Thurgood? Thoroughly Great

In Los Angeles Theatre on August 7, 2010 at 7:34 pm

We arrived at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angles only to find ourselves entering the auditorium of Howard University Law School in Washington DC. Applause erupted as our eminent lecturer appeared on stage, his arthritic shuffle unable to disguise the vitality of his spirit. His voice, though croaking with age, resounded with authority and commanded full attention. This is a man who, with his passion for justice, held our country accountable to its Constitutional foundation of equal rights. Wielding the law as his weapon, (as he would proudly proclaim throughout his story), he not only helped dissolve segregation in our country, but became an emblem of progress as the first African American Supreme Court Justice.

Both an educational history lesson and a compelling personal narrative, Thurgood recounts the life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  This one-man show, written by Emmy Award winning George Stevens Jr, is like a performed memoir, bringing Justice Marshall back to life to speak about his experiences and his crusade for justice. The play’s personable discourse rid it of any resemblance to a droning high school history class (we’ve all been there), and I found myself captivated by the story. Laurence Fishburne all but reincarnated Justice Marshall on stage, speaking about his life with such insight, wisdom, and poignancy that he seemed to be channeling Thurgood’s spirit directly. Depicting Thurgood from young adulthood through his final years, Fishburne delivered an impressive range of physicality and vocal inflection. As the solo performer, he remained fully committed to each moment—his energy never faltered throughout the entire 90-minute performance, and neither did my interest.

Besides Fishburne’s brilliant performance, Leonard Foglia’s directorial choices prevented the play from becoming stale or stagnant (a universal challenge in theatre that is magnified with only a single performer). He utilized the space by setting various vignettes in different areas of the stage, which added visual interest and helped Fishburn’s performance remain fresh.

The set itself was simple yet effective—a stately, mahogany table surrounded by a few chairs, a podium centered behind the table, and a white, stucco American flag backdrop onto which images were projected. The lighting and sound design enhanced the show further by bringing elements of Fishburn’s monologues to life, embellishing his stories with fitting sound effects and establishing different moods with the lighting. Every aspect of this show contributed to the play’s success, coming together in a harmonious balance of education and entertainment.

Thurgood was indeed thoroughly great.

Thurgood is running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles until August 8.

In The Heights- A Surprising Low

In Los Angeles Theatre on July 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm

I’ve talked before about over-hype and the detriment that it can do to shows—how the build up of excitement and expectation can delude audience members. I’ve talked before about my distaste for musicals with no substance beyond a tireless succession of song and dance routines. But I’ve also talked before about a rare breed of shows that have surmounted these difficulties, proving me wrong in my assumptions.

Unfortunately, In the Heights was not one to defy the odds. Both victim to over-hype and perpetrator of an excessive song repertoire, this musical dealt up a double dose of disappointment.

Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights provides a slice-of-life look into the culture and daily struggles of Washington Heights (aka “the barrio”) in Upper Manhattan.  Aside from the lively atmosphere that director Thomas Kail creates, offsetting the community’s hardships with a festive ambience of salsa and hip-hop music, the rest of the show induces restless seat-shifting and watch-checking. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book features every plotline cliché known to man, depleting the show of any mystery as to how the story will unfold. You’ve seen it all before: the first generation college student, the pioneer of higher education for the barrio who—uh oh!—loses her scholarship; the forbidden love between the lowly car service employee and  said higher-education-pioneer; the woman whose dreams have outgrown the Heights but whose alcoholic mother drinks their money away; the grandmother who longs to move her family back to the homeland…not to mention the overworked themes of the immigrant’s struggle in America, the hard knock life of New York, and the significance of family and community. Yawn.

To Miranda’s credit, integrating the hip-hop street vibe into musical theatre was a new, refreshing take on the genre. His talent for writing music is undeniable, and I was blown away by how he rapped his way through the show with flawless rhyme and rhythm.  He imbued some of the lyrics with a clever sense of humor that cracked a smile out of even my own unamused scowl. It was definitely not the typical cringe-worthy, jazz hands kind of show. Yet with its relentless series of songs and its banal plot line, it had every other characteristic that fuels my musical theatre prejudice. The characters never fully flourished for me (perhaps because they were preoccupied with singing about the same set of problems over and over), and those problems were trivialized by the fact that I had seen them played out already in countless other works. Off the top of my head, I can recall that Rent has the whole struggling-in-New-York thing covered (though I don’t like that show much either), while West Side Story tackles the immigrant and forbidden love themes quite nicely. And it’s not that I’m insensitive to economic hardships or the struggle to succeed or carving one’s own path in society. In some form or another, these are issues that anyone can relate to. But the uninspired storyline made these topics seem trite, and the unwarranted overload of songs made the show drag all the way to its predictable conclusion.

But why all the hype? Why the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical? What am I missing here that hoards of adoring audiences all see?

Perhaps I just don’t have the mind for musical theatre. Perhaps my straight-theatre-biased brain can’t detect the subtle complexities hidden within the lyrics and choreography. Or perhaps I just expect too much of a genre where simplified, recycled storylines  guarantee Broadway blockbusters.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

In Los Angeles Theatre on July 10, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I first encountered the twisted genius of Martin McDonagh on a bus in Ireland. I was doing a month-long theatre intensive in Dublin, training during the week and traveling on the weekends. This particular excursion brought us to the majestic Aran Islands, an appropriate destination for one discovering McDonagh.

One of my friends in the program had just finished The Pillowman, and she declared that everybody here MUST read this play. “It’s the best play I’ve ever read. It will change your life,” she proselytized. And so began the passing of The Pillowman, and with it a steady conversion to this newly established church of McDonagh. As each person delved into the dark, disturbing, yet strangely comedic dialogue, they experienced a new level of theatrical enlightenment.

What strikes me about McDonagh’s work is how he pushes the boundaries of dark comedy, so far as to make me question my morality. He takes the most abhorrent, most repulsive, most unthinkable concepts—seemingly dredged from the darkest recesses of a psychopathic mind—and makes them into not only hilarious plotlines, but…dare I say… endearing characters. I’m disturbed to confess that I have felt sympathy for a child murderer, that I’ve rooted for a vengeful recluse who goes chopping off hands, and that I’ve laughed at dead cats. I mean, you have to understand—I love kids. More importantly, I love cats. My feline companion is purring away in my lap as I write this, and with each little rumble of his contentment I feel a twinge of guilt.  But such is the brilliance of Martin McDonagh. Like it or not, he challenges you as an audience member, and dares you to engage with a dark, albeit loathesome, side of humor.

In the case of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, McDonagh combines hyperbolical acts of violence with a candid Irish attitude, resulting in a ludicrously hilarious brainchild.

But the writing is only the skeleton of a play, and I have to say the production value of this show made for one beefy human being. From set designer Laura Fine Hawkes’ ode to the rocky landscape of the Aran Islands to the hyperrealism of the props and special effects, I found myself immersed in McDonagh’s twisted world. Everything from the projectile blood spattering to the prosthetic severed body parts was wonderfully over-the-top and ridiculous. However, amidst the all craziness of McDonagh plays, there needs to be a sense of groundedness, and I look to the actors to provide that. In past McDonagh works I’ve seen, I’ve noticed that actors can sometimes get caught up in the outrageous energy and lose touch with the honesty of their characters’ emotions. Exaggerated performances only weaken the comedic impact of McDonagh’s writing, which is quite absurd to begin with. I feel that the more sincerely invested an actor is in the moment—the more real the situation, no matter how ridiculous, is to his character—the more the audience can suspend disbelief and the more the comedy can flourish.  An exaggerated, “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS CRAZY THING HAPPENED! LOOK HOW WIDE MY EYES ARE!” performance is didactic and quite honestly insulting. I can recognize that the situation is funny without the actors shoving it down my throat.

But I’m relieved to say that there wasn’t too much overplaying in this production, and that the actors (if not 100% of the time) played the truth in their characters’ moments instead of milking the comedy. Chris Pine particularly surprised me as Padriac, a ruthless brute with a fervent passion for cats. His unfaltering Irish brogue and his sincere investment in the ludicrous character were highly impressive.  Zoe Perry was also memorable as the rebel-wannabe tomboy Mairead, and her coolly assertive confidence provided a refreshing contrast to the otherwise frenetic energy of the play.  Coby Getzug (Davey), a recent graduate from LACHSA, also delivered a fine performance. Though sometimes it seemed like he was more focused on clear line delivery than emotional investment, making his performance overly emphatic at times, he began to grow on me as the play progressed.  There was no question of character commitment on Getzug’s part and he threw himself into the role full throttle, so even his more exaggerated emotional choices proved to work for the character. The rest of the cast, including Irishman Seán G. Griffin as the hilarious drunk Donny, as well as Andrew Connolly, Ian Alda, Kevin Kearns, and Brett Ryback, all performed their parts with zealous energy and dedication. Everyone seemed to be having a great time on stage, and that enjoyment penetrated the audience.

Director Wilson Milam’s subtle comedic touches, such as the decision to make Davey’s beloved bicycle pink, further enhanced the production, as did the all out gore-fest. Let it be said that those with aversions to blood (and graphic violence and animal cruelty) would not enjoy this production. I admit I did have to shield my eyes at one point, and when I looked again I saw a horrified older woman waddling out of the theatre as fast as her arthritic knees could carry her.

This is not a typical nice-evening-at-the-theatre play. But it’s McDonagh, and it’s feckin’ awesome, loveen.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is running at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles until August 8. 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90012