Archive for March, 2011

Stars of Vaudeville #313: Jack Johnson

Posted in African American Interest, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 31, 2011 by travsd

African American heavyweight champ Jack Johnson (born this day in 1878), whose life is the subject of the excellent 1970 bio pic The Great White Hope made frequent appearances in vaudeville, especially after his boxing career was finished following a prison sentence for violation of the Mann Act. In the years previous to his death he actually lectured at Hubert’s Museum, the legendary Times Square side show.  He was killed in a car wreck in 1946

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , on March 30, 2011 by travsd

This post is less in the angry spirit that you will find in an upcoming screed directed at a certain critic, than a bemused realization of my own tunnel vision when it comes to contemporary audiences, their expectations (and knowledge about the history of Off-off), the problem of marketing, and the place of education therein.

In retrospect – of course! I shouldn’t be surprised at the reactions of certain audience members, even ones I know to be quite well educated about theatre, to the first two plays on the Tetragrammaton bill. Words like ‘weird”, “odd”, “peculiar” and “strange” have popped up more than once. These adjectives are of course appropriate, but I expected them to come chiefly from civilians, people who know very little about the theatre and its history over the last sixty years or so.

There are two levels to this:

La MaMa being an “Experimental Theatre Club”, I opted to do something really unheard of and use my time there to produce some “Experimental Theatre”. The definition of what that may consist of may vary from person to person; to me it means work that is truly challenging either formally or politically or both. I have no end of crowd-pleasing show biz projects waiting on the shelf to be produced, but I chose to honor the opportunity I had to toil in Ellen Stewart’s workshop by doing work inspired by the sort of theatre that had been produced there in its early days.

This isn’t out of the blue, either. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been producing this kind of work off and on for over twenty years. The vaudeville stuff has gotten better known, but the other work has been rolling on (most recently with my “Nihils” show at Dixon Place just a few weeks ago). This time out, I simply took advantage of my increasing association with old school carnydom by choosing plays with show biz as a theme, perhaps causing people to erroneously assume they would get plays that WERE show business, instead of being ABOUT show business. But I was quite clear in my marketing materials that these were “absurdist plays”, with development pedigrees at various experimental theatres.

Still…the surprise that the work is “peculiar”. If they mean my work is peculiar because it is in fact NOT experimental, then the commentators are on much more solid ground, and this is the main source of my bemusement, because, far from being substantially new or different, I consider the territory I’m staking out to be well trod! And as with vaudeville, my tunnel vision causes me to expect greater familiarity with my obsessions (obscure or otherwise) than the audience possesses.

This is the second level. These plays are actually homages to the experimental plays of the 1950s and 60s…plays I fully expected and expect people who work downtown to be familiar with…and for the most part they clearly aren’t. In reality, my tent show comes by way of the psychedelic, Greenwich Village era of bohemianism, the theatrical equivalent of the blues of Janis Joplin or the underground comix of R. Crumb. (Tetragrammaton, incidentally, was once a nickname for a certain run of LSD).

“Universal Rundle” is a tribute to the Sam Shepard of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because he is a movie star and a big name and all, I just kind of assumed that large numbers of people would have, like me, voraciously read his amazing wealth of plays…not just the audition monologues from “True West”. It is clearly not the case. And that’s fine, I guess – it’s my own silly obsession. “Universal Rundle” owes its existence especially to Shepard’s play Back Bog Beast Bait (1971), but also The Holy Ghostly (1969), The Unseen Hand (1971), Operation Sidewinder (1971), and really just about all of his work prior to the mid 1970s. The trope of long, indulgent monologues, meant to be blasted like jazz solos…that’s a borrowing from Shepard. It is a conscious artistic choice — not an error or mistake of some sort — to employ them. Rundle also takes inspiration from the works of playwright Jean Genet, with the constant role-playing of characters creating multiple layers of theatre.

There’s other stuff in there (stuff drawn from the folk/ blues and black literature movements) which I’ll talk about in another post, but my point is, there’s nothing new there. It’s been done – and done RIGHT HERE. But no one seems to know it anymore, and there is no counter culture, and people nowadays don’t have the same frame of reference. It’s like going to France and doing a Neanderthal show. You’re in the right theatre; but that audience is long gone.

Similarly, The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman, as has been pointed out, resembles Waiting for Godot, but really mostly in so much as Bob Laine is wearing a derby. In reality, it was more consciously based on Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1957). (Both of these mostly for the structure and the situation – the voices come from other sources). But of course both Shepard and Pinter owe something to Beckett, who’s the father of the whole movement, hence my quite overt use of the word “absurdist” in talking about this show, which in light of all this strikes me as quite conventional, the more I think about it. Not “peculiar” at all.

It may be that this work is not experimental in ways that happen to be the trend right now, it is outside recognized modes of contemporary experimentalism or investigation. But I would interject that a lot of the techniques I’m exhuming STILL haven’t made it to the commercial stage, probably never will. So I am repeating an experiment, but it is still an experiment. Scientists repeat experiments all the time.

At any rate, we’ve one week left to go in this show. If you’ve not yet seen the Tent Show Tetragrammaton (or even if you have) hopefully some of the remarks here (much of which I meant to make an essay out of prior to opening night) will be of some assistance in appreciating this “weird” damn show. Tickets and info are here.

Casey at the Bat

Posted in Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 30, 2011 by travsd

Today is the birthday of DeWolf Hopper, most famous for his many thousands of recitations of “Casey at the Bat” in vaudeville. Last year’s biographical post about him is here. Today, to mark the birthday as well as the looming baseball season, we present the text of “Casey” (written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer in 1888) in its entirety:

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

Stars of Vaudeville #312: Ned Wayburn

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Impresarios, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on March 30, 2011 by travsd

Ned Wayburn (born this day in 1874) was known as  many things: the entrepreneur behind a string of vaudeville and dance schools; producer of vaudeville flash and kiddie acts; and choreographer for big budget Broadway shows, such as the Ziegfeld Follies. He’d started playing piano and singing in amateur theatricals in the Chicago area when a local theatre owner convinced him to go pro. He worked the circuits in the midwest, eventually moving to New York in the early years of the last century, where he found rapid success as a director, choreographer and producer. If you want to find an absolute treasure trove of info about vaudeville, revues and early Broadway, check out his 1925 book The Art of Stage Dancing, available in its entirety free-of-charge here. (See my beloved Countess’s much more thorough appreciation here.) Wayburn passed away in 1942.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


A Cultural “Pub Crawl”

Posted in Asian, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Indie Theatre, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , on March 28, 2011 by travsd

The Countess and I had an edifiying Sunday afternoon following our matinee performance of the Tent Show Tetragrammaton. First we zipped down to Dixon Place for the World Theatre Day Celebration. This worthy annual event is organized by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a project of the United Nations, and the Theatre Communications Group. We hung out with our pals Catherine Porter, Barry Rowell and Ralph Lewis of the Peculiar Works Project, and did our part for world peace by drinking glassfuls of red wine. (Wine and theatre  are old Greek traditions, springing from the head of a single  God. Unfortunately, war is also another Greek tradition, but at least it gets a separate God.) At any rate, to prove it really happened, here are some rather poor photographs:

Dixon Place Founder Ellie Covan welcomes the assembled.


Nicky Paraiso, curator of the Club at La MaMa, presents a proclamation

Amanda Feldman, general manager of the Lark Play Development Center, part of the NYC World Theatre Day Coalition

After we had our fill of international brotherhood, we took back to the frigid February streets (too bad it’s late March). Up the street (Chrystie Street, to be specific), we stopped into the Hendershot Gallery, where they just happened to be opening their new exhibition “Keep Out You Thieving Bastards”.  The show is composed of work by Minnesota-area artists, including photographers, painters, sculptors, installation artists, video artists etc etc. The biggest impressions on me were made by the photographers, notably Chris Larson’s series of eerie interiors of an abandoned house, inexplicably filled with ice — The Day After Tomorrow?


Chris Larson, Deep North (Bed) 2008 C-print mounted on aludibond 35 x 35 inches

I also enjoyed the work of Alec Soth, to wit:


Alec Soth, Jimmie’s Apartment, Memphis, Tennessee 2002 C-print 40 x 50 inches

More info on the exhibition is here.

Next we hied us up to St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery for the opening night of Vampire Cowboys new show The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, as part of the Incubator Arts series.

Playwright Qui Nguyen is of course best known as an architect of superlative entertainments, chocolate ice cream-like head rushes of pure pleasure mixing comical fight sequences, genre parody, stereotype deconstruction and broad cultural satire. Lost in the shuffle of the success he’s enjoyed during the past several years is his origins as a more conventional, “earnest” playwright. His early play “Trial by Water” (though published and much produced) was nonetheless lambasted by critics in spite of his worthy intentions and the unimpeachable importance of the subject matter (the horrible ordeal experienced by several members of his family as they attempted to escape from Vietnam). In The Inexplicable Redemption, he revisits this material through the lens of where he’s at today both as a man and as an artist. A crazy-quilt collage more formally playful than perhaps anything he’s done, it confronts not only these real events, but also  the formal and moral struggles of playwriting.

The truth is, the Off-Off Broadway, “indie” theatre community, supposed last bastion of all that is pure in the realm of theatrical art, turns out at bottom to be just as commercial, mindless and superficial as Broadway, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. One gets all the positive reinforcement in the world for giving audiences metaphorical lap dances — for NOT challenging them, for merely entertaining them. To ask an audience to expand, learn, or grow the fuck up oddly tends to be interpreted as ineptitude…as though those aesthetic choices were some accidental failure in the construction of the jolly entertainment machine, instead of an intentional invitation to the audience to waken their sleeping hearts and brains. And this is the attitude nowadays not only of audiences and producers, but of the great majority of “critics”. I’ll be ranting a lot more on this subject in the days to follow, because I’m constantly on the horns of the same dilemma that Qui is talking about — as most of us in the end are, whether we choose to grapple with it or not. Should I say little or nothing with my work, and be popular? Or should I use this talent and this instrument to say something that really matters to me? My personal meal ticket and bete noir is vaudeville; I got a taste of Qui’s version in the lobby at St. Marks after the show:

NERVOUS, SWEATING SCHMUCK, TO HIS DATE:  Heh heh, most of his shows aren’t like this, they’re more like that opening scene. [The opening scene is an exhilarating Vampire Cowboys set piece of rice-hat-wearing Vietnamese shooting each other with machine guns, set to the Rolling Stones “Paint It, Black.”]

SCHMUCK SUBTEXT: I’m so sorry I brought you to this show that accidentally made you think!

I guess you can see what side I come down on in this war. This is likely to remain my favorite Qui Nguyen play — until he writes a better one.  It is personal, painful and risky, and in my book that’s always the type of work most worthy of support. And if this is already turning you off, (motherfuckers!), rest easy. Qui and director Robert Ross Parker do a bang up job of filling his main character’s journey with the usual mix of whiz-bang stagecraft, cool music and effects, martial arts, hysterical one liners and even a couple of original old school raps. Qui”s found a way to draw from both sides of his extremely inventive mind — and I hope he continues to pursue this “third path”. Because what he learns during this voyage of exploration will be of value to all of us.

To find out how to get tickets go here.


Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Posted in Music, Ragtime, Vaudeville etc. with tags on March 27, 2011 by travsd

Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is in town for their only NYC show of the season. They’ll be performing the music of Scott Joplin at Flushing Town Hall today at 5pm. For my previous raves about this remarkable ensemble, see here . For ticket info go here.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, PLUGS, Women with tags on March 25, 2011 by travsd

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the worst New York City disasters prior to Sept 11 — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. There are much more horrible images of the event on the Internet, but this blog is not the place for them. The picture above I think does a proper job of showing the scale of the event, and why there was simply no escape for the victims. The disaster marked a turning point for the American labor movement, and rightly so. From here on in, the presumption of criminality would be laid at the feet of the bullies who would imprison their employees, rather than the employees themselves.

There is a play about the fire opening at 59e59 on April 14. Called Triangle, it specifically deals with the relationship between Big Tim Sullivan (crooked New York pol and sometime vaudeville impresario) and a reformer named Margaret Holland. I look forward to checking it out. All the info is here.

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