Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Broken Heart (NYC)

On Friday, I went to see The Broken Heart by John Ford as produced by Theatre for a New Audience. Ford is a lesser known contemporary of Shakespeare (ok, not quite a contemporary, really he wrote about 15 years after Shakes, but that at least gets your brain into the right era), with a tendency of writing pretty bloody plays. And The Broken Heart is no exception –a bloody revenge comedy (hey, it ends in a wedding…) with a pretty high body count – this one is only 4, I think, but it is the 4 leads so...

Anyway, this production was delightful. First off, verse can be a huge problem for lots of actors. (Trust me, we have all seen bad Shakespeare… we all know this to be true). Verse requires more from its actors. First, it requires that you understand what you are saying every moment a word is coming out of your mouth. Second, it requires that you understand the internal rhythm inherent in verse, and how to make that a natural part of your speech, in your body and in your blood. Lastly, it requires that you know how to use your vocal instrument in technical ways – no mush mouth for good verse actors, only clear, consistent, and concise pronunciation. The cast of The Broken Heart had all three of these things mastered. In fact, Annika Boras, who plays Penthea, does an outstanding job of this because not only does she have to do all of the above things, but also she has to do them while she is mad, like moments before river Ophelia mad. And yet, even in that scene, I could clearly hear and understand ever thing she said, (Oh right, also, not only do they have to be able to handle all the verse, the also have to be able to act while doing it AND they have to be able to connect with others.) Anyway, I can say, without a doubt that the whole cast was outstanding at all those things. And that always impresses me.

Also, the show had pretty amazing choreography. Now, I have a love hate relationship with choreography in early modern (read renaissance for those not up with the new academic terms) theatre. My biggest beef with it is mostly, why do we need it? We, ok, scholars who do that sort of thing, have reason to belive that theatre was played mostly on a blank stage, and that scenes flowed into one another. For a modern audience, just cutting all the scene change nonsense out can cut out 30 mins or more of butt in seats time. And when you are talking about a possible 3 hour production (as this one was) then 30 mins is a long time. (People who know me well know how I feel about 3 hour productions. Mostly, I feel like you’ve done something wrong. Even Shakespeare wrote that Romeo and Juliet was a 2 hour play – it’s in the script – so why do we do 3 hour versions? – Don’t even get me started on conflating texts – which is the answer like 75-80% of the time…)

Anyway, what was I talking about before that side trip? Oh right, choreography. That is actually what I want to talk about at length. First off, I want to say, I thought that the cast of The Broken Heart did very well with theirs. (I still think some of it was too long and unnecessary, but I get that I’m a bizarre purest in that sense… and am therefore willing to let it go for the sake of a job done very well.) Here’s what impressed me the most with the show and cast – the level of commitment to (in) every moment they were on stage - part of this really shone (shined?) in the moments of choreography between scenes, and part in the moments of choreography in the scenes. Here’s why that’s important, because some of the things they were doing were very stylistically bold – for instance, each country (there were two) represented, had their own salute. Or when the characters met the king there was a very specific set of actions that was associated with that. There was another associated with the blessing of marriages. There are other examples, but you get the idea. None of them were the simple “arm shake” or “bow” that is most often seen in period plays. Each one was intricate and beautiful and worked because the actor behind it put all the weight of ceremony behind the action, connected the action with the reality they were in in that moment, made it, not just the most important thing they could do in that moment, but the only thing they could do in that moment.

This is a lesson I have learned before.
I have, in my day, taught theatre to kids of varying ages. And this ability tends to separate the “good” child actors from “the ones who think it’s fun but prob won’t go on after camp”. Neither child is necessarily bad or less talented, however, the ones who have the ability to commit to something they feel is silly always end up with a stronger performance come show day. And as an adult, I think that is a truth of theatre. I think that, the more belief the cast puts into and idea or action, the more truth comes out to the audience. I know that this is a weakness of mine as a theatre practitioner. Not the belief part, I’m pretty solid on that, but on the actual choreography part. And that is my bad. I think I need to just step off the cliff and do it. I already know from my own personal experiences with watching plays that the audience will go with what you tell them to create. I already know from things I have already directed that this is true. And yet, I have yet to try to do something with as much polish and specificity that The Broken Heart had. So, maybe that’s my next challenge. Maybe I’ll get a group of actor friends together and see if we can’t accomplish that in a scene or two. It would be nice to have that in my repertoire or my toolbox of tricks.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Early Plays (NYC)

Eugene O’Neil! The Wooster Group!! Richard Maxwell!!! I can’t help but tell you, I was PSYCHED for Weds show. Having never actually seen anything by these three entities, the thought of getting to see them all at once was a bit overwhelming. But I was sure I could maintain. The trip to Brooklyn took a little longer than I expected, so I slid into my seat with only a few moments to spare. (St Ann’s Warehouse, the space, by the by, is GORGEOUS!!!!!) The set (which Maxwell recycled from Wooster’s other productions of O’Neill’s works) was perfect. It’s hinges, and handles and ropes, and even ramps, gave the set the perfect feeling of being on a boat, without the realism of being on a boat. (Among other things, I am more and more realizing about myself that I love bare stages, or staged with minimal sets. This one was exactly that.) And, I was pleasantly surprised that I happened to come on a talk back night. (I know, talk backs are notoriously if-y things. They are either really good and give a lot of information about the process used to create the show. Or they feature a lot of questions asking things like: You all did so wonderfully, but how did you learn all those lines? And, while I realize that question is important to those who ask it and I therefore do no fault them for the asking of it, the answer doesn’t help me as an artist understand what I just saw in the context of what the company was doing.)

Well, I have just spent an entire paragraph telling you nothing at all really… I guess I should get into it.

Then the show started. The first few moments of it were visually stunning. I was prepared to love it. Then the next few moments happened. And then the ones after that. And no one was looking at each other really (characters I mean). They all kept delivering their lines to the audience. Occasionally, one would glance at another, but… And they were all talking in this super jilted way – almost as if they we reading a phonetic alphabet instead of using an accent. And somewhere in the jilted talking, and the not looking at each other, I began to wonder if they had any idea what they were saying.

Ok, more true confession by Reesa. I have a thing when I see plays, it’s like a nervous tick. It comes up the most in Shakespeare. If an actor doesn’t understand what they’re saying, I fall asleep. I know that’s horrible, but it’s what I do.

I mention that because I suddenly realized that I was getting very sleepy, but wasn’t quite asleep – which means they had some idea of what they were saying. But still, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening.

Early Works is three distinct short plays, and I feel it necessary to talk about the second one by itself before I go much further. The first and the third suffered from very similar problems, and I will talk about those in just a second. But the second was the only one that, I felt, held any saving grace. First off, the scene of the second show is in the far up stage right corner of the stage in a very small playing space. And, if I am honest, removing the action so far from the audience helped to draw the audience in. It also helped to blunt the lack of accent/accent that was the stylistic choice of the show. The show takes place in the middle of a squall, which they have created with the use of a fog marching and lighting on the main part of the stage. Cool effect happened, the fog, of course, drifted into the audience, making us as much a part of what was happening on the ship as the actors and characters. And finally, it is mostly between two of the characters, making a lack of connection on their part virtually impossible.

So, that was the good one. The other two, I’ve already dropped hints about. First, there was this weird pattern of speech – not just in the phrases the characters were using, but also in the way each word was actually being pronounced. To be honest, it sounded like what happened that semester I had to take the class that tried to teach me the phonetic alphabet. Not only was that a nightmare for me (yay learning disabilities!) but it also made my speech in that class sound something akin to a six year old reading a hop on pop book in a made up language – slowly, haltingly, unsure of the way it should be pronounced, and so over pronouncing everything. Or maybe just someone with very little speaking confidence being asked to read a sort story cold to a group of people. At first, I thought that perhaps it was one or two actors doing a bad accent, but the further the show went on, the ore I realized that, no, that was a choice for these characters to live in a world in which people spoke like that. On the plus side – the choice was followed through by every actor and at every moment in the show. On the down side, the choice was so distracting that I spent half the time trying to figure out where the character was supposed to be from so I would know what they were supposed to sound like…

Additionally, there was an overall disconnect between the characters to the other characters. While I am the first to tell you that I love me some stillness in theatre (no really, I think, as a whole, actors on stage move WAY more that humans in reality do), the way this play handled stillness was not it either. Mostly because I felt there were a lot of stand and deliver moments – in which the actors were declaring their lines to the audience, instead of sharing it with us or with another character.

And then the talk back came.

Now look, I don’t like to say that other directors are “wrong” per say. And I won’t say it this time either. I will say this – this is a direct quote from Richard Maxwell on his goals as a director: My primary goal as a director is getting the text across to you in as untainted a way as possible so you can make the decision as to if it’s funny or sad or…

And then I knew. The world these characters were living in had been stripped down, not to the language (which is what I do when I direct Shakespeare) but to the words. And that feeling of someone reading me a short story was pretty close to what, I think, he was trying to get at. Ok, in that sense, he did exactly what he intended to.

Here’s the thing. I hated it. And I know why. It’s the lack of connection. I don’t need you to tell me how to feel or when to feel in a text. But I do need the characters to care about something more than the individual words. And these guys didn’t.

What I disliked so much about it is that it felt like nothing mattered. And I wondered why I was watching what I watched.

What I realized that night, I’ve spent the last few blogs talking about audience as actor and as part of the show. I have completely neglected to think about connection as an integral part of theatre. I realized that in order for the audience discussion to even begin, a more basic piece has to be that connection. It lies in every aspect of storytelling that I am beginning to realize I think is the basic form of theatre. I believe that the actors must be connected to the words, and I think it has to go beyond just the way they are pronounced. I believe that the actors must have a connection to the characters they portray. I believe that the actors must have a connection to the other actors on stage. I believe that they must have a connection to the story they are trying to tell. And I believe that the actors must have a connection with the audience itself.
I am unwilling to say that without them you don’t have theatre. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe that’s what performance art is? Or maybe we just call it theatre I don’t like?

But, I can tell you, it wasn’t just me. I know this because someone else said at the talkback (he was a sweet old man – who would normally have been asking about how did you learn all those lines). However, that night, he said – “I get that these words are over 100 years old. Did you ever think of updating them? I felt really disconnected for what was happening, like it was too old.” I wanted so much to get up and say – thank you sir! But it’s not the language that made you feel the disconnect. It was, I think, the disconnect from the actors themselves. The very fact none of them seemed to ever look at anyone on stage. Those small and subtle things are hugely felt by audiences. And, if you are using them on purpose, for specific moments, it can be a very strong choice. But when used by a whole production? It just makes the show hard to watch…

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Carrie (NYC)

I saw Carrie – the musical – this weekend at McCarter Theatre. And yes, that Carrie, the Stephen King with the blood and fire and the telekinesis… Yea – it has a long a varied history getting to the stage – which you can read about here : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_%28musical%29 .

But what about this version? Well, to be honest… this version felt a lot like the Stephen King story and an after-school special had a baby, but with blood – and fire – and telekinesis.

MCC Theatre, whom I love by the way (the did The Other Place last year – SPECTACULAR!!! Hands down the best show in NYC last year), normally does pretty amazing work. And by some standards, this show is no different. It has a very talented cast, including the very underused Jeanna De Waal – who I thought was the best thing in the show.

Ok, I have to admit something, right here, and right now – I’m not really a big musical girl. I’m just not. I don’t like them, I never really have. I mean, I like some of them. I loved Rent when it came out,; I loved Spring Awakening; I liked the original “concept” version of Jekyll and Hyde (the one they did at the Alley Theatre – before it got sliced and butchered into the Broadway show – so yes, that is WAY pre- David Hasslehoff)… Um… I think that’s it. I don’t even like Gilbert and Sullivan and my mother took me to their shows once a year for like 10 years. (I mean, I appreciate how talented they are, and I like some of the individual songs – because they’re fun – but do I “like” them? No. I would not choose to go see them, even as an obligation show). The ironic thing about this confession is that I adore music – can’t get enough of it. So, one would think, putting two things that I love - no three things I love – I love dance too - together would make a new thing I love – but one would think wrong.

So, why the heartfelt confession – so I can say this. I, for one, thought the cast sang and danced very well. I even liked the in your face harsh choreography. I thought it went well with the high school vibe – or you know, the entertainment version of that which is 20 and 30 some-things playing high-schoolers.

But overall, the show was meh for me. Mostly because it was a little preachy. However, and here’s the good part – the way the “scene” was handled was so good! The tech on that one moment (ok, like 5 mins of moments) between the blood and the burning was some of the best out of the box problem solving I’ve seen on stage lately. And it added to the very visceral reaction that I had of being punched in the gut when it happened – even though I KNEW where the musical was headed from before I sat down.

I mean, I love me some Stephen King (thus, the musical), and I have read the book, and watched the movie. But something about this version of it made what happen to Carrie seem all the more cruel than any other times I have come into contact with the story. I mean, I never thought dumping pig’s blood on someone was a nice thing to do, but this time, it felt different.

And I realized – that is the power of live theatre: of connecting with the innocence and vulnerability of an actress that is not separated by either your imagination or a screen, but actually in the same room and breathing the same air as you, of actually seeing the actress sticky in (fake) blood squish across the stage, of watching real people share real space with you and getting to know these people – maybe not like – but know – and then watching them do something so hurtful to someone else you have come to know.

Once again, for me, it boiled down to the audience relationship and the fact that the audience and the players share the same environment for the length of the story. There can be no disconnect, no separation, because it’s all one. And I think humans respond differently to story telling in that situation than in story telling that is a step removed, however it is removed. That’s not to say I don’t love books (please, look at my room and then try to tell me I’m not a bibliophile. ß such a grammatically bad sentence with so many negatives), or film – it’s just not the same. They don’t fill the same nitch within the human soul because they are more passive. There is not the sense of danger that any moment one of the actors could decide that you should also have blood thrown on you. Your journey is their journey because you are taking it together.

I don’t know. I feel a little like I’m rambling now. I’ve been really sick this week, so I am hoping this post makes sense to anyone but me . Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Hurt Village" (NYC)

Hurt Village by Katori Hall. Directed by Patricia McGregor. Produced by Signature Theatre.

Ok, I know I am posting them on the same day, but I saw this show and Bob several weeks apart (2 to be exact I think).

And all I can say is YES! This!

This show is everything I thought “Bob” was not. And it was so much more.

I don’t even know where to begin really. There is so much to talk about – the play itself, the writing, the story, the acting, the audience. I mean, seriously, wow!

I guess I need to just dive in somewhere.

I guess I want to start with this – good plays stick with you for a long time. Excellent plays change the way you think, or remind you why it is you think something you already think. Hurt Village is an excellent play.

There are several things to unpack even from that sentence. The obvious – the show was blocked for the space it was in (it’s an alley or runway space, audience on two sides – and I have seen plenty in similar space which was not blocked for the space…), the actors had good control of their voices, the set was spot on, the lights were subtle and magical…

But more than that – let’s start here: Last year, I saw “Good People” on Broadway. I remember thinking then how much I enjoyed the story of it, and how surprised I was to see it on Broadway. The thing I remember, to this day, taking away from it is that how difficult it is to get out of the poverty cycle once you are in it. And how much help you need to do so. Though, ultimately, “Good People” is about the choices you make to either get out or help someone get out.

Hurt Village is so much more than that. Hurt Village is about the dream of getting out, even when your back is to the wall and there may not be a way out. It’s about jumping that one last time to get out of the jar, regardless of how many times you have hit your head in the process. And it’s about the community how a community can both help and alternatively hurt you. It’s about the circumstances that make you who you are, what you have to overcome, and shape what you become.

I teach in Harlem 7th graders on Saturday mornings, about a 15 min walk from where I live actually, and those kids both amaze me, and break my heart every Saturday. I want so badly to help them.

And that’s what amazed me about the characters in Hurt Village. They pulled from me that exact same feeling. In the same way that Lanford wrote about the lost people of his world, the druggies, homeless, prostitutes etc with such compassion and realness, so too does Katori Hall. The nine characters in the show carrying with them the difficult balance of the grace of realism with the arc of a beautifully written story. And the language – the language was alive and fluid in the lips of the actors, every moment leading into the next, every moment present and dynamic – pulling the audience into the story, until they became part of the story. Because we are, in fact, part of that story – every one of us.

The audience the night that I went was not a quiet “good” audience. On the contrary, they were, what I think, is the perfect theatre audience – so engaged they respond to what’s happening viscerally the moment it happens. Some of them talked back from the audience to the actors, most sang, all laughed and gasped and… And even better, the actors recognized us – acknowledging that we were all part of the same experience – the experience of this show, on this night, in this room, with this group of people, thereby bringing everyone into the fold of the story. The cast was wonderful all the way around, though I must say that from her very first moment on stage Joaquina Kalukango captivate and responded the audience – her opening monologue used as direct audience contact. For a character who spends a good deal of time in the play in trouble for back talk, she spends a lot of time talking back to the audience. And the welcome back BBQ scene, not only did it feel like it was happening for the first time, that they were making up what they were saying as they spoke, but also it felt like, at any moment, they were going to give us a beer and a hot dog.

This feeling of shared community was especially powerful in light of the show itself, or rather, in light of the story it tells – the story of a community dying and the struggle of its inhabitants. The feeling of the audience as part of the story reminding us that the play is more than a play - that this is happening to real people – and that in so many ways it is bigger that they are; the fight older than they are – and they only thing to do is to try to move forward – try to remind people that the fight isn’t over and was begun long before we were alive.

And for me? This show reminded me of what I believe theatre is and can be. I believe theatre can change the world; I believe it can show us who we are; I believe it does that through its stories; I believe that if you tell a powerful enough story – and if you tell it well enough - people will listen. Hurt Village used both realism and theatricality. I believed the characters could exist – and yet, I never forgot where we were – there was no fourth wall – and plenty of ways and times to acknowledge the audience as a character in the story as well. I want theatre that is theatrical AND real. I want theatre that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while paradoxically exploring life or death stakes. Theatre that demands to be seen by everyone, and reaches out and catches you at your core, in your heart and soul, not just your brain. I know that there are many other ways to do this, I have seen it, but Hurt Village is one of the finest examples of it that I have seen in a long time.

Also, after the show was over, they had cake in the lobby (I'm really not sure why). And really, who doesn't love cake?

"Bob" (NYC)

Hi guys! I’m back… After a really long absence. It’s a long story.

The short form, the important stuff, is that I am back, after having lost myself for a little while. I realized – hey, so you started this blog because you wanted to find your theatrical voice – how about letting that help you out of the dark…

So, here I am. And before I start, please remember this blog is not really so much for a review of shows themselves as it is a way for me to muddle through the kind of theatre that I want to make. And that the opinions expressed here are clearly just my own.

So, I saw the closing night of “Bob” as performed by Will Bond of the Siti Company and directed by Anne Bogart.

This is not the firs Siti show I’ve seen. In fact, I think it’s my fourth. All four times I have been extremely impressed with the physically specificity that the actors create. Their sense of space, and where they are in it, is unparalleled in anything I have ever seen. When I watch their work, I know without a doubt that every motion, every gesture is carefully thought out and worked through.

In Bob, everything had weight – from the drinking of milk to the chair to the words. And that is one of the main reasons I didn’t like it.

Here’s what I’m learning. I don’t like one man shows. I mean, I have seen some that I really enjoyed, but as a whole, they don’t move me the way other theatre does. I find that, for me, part of story telling is about developing relationships on stage, and watching those relationships play out. And the few one-man shows I’ve seen that I have liked, the relationship becomes about the actor to the audience. I felt like Bob lacked that connection with the audience. I really felt like he was talking at us instead of to us.

Further more, every time I have seen a Siti show, I… Ok, quick story time. While I was at the show, I put my hand in my purse to grab some chap stick, while the show was going. The house, I should add, was dead quiet. My purse was on the floor in front of me, I did not pick it up, I just slid my hand in, thinking I could quietly grab the tub of chap stick, put it on, and put is back – no one the wiser. Apparently, however, I had forgotten about the receipt that was laying in my bag. My hand hit it, and it rustled – I froze – the woman in front of me turned around a glared at me for making noise. Ok, so now I have my hand in my bag, and there is only one way to get it out – yep, rustle the receipt again… So I did. This time, the woman in front of me turned around and glared – and then leaned forward on her lap to get as far away from me as possible. After the show was over, she wiped around and threw some death daggers at me (never talking to me by the by) and then turned around and very loudly complimented her 13ish year old daughter on how well she had behaved and how proud of her she was – then there was more death stares in my direction.

And that’s when it dawned on me – thing number two I didn’t like about the show – the level of pretention that I was surrounded with in the audience. Ok, not just in the audience, but in the show itself. I felt like the actor speaking was saying this incredible wise and pity things – things that should be sold on notebooks and cups in theatre lobbies across the country – but I didn’t feel like he was actually connected to the words he was saying. The only times I felt like he connected with the words were the few moments he was agitated, or angry. And yet, everyone hovered in their chairs, so afraid that they would miss something. Truthfully, the whole show left me with the feeling like I had just watched something in a movie about art and that now there would be champagne and caviar for everyone to talk about how important the work was and how wonderful it was without ever actually saying anything at all. (And yes, for the record, I did understand that there was a disconnect on purpose – I know, he told me 900 times – about creating a place to be heard by separating words from movement. I just didn’t care.) I mean, I’m not saying that there isn’t a market for such work, because, clearly, there is. I’m just saying – it’s not for me.

And therein lies the problem. I didn’t care. Look, I’m not a theatre nay-sayer. I don’t believe that theatre will ever truly die because I believe that the urge of humans to watch and perform in live acts is too strong. Just like outsider art, theatre, in some form, will survive. Humans have to create – and we have to create art. We love it, we crave it, and even without any kind of training, it exists and cannot be stopped.

Now, having said that – movies are kicking our ass. And theatre needs to change – needs to be, I don’t know, more culturally relevant and less culturally elite? There was a time and a place for theatre like I saw that day, I’m just not sure it’s now. Or rather, I’m just not sure it’s theatre I have any desire to produce or even really watch again. I mean, as much as I disliked “Sleep No More” (see that blog post for why), what I loved about it was it’s out of the box thinking – I loved that it brought people into a theatrical space that had never been to one before. It got people talking about it – on an international level.

I want to theatre that matters to everyone, not theatre that is some kind of cultural capital for an elite audience to talk about over cocktails. I want to do theatre that changes lives, and tells stories that need to be told. I want to theatre that matters to me.