Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

Dream Up Festival Opens Today!

Posted in Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , on August 28, 2016 by travsd

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Today is opening day of Theater for the New City’s annual Dream Up Festival. It’s great to see this festival still going strong after several years now. Many of the shows look interesting to me, but I especially have my eye on one called Spinoza’s Ethics, for not only does it feature my Iron Heel comrade Yvonne Roen, but the titular book is one that changed my life (a subject I wrote about just a couple of days ago, and also in this earlier post). I bet there’ll be more than one show amongst their offerings that will appeal to you too!

For full information on the Dream Up festival go here.

On the Consolations of Philosophy

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME with tags , , , , , , , on August 26, 2016 by travsd

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Yet another post triggered by working on The Iron Heel, this one less political than autobiographical and (quite literally) philosophical.

One of my characters in the ensemble of the current production is a pettifogging sociology professor. Early in the play, the hero (played by the excellent Charles Ouda) lambasts my character and his colleagues at some length for being “metaphysicians” rather than “scientists”. We were well into the process, probably already into performances, when the personal resonance of those speeches hit me with a big clang. I had read widely in philosophy, widely enough to know just what the character was talking about, even the peculiar way in which he was framing it.

Most mainstream contemporary thought (I don’t think I’m too bold in asserting this) has empirical science as its primary point of reference, not just in academia, but in most of the other major professional realms: journalism, politics, the arts, and even business. Absolute exceptions are rare. Modern adults are empirically oriented by default. They base their decisions upon data or the news. They may suffer from bad information from bad sources, but their method is to seek out the facts and weigh them. This is true to a large degree of people you may assume mightn’t, such as the deeply religious, who partake of such things as economics (modern business methods) and the media the same way everybody else does.

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This was not yet true at the time when Jack London was writing The Iron Heel. A revolution was taking place in London’s time, one that was not just social, political and economic but absolute. It was influenced by thinkers as diverse as Spencer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (William) James. What these and others eventually achieved was a revolution in thinking that puts the collection and evaluation of data front and center in nearly every field of endeavor. That change in our thinking is now so complete it is unquestioned. But that transformation has also been quite recent, at any rate more recent than you might think. It was clearly still contentious in London’s time, well into the 20th century.

What existed prior to that revolution? London refers to it as “metaphysics”, but in doing so he is being provocatively facetious and dismissive. Essentially, he is referring to pure philosophy, which used to occupy a much greater portion of the academic sphere than it does now, and an altogether more exalted one, so much so that it was still crowding out this “upstart” empirical science from encroaching on its prerogatives as late as 1908! Unthinkable but true. Indeed, it lasted longer than that, if pop culture is any bellwether — college professors were still being portrayed as possessing this weltanschauung in movies and plays and books as late as the 1930s.

The modern university system had been founded in the Middle Ages. The assumptions of western philosophy (as established by the ancient Greeks) were a large part of what defined it. Metaphysics were at the center, but perhaps only because existential inquiry is the most vexatious of all questions. But its salient difference from the modern outlook is one of intellectual method. Rather than automatically going to the material world for answers, it looks inward, building self-contained chains of logic and reason.  To the modern observer, it can look like the very definition of sophistry — a form of intellectual masturbation. In its day, it was what defined academic rigor. And indeed we rely on this mode of thought a great deal to this day, any time we make an argument, lay out a case, grope towards a conclusion. We draw from facts, but then we organize them into ordered portraits of reality. The old way, I think, was to perhaps place less emphasis on the constant gathering of updated facts. Certain premises were taken as “givens”, and that was enough. In our day and age, metaphysics, which is purely speculative, is about the only realm left where you could still get away with that. London’s Iron Heel character Everhard rails against Aristotle, but probably the most crystal example of the Aristotlean system gone wrong is Ptolemy. To solve what the stars are, you need to look at the stars, directly at the stars, not build upon ancient edifices created out of people’s heads.

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Yet metaphysics has a place. This post was occasioned because it dawned on me recently how central to my worldview is the old system of pure philosophy. It is central to my thinking, it drives and informs my assumptions, and it orients me in the world quite a bit differently from people around me, most of whom tend to be either religious or scientific but not the third way, which is to be philosophical. It’s not that I am not religious or respectful of science. It’s that my default place is philosophical doubt and (attempted) Socratic humility, and I see both religion and science through those lenses. I believe in God, but I think it hubris to rashly define him (or her). I believe in observable facts, but I think they have their place and their purpose, and those are not coterminous with the sum of Everything.

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I have been sitting here trying to figure out why I was driven to classicism. Now that I think of it, a major influence in my life (other than the English and drama teachers I often write about) was my high school Latin teacher. I took Latin throughout high school, and had a semester of it in college. My high school Latin instructor was one of my favorite teachers. Among other things, he was extremely funny. He’d originally studied to be a priest, I think, and he didn’t teach Latin in a vacuum. He taught the culture of it. So I spent a good deal of time with my head in Rome and the Middle Ages, and the stuff we translated was usually drawn from the literature of those periods. This has to have been the foundation.

As I said in this earlier post, when I left high school I was cast out on my own and spent three years reading classics, the core of which was philosophy. During those years I can recall reading Plato, Euclid (crucial to the study of logic), Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Plutarch,  St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, (among others, and not including poets, novelists, and playwrights, of course). After I finished the conservatory a couple of years later, I worked at a bookstore, and in this second phase I tackled many more including: Epicurus, Lucretius, more Cicero, Seneca, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and many others (including the above-mentioned Spencer, Darwin, Freud and James. I tried Das Kapital a few times without much progress).

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

I hasten to point out the course outlined above was all through solitary reading. It happened without a teacher to guide me, no discussions with fellow students, and (while I did do quite a bit of scribbling inspired and informed by this reading) no disciplined, academic writing. My understanding of these thinkers could be incomplete, it could be incorrect. But it is also my own. And it is also at least a partial understanding of them, which is more than what most people have.  (For the record, I did take a Philosophy 101 course at my local university but it was worse than useless. And later at NYU I did read lit-crit related philosophers like Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, Bataille, and others with the guidance of professors).

What good is it? people ask. I’m sure even asked it when I first encountered the ideas of some of these thinkers. But that very question reflects a bias — bias rooted in the very orientation of our times I described above. Must everything in life produce a tangible, material, measurable good?  Science cures diseases, and makes miracles affordable, and supplies us with Better Mousetraps. That’s terrific, but to my mind, as a thing to strive for, it is also superficial and even somewhat boorish. It is not only not inspirational it is not aspirational. What is the point of being alive, if you aren’t questioning, if you aren’t trying to figure it out? The general tendency is to say, “You’ll never solve the problems of existence, so what’s the point? What’s the point of doing something pointless?”

But that’s backwards. The act of questioning itself is what gives life meaning. It’s not some finish line you get to. To know the answer is to be dead! To ask the useless question “Why are we here?” is part of the same category of human activity as dancing, savoring food, making love, swimming in the ocean, appreciating art, making art. There is no reason for it. It feels good to do. It feels good to make something, to build an edifice, to chase something.

What myth?! It's real, I tell you!

What myth?! It’s real, I tell you!

Some (many I listed above, and others) come away from the grappling with despair or something close to it. Their conclusion is that “nothingness” is the answer and that reality is depressing. But they still keep flinging themselves against the question like a moth against a window. They like to do it. Sisyphus likes rolling that rock. It’s painful. It hurts. It’s actually unending misery. That’s what it is to be self-aware. But self-awareness is also GREAT! It’s who I am! It’s the stream of consciousness that begins when you’re born and ends when you die. It’s the life bursting inside you. How can you not be attached to that?

And it is a small step from here to the theatre I love best. The Greeks of course and Shakespeare and that profound farceur Moliere and in modern times the Absurdists. One of my favorite critical books (perhaps THE key book for me) is Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, which casts key 20th century playwrights in this very light, restless, frustrated askers of the metaphysical question.

The title of this post is intended ironically. There’s a subway ad I’ve seen from time to time promoting classes at some “School of Philosophy” which promises “happiness”.  And I always laugh at it, which I guess reflects a cultural bias on my part. I could see perhaps an esoteric philosophy, an Eastern philosophy promising and even delivering something like happiness. But Western philosophy offers nothing of the kind. The branches of Western philosophy concerned with human happiness split off a long time ago. We call them Political Science and Economics. What remains is the delicious agony of metaphysics.

Here’s an irony for you. To return to where we started: despite London’s holding up of Marx as the model of “science” (and similar behavior by all his apologists to the present day) his thought is actually mired in the same metaphysics as those earlier Aristotleans he criticized. Marx based his ideas on the Hegelian dialectic, a preconceived notion about the way history works, a system into which he and his followers attempted to fit all subsequent developments whether they fit the picture or not. Ironically, the “science” happened in the West, where freedom of inquiry allowed the unimpeded flow of data which permitted greater material well being for millions. And the way of Marx proved Ptolemaic.

 

 

 

Theater for the New City’s “Election Selection”

Posted in Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME, PLUGS with tags , , , on August 11, 2016 by travsd

It’s that time again! Theater for the New City’s annual summer street production is under way. Read all about it in my article in this week’s Villager. As an added bonus, here are some pix I took at the new edition’s premiere performance last Saturday. It is called Election Selection:

Cast sings production number

Cast sings a production number at the polling place!

 

 

The Ghost of Muhhamad Ali

The Ghost of Muhammad Ali

 

Sufferin' Suffragettes!

Sufferin’ Suffragettes!

 

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Stonewall Re-enacted

 

"Pokemon Go" won't solve our problems!

“Pokemon Go” won’t solve our problems!

 

Mother and Child Reunion

Mother and Child Reunion

 

Carious children's entertainment franchises do battle with the Monster of War, Poverty and Global Warning!

Various children’s entertainment franchises do battle with the Monster of War, Poverty and Global Warning!

 

Congress as a wacky vaudeville team!

Congress as a wacky vaudeville team!

 

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Wonder Woman does battle with The Joker! Just go with it!

 

Now the Monster is getting too close!

Now the Monster is getting too close!

 

A fitting parting message

A fitting parting message

 

Final moments

Final moments. Check out the old beatnik in the beret in the foreground. Proof positive that we are in the East Village!

 

Want to make a bit more sense of all that? Read my piece in the Villager — it’ll explain all.

Fringe NYC at 20

Posted in Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on July 15, 2016 by travsd

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Tickets for the 20th annual New York International Fringe Festival go on sale today. My hat goes off to its co-founder and director Elena K. Holy at this auspicious benchmark. My admiration for what she has built in the past two decades is immense. She is a hero. A very well organized hero, like all of history’s best generals. That’s how wars — even cultural ones — are won.

Like all great friendships my amount of ardor for this festival ebbs and flows at times over the years, but the bottom line is that the volume of art that has been encouraged, supported, and delivered to the public by FringeNYC has been staggering. Most years my frame of mind is such that the festival is like a true and proper holiday, and I’m excited like a kiddie at all the presents I am about to open. (That is, the 3/4 of the time I haven’t actually been busy with a show of my own in the festival. That proud history is here).

The best theatre is always a risk, for the audience as well as the artists. Such risks can be thrilling. The bigger the risks, the bigger the thrills. And Fringe is still a place where artists are encouraged to go out on a limb. To see a LOT of theatre like that in a short time can be most invigorating.

With so many shows to be seen it’s impossible to see ’em all (and who would want to?) Invariably the catalog descriptions of scores and scores and scores of them are of no interest to me at all. What generally grabs me are: 1) shows with artists I already know and follow; and 2) shows that happen to overlap with my own personal interests at the moment. And no amount of gimmicks or backflips will make me stray outside those pre-decided areas.

Of the former category, there are relatively few this year. At the top is Off Track, written by good friend James Comtois and directed by Tim Errickson, and starring several other friends. The very funny Andrea Alton has a show as her character Molly “Equality” Dykeman with partner Allen Warnock called A Microwaved Burrito Filled with E. Coli. I am highly intrigued to see that Daily News editor Gersh Kuntzman has a show in the festival this year. I’ve known and worked with Gersh many times over the years. When I was p.r. man at New-York Historical Society, I pitched to him as a NY Post columnist, and maybe also when I worked at Coney Island USA now that I think on it. I definitely worked with him when he was a talking head on BCAT’s local political shows (I did marketing there as well). And I wrote a couple of pieces for him when he was editor at the Brooklyn Paper. Now, not surprisingly, he has co-authored a comedy-mystery called Murder at the Food Coop — a highly Park Slopey satire, which interests me on yet another level, as it’s my ‘hood.

I see too that playwright Kevin R. Free has a show up: Night of the Living N. Word. This brings up what seems to be the strongest theme in this year’s festival, shows of African American interest. I see around ten of them that look interesting to me: Black and Blue, Black Magic, Colorblind’d, Let the Devil Take the Hindmost, Power! Stokey Carmichael, Pryor Truth, Red Devil Moon, Transcend, and W.E.B. DuBois: A Man for All Times.

There are some semi-related political ones that grabbed my attention: the satire Not All Cops Are Bad, Waiting for Obama, Zuccotti Park and Seeger (a one man show about the folk singer).

Two shows about New Orleans caught my eye: The Braggart of Bourbon Street and Interludes: A New (Orleans) Play. 

There’s a handful with historical angles that interest me: Amelia and Her Paper Tigers (about Amelia Earhart), Dementia Americana (about the Evelyn Nesbit/ Harry Thaw/ Stanford White triangle), and Lunt and Fontanne. The latter leads into another mini-theme, a couple of faux British sounding theatre parodies: A Brandy Before Dying and The Intriguing Engagements of Frances and Meg Cheatham, Ladies of Society. 

There seem to be two shows by former prostitutes: Cuntagious and Honor: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan.

Readers of Travalanche may be especially interested in the sideshow themed The Extraordinary Fall of the Four Legged Woman, and At the Crossroads, which provides a musical setting to the silent movie Faust. 

Two interesting takes on Shakespeare: Richard III: A One Woman Show and Til Burnham Wood (a version of MacBeth in which the entire audience is blindfolded).

Some things that just grabbed me as really fun looking were Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show by the Amerasian duo Slanty Eyed Mama, and Humorously Horrendous Haunted Hideaway (just because I like ghosts).

Tall Pines Lodge is called “a thriller in the tradition of Jim Thompson” and that sounds like something I might like. And I REALLY like the title The Unusual Tale of Joseph and Mary’s Baby. 

Okay, them’s the ones that jumped out at me. My eyes are always bigger than my belly. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll catch a few. To check out the offerings for yourself and buy tickets (they go on sale today) go here. 

Brooklyners! See Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party” for Free!

Posted in BROOKLYN, CAMP, Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2016 by travsd

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Coming Soon: A Neglected Socialist Classic

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , on July 6, 2016 by travsd

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I have been having great fun rehearsing my role(s) in Untitled Theater Company #61’s latest production, an adaptation of Jack London’s forgotten 1908 dystopian/utopian novel The Iron Heel. The book has many resonances with our current day, set in a (then) sci fi future where leaders in a socialist movement struggle against the brutal schemers of the Oligarchy (I get to play the top Oligarch, which is great villainous fun).

London shows his familiarity with Marx and Engels by having the Oligarchs win in the short term, with the socialists finally triumphing centuries later. The Soviet Russians and most of the early 20th century radicals were conveniently “flexible” in their interpretation of Marx and the “when” and the “who” and the “how” of how their revolution was supposed to go down. It was supposed to happen in an already rich, industrialized nation in the west (as opposed to a mostly peasant society like Russia), with victory projected much farther in the future. So, in London’s scenario, we have it happening in places like America and Germany. The show has many resonances with our contemporary political debate that are downright amusing.

London was not only well-read in the socialist literature of his time but also in Darwin and Herbert Spencer, which has always made me an avid reader of his works. I’ll be blogging pretty heavily over the next few weeks about related stuff, mostly 19th and early 20th century radicalism, political philosophy, and my own political evolution at the present moment.

This is the best possible way to expose yourself to The Iron Heel by the way. Edward Einhorn’s adaptation is actually a much better experience than reading the original novel (I was going to rate the book 3 stars on Goodreads…but no one had previously rated it there and I didn’t feel like starting a new page for it.) In addition to focusing on the action (there’s a lot of it), Edward’s theatricalized it with actual period folk songs, which also puts me in a happy place — look for some more from me on that front as well in the vein of my previous folk musicals House of Trash and The Ballad of Jasper Jaxon — I’m gettin’ inspired. In short, Einhorn’s little traveling show is the right place for me to be in the present moment…a very suitable mental space as we plunge into this historic, tumultuous presidential election.

All of the shows are free or pay-what-you-can. For times and places go here. 

I’ll Say She Is — Getting Great Notices!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Indie Theatre, Marx Brothers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2016 by travsd

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A little more than midway through our announced run of  I’ll Say She Is, our revival of the lost 1924 Marx Brothers Broadway musical, notices have begun to pile up and it’s a most exciting general vote of approval!

Fresh off the presses is Neil Genzlinger’s rave in the New York Times just out today! Read it here. 

Then there is the Adam Gopnick essay in The New Yorker which hit a few weeks back. I’d long known Gopnick to be an aficionado of classic comedy — we spent a good deal of time together when he wrote this piece about new burlesque in which I was featured back in 2002. The I’ll Say She Is piece is here.

Then there were the two major preview features, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in Jewish Week.

And there’s a bunch more! See the full round-up here. 

Also, New Yorkers, be sure to watch On Stage on NY-1 this Wednesday. A little birdie told me David Cote’s review will air then (and I believe online afterwards as they normally do). Can’t wait!

Tickets are nearly sold out for the remainder of the run, but some remain: to get them go here. 

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