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AS OF MAY 2012:

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Transitions by Reggie Watts

On the surface, Transitions is an absurd yet addictive mix of stereophonic effects, live video, geometric movement and improvisation created by comedic musician Reggie Watts and playwright/director Tommy Smith.

From the very beginning of the piece we are tipped off that this will not be a linear narrative, when a young red headed white man comes out and introduces Reggie Watts, but the next person to enter the stage unexpectedly is a white woman. When on stage she recites yet another sort of introduction to the art we are getting ready to see, and establishes that the artistic work in the piece seeks to “challenge perspective in a seemingly unchanging world.” In terms of logic I am not entirely sure if the preface given is in regard to the following movie sequence that plays, or if she’s speaking for the whole of the piece. I am certain it pertains to both.

At the beginning of the piece the movement feels like with each change we are moving further and further away from reality. When we finally meet Reggie Watts, he is a large black man with funky hair, dressed in white garb, and is speaking with an English accent. Yet again he reaffirms that the world we are entering is unfamiliar by saying, “What world is this, let me just say that the answer is not to be arrived at so soon…” The first time through this piece I somehow missed all of these warning signs, and it took me watching the piece a second time to understand even vaguely that throughout the piece we would be dealing with distance and perspective.

Reggie’s ability to play on words, beyond the contemporary vernacular is impressive, and extremely hilarious. There are moments where I thought that he might be taking a page from Shakespeare’s work, but its simply coming from his brain. In the progression of his Shakespearean speech, I loose the trajectory of his thoughts. He is speaking passionately, and yet it seems as if he isn’t saying anything. There are plenty of other times in the performance that his work runs off into an abstract land, and you’re left wondering what the end point was. No matter how annoying it may be, I know that Reggie does in fact have a purpose. However, it drove me crazy trying to figure out where the serious content of the piece was.

In one particular speech Reggie begins by saying in a very serious tone by saying, “I don’t know if you guys remember you were when it happened. I was in the place where we heard about it first. I was on second ave. lower east side Manhattan. I was on the phone, and then I lost the call…” As he continues to speak about this moment “where he first heard,” he describes two flying objects and an aftermath of two smoke clouds. Given these circumstances, my brain immediately jumps to the events of 911, as most of our brains would. But not Reggie, instead he continues to describe how New York was hit by a solar flare—which is entirely possible, it still is absurd.

Perhaps one of the biggest keys into Reggie’s work comes during on of his transition. After reciting this Shakespearean monologue, he starts djing and singing this perhaps improvised song about technology while wearing a shirt that reads, “subvert the subversion.” Finally in this moment, it becomes clear that is his purpose with this piece.
For the most part, moment-by-moment I understood the logic of the performance, but I had a hard time understanding what larger questions or message the piece was presenting. While reading thoughts around the work, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with understanding work as a whole.

In order to better understand Reggie’s work I had to watch another piece of his work, so I watched a music video of his called “Fuck Shit Stack.” After watching this video, which is out-right hilarious, I understood Reggie’s work so much more. He seems to be really interested in the origin of meanings, particularly words, and finding away challenge the meaning we place subject through the labels we place on it.

For audiences who have seen more of Reggie’s work, they say that his work tends to mirror itself. Most of the physical media images are re-used, and the structure of them are beyond similar. This is a curious idea for me, because I would like to know why Reggie would remake a new project that only slightly deviates from one previous created? If I were to attempt to answer this question given Reggie’s work, I would guess that because of his interest in subversion around how we define art.

I couldn’t tell whether or not I hated this performance, or whether I loved it. As I watched the piece, I constantly wanted to stop it and find something else to watch, so I could actually write a review. It was really a tribute to Reggie Watt’s showmanship, and the fact that I had to write a review about it that I stayed engaged. This is a piece of theatre that will unravel for me throughout the years.

Stefan Zeromski Theatre’s “In the Solitude of Cotton Fields”

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is a piece from Stefan Zeromski Theatre in Poland.  Twenty-nine year old director Radoslaw Rychcik has adapted the 1985 play of the same name by Bernard-Marie Koltés into a fiercely contemporary production.  The story concerns two individuals who encounter each other on a road through a cotton field: a dealer and a client.  The two enter into a sexually and physically charged exchange, but exactly what the goods are is unclear.  In Rychcik’s version, the actors are both dressed in slim black suits and skinny ties.  They spend almost the entirety of the piece in their own pools of light, standing about ten feet apart facing the audience, with microphones in front of them.  They are backed by the house band Natural Born Chillers, whose music underscores the entire show.

To open the show, the music sounds a heavy base, and the slowly the curtain draws and two men are revealed, one twisting, one shrinking and exploding with equal energy.  As this is revealed the music picks up into a fast paced electronic rhythm; haze machines go off, the glowing apple of a macbook is visible, the lights flash, the band wears white and black stripes.  The scene is extremely familiar; this kind of music, the style, it is indicative of the intense popularity of raves and electronic music in the United States and Europe currently.  The band and the eye makeup of the performers echoe A Clockwork Orange.  What drew me to watch this piece was what I read about the director and the style of the show.  It is an incredibly apt piece through which to discuss innovation in the story telling techniques of contemporary theatre, and whether they overwhelm or clarify the story.  The dealer (Wojciech Niemczyk) and the client (Tomasz Nosinski) speak, sing, whisper, scream, and beg into the microphone, one expounding on the value of his goods and his dependency on the exchange, the other extolling his virtues and why he should not make the deal.

The exact nature of the deal is unclear, but in a compelling, affecting way.  They could be a prostitute and a potential client, but the scene also recalls the current intense scrutiny the role of commerce in our culture.  The power of the seller versus the buyer is what’s at stake here, and that power shifts frequently, with stupendous energy, precision, and sense of stakes.  In addition to their tremendous control of their voices, the physical life of the performers is astounding.  They writhe, twitch, convulse with a wonderful balance of intensity and ease.  The movements stir questions regarding the relationship of physical images and the text of the story.  Their physicalities draw out the subtext.  They are not symbolic or natural in their representation of the images, they seem to embody the visceral feeling.  I also wondered about the balance of choreography versus improvised movement.  There was SO much movement, and it took place on such a scale that I felt it couldn’t all be set, but there was such a clear and specific vocabulary that they were using that I felt it had to be.  The movements of Nosinski are particularly vibrant yet precise.

What also struck me about the piece was the relationship between the actors and the audience.  As I said the performers spend the entirety of piece in their own pools of light, until they meet at the end.  All of their text the speak out to the audience, not at each other.  I really enjoyed that they were essentially bringing a poem to life by standing and speaking it into microphones, but with an effective sense of the stakes and the rise and fall of the action.  And the text itself is fantastic.  The images are striking and poignant.  The power of that is giving to natural elements; the land, the hour, the moon reminded me of Lorca.  Both the dealer and client give tremendous importance to the time at which they have encountered each other.  The music underscores the struggle between the two wonderfully, it highlights the rise and fall of the drama.  As a result, perhaps the most arresting moment of the piece comes when the dealer makes his final plea, the music goes out suddenly and we sit in total silence for a period.  Then the dealer tells the client that the other’s greatest power is the ability to reject, something the dealer cannot do.  He tells him the greatest cruelty is not destruction, but to leave a man unfinished, in mid-exchange, “the error of a gaze.”  A huge amount of significance is placed upon this gaze, for it is how they began this struggle.  In the silence the dealer says “the only thing that really matters is that you looked at me and our gaze met.”  When he says this the client turns to look at him for the first time, but the dealer stays facing the audience.  When he has finished his plea the dealer begins to wail, the sound building and building into the music returns, picking up the note of the dealers cry, the cry builds into a scream of pain and hate until the dealer abruptly turns and vanishes into the dark.

Up until this point I was riveted.  There are a lot of people trying to do what this piece does, but it too frequently the technical elements of formal experimentation become gimmicky, their use to the story becomes unclear.  Here I felt the form and the relationship to the audience worked really well because the piece was the exact opposite of what it looked like.  The actors are not drug addled ravers, they are in complete control of their instrument.  The piece does not indulge in shock value for no apparent reason.  It was like good stage combat, the more in-control and safe it is the more effective it is, and this piece held back from many of the traps of this kind of work.

UNTIL

After the dealer burns himself out and retreats the client gets completely naked.  At this point I was still bearing with, it seemed like the ordeal had scarred him in some way, the power of the connection between the two was such that I bought that the severing had severely damaged him.  But then the stage lights go out and a screen above the band comes on and for 15-minutes we are treated to a variety of sexual, violent, and just plain weird images that ruined the piece for me.  Control became indulgence, effective innovative storytelling became nonsensical shock value.  I really tried but the ties to story were hopeful at best, the piece fell face first and deep into all of the traps of this kind of theatre.  Eventually it returned to the two actors, and they either made a form of piece or consummated the exchange, but I had been so turned off by the previous section it really didn’t matter to me, I was thinking about what I was going to write and what I was going to do after, I waited for it to end.

Ultimately I was extremely excited to be introduced to the play itself, I think the language is beautiful and true to itself.  Furthermore I think the idea is fascinating.  The stakes of the encounter, the power of the seller and buyer is an extremely compelling relationship at this moment in time. I think if the relationship did not play on the sexuality as much though, I think it would be more effective.  That element is certainly present in the text, but personally I think it’s more exciting if you let it affect you there, beneath the surface, don’t indulge in it, it’s inherent.  Bottom line though, I really wish they didn’t have that section on the screen, because I think it could be a wonderful piece to look to as an example of how theatre can employ intensely modern conventions while valuing story above all, but it isn’t.

Jay Scheib!

Jay Scheib

I know that I had promised to post some information on Jay Scheib, who directed the American premiere of Women Dreamt Horses, so here it is!:

“Jay Schieb is an American stage director noted for his contemporary productions of both classical and new plays and operas. Scheib is Associate Professor of Theater Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he teaches performance media, motion theater, media and methods, and introduction to acting. He is also a regular guest professor at the Mozarteum Institute für Regie und Schauspiel in Salzburg, Austria, where he conducts an annual “viewpoints and composition” studio.”

In my eyes, Jay’s work is notable for its experimentation with film and projections, which explodes the onstage action, his collaborative processes and his actors’ commitment to fully physical actions.  He creates worlds that interrogate and distort what we take for granted and devises relationships that are ridiculous, yet too human.  Here are some links for further exploration!

Jay Schieb’s Website

Jay Scheib’s Vimeo Account

The Method Gun

The description of “The Method Gun” on the ontheboards website reads as follows: “The Method Gun explores the life and techniques of Stella Burden, the actor-training guru of the 60s and 70s and creator of “The Approach” (referred to as “the most dangerous acting technique in the world”), which fused Western acting methods with risk-based rituals to infuse even the smallest role with sex, death, and violence. Using found text from the journals and performance reports of Burden’s company, The Method Gun reenacts the final months of her company’s rehearsals for their nine-years-in-the-making production of A Streetcar Named Desire.”  So, understandably I had certain expectations.  I actually asked someone on the second floor of CFA if they new who Stella Burton was because I felt like I was probably supposed to know.  They didn’t know either.

So I began watching this narrative style show taking everything these actors were saying at face value.  I thought this was a group of actors pretending to be a group of actors who had actually really existed.  The premise is that they are putting on a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, but without the characters Stanley, Stella, Mitch or Blanche.  Sure, it sounds weird, but not necessarily the weirdest idea for a show that I’ve ever heard.  Then the company starts describing some of the exercises Stella would have her own company perform.  For example, there’s crying practice, where all the actors stand silently in a line and try to make themselves cry, then there’s kissing practice, where they line up and take turns kissing one another.  Although the exercises are comical to watch, they aren’t completely off base.  So it wasn’t exactly the premise of the acting company or the zany methods they use that made me start to question the reality of the world, but more like a feeling that started creeping up that something wasn’t as it seemed.  First of all, while the actors are rehearsing there is supposedly a loaded gun in a birdcage in the corner of the room, just to remind the actors that they are capable of killing one another.  And the entire time, the attitude of the actors seems a little off.  Like they’re all sharing a secret that the audience isn’t in on.

The structure of the show itself is scenes delineated by how long the company has until opening night.  The set is pretty simple- a table and some chairs, a piano, an old-fashioned overhead projector, and that gun in the corner.  The floor has exaggeratedly large, colorful spike tape- it’s literally the stuff you’re “not supposed to see” behind a production.  Although there’s a fairly linear timeline, the show is also punctuated by events that are seemingly outside the world of “reality”, including a speaking tiger and men running around with balloons tied to their penises.  By the end, I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, so I had to just experience the play as it happened.  There were moments of great humor, suspense, and sadness within The Method Gun.  One of my favorite parts is that at the top of the show, the audience is asked to write down the name of their mentor on a piece of paper and hand it to the actors.  At the end of the play, there is a slideshow of the names of people to which this show is dedicated, and we realize that it’s the names that the audience members contributed.

I purposely try not to research a show too much before I see it because I want to be able to have the experience without a lot of context first, and then layer in understanding later.  So after I finished watching The Method Gun I decided to google Stella Burden, half expecting her to be real, half not.  The first search item was a call for “research” on Stella Burden for the production of The Method Gun, and asked for submissions from people who had worked with her.  Then I realized that all of the search results for Stella Burden were for this show, and that Stella Burden probably is not a real person.  I love the idea that this company of actors created an alternate reality in order to share a story.  It’s fairly obvious that Stella Burden is sort of a stand- in for Stella Adler, but not the same person.  By establishing a “reality” and then exploding it, The Method Gun asks the question of what is truth, and is there a difference between truth once removed and truth four times removed?  Is one more “valid” than the other?  They pose the questions, but leave it to us to determine our own truth.

Art and/or Pornography Continued

While milling over my thoughts and feelings about Bruce LaBruce’s film Super 8 1/2, which puts the notion that pornography can be art on trial, I decided to investigate artists whose experimentations center around sex and sexuality.  Through my research, I found La Petite Mort Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario (Bruce LaBruce is also from Canada (is the trend notable?)).  How LPM can be described:

“La Petite Mort (a French reference to the tense throes of orgasm) is a befitting name for a gallery with an appetite for the ecstatic. Definitely sexy and committed to indulgence, La Petite Mort is an eclectic ode to diversity.”

After reading this, I checked out a majority of the artists included in the gallery and interacted with their work.  Most of the artists had work which I could understand as something other than simply pornography.  For example, I am enamored by the work of Zachari Logan, especially pictures like this:

zachari_logan_Crowd1_Yatzer

The way the artist describes his inspiring work:

“My body is a catalyst for my fascination with stereotypic masculine portrayals.The act of weightlifting, attaining a well-sculpted body is envisioned stereotypically as a visual mark of masculine enterprise, an act I partake in on a daily basis. Without needing to see me engaged in the act itself, my drawn body infers a performative athleticism. This athleticism coupled with the theatricality of a doppelganger or triplet existing on the same stage is designed to subtly evoke feelings of competition, fear and omnipotence- all in relation to performance anxiety. Although in most of these drawings I depict my body in a life-sized scale, the pictorial space in these drawings is quite shallow, with enough room for the figures to exist and interact. This lack of spatial depth is referential to Neo-Classical space, in which Spartan bodies were used to visually epitomize the strength of empire. The containment of space in these drawings is structured to illustrate a sense of claustrophobia and is directly referential to the viewer’s own body. This is a space that is in-between or marginal, a visual realm that is too small to exist within comfortably — but is considerable enough to contemplate being in.”

I’m totally on board with this artist, and I’m especially fond of his relationship to Peter Berlin and the multiplying of self as a technique.

What I’m not fond of is the work of Scot Sothern.  In my eyes, the work of this artist feels exploitative.  A man is photographing nude prostitutes and that makes me uncomfortable.  Is it because the artist is a man?  Would I feel any different if the artist was a woman?  What about the women themselves?  I assume they’ve consented to having their portraits photographed.  So why should I take issue with the work?  These are all questions that come to mind when I interact with my uncomfortableness to this work.

Lastly, among the Emerging Artists who are represented by this gallery, I’m challenged by the work of Drasko Bogdanovic.  His photographs edge a little too closely to pornography for my artistic taste.  One could argue that there is a lot going on in these photographs, and that there are formal experimentations being employed, but what’s the difference between this and a Pornographic magazine?  But does it matter?

I’m grateful that a gallery such as LPM exists.  It challenges my values and makes me question my views on sexually charged art.

An Illiad

Better Late than never…!

When I was in New York over spring break, I went to see An Illiad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Petersonat the New York Theatre Workshop  featuring Stephen Spinella and Denis O’Hare on alternating nights.   I saw Stephen Spinella. The script was very interesting and engaging at certain moments, evoking thoughts and feelings about the seemingly everlasting nature of war.  Going in to see An Illiad, I was a bit tired, my fault, but I remained tired throughout, which I think had something to do with the production.  While I left the theatre feeling somewhat unsatisfied, I also left thinking, largely about why I felt unsatisfied by the production.

The script was very engaging at moments. One interesting tool that the playwrights employed was that of requiring that the audience fill in some of the play’s imagery.  The entire story was very imaged based, it is after all, a one-man show, so throughout the play, both actor and audience inhabit and create many different images.  Often, the poet (the narrator of the story) would evoke and image of a character, by saying for example, “Hector, he was a good father, an all around good guy, a guy you want to be friends with, kind of like…”  And then he’d move on without filling in the blank.  This requires the audience to personally engage with the story by supplying their own image of who that person is from their own lives.  Sometimes the modern parallels were drawn for the audience.  In order to allow us to understand the rage that came over Achilles, for example, the poet says something along the lines of, “you know like when someone cuts you off and you think I could just kill you right now, hit you with my car, and if that doesn’t kill you I’ll get out of my car and tear you apart, limb from limb.”  This story uses modern examples in which rage, fear, love, the need to protect, betrayal, etc. arise, thereby insisting the audience relate these “far away” events of the Trojan war to their own lives.

Of course the play was not just about the Trojan war, but rather war in general, which is very present today.  These feelings and situations are not unique to ancient Greece, not even to organized war, but actually occur in our daily lives.  We are all capable of these acts.  And we all have the potential to commit them or to choose not to.   I had trouble filling in some of the images left up to the audience.  This was just as interesting to me as the images that I could fill in.  For example, we were at one point asked to imagine standing in a field of bodies, we were told “you know what that’s like”  I don’t know what that is like.  It made me acutely aware that these horrible things are happening in the world and I have no idea what that feels like.  In some ways I can relate to war and in some ways I am completely removed from it.  What does that mean when citizens are removed from war?  Does that enable the war to keep going?  If all of us knew what it was like to stand in a field of bodies would wars even be happening?

One incredibly moving moment was when the poet simply recited wars throughout history, the list when on for a full five minutes or thereabouts.  We were forced to sit there and listen to the names of all these wars, some of them I was familiar with and some of them I was not.  Through telling the story of the Trojan war, the poet is telling us the story of every war throughout history, and reminding us that it is indeed a story that we all know.  Towards the end of the play, the poet does not want to finish the story.  He can’t go on, it is too heartbreaking.  Instead of re-enacting the story as he has been mostly doing up until this point, he simply recounts it in a narrative form.  And instead of focusing on the brutal elements, he focuses on the soft, human elements.  He describes all of the different parties of war sleeping.  Reminding us that we are all human.  He even says that Achilles is thinking, beneath his armor, “I’m scared, couldn’t we just get a beer?”.  The poet high lights the miscommunication that often fuels or even starts wars by even in this image of getting a beer instead of fighting, showing two parties disagree on the name for a herron.  Communication is lost because of language.

Overall, I think the script was very effective and engaging.  However, the acting left me wondering what the play might have been had I seen Denis O’Hare instead of Stephen Spinella.  Sit was very clear that Spinella was an accomplished, very trained actor.  However, I caught myself admiring his technique often instead of following the story.  Spinella seemed to repeat the same rhythms over and over again which was somewhat lulling instead of engaging, although this may also have been inherrent in the script.  I think that these rhythms are meant to make us feel the monotony of war, but it did not engage me as much as it could have were it not so lulling.  Also, Spinella played very much to the back of the house.  I was in the front and felt a disconnect between me and the actor.

One very interesting aspect of the performance was the presence of a musician.  He was on a balcony-like platform high above the audience.  He added very much to the images throughout by playing music.  It added to the epic feeling of this epic tale.

Critical Response: The Andersen Project at The Cutler Majestic

I had the opportunity to watch The Andersen Project by Robert Lepage at The Cutler Majestic last month with two friends of mine. Going into the production none of us knew what to expect from the performance. However we knew that this would be a 2 hours and 15 minute one-man show, which meant that we could either have an exciting experience at the theatre, or we would want to gouge our eyes out. So before the show started we made a pact that if the show was painful, we’d get up and leave. The lights dimmed, and the action started.

I am not even sure how I can accurately describe what those opening moments were for me. All I know is that my jaw hit the floor, my eyes widened, and I was a 6 year-old girl again. The show began with a graffiti artist tagging a wall, which brought forth a third dimension created by him jumping into a screen. I don’t have the right words to describe the magic that was created.

The Andersen Project was inspired by the diaries of children fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage delves into the mysteries of a writer whose conflicted psychology plays out in his lesser known tales written more for auto-therapy than for the delight of children. In this one-man show, actor Yves Jacques plays a Canadian rock-‘n-roll writer who is unexpectedly commissioned by the Opéra Garnier in Paris to write a libretto for a children’s opera. Arriving in Paris, he discovers that his living quarters are on the last floor of a building that is also home to a peep show in the city’s red light district. Yves transforms into various different characters, and together Lepage explores the resonances between the characters. The production is a theatrical story telling, in which multimedia serve as other actors on stage. Everything from the lights, to the projection made this performance feel like a rock concert. The piece had a definite European sensibility to it that comes in its rapid changes rhythms, which aided the humor in the story telling.

As a disclaimer projection theatre is something that I am often extremely hesitant about, because I believe that the beauty of theatre lies in transformation. However The Andersen Project found a way to write a story where the actor and the design were able to create a hyper-transformative space. The design elements served as a scene partner and help extend the audience’s imagination to better understand and access the world being created. Somehow the production managed to be both outrageous, and incredibly intimate.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the production was when Yves explores Andersen’s love life. Suddenly a female manikin comes out on a track and Yves uses her to share about Hans’ experiences with love, and they begin to dance. The dance begins as a delicate courtship, and then progresses into a disturbing ripping off of the manikin’s clothes. This action illuminated the sexual repression and violence in Hans Christian Andersen’s life in a beautiful way. I was intrigued by the use of light, not necessarily on a large scale, but during the more intimate moments. There was a moment where a shadow dance was created by the use of a light fixture, when Arnaud was tucking his daughter into bed. As an artist I enjoy working with singular light sources, and exploring all the interesting things you can find through expanding its use.

After watching The Andersen Project, I spent a long time trying to figure out what the central message was of the piece. Then I recalled one of the final images of the piece where Yves Jacques stands in front of an audience, and declares that “theatre is an art form that takes us back to our caveman days when our ancestors stood around fires to tell stories and employed the use of shadows to convey other characters and other voices.” This moment was extremely moving because for the past 2 hours we’ve watched a montage of scenic surprise, and at the core of it was story telling. Simple story telling like the cavemen practiced, yet Lepage used our modern tools to tell a deeply mythological story.

Theatre is moving in an epic direction. In a very Greek sense audiences are seeking a form of theatre that incites them viscerally, and The Andersen Project does just that. The production team seems to be ahead of the curve with the creation of this piece. I absolutely see this form of theatre becoming popular within the next few years.

Although, I must admit that there were times when my senses were accosted by sound and light, but I think that could be expected for an audience member who is new to this multimedia faceted kind of performance. If I had one qualm with the production, it would be that the performance could have been shorter. There was an element that felt like the design was running an Olympic marathon, and had to continue to top it’s previous record. Otherwise the piece was thoroughly enjoyable.

Is NYC still alive and kicking?

I found this article questioning NYC’s status as the cultural capital of the world.


This is a question I have been pondering over the last year or so. Especially after living in London for a semester, and traveling to places like Prague, Madrid, and even San Francisco that are so culturally rich.

I think for theatre artists the most important thing is to be around other like-minded people. Theatre is a collaborative art, so I think you can make an artistic home for yourself anywhere as long as you have a community to make theatre with.


I think the artists of our generation are not migrating to New York City the way they have in the past. The ridiculous living prices is enough to make young artists flee from it all together. Especially with the current economy, artists can’t afford to be artists in expensive cities.

The article makes the point that for people in the fashion industry, Manhattan is still the place to be.

But even Young Jean Lee said living in Manhattan has “just become uncool.”And you can’t argue coolness with Young Jean Lee.

I also wonder if the movement toward small collaborative efforts as opposed to the more traditional theatre company models has impacted the move out of NYC. It has become more hip to make work in an abandoned school building than on a proscenium stage. Even so, NYC still has Broadway. And that is certainly not going away anytime soon.

Most of the artists interviewed in the article have been living in NYC for a while, and when they moved, there were grant coming at them in every direction. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the case for our generation.


Still, I plan to try to move to New York in the fall. I recognize it will be ridiculously expensive and hard to get work, but that doesn’t deter me, or others in our class. Even if New York City fades from being the cultural center of the world, it will always be A cultural center because the arts are part of the foundation of the city. And it will always be an exciting, fast paced environment that will draw young people. I certainly plan to have a great time.

stripping a bodice, dancing with shadows, and projections for all

Last month I saw Ex Machina/ Robert Lepage’s THE ANDERSEN PROJECT at Arts Emerson. I knew of Robert Lepage (aka I recognized his name) and was excited to see something different. I did not know anything going into the theater and as the lights dimmed my friend whispered to me “Oh god, It’s 2 hours without an intermission! That is a long time for a solo performance.” And I was struck with immediate fear. I wanted to bolt. I did not think I would be able to make it through 2 hours of one person telling a narrative about what I discovered was Hans Christian Andersen.

And then the screen that was onstage lit up, there was a brief speech projected as a man with long white blonde hair in a leather jacket had his back to the audience, followed by blasting french rap music as the actor, Yves Jacques, transformed into a graffiti artist tagging an image of Andersen while credits played on the other half of the screen. It was very obvious that this was not going to be two hours of narrative, and that I was not going to be bored. Projection was a huge part of the performance as Jacques portrayed an albino music producer from Canada, the director of a french opera company with a sex addiction, and Hans Christian Andersen.

I felt a distance from the play for the first thirty minutes or so as Jacques warmed into the performance. Maybe it was the Canadian accent that took me out, the overwhelming quality of the projections at times, or just a lack of commitment from the beginning. This was a performance that Jacques has been giving for six years… it must be challenging sometimes to stay committed!

A huge part of my experience watching this performance was my introduction to projections. I have taken a long time to write this because I haven’t been sure about my feeling on them as a whole, and needed to check out some other things. I have discovered that projections aren’t really my thing. They don’t get me going when I see them, and although I do think they are a really exciting art form, I am not personally engaged in them. The parts of the performance that I thought were most engaging involved little or no projection.

Jacques did an incredible section where he interacted with a dressed bodice that represented Andersen’s female companions. He stepped inside of the bodice, but in a transition that I’m not even sure was possible. His smooth movement as the bodice was smooth and swirling. It was a moment of theatrical magic. Maybe part of it was possible because of the projection, but a lot of it was magical because of the change in physicality from Andersen to the woman.

I do commend Jacques on that fully, his transformative quality from character to character. He changed physicality (and costume!) so quickly that I was sure there had to be some other actors on stage. Or that half of the time we were just watching a projection! And maybe that is my problem with this type of projection work. I feel like I am watching a screen for the entire performance, and as I said about Newyorkland if I wanted to do that I would have gone to the Regal Fens with my smuggled in Milky Way. I would like to believe that Jacques was always the person I saw in the screen set, but I have reasonable doubt.

One of the most moving moments was when Jacques tells the bedtime story about the man and his shadow. The shadow is an active character cast upon the background with a lamp Jacques holds. How he holds the lamp adjusts the size, position, and clarity of the shadow. I couldn’t look away for the entirety of this sequence, couldn’t blink. It was another pure moment devoid of any fancy tricks or magic. It was theatre magic, and beautiful storytelling.

I did not care so much for the Andersen story that was being told as a commission for the opera company. The story was about a fairy trapped in a tree that wished it was in Paris. This entire story was told in voice over with projections. It was beautiful, the colors, the quality of image, the movement of the leaves were all stunning. But I was not engaged. I wanted more of the shadow story, or the bodice. I found myself hungry for more of Jacques fantastic physical work.

Overall, I found this play a challenge, but one I was ready to face. I needed to form an opinion about the newer form of theatre using heavy amounts of projection, and I needed to have more of a back up then ‘I don’t like it.’ I now realize that when I don’t like the projection work, it is because the physical work is being compromised by it. The most engaging part of theatre these days is that it is a place where people can still communicate with language and movement instead of technology. I wouldn’t say I’m a purist by a long shot, but maybe this is just one thing I will take longer to jump on the boat about.

HEY LADIES: Half Straddle

To further my search for some bad ass ladies I began with the list of speakers from Women in Downtown Theatre. I wasn’t able to identify who they were by just their voices, so I decided to identify their voices by watching a lot of youtube. This led me to Tina Satter, the writer/ director of Brooklyn based Half Straddle. Half Straddle makes the plays, music, and video’s that Satter creates. Their work is pretty funny, and if you are wondering what got me hooked then this video should explain it all.

“Half Straddle is like that smart, “weird” indie rock alternagrrrl in high school who starts a zine and is into cool stuff and crafts and is always sneaking off into the city to hang out with grown-ups”

In the Pony Palace/ FOOTBALL premiered at the Bushwick Star at the beginning of this year, and much to my dismay, I missed it. BUT! I did check out their work sample, and it looks awesome. What draws me in is the feeling that these people look like they are having so much fun working together. Their is a quality of comfortableness that feels like we are being invited into a large inside joke, because the ideas are universal thoughts we all have but rarely share. I highly reccomend checking them out!

Friends or Foes?: Art and Pornography

Sometimes, when I’m feeling in the mood to watch experimental video art (which actually happens), I go to ubu.com, a wonderful source for all things experimental.  Once I’m on the site, I find the directory for online video art and click on an artist’s name at random.  The other day, upon fulfilling this urge, I clicked on the name Bruce LaBruce.  I had never heard of LaBruce before and was immediately intrigued when I read this description of his work:

“Bruce LaBruce is a Toronto based filmmaker, writer, director, photographer, and artist. He began his career in the mid eighties making a series of short experimental super 8 films and co-editing a punk fanzine called J.D.s, which begat the queercore movement. He has directed and starred in three feature length movies, “No Skin Off My Ass” (1991), “Super 8 1/2″ (1994), and “Hustler White” (1996). More recently he has directed two art/porn features, “Skin Flick” (2000)(hardcore version: “Skin Gang”) and “The Raspberry Reich” (2004)(hardcore version: “The Revolution Is My Boyfriend”).”

I had no doubt that what I was about to watch would be art, but what was its relationship to porn?   I quickly saw the connection.

Super 8 1/2 is a “look at a triple-X star-director caught in the downward spiral of his career.”  My favorite quote from the film, “He was actually attempting to break down the whole subject-camera relationship… It was as if he was an existentialist trapped in a porno star’s body.”

This film, I can easily say, is a work of art.  The cinematography, screen play, acting and mise-en-scene all communicate a story that investigates the artist’s relationship to himself and pornography.  Although genitalia are revealed, all the sex scenes in the film at least appear to be simulated.

But wait…it’s still porn…right?  By general standards, I think yes, it is pornography, but what makes this piece art and not exploitation?

After watching this film, I think about other works of art that have been put into question.  I’m thinking of Andy Warhol, with his films Blow Job and Flesh (A poster of Andy in Bruce’s bedroom in Super 8 1/2 tells all) Robert Mapplethorpe, who had NEA funding revoked for his provocative, homoerotic photography, Peter Berlin, who defined a gay identity in 1970′s San Fransisco, and Tom of Finland.

I think exploitation and misogyny are what make pornography abominable, but what happens when the artists agree to exploration and misogyny?  Although Super 8 1/2 isn’t misogynistic, exploitation is one of the biggest themes discussed in Super 8 1/2. Bruce, who is the protagonist, constantly comments that he’s being exploited (although he’s technically the director of this semi-autobiopic).   Googie, the antagonist, just says, “Well someone has to be exploited, and it might as well be you.”  By recognizing the exploitative nature of pornography, I think that the work can step away from being accused as exploitative.  What makes this work distinct is that it takes on an “in your face” approach, assuming the viewer’s gaze and asking for it loudly and clearly.

Therefore, if we all agree that this is a work of art, can it also coexist as pornography?  I think this is a much larger debate, but it reminds me of the conversation we had about Pretty, Pretty.  Pornographic images can put the form itself into question, but where do we draw the line?  Or do we?finland7382

Critical Response: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The Huntington Theatre

Last month, I saw August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The Huntington. I have been spending a lot of time this semester examining August Wilson’s century cycle, so I was excited to see what the Huntington did with the production.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the final play of August Wilson’s century cycle to be produced at The Huntington. The play follows the legendary 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey and her musicians gather in a run-down Chicago studio to record new sides of old favorites when generational and racial tensions suddenly explode. Overall the production was well received throughout Boston. The production had a beautiful set, and an all-star cast, but for a few particular reasons the production didn’t come alive for me.

Music is a major component in all of August Wilson’s work, and it’s a factor that I love. In his work music usually serves a way to unravel the text, or to illuminate some of the undertones of piece. I was struck that in this piece, which is about a Jazz singer, there wasn’t a lot of music. However I know that in the text Wilson didn’t write in more music, as a way to show the tug-of-war between the generations through conflict over the style of the song. The generational divide really spoke to me, and I thought that Liesl Tommy added an interesting flare by capping each of the acts with Michael Jackon’s “They don’t really care about us.” Although adding these bookend montages helped illuminate modern day race relations, the concept felt like it hit the audience on the nose.

While I understand that as a director we must somehow answer how this piece speaks to contemporary audiences, I think that the montages simply served as fillers and the idea behind doing this play now was not woven throughout the story telling. In my opinion, what made the montage and the action of play feel disconnect was the scenic layout. In all cases it is a scenic designer’s responsibility to create a space where the story can be heard. If the production team wanted to tell the story that White America didn’t and still don’t care about Black America, then having the actors come out in modern clothing on a very specific 1920s set becomes confusing. As the audience I get pulled out of the reality of piece.

Historical accuracy is important in Wilson’s century cycle, so I am not suggesting that we ignore the social climate of the time. However I am saying that overall the historical accuracy manifested itself in ways within the set that made it difficult to hear the langue of the piece. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, unlike other of Wilson’s plays, is a langue play. This means that words and story telling are the most important factors to tell the story. The conflict that exists in the play exists between the characters, which means that how bodies move in space is more important that having a scenic layout that is historically accurate.

There were many important questions being posed in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom such as: Is God dead? How does the black community deal with rage? Who is allowed to play the role of the victim? What are the expectations of women/ stereotypes of black men? How much must we hold on the past/ What is our connection to it? The text births timeless questions, but I had a hard time hearing them in the Huntington’s production.

More articulated thoughts on ‘Hookman’

I already shared my initial impressions after seeing ‘Hookman’ at Company one.  But here’s my response paper for it, it contains more articulated thoughts.

Hookman, by Lauren Yee, was not what I expected.  Then again, I don’t know how I could ever have expected the originality and poignancy mixed with horror/dark comedy that is Hookman.  Common themes in Lauren Yee’s body of work include Young people going on a journey, often in pairs, and trying to discover the truth of what has happened in the past.  Both of these elements are present in Hookman.  Yee also tends towards a blurring of reality in her work.  Yee says in an interview with Ilana Brownstein in the program notes, “ I think all my plays tend to dramatize and make funny something that is inherently unfunny”.

Within the first few seconds of the play, the set and the language immediately engaged me.  The set featured a car on a revolving floor, the other side of which is a dorm room.  Already we can gather that the play is about a journey. The car is a liminal space, but it is part of Lexi’s ‘home’ world.  The dorm room is part of her college life, across the country from her home. Homesickness is a large part of Lexi’s struggle to find peace in her new reality; that of being a freshman in college.  Through the set, we are also set up for the bloodiness that ensues, as the edge of the playing space is covered with thick blood.

The play feels incredibly contemporary and this is largely due to the music and language used in the piece.  Loud music is playing and for about the first 30 seconds of the play, we see Lexi and Jess sing along to a song, creating a fun, friendly mood.  I was immediately drawn in as an audience member and indeed I felt the urge to sing along! Their banter is specific and establishes their relationship very quickly.  The opening scene feels like that of a comedy or chick flick; a funny scene between friends until, suddenly Lexi coughs out casually that she may have been raped last week.  I thought that I had misheard this line at first.  My friend who I saw the show with poked me hard when he heard this, and I had a similar feeling of “what?!”.  This odd, disconnected atmosphere of horror/tragedy layered beneath humor and the mundane moments of everyday life is the world in which the play lives.

Repetition and revision is a tool that Yee employs throughout the play.  We see the car scene several times throughout until the objective truth of what actually happened in the car is revealed.  Each time we see it there is a slight change.  Lexi is reliving the scene over and over as it is a source of trauma in her life.  When the scene first happened she was not fully present, which led to her crashing the car.  Jess says in the first scene “You never listen”  Lexi retorts, “Yes I do!”  In a later repetition Jess says “You never listen” and Lexi replies “I guess I don’t, do I?”  She even apologizes for it as she realizes the truth of her statement.

Hookman the character appears throughout the play.  In the first car scene he kills Jess, in the last car scene we come to understand that it was Lexi who crashed the car, killing Jess.  This is very telling; Hookman lives within Lexi.  He is her own projection of fear.  He comes from an urban legend told to her by her brother.  He is clearly of the city, created by people, told to her by a man close to her.  Every man she sees throughout the play is revealed as Hookman, even her RA who she goes to for comfort.  Her own fear prevents her from trusting or having relationships with men in her life.  But where did this fear come from? Lexi has many reasons to be afraid, one is that she was raped; another is that girls around her keep dying.  She is afraid of death.  Because of her fear of death she ends up killing her best friend.  This fear of death is clearly prevalent in Lexi’s (our) culture, as hookman is an urban legend, she doesn’t make him up entirely.

Because of her fear, Lexi is an unreliable narrator. The structure of the play shows that as we vacillate from past to present.  Even when in the present we cannot be sure what is really happening.  Yee takes seemingly mundane moments such as asking for a tissue and turns them into horrific, meaningful interactions.  Yee says in the program notes of ‘mundane moments’, “I find them really potent.  So, I’m taking something that is inherently undramatic and trying to make it dramatic.” Reality is often repeated in a different style, or else grows from naturalistic to exaggerated, often to grotesque and menacing.  It is interesting to think that if exaggerated enough, reality can become terrifying.  Or perhaps it is rather saying that we can project fear and danger into any and all circumstances.

Hookman also explores how fascinated we are as a culture with violence and fear. Urban Myths are abundant.  What role do they serve in our society? Regardless, we often secretly enjoy watching horribly violent things happen. Also, the role of modern social media in dispersing news of violent incidents or tragedy is explored.  Yee says in the program notes in talking about someone she knew peripherally who died,

“ I found out by people’s odd comments posted on her facebook profile…I remember feeling like I deserved to know how she died, because it wasn’t actually revealed.  I found that kind of disturbing because why should I need to know at all?  It really wasn’t any of my business, even though I felt like it was.”

Indeed throughout the play everyone seems to be all up in each other’s business, publicizing private events in a disturbing way, but in a way that rings very true to modern social trends.

Lexi gets stuck in cycles; her traumas haunt her and create new traumas.  It is a cycle that cannot be broken until she faces her fear head on.  I was not sure what exactly hookman represented until the final scene of the play.  In the final scene, which is also the last revision of the car scene, Lexi realizes that it was she who crashed the car.  It was her fault, not hookman’s. This realization makes the scene end differently than it has before. Jess hugs her and is able to leave without Lexi having to re-live the car crash.  Hookman appears and she tells him that she knows that she will die.  This facing of the facts allows her to face him.  They fight.  He ‘kills’ her but she is still ok, she rises again.  It is her admission of her own vulnerability that giver her strength.  Facing her fear head on makes him disappear.

Hookman, while engaging, was a little confusing.  It took me a while to piece together what was happening.  However, it did affect me viscerally and emotionally even when I was not sure what was happening plot-wise.  I think that it accomplished this because of its use of humor and horror side by side.  I felt uncomfortable yet engaged, and I felt that I could absolutely relate to Lexi.  Though I have never been raped, I have had unwanted sexual encounters, and statistically so have the majority of women in America.  This play discussed the violence of rape and sexual violence and how it can transform a person into becoming their own enemy. I think this play is incredibly important because it addresses serious issues in a way that is at the same time accessible, humorous, and deeply disturbing.  The horrific scenes show the antagonists in the play, not only rape, but also death, homesickness, and loneliness, for the devastating and violent things that they really can be.  And it explores how in the end, we can be our own worst antagonist, creating enemies in our minds wherever we go.

Radiohole’s ‘Whatever, Heaven Allows’

Woah, Radiohole is crazy and awesome!  Lat week I watched Radiohole’s ‘Whatever, Heaven Allows’ on on the boards tv.

Whatever, Heaven Allows is based on Paradise Lost by John Milton, and All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk.  However, the piece is by Radiohole, so it is not your typical traditional theatrical experience.  When I was done watching the piece, I felt completely overwhelmed.  The piece hit me on a visceral level, not an intellectual or emotional one.  I felt strange in my gut.  Although, throughout the piece I was very intellectually engaged, constantly trying to make connections and garner ‘sense’ from the piece.

The piece breaks the fourth wall in its first moments.  An actor walks out and speaks directly to the audience.  At first it seems that he is beginning a melodramatic, intense, existential performance.  However, then he begins to directly address the audience, talking to them about how they can exit the theatre, layering in existential problems onto this literal task.  Using biblical images in a mundane, daily setting, which prepares us for the ridiculousness of the piece.

Then we see a parody of the 1955 ‘All That Heaven allows’ film credits.  Each character is a stereotypical archetype, but ever so slightly, well really ever so blatantly, off.  Already we are prepared for the harsh juxtapositions in this piece:  Heightened, even biblical, versus daily/mundane as well as film/projection versus human action.  We are also now set up for direct address to the audience.  The actors even refer to each other by name, asking if they are ‘ready’.  This meta-theatricality creates a whole new level of ‘realness’, which sharply contrasts with the heightened perfomativity in much of the piece.

This piece explores gender performativity by going to extremes.  The main character has time with her ‘lady friends’ in a heightened, stereotypical but exploded way.  Interestingly, it is the men in the piece who present this time with ‘lady friends’ to the audience.  We therefore know that we are seeing not necessarily how women behave, but how they are meant to behave from the male perspective.  The men in the piece are also heightened according to gender stereotypes.  They prance around in plaid with guns.  But it is not only traditional gender roles that are satirized tin this piece, but also feminism and coming out.  All of our roles are attacked and held up to the light.

In this piece patriarchal, constructed reality, as seen through the lens of All That heaven Allows, and Paradise Lost, is exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness and ridiculousness.  The entire piece, although experimental in nature, feels very modern and of this world.  There were times watching the piece that I would feel lost but I would always again be grounded by a moment of connection to something familiar to me.  Even in moments when I did not recognize the action of the character(s), I always felt like I knew what was happening on some level.  I think that this is because each character and each scene touched on personas and scenarios deeply ingrained in western culture.  Although he language was often deconstructed and the physicality extreme, I still resonated with all of the images because they touched on something that I know inherently; ideas and roles sewn deep into the fabric of western civilization.  By exploring western culture in such an exploded way, the piece makes the viewers uncomfortable seeing what they know, and forces them think again about what they know of their own culture.  The piece exposes ‘truths’ that we take for granted, to be ridiculous, harmful, and threatening.

The piece uses humor to do this.  Which is a good thing because if it didn’t it would be utterly impossible to watch. Or it would simply turn into a melodrama instead of a deconstructed satire. At any rate, it would be as effective.  Through making us laugh at these strange scenarios (which really are not so foreign to us), we can express together as an audience our uncomfortability. We have a release of energy valve built in so that we can alleviate some pressure and then continue to watch the show.  Also, we can have fun before we realize how uncomfortable we are.  It sneaks up on us.

The themes in Paradise Lost and All That Heaven Allows are very present in the piece. In discussing Paradise Lost, Critic Julia M. Walker argues that because Eve “neither recognizes nor names herself … she can know herself only in relation to Adam.”  This concept is explored in the piece.  The heroine is constantly in relationship to a male figure.  Either hoping for one to come, falling in love, grieving for the loss of her husband, or falling in love with her new lover.  Both Eve in Paradise Lost and the widow in All that Heaven Allows are defined by the men in their life.  And so too with the heroine in Whatever, Heaven Allows. The tropes of sin and codependence explored in the inspirational works are still incredibly present and indeed shape us as a society today as Radiohole’s piece shows.

Radiohole’s piece seems to contain many realities which all blur together.  Each actor plays several different roles.  We follow the basic plot of All That Heaven Allows, but we also see other stories interspersed throughout.  One of the scenes that has stayed with me most clearly is a scene in which all the characters are drinking, throwing back drinks, excessively, clearly to get drunk.  They start to miss their mouths, throwing the contents of their cups onto their faces.  We see that it is not alcohol in the cups, but brown and red goo.  It looks like blood and mud.  All the while all the participants are laughing and chatting.  This image of consumption that we so recognize as part of our culture is literally dirtying us.  We are killing ourselves by consuming.   We idolize consumption.

Idolatry is a huge theme in Paradise Lost and Radiohole’s piece explores what we idolize as a culture, and often it is not very pretty.  One of these things is technology.  Another is traditional gender roles.  Another seems to be alcohol.  There is one sequence in which all of the actors chug a PBR to classical music in old-fashioned poses.  This kind of juxtapositions isolates that which we idolize and holds it up clearly for us to see

The set is very interesting.  In the back is a projection screen, and in the middle is a large podium like structure, hanging off the ground, which looks like the commanding pad of a rocket ship.  It is surrounded by a gold frame and really looks like something out of Star Trek. Jutting out from either side are what appear to be small screens.  On either side there are similar, but smaller structures.  Paradise Lost is about transitional journeys.  It tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven and decision to go back to earth to interact with mankind, and the story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  The entire story starts in Hell.  Interestingly, the entire story of our play starts in the theatre, in our society, in this day and age.  It could be said that our starting place is hell in both circumstances.  The other source material though, All That Heaven Allows, starts on earth.  I don’t think that Radiohole is necessarily calling earth a hell, but it is exploring hellish elements of our society.  Regardless, the spacecraft-like center point of the set symbolizes journey and liminal space.  Liminal space is present not only literally in Paradise Lost as the ascent and descent to earth, but also in All That Heaven Allows when the main character is banished from her high class society for falling in love with a lower class man.  All of the stories, both the source material and Radiohole’s piece, examine a fall from grace, gender roles, and what we depend on as a society.

Technology is a huge part of Whatever, Heaven Allows.  Throughout the play we see projections, and screens are attached to many parts of the set.  When the heroine of the play is grieving for her dead husband, she is told that she should get a TV.  TV is pointed out here as an escapist vehicle.  By having so much talk of television and references to screens, we the audience are made aware of our societal dependence on television and how that affects our view of reality.

Throughout the piece there is a woman dressed as a deer.  She chain smokes and at the end she pees.  She is sexy and innocent.  I think that she represents the damsel like traditional female timid energy. But like everything in the piece, this is satirized.  She is dressed up as a deer and transgresses this image by chain smoking.  She gets scared and pees at the end, which very much symbolizes the feeling of fear that I had at the end of the piece.

The piece was challenging, exciting, engaging, uncomfortable, and made me think.  I’m sure the experience would be extremely heightened had I seen it in the theatre and not online.  Also, it is very much the kind of piece that I feel I need to see more than once to catch everything that is going on. The chaos though is part of the point.  I’m glad I saw this piece, and challenging as it was to make sense of from an online viewing, I still took a lot away from it and I’m curious to research Radiohole more!

Bibliography

Walker, Julia M. (1998), Medusa’s Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self, University of Delaware Press (pg. 166).

Cafe Variations

Last weekend I went to see Café Variations at Arts Emerson, directed by Anne Bogart with music by the Gershwins and text by Charles Mee.  The piece was collaboration between the Siti Company and Emerson musical theatre students.  I found it to be a breathtakingly beautiful piece both aesthetically and in its subject matter, which explored the nature of love and relationships through a poignant melding of old and new.

The piece used old classic love songs by the Gershwins in conjunction with modern theatre techniques such as viewpoints, modern dance, and contemporary dialogue by Charles Mee.  This melding of old and new, rather than feeling incongruous, gave the subject matter both a timeless feeling and a specific world in which to live.  We understand that we are in the American Café: a café where anything can happen, where indeed, we expect it to. There were older professional actors in the show side by side with young students, which heightened the multi-generational, timeless landscape of the piece.  Throughout the show I kept wishing that my grandparents could be in the audience with me, and yet I was equally as engaged as I think that they would be.  Part of my great desire for them to be sitting there next to me in the audience, I think was because of the accessibility of this modern, important piece of theatre for their generation. They are used to seeing big musicals, and often I worry that if they were to see one of my shows, they would not relate to it or understand it at all.  Café variations I knew that they would love for its music, but I also felt that through that point of access they would be moved by the viewpoints work at play and the Chuck Mee scenes.  The piece created an appreciation for old and new theatre practices.

I was inspired by the concept of this piece.  Taking a location, a theme, and vocabularies from which to draw creates an exciting playing ground for collaboration.  The company gave itself a very clear container within which to play, and because of this their work was very deep and specific.  The location, a café, the theme love/relationships, and the vocabularies were; movement, Gershwin Music, and Chuck Mee café scenes.  Because of this simple set up, the piece was very easy to access, who hasn’t been in a café?  Felt love?  Heard a Gershwin song?  But it was also very specific because the artists that they are drawing from have very specific vocabularies.  Also using viewpoints as a creation tool gave it a clear, heightened, yet very human movement vocabulary. I admire Charles Mee so much for making his work available, his willingness to share his work makes it possible to have pieces such as this.  His text was re-imagined and re-contextualized, but I felt that it spoke as strongly as ever, and each scene was meaningful in contrast with the others.

The story of the piece was told as a cumulative collection of images.  Several different stories wove together to make one.  I felt very at ease, which put me as the audience member in an open place to receive the work and let the images wash over me, which is how the storytelling of this piece happens. When I reflect back on what stood out to me most, it is a viewpoints movement piece, a scene, a dance, and a song.  Each element of creation was integral and memorable.  Some scenes were pleasant, some shocking, and some heartbreaking. The show follows the general trajectory of a typical relationship.  Meeting, falling in love, heartbreak, and then the search begins again or deepens with that same person.

There were no gay relationships clearly included until about three quarters of the way through the piece.  For a while I thought that no LGBTQ couples were going to be portrayed and I was getting a little sad and angry in my seat.  I didn’t want to believe that this beautiful work could fail so blatantly to reflect the American experience.  However, right when I was feeling that most strongly, a gay couple appeared and listened to a classic Gershwin song, sharing a beautiful, intimate moment with only them onstage being serenaded by the singer.  They were in formal attire as all the characters had been thus far, suits, looking classy.  Shortly after a crossing happened with a woman and man both in drag.  And I could breathe a sigh of relief.   Queer experience was not discounted from this show!  They just saved it up to near the end.  I think for many audience members this served to ease these themes in, normalizing them as part of love.  At this point the piece had already won them over, so it’s safe to introduce more controversial themes into this upper class, old-fashioned café world. By putting gay love in this world, is acknowledges that it too is tieless, not a ‘modern issue’. And for audience members like me, it made their absence very noticeable up until that point.  Calling attention to their lack of representation perhaps tells the story of how gay couples could maybe not be so out in the Gershwin early 40s period as they can be today.

The play uses all songs from ‘The American Songbook’, with the exception of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, also by Gershwin, which underscores much of the piece in the spaces between the musical numbers.  In talking about how he composed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ to his first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, in 1931, he said,

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.(Cowen, Ron (1998), “George Gershwin: He Got Rhythm” The Washington Post Online).

One can feel in the piece the underpinnings of this idea of America as a vast, quickly moving, melting pot. Indeed Café Variations as a whole is a melting pot of different artists and styles, and there is something about it that feels very American.  It is a kaleidoscope of its own, through which we see the American Experience.  A huge part of which is waiting for or actively seeking love and relationships. Perhaps it is this “metropolitan madness” that George describes that comes through so stunningly in the piece.  It is an urban piece. It is interesting to me that he composed this on a train.  A train is a liminal space, a vehicle of transportation from one place to another, the same way that any good play is.  Cafés are also liminal spaces, and the piece shows us how they can be incredibly transportive, particularly in that the potential for a life changing relationship is waiting there.  And relationships, we all know, are incredibly transformative.  Love is a journey.  All of the elements of the play come together to make it a carrying vehicle, an exploration of how we become ourselves, often through our relationships with others.

The set was incredibly elegant, an homage to old timey America as is the Music and the whole piece in general.  The costumes too supported this vision. However, the work still felt modern and relevant.  Much of the movement in the piece was very lyrical, in line with that old time America feel, but many numbers in the piece broke that feeling, with percussive movement and literal physical fighting.  The piece to me did not feel dated but rather, timeless.  It was a crowd pleaser, but that does not necessarily mean it was not at all challenging.  While it perhaps did not inspire me to revolution, it did bring me joy and make me think about what it is to be American.  It was very entertaining. When I came to BU four years ago, I tended to look down on a piece if it was not a call to action of some kind or if it was merely ‘entertaining’.  I still sometimes do this. However, I am beginning to see that entertaining work is as necessary as intensely moving or thought provoking work and indeed one does not exclude the other.  Theatre that is ‘entertaining’ and does not then present controversial material is still valid.  It still fosters collaboration and community, and smiling is not such a bad thing!  Also Café Variations was revolutionary to me because it showed me how one can so flawlessly and beautifully blend styles to create a new, clear, and exciting world.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and was very moved by its sheer beauty upon exiting the theatre.  I was changed chemically; I saw beauty and grace everywhere as I left.

In a ‘Behind the scenes’ video that documented the making of Café Variations, an Emerson student involved in the piece said of Anne’s Direction that it was like she was “painting a picture instead of directing a piece of theatre”.  The images are indeed what stayed with me most.

Newyorkland

Temporary Distortion’s Newyorkland tells the story of four New York City cops and the difficulties that they have living in society with that title. Like all of Temporary Distortion’s work, Newyorkland is told through a mix of projections and intense sound scape over a restrained physical performance of the actors performing in tight confined boxes. If the goal of this was to get across the isolating depression of NYPD life, then Temporary Distortion did their job. The performance of the actors usually felt empty and second tier to the tech. At times the actors would watch projections of themselves, without looking like they were really taking in what was on the screen. Near the end of the performance Ronny, the cop who’s life we have seen most completely, muses on cop culture and that sometimes the world is “like living in a television show.” This is the closest explanation for why there was so much focus on watching the screen, but it comes so late that it can’t really save what has already occurred.

The first big shift in projection at the top of the show does work though, as do a few other sequences. At the beginning of the performance the cops enter their cubicles. One cop is focused on in the center cubicle with work lights. He is surrounded by police monitors, typewriters, and paper work. As the sound scape shifts, the projection on the wall around him begins to shift to a scrolling view of New York City streets. As the backdrop and sound set the feel of a 1970′s cop film cruising through the streets, the young officer in the cubicle pulls out a gun and raises it up slowly. Watching this on a screen feels safe and harmless, but it can only be imagined that being an audience member who has a gun pointed at them at the top of the show feels a certain way. It does exactly what it does in real life, it separates the police from the community. It creates the persona that keeps the police at a distance. I’m not certain if this is what makes it hard to get into the head of these characters for the rest of the play, or if it is just that for the rest of the play there is a similar feeling that ‘it is really hard to understand how isolating it is to be these guys.’

During some moments in the play, the cubicles would be completely dark, no actors lit, and there would just be a projection. Moments like this in theatre tend to annoy me because if I wanted to see a movie I would have paid my $15 at Regal Fenway and snuck in a bag on m&ms. Especially in a piece like this, which is supposed to help the audience understand the struggles of day to day police life, why keep us at an arms length with a screen? I have very strong opinions on this, so I will put them aside, share them more in my thoughts on The Andersen Project and just take it for what it was.

One montage that I did find engaging as a piece of film was Ronny’s drug bust montage. The pacing was quick and on the ball and reminded me of movies like The Departed. How it faded in was seamless in the storytelling, and was mysterious about what was going on. Ronny, dressed in a leather jacket and out of uniform, is undercover buying drugs. At first the thought I had was, “Oh man! They are talking about the dirty business of cops breaking their own rules!” but as soon as the thought entered my mind, he took out a badge and chase began. All of it was quick and constantly moving. More cops arrived, and like the drug dealer, I had no idea where they were coming from. I was not sure who I was really cheering for during the sequence, but at the end, as casually dressed Ronny smokes a celebratory cigarette, I felt like I was with him in his accomplishment.

Another interesting projection sequence occurred when the police lights turned into the faces of the officers on stage. Each light kept spinning in the classic red and blue, but illuminated the officers face. As this happened the cops listed the reasons people dislike cops, and how that effects their perception of the world. The projection showed how those blue and red lights alter our perception of these people. They blind us to their true character and that they are actual human beings. Also, the layering in, and transition from the general public’s opinion, to how that jades the officers is quite effective. With the public going around looking down on these people, it easy for them to become the villains we make them out to be. This made me start thinking about some of the Occupy Wall street footage I have seen. As soon as the cops show up, people begin to get uneasy. They say horrible things to them, and end up provoking them to do something extreme. It is the social mask, and the glass and shields that alter our perception of these people. To an angry crowd they are people who arrive to and then chaos ensues. From the outside it is clear that they are their just people doing their jobs and keeping people safe. Also, it is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The police that are out on the street patrolling on the day to day are really enforcing someone’s rules. They don’t have a say in it, and are just taking orders.

There is a section of particularly moving acting (unfortunately done in a projection instead of onstage, but I move forward) where Ronny talks about this issue directly. He shares how the reality of a cop is altered by the things they see. That they always have to be on guard, 24/ 7. Everything has the potential for violence. He goes through a grocery list of typical dangerous situations that might be familiar from any slew of cop dramas, but then shares that you never expect the little old lady to pull out a shotgun when you pull her over. “She’s the joker in the deck,” he explains. During this sequence, Ronny has been walking home from work. He is done with his day, musing on life, and headed home to his wife. When he enters his apartment, his wife is the joker waiting in the deck. She reams into him about how he hasn’t been home from days, refuses to believe that it has to do with work, and ends in kicking him out of the house. This whole sequence beautifully brings together the work and home life of an officer. The lines are blurry, and there are sacrifices. The actress playing his wife had earlier given a monologue (via projection) about how she had learned to accept Ronny’s life as a cop. This other montage though shows how things always change. It is at any given moment that living with a cop can become too much.

In an interview with the director, Kenneth Collins, explains this phenomenon. He grew up in a family of cops, and there was always a sense of danger. It was the danger of, “Will he come home?” and how that effected the family. His family kept tabs on everyone’s safety by constantly listening to a police monitor. The feeling of this is in the performance through the Ronny sections, but also in a few moments with the rookie. A young officer calls his mother. She is worried about his safety, and nervous because he is calling so late. He does the best to reassure her, but it is clear that he is putting on a bit of an act. There are obvious dangers he is protecting her from, and as sounds shift back to a police monitor, we get that glimpse of why Collins has created this piece.

The last segment of the performance drops the projections (and I could not have been happier) and begins with an exploration of the space using flashlights. The set, which I have only alluded to thus far, is made up of three tight cubicles all separated by more of the projections screen that hangs above them. Each cubicle is encased with scratched and battered plexiglass shields in the front. There is a separation throughout the entire performance caused by this literal barrier. In the cubicles there are monitors, typewriters, cabinets, and microphones that the actors use on and off. Each microphone uses some level of distortion to make the actor sound like they are coming over a radio. As the flashlight shines through these dark spaces from behind, it picks up slight small details. Each actor is standing in their unit with an American flag on one side, and the image of a cop ready to shoot on the other. They are between responsibility and stereotype. This moment feels pure and removed from the over stimulation of the rest of the play.

As the lights rise to a warm glow, the cast begins to sing. The sound is distorted to sound like many more than four people are joining their voices together for this moment. It is a moment of purity and togetherness like in Young Jean Lee’s use of song in The Shipment. It takes us back to basic goals of unity, and communication. The New York Police see enough trausma that they need to form their own family with eachother. Once the song reaches its peaks, and the lights have entirely filled the stage, it drops to black. Everything is silence and we are left with the presence of this overwhelming force of people.

And when the lights raise again they are different than they have been during any other point of the performance. They are cold and white like the light of the early afternoon, and are accompanied with nature sounds. The scrolling city projection is back, and I believe is very effective in this moment. It is understood that there are peaceful moments in these mens lives, and moments of calm. This is a nice shift, and really appreciated. It is effectively using all of the tech work that they have layered in before, but this times the pieces match up. During this section one of the officers steps out of his cubicle, removes his hat, and on the projection begins to hang a memorial to fallen officers. Each token is held and used with such specificity that it is something of value. Each cross, photograph, and flower has meaning. They are honoring people lost, and without saying anything that is able to be interpreted.

While this is happening, Ronny exits his cubicle and he shares his thoughts at the end of the day. It takes the entire 70 minute performance for the audience to really enter the tragedy of being in these officer’s lives. With Ronny, and the memorial being built we see the space between their jobs and who they are. It is really eery as Ronny shares in a monotonous voice how he sees people differently, and has moments where he can’t find control.

Overall, I didn’t really find this performance satisfying. I couldn’t jump into it, and I feel as if I have only gained some small insights to the lives of the NYPD. It could be that the material is too removed from my own life, or that I have issues with the heavy reliance on projections. I enjoy more physical work in the acting, and if Temporary Distortions mission is to create “physically limited” pieces, than I don’t see myself jumping on ship with them any time soon. But that is just my own bias coming into this.

Check it out for yourself at http://www.ontheboards.tv/performance/theater/newyorkland

Gloria’s Cause: Critical Response

Gloria’s Cause is a new dance based, rock musical performance created by Dave Prosica and Peggy Piacenza and choreographed by Dayna Hanson. Hanson was a founding member of the acclaimed Seattle based dance theatre group 33 Fainting Spells. This production was developed in residence at On The Boards and originally performed in Portland as a work-in-progress and then at the PuSH Festival in Vancouver in January 2011.


The show combines live music, song, modern dance, and projection art to tell some of the less well known moments of the Revolutionary War. The cast is made up of very talented actors, singers and dancers. The company includes Jim Kent, Jessie Smith, Wade Madsen, Paul Matthew Moore, Maggie Brown, Pol Rosenthal.


I watched the production that is available on OnTheBoards.TV. It is definitely one of the most unique performances I have seen in the last few years. The production made some poignant points about our country, including the control the media has on America today; the ever present issues of treatment of minorities in the country; poverty in America; and the general corruption found in every level of our government. 


There were a number of eccentric and outspokenly odd moments. The opening scene of the play includes two women performing an extensive modern dance routine around the purple carpeted stage. While they danced a black actor sat at a microphone telling the audience about his life as a black man in America. In the middle of the stage an older white actor turned in place eating a piece of pie. This was probably one of the more tame moments in the performance.


Throughout the course of  the play a woman (Peggy Piacenza) dances on stage in a full bald eagle costume and high heels to unusual hip-hop music.

The most exciting scenes in the production were the group numbers. There were a number of  moments when the entire company was on stage dancing to the music produced by the live band. Even if I did not understand what the scene was about, I was fully engaged and entertained with the ability of the dancers. 


Hanson made a great use of the space throughout the entire show. The stage was very deep and the performers filled all of it through their dancing and blocking. One of the more interesting aspects of the set were a few small round platforms. The small platforms were covered in the same carpet as the rest of the stage, and could be pushed around by the actors. At one point one actor was performing a monologue while her fellow actor pushed her across the stage on one of the platforms. As he pushed her across the stage through a narrow beam of light, the light would disappear as they passed it, leaving her under one circular beam of light in the final moments of her monologue. Other than that particular moment I found the lights to be unimpressive and unflattering for the performers. I understand conceptually why they kept the lights so sparse, but I found the it hard to watch in some moments. It left the stage and the actors looking bare and sometime very boring. 


The most impressive presence onstage was the dancer/actor/musician, Jessie Smith. Smith was onstage often and alternated between dancing and playing the guitar. She was mesmerizing to watch. A large portion of her body is covered in tattoos. Often in this business, noticeable tattoos like that will make you less desirable as a performer. Somehow Smith’s tattoos made her more entrancing. She never spoke, but in many ways she was the loudest presence onstage. She has meticulous control over her body, and is clearly a talented musician as well. Watching talent like that perform is invigorating, and made the rest of the performance worth watching.


I’m not sure it can be called a play because the elements of music and dance were so strong, but it certainly was theatrical. There were elements of a linear story, but most of the scenes were very obtuse, and I got the feeling the audience was not supposed to fully understand what was going on. I respect that some moments perhaps take more inquiry and personal research to understand, but I felt like there were enough of those moments that it made the entire piece rather hard to connect with. Thankfully, OnTheBoards.TV provides some helpful dramaturgical information about the piece that can be found on the page with the video. Without this information I am not sure I would have been able to understand ninety percent of what I was watching.


I fully believe in taking old stories and finding a new way to tell them, or a new way to teach a message. But, I don’t believe this production was successful in many ways. There were certainly honest moments when the truths of the production were revealed briefly, and the company was made up of incredibly talented artists, but I am not sure that is enough.


However, I think the value of this production lies in its faults. American theatre needs people who push the boundaries, make weird work, and are willing to fail. We need talented artists who are willing to push themselves and make incredibly “out there” work so that our art form will stay alive, organic, and relevant.

The Ger$hwin Estate

Earlier in the year we talked about the Production of “Gershwin’s” Porgy and Bess on Broadway.  Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and jazz composer Diedre L. Murray, the production was chopped down to 2 1/2 hours, and featured many changes including a happy ending.  There was widespread controversy over the new version; Stephen Sondheim, wrote a scathing letter to The New York Times before the show opened for its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston.  In class we talked about the adaptation and issues we took with it- my main issue being the title (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, not “an adaptation” or “a new spin on the classic”).  I think the implications of the billed title were misleading.

What I didn’t realize then is that there are two shows on Broadway generated by the Gershwin Estate: Porgy and Bess and Nice Work If You Can Get It, which is sort of a “Gershwin Comedy Fest” featuring lots and lots of Gershwin’s songs.   I read an article on NPR entitled Managing The Gershwins’ Lucrative Musical Legacy, which detailed what a lucrative business managing the Gershwin Estate has turned out to be.  A multi-million-dollar-a-year business.

My immediate response is distrust and sort of a grossed-out feeling.  It just seems like these people are pimping out grandpa’s great works to keep the cash coming.  But I realize there could be several schools of thought on this situation. As Ira Gershwin’s nephew describes it, “It’s our job to search out and find uses for this treasure-trove of music, and both the George Gershwin family and the Ira Gershwin family take this responsibility very seriously.”

I understand both sides of this issue- on one hand, the Gershwins are in charge of sharing this great body of work with the world, and they were directly handed this responsibility by Ira Gershwin.  I tried thinking of it like any other inheritance.  They inherited Gershwin’s Estate like someone might inherit a china cabinet, and it’s within their right to decide which room to display that china cabinet in.

However, it seems to me that what the Gershwins are doing is something more like chopping up the Ira Gershwin china cabinet and selling the parts because it’s more lucrative than leaving it intact.

Sojourn Theatre’s The Race at Georgetown University

I’ve been trying to be more in touch with political goings on lately.  In high school and freshman year of college I was good at keeping up to date but it is one of many many things that has fallen by the wayside due the time commitments of this program.  As I get ready to graduate though I’ve been trying to start to follow things again, as I want that to be a part of my life beyond school and there is such an important election approaching.  The idea of examining political process through theatre also really interests me.  If I could be Jon Stewart as a career I would in a heartbeat, I think his work and stuff like Weekend Update on SNL is brilliant.  The reason it’s so effective is because of how up to date and relevant to the moment it is, a relevance that I think is often lacking clarity in theatre.  That’s why I think there’s tremendous potential in political commentary in theatre, and a chance to open up a fresh vein of dialogue regarding the political process.  Portlands’ Sojourn Theatre is doing exactly that.  Artistic Director Michael Rohd, who I have blogged about in the past, spent a semester teaching theatre at Georgetown University.  There he and his class, as well as members of the Sojourns’ ensemble, conceived a piece called The Race.  In it, actors field spontaneous questions from the audience as if they were contemporary politicians, all the questions strained out of the real political proceedings.  Questions also come in from all around the world via social media, so as if it was a real political event the goings on can be followed and responded to live.  Even more exciting is the “karaoke” played with political speeches.  Audience members are brought up onstage and can through a vast collection of speeches, everyone from Obama to W to Palin, that they then read off a teleprompter.  It differs from the likes of Stewart, Colbert, and SNL in an essential way:

It’s designed to inflame one’s desire to improve the political process rather than provoke a laugh at its expense.

And I think this is where the potential lies in politically driven theatre.  That it can be fuel for change, not just a place to let out frustration at the ineptitude of the process.  And I believe the creation of more of this kind of work can have a reciprocal effect on theatre; that the relevance would bring freshness to the field, the form would be immersive and participatory, and the subject matter would attract new audiences, politically minded folks looking for a forum for their ideas.