Archive for March 5, 2017

Killy Dwyer in “Not Show Business”

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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I was so grateful Kelly “Killy” Dwyer flushed me out of my hiding place yesterday to come see the last performance of her work Not Show Business in the Frigid Festival at Under St. Marks. We’re longtime fans of Killy’s, not just as an artist but as a person; we love her so much we asked her to officiate at our wedding.  Little did we know that she was going through tough times then, which I only make bold to mention because she talks about it openly in her work.

What do we admire about her work? Well for one thing, she can’t be pigeon-holed. She’s a singer, comedienne, storyteller, musician, autobiographical performance artist. The word “collage” occurred to me looking at the stage yesterday, a piece built of cut-up fragments. In addition to the performance aspects, she was working with found objects (real physical items from her childhood) in this show, as well as video (home movies).

She is extremely bold and brave. I know this because I have been watching her for a long time and I catch quick glimpses of what’s behind the mask. She does a high wire act. Once you’re on the wire, there’s only one way to do it and that’s with the confidence that you can. But there’s that second before you step off. She doesn’t hide that second from anybody before she climbs up, but it’s there. She’s whistlin’ in the graveyard. She mines a lot of humor from mock insincerity in the show biz tradition (after she finished a song yesterday, she said, “Let’s hear it for that, huh?”) and that’s endearing. At the same time, she bares all, about her mistakes, about her foibles, and in particular (in this show) about struggles with mental illness. She switched up her meds six months ago because she was afraid she was losing her memory, and this show is all about memory. Hence the giant baby-jammies, and the box of keepsakes full of old photo albums and yearbooks and the projected home movies on stage.

Now, I have seen shows just like what I just have described that have been insufferable, and you have too. What sets Killy apart, aside from honesty that’s not bullshit, is a high level of craft that allows her to turn the mess of her life into art. She is a great legit singer in a very old school way (like, really, I don’t know, Doris Day or something) and that impression is reinforced by the fact that her physical raw material looks like the Ohio mom she probably would have been if there wasn’t an exploding genius inside fucking up her brain. (I know I’m not alone in that impression because she gets cast as moms all the time in TV commercials.) But in reality she is a feral free spirit, and that comes out in her songwriting and arranging which is modern and technological and would not be out of place at a party (unless you made a point of listening to the dark and funny lyrics). In the show I saw she sang a song about her high school romance with Jack Daniels (the kind that comes in a bottle), an abusive romance which resulted in her breaking her nose at her 18th birthday party. She blended the song and the story perfectly into a seamless performance although it was presumably performed spur of the moment as the result of an audience member choosing it by spinning a “Wheel of Destiny”.

Killy’s work is inspirational to me and it was heartening to see it at Under St. Marks, a space I have been coming back to for almost 20 years now, a place that has hung on to its mission of presenting such work when the whole city seems to be becoming a brothel of high-priced sell-outs. This is pure work. It’s kind of the only work that matters. Made me want to jump on up there and try to do a show just like it, and that’s the highest kind of praise I got.

BTW, Killy’s been doing a terrific prime-time radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Friday nights at 8pm. You should check it out!

Tonight on TCM: The Last of Sheila

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Tonight on TCM at 10:15pm (EST): a wonderful, obscure oddity from 1973: The Last of Sheila.

This all-star murder mystery was co-written by no less than Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and directed by Herbert Ross, based on actual treasure hunt games that Sondheim and Perkins had devised and orchestrated for their celebrity friends. Ross, like Sondheim, was a major Broadway figure both as a director and choreographer, in addition to directing films (he’s probably best known for directing works by Neil Simon).

In The Last of Sheila, James Coburn plays a movie producer who invites several people whom he suspects of having been responsible for his wife on a Mediterranean cruise, forcing them to play a cruel treasure hunt game wherein their embarrassing real-life secrets are exposed. Before the cruise is done there will be…MURTHER.

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The entertaining cast includes James Mason, Raquel Welch, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett and a then-unknown Ian McShane. One only regrets that Perkins himself isn’t in it (Benjamin’s character seems loosely based on him somewhat). Part of the fun is guessing which real-life Hollywood people the characters are based on (although reportedly Raquel Welch’s character is based on herself.). It’s full of arch humor, twists and turns that keep you guessing, great European locations, juicy secrets, sex and grim death! And Bette Midler sings a song on the soundtrack!

Hall of Hams #113: Rex Harrison

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Howard Pyle: Boys, Battles, Buccaneers

Posted in VISUAL ART with tags , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the influential illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911).

A mutual love of illustration was one of the first things that brought my wife and I together — our second date (our first official one) was a lecture on Charles Addams. Naturally she, whose entire life is illustration, has a much vaster knowledge and grasp of the form. But that it’s important to me at all, you must admit, is a genuine point of overlap in this world of American men who love nothing other than football, duck hunting, and chain restaurants that serve hamburgers with pizzas for buns.

"Ar! No you must walk the plank, me hearty!"

“Ar! Now you must walk the plank, me hearty!”

Anyway, books with Pyle illustrations were important to me in my childhood, chiefly The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and Otto of the Silver Hand (1888). Pyle was a man very much in tune with his times: his subject matter is almost all bellicose, patriotic, adventurous, imperialistic and male, mostly stuff about knights and pirates and battles. He was from a Delaware Quaker family — he seems to have rebelled not only by being an artist, but by letting his imagination roam to romantic, often violent, places. The Arthurian Legend was a major thread of his work, and he also collaborated on some books about American history with Woodrow Wilson (when he was still a professor) and Henry Cabot Lodge. His sister Katharine Pyle (1863-1938) was also an illustrator and children’s author; the pair collaborated on an 1888 book called The Wonder Clock, which had a tale for each hour of the day:

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One of the myriad pleasures of fatherhood was getting to share Otto with my boys. Otto’s hand is a silver prosthetic because an enemy of his father’s chopped it off. The world is cruel, but Otto is good because he was raised by gentle monks. I always wanted a monkish haircut as depicted in Pyle’s illustration, which was also used on the books’ cover:

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I was thrilled to see some Pyle originals at the National Museum of American Illutstration in our recent trip to Newport. Here’s one we saw on view there, from Tales of Pirates and Buccaneers:

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