer should post as often as he can, daily if possible. Post, post, post. I’d managed to craft a couple of long, thoughtful essays, and some announcements about upcoming shows, and then…nothing. But as Lear said, “Nothing will come of nothing.” In imitation of my more diligent friends, I therefore resolve to post.

Luckily, I’ve concocted a theme that should keep me going for awhile. Martin Denton and myself are developing a television version of our regular audio podcast Indie Theatre Now! This development seems to me a fortuitous occasion to ruminate on the subject of Indie Theatre itself – what sets it apart, its positive and negative aspects, its historical origins, and, chiefly, what it means to me. I regard this as an opportunity to educate an audience I hope will widen.

First, some props. “Indie Theatre” is a term coined by that King of Coinage, playwright Kirk Wood Bromley of Inverse Theatre. Credit for this astute re-branding should always be attached to him by us navel-gazers when we presume to dissect its meaning. I wasn’t personally present at the occasion on which he proffered the new term, so I didn’t hear his own thinking about the definition. I can only offer what I think it may refer to, and what it means to me, and then offer space here for those combative souls who wish to augment or rebut the record.

I admire the handle for several reasons: its economy, its efficiency, its clarification, its resonances. It addresses several semantic and political problems simultaneously. It is at once a re-drawing of the map, a factual correction, and a generational rallying cry. But what does it mean? The old lexicon gave us a handful of outmoded professional categories: 1) the Broadway or “commercial” theatre, a uniquely American marriage of art and commerce with origins at the start of the last century and headquartered in Times Square, though with touring tentacles throughout the country; 2) Off-Broadway, a movement begun in the mid-twentieth century as an alternative to the pure commercialism then dominating the American theatre. While there had been numerous “art theatres” prior to Off-Broadway’s advent, nothing like a broad institutionalization happened until around the 1950s. From Off-Broadway stemmed the Regional Theatre movement, as well. All shared a not-for-profit model, and tended to present seasons consisting of modern classics and serious works by mostly established contemporary playwrights; and finally, 3) Off-Off Broadway, the highly radical, experimental movement that sprang up in the 1960s, which also followed a not-for-profit model, but in general was far less concerned than Off-Broadway with placating the expectations of middle class ticket buyers, and was (and is) often presented in store fronts, cafes and lofts.

The latter category, from its very inception, has always presented something of a problem. To the vast majority of Americans who have nothing to do with the theatre, and even to many working within the theatre’s other branches, the name has always been something of a punchline. Anyone who works in theatre will tell you: announcing that you work in Off-Off-Broadway theatre feels a lot like telling people you’ve chosen to pursue an amateur hobby rather than get a real job like everyone else. “The theatre” is bad enough. “Off-Off-Broadway” strikes outsiders as a bit like admitting, “You’re a doctor? You’re a lawyer? Great! I’ve chosen to play my cello far, far from Carnegie Hall.” Protestations that one has chosen to commit oneself to art, rather than whore oneself out to do crap, sound a mite disingenuous when you define yourself in relation to the crap. The fact that the crap is more famous and more popular can’t help but make matters worse.

But that’s only the founding problem. Decades pass: seventies, eighties, nineties, oughts. A couple of generations have since grown up within the art form, with very different aesthetic and political sensibilities from the original Off-Off Broadway generation. By the nineties, these were based not only in New York, but in major cities around the country, growing up in opposition to their local regional theatres, which by now had become major establishment institutions. What should the new generation be called? Off-Off-Off Broadway? That simply wouldn’t do.

Occasionally the term “alternative theatre” was and is used, in imitation (I assume) of “alt-rock”. One of the many possible meanings of the now-defunct RAT movement (which I will touch on in a subsequent post) was “Regional Alternative Theatre.” But this still smells suspect, whether you’re talking about rock or theatre. It reduces an artistic sensibility to a market niche, and it implies that it is secondary, tertiary, or worse, to a more valid mainstream one. That won’t do, either.

And so, Kirk coined “Indie Theatre”. The term, short for “independent”, is used in the music and film industries, and suits the needs of the moment to a tee. Among other things, the term is a double liberation – not just from the tyrannous expectations of the commercial theatre, but, perhaps more tellingly, from the equally stifling expectations of the not-for-profit arts establishment. Some indie theatre is more defined by its aversion to the former, some by its aversion to the latter, some, by both.

Where I, and some of my favorite colleague and cohorts fall in that spectrum, will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Meantime, watch this space for reviews of Cornbury (Theatre Askew) and Theatre is Dead (Stolen Chair) in the next few days…

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