Shaina

Archive for 2010|Yearly archive page

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.

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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 http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=6885

Love, Loss, and What I Wore: Going Beyond the Frivolity of Fashion

In Los Angeles Theatre on June 18, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Nora and Delia Ephron’s newest play Love, Loss, and What I Wore has been on my theatrical wish list since it opened in New York last November. The wit of the Ephron sisters plus the topic of clothing is a no-fail equation in my mind, not to mention the rotating, five-woman cast of renowned talent. But as it so often happens, time escaped me and I never got a chance to see it before heading home to LA for the summer.

Yet all hope was not lost.

By the work of some divine coincidence, my mom sent me an email asking me if I wanted to see a show that had piqued her interest.  Lo and behold, Love, Loss and What I Wore had followed me home, setting up shop at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I responded with a paragraph of exclamation points.

About a month later with tickets in hand, we entered the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, a quaint refuge within the larger playhouse. Our back row seats were only twenty-five feet from the stage, providing a sense of intimacy with the actors that was enhanced by the modest set—five chairs, five music stands, and a clothing rack of foam-board posters toting sketches of various outfits. With this reading-style staging, the actors were freed from constant character commitment, which allowed them to establish a playful relationship with the audience and create a more direct, personal connection.

Based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, the play reflects on the relationship between women’s life experiences and the wardrobe that saw them through. The show is comprised of a series of monologues and group sequences that personify the female clothing experience—from that favorite childhood dress to the love/hate relationship with heels (oh, what women will suffer for killer legs).  The stories capture that mystical ability for clothing to preserve memories and emotions, like time capsules of defining moments in our lives.  Though every woman endures different experiences, we all have our personal, symbolic pieces of clothing. Throughout the monologues, remarks of shared experience peppered the audience.  Reminiscent sighs, groans of re-lived horror, and guilty chuckles over fashion crimes committed evidenced a collective understanding. It felt like every woman in that theatre had some secret, intrinsic connection rooted in the female experience.

The vibrant cast included Rhea Pearlman and her daughter Lucy DeVito (both of whom performed in the Off-Broadway version), as well as Nancy Travis, Conchata Ferrell, and Justina Machado.  They sat in chairs with their scripts on music stands, dynamically diving in and out of characters as needed.  Though some deliveries seemed a bit over-the-top, as though trying to compensate for the simplistic staging, I appreciated their commitment to bringing the moment to life.  Unexpected laughs, goofs, and gaffes were all part of the fun, which suited the attitude of the play; it felt more like a girls’ get-together than a formal “thee-eh-tuh” performance. But despite the relaxed atmosphere, the actors maintained a level of professionalism that elevated it from an amateur reading to legitimate theatre.  The cast was always engaged with what was happening on stage, and they listened to each other’s monologues with a genuine presence. The show was a perfect combination of casual comfort and sophisticated elegance.

Leaving the theatre, my mom and I began reflecting on the pieces that roadmap our own lives. I will never give up the raincoat that my grandmother bought for me: unabashedly synthetic fabric collaged with black-and-white photos of Golden Age movie stars. To me, it was the epitome of glamour (and still is). Though squeezing into it now would obliterate my circulation, it holds a permanent place in my wardrobe. It embodies the memory of my grandmother—afternoons at Bullock’s, the cloying sweetness of See’s lollipops, the overflowing love of an extraordinary survivor and my guardian angel.  As I cue the Kleenex I’m laughing to myself a bit. Who knew a play about something as superficial as clothing could end up being so profound?

Love, Loss, and What I Wore is running at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse until August 1.  The current cast performs until July 3.  For tickets call 310-208-5454

A New View on Musicals: The Lincoln Center’s South Pacific

In Los Angeles Theatre on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I am always a bit wary of going to see musicals.  Don’t get me wrong, I have full respect for the genre and I love me some Sondheim, but scarring musical experience has lead me to uphold certain prejudices.  Hokey smiles and random-acts-of-song just don’t do it for me.

However, the Los Angeles tour of the Lincoln Center’s South Pacific disproved me in these notions.  It was a high-energy blitz of spectacle backed by triple-threat talent and excellent comedic timing. The musical itself is a masterpiece with gorgeous music and great characters, but a great performance with well-rounded talent can never be guaranteed. In past musicals I have seen, I have often found that at least one of the three components—singing, dancing, and acting—suffers at the expense of the others.  I have seen many a show with, say, spectacular singing and dancing but migraine inducing acting.  But the performers in South Pacific excelled in all three areas, humbling my stereotypical preconceptions.

What particularly surprised me was the strength of the comedic timing.  I hold comedy very near to my heart and have no tolerance for those who desecrate it with bad timing.  Comedy is a delicate and precise art form, and as little as one half-second can determine whether the joke works or not. However, director Bartlett Sher ensured that the whole cast was on point. Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush was a natural comedienne with her sense of timing, working her moments to their full draw before releasing a bull’s-eye punch line.  Rod Gilfry also impressed as Emile de Becque, his world-class baritone vibrato (an invigorating massage for my ear drums) backed by strong character intention. A particular favorite of mine was Keala Settle as the hilarious Bloody Mary. Her character work was brilliant, from her hefty waddle to her English-distorting accent, and her deep, rich voice was a pleasure to listen to.

The ensemble delivered a vivacious performance as the sailors flipped and flew across the stage, testosterone pumping. Matthew Saldivar’s Luther Billis, the impulsive entrepreneur of the fleet, was heartwarming in his ridiculous antics, and his sincerity permeated his tough Brooklyn accent.

Aside from some distracting lighting choices, I have very few complaints about the production.  Michael Yeargan’s set was marvelous, with set pieces flying in and out of scenes in a seamless, choreographed dance. Catherine Zuber’s costumes were vibrantly colored and enhanced the personalities of the characters.  Overall, the show greatly exceeded my expectations and set a high bar for musicals I see in the future.

South Pacific is running at the Ahamanson Theatre in Los Angeles until July 17.

Soulpepper’s Glengarry Glen Ross

In Toronto Theatre on June 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

You know you’re about to enter the world of David Mamet when a sign reading “Warning: Very Coarse Language” cautions your entrance.

On a trip to Toronto to visit a fellow theatre-loving friend, we satisfied our theatrical craving with Soulpepper’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross, about the challenges and corruption in the real estate business. Though set in the 1980’s, the play still resonates with today’s tough economic times, as the salesman try to close deals on useless real estate at ridiculous prices.  At stake are two mens’ jobs.  The company’s bosses have devised a contest to reward the man with the most sales a Cadillac, and the two men with the least a pink slip.

Our modesty undeterred by the warning sign, we entered the theatre to find a typical Chinese restaurant on stage, adorned with the obligatory red lanterns hanging above two symmetrical red-leather booths.  Two giant chalkboard flats served as the backdrop, soliciting the restaurant’s offerings with the accompanying prices. As the lights went down, various spotlights highlighted the menu items in random order, enticing the audience like a delicious sales pitch.

Act I started off at a clipping pace, with desperate, older salesman Shelley Levene (played by sprightly veteran actor Eric Peterson) begging his supervisor John Williamson (Jordan Pettle) for a one-up in the sales leads. Peterson’s cunning yet adamant portrayal of Levene made his character pitiable, as his desperation strangely justified his immoral tactics in attempting to get ahead.  Pettle imbued Williamson, a rule-abiding authority figure, with a dichotomy of strictness and sympathy.  I could sense his subtle undertones of compassion for Levene, which softened the rigidity of his words and gave depth to his character.

In Scene II, realtor Moss (Peter Donaldson) pitched his office robbery scheme to co-worker Aaronow (William Webster) at a logic trumping pace that only expert salesman are capable of.  He just about convinced me to jump on board with his nasty plans. Even Ricky Roma’s (Alber Shultz) tipsy monologue in Scene III kept up the mind-blowing momentum as he wooed potential buyer James Lingk (Kevin Bundy) with his rapid-fire, auctioneer-like speech and smarmy swagger.

By intermission, which came as a shock to everyone, (“Where did the time go?!”) it occurred to me that this was the first time I had seen Mamet’s choppy, conversational language fully realized.

In many of his plays, Mamet’s dialogue captures the nature of human conversation, with characters interrupting and speaking over each other.  In the two other Mamet productions I have seen, the Pullman-Styles rendition of Oleanna in LA and the star-studded Broadway show Race, the rugged dialogue seemed forced at times. Some of the actors seemed like they did not know how to handle the language, and they stunted their interruptions with pauses that made the next lines awkward and unmotivated. However, the entire cast of Glengarry Glen Ross mastered Mamet’s naturalistic style of conversation. Their words scaffolded on top of each other in a nonstop whirlwind of dialogue, fully engaging the audience by the challenging us to keep up.

After the show, my companion and I left the theatre beaming, our brains pleasantly rattled with a hefty dose of very coarse language.  She said it was the best Toronto play she had seen in years.  I said it was the best Mamet show I had seen anywhere.

Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play

In Brooklyn Theatre on May 13, 2010 at 6:28 pm

“Mmm, pungent,” muttered my companion as we stepped into the vast space of the Irondale Center. Indeed, as I inhaled the acrid smell of decaying fish smote my nostrils, and the particularly confusing phrase in the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s blurb about their Passion Play—“lots of fish”—was now clarified.

Word surrounding Sarah Ruhl’s latest creation has been building for months, and I have been anticipating the opening since attending a preview-reading in March.  The venue, befittingly in the Lafayette Ave Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was minimally dressed with rustic, nondescript set pieces. Three flags hung from the balconies, representing the three-era, three-country setting of the play.  As we settled into our seats, my nose (and stomach) began to acclimate to the aroma, though it unfortunately got the better of one sensitive audience member.

The three-and-a-half hour production was a thought-provoking delight, delivering a comedy-infused reflection on the relationship between performance, politics, and religion.  Not only did it showcase Ruhl’s wit and creativity, but also her cultural and historical awareness.  Each act took place in a distinct era and chronicled the production process of a Passion Play, starting in Elizabethan England for Act I, traveling to Nazi Germany for Act II, and finishing in the Vietnam War / Reagan-era United States in Act III.  Though each act stood on its own as a riveting mini-play, the combination of the three produced a masterfully woven web of themes and character relationships.  In each act, the actors would maintain their essential roles in the Passion, but their characters’ personalities would change.  The various incarnations of these characters created a fascinating tension within the play, and played with the boundary between performance and reality. For example, Hale Appleman, the actor playing Jesus in each era, transformed from a virtuous, shy man who basically emulated Christ in Act I, to a Nazi soldier in Act II, to a sleazy, pot-smoking scoundrel in Act III.  The overlapping qualities of virtue and sin were evident in almost all the characters and the roles that they played, painting an existential picture of human complexity.

One of the most entertaining character parallels were the “political figures,” rendered through T. Ryder Smith’s humorous caricatures of Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and Reagan. Each of these figures used (or banned) the Passion production to benefit their respective political agendas in the play, a testament to the power that theatre possesses.

Director Mark Wing-Davey, currently the chair of NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, enhanced the play’s dimension with dynamic staging, and effectively balanced the heavier, more serious moments with comedic mock-melodrama in the various Passions.  The actors all performed with commitment and vitality, delivering a range of compelling and amusing performances.  Most notable were Kate Turnbull as the morally conflicted Virgin Mary and Dominic Fumusa as the internally tormented Pontias Pilate, who imbued their characters with passion and depth.  David Weiner’s lighting was both playful and powerful, and brought a sense of focus to the expansive horizontal space. Allen Moyer’s deceptively simple set allowed for versatile and innovative staging, with rolling shed-like structures serving as anything from a simple house entrance to a dream-like conveyer of the symbolic Village Idiot.

The Epic Theatre Ensemble lives up to its name with this production of Passion Play, and the show exemplifies Sarah Ruhl’s magnificent talent.  Though quite long, the pacing of the dialogue and scene shifts makes it seem timeless.  It is a complete sensory experience, from the smell of fish to the sight and sounds of the production to the communion-like bread and wine at the intermissions.  The show is even touching (emotionally at least).  It is definitely worth investing an evening in.

Passion Play runs until May 30th and is playing at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (45 South Oxford Street).  Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets or visit www.epictheatreensemble.org

The Wonders of Taylor Mac

In Tisch Theatre on April 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Mention the name Taylor Mac and I’m there.  After experiencing his five-hour extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge this fall, I have developed a minor (healthy) obsession with the creative genius.  The Lily’s Revenge epitomized innovation at its best—it defied theatrical convention with its playful, rebellious attitude (with intermission activities including disco dancing in the dressing room—traditionally forbidden territory for audience members), while still maintaining a meaningful sense of purpose.  Though the show reveled in outrageous frivolity, its core message of universal love and acceptance remained palpable, even poignant.  Mac’s theatre may be bizarre, but the intention and significance behind his work makes it brilliantly innovative—not just shock value “experimental theatre.”

So the moment I heard that Mac and his team of masterminds were developing a play at my studio, Tisch’s Experimental Theatre Wing, I was immediately psyched.  This new piece, titled Walk Across America for Mother Earth, chronicles the group of hippie activists and societal misfits (along with Mac himself) who trekked across the country in 1992, protesting the government’s unjust seizure of Shoshone territory to convert it into the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.  The workshop performed at ETW was a mockup of sketches, ideas, and songs for the official opening at La Mama next year, in collaboration with The Talking Band.

In the distinct, Taylor Mac vernacular of crafty, home-made props and unabashed camp, Walk delivered the perfect proportions of outrageous entertainment and social activism.  Director Paul Zimet of The Talking Band and composer Ellen Maddow completed the trinity of creative brilliance, using mainly sound and movement to vivify the Walk before our eyes—with no dirty detail disregarded.  From an unfortunate outbreak of crabs to a community infliction with dysentery (artfully recreated with an ensemble beat box of noises that accompany such digestive woe), the audience saw the full scope of the journey.  One memorable sequence depicted that odd menstrual phenomenon that occurs when women have spent an extended period of time together (apologies for the pun).  While all walking in place, one woman began enacting the various emotional, physical, and hormonal stages of that time of the month—from a brief crying fit to uncontrollable horniness.  More women joined in after each “cycle” of choreography until finally all the female members of the community were uterinely synchronized.

Though I usually prefer not to see the body’s less attractive functions manifested on stage, Zimet and Mac approached them in such a creative way that it detracted from the gross factor (if only a little).  Their expressionistic use of sound and movement made it elevated potty humor, not just a cheap fart joke.

What I love about Taylor Mac is that he fully acknowledges, and even flaunts the fact that his over-the-top theatre is a decidedly acquired taste—a conservative, highly Christian theatrical traditionalist, for instance, would probably cry blasphemy upon seeing his work and then slip into a glitter-induced coma.  But from what I have seen, this is what his work is about—redrawing the boundaries of theatre with outrageous innovation and wit, all the while conveying a significant message.

Walk was no different, as Mac’s promotion for social justice and community shone clearly through the glitz and gaiety. Though at times the play’s activist message can take form in a ranting monologue, like an explosion of long-pent-up opinions that spew into the audience, the way Mac articulates his ideas makes a profound impact.  Such moments often arise in rare times of stillness in the play, where one can just listen to the actor speak Mac’s compelling words.  The final monologue of the play is especially effective, and I don’t feel like I would be spoiling anything by talking about it seeing as the Nevada Nuclear Test Site is still active.  It was a “me against the bullies” type speech, both representing the walk’s participants in their personal lives as well as an implicit governmental reference.  I know that verbal attacks on the government can easily induce eye rolling and cuticle examining—I have brushed off many an activist tirade myself.  But Mac’s work is different.  He has artfully mastered the balance between frivolity and gravity, steering clear of didacticism as his passionate speeches, whether sarcastic or earnest, deliver a grounding contrast to the play’s overall bizarreness.  The effect is absolutely inspiring, and I have not yet left a Taylor Mac piece feeling as though I have just been bludgeoned with liberal idealism.  In fact, I usually leave in the best mood I have had in weeks.

Walk Across America for Mother Earth is another beautiful example of Taylor Mac’s genius, and I cannot wait to see the fully developed production.

Room for Cream: The Live Lesbian Soap Opera

In Downtown NYC Theatre on April 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm

After a thwarted attempt over a month ago to snag a precious ticket to Room for Cream, the live lesbian soap opera with a near-cult following, we made sure to reserve our seats well ahead of time for this month’s installment.  The brainchild of the Two-Headed Calf’s Dyke Division, Room for Cream is in its third season at the downtown experimental theatre establishment La Mama. Every season is comprised of a series of monthly episodes, keeping the show’s devotees in prolonged, torturous suspense.

Walking in as a newbie in the middle of season three, I had to brush up on the show’s history.  I turned to the Room for Cream website and got a crash course on all the scandal, the sex, and the…vampires? Alrighty!

Climbing the steep, narrow stairway to the third floor theatre, we arrived at a room with a cabaret-style set-up.  Round café tables were scattered about with a stage at the far end of the room, a white sheet serving as a primitive curtain.  We had our sights set on a particularly inviting table, but as began to sit down we were told that it was actually part of the set.  Woops.  We quickly spotted a fine replacement, scoring a front-row place near the edge of the room.  We sat down, absolutely giddy with excitement.  As we scoped our surroundings, we spied an open bar near the entrance (NICE!), and my friend purchased refreshments while I guarded the roost, the sold out space filling up quickly.

To be quite frank I had no idea what to expect, but I was ready for anything.  And the show was apparently ready for a novice like me too, pulling out all the stops after the prologue with three ripe-aged characters in full frontal, unabashed nudity.  I quickly got an idea of what I was in for.

The premise of this episode was that Sappho, the town where this homoerotic soap is cleverly set, needed a new mayor (the former one having been beheaded).  The three candidates were to give their speeches at a town meeting in Room for Cream, the local coffee shop.  The episode unfolded in a fabulously dramatic manner, spliced with flashbacks that clarified certain awkward or sexually tense moments.  For example, if there was a particularly mysterious interaction between two characters on stage, the narrator would pause the episode and declare a precursory “But before this all happened…”, building tantalizing suspense as the lights changed.  The characters would then reenact the gasp-inducing moment at the source of their current situation.

As far as fine theatre goes, I do not see this show winning momentous awards any time soon. However, it was a refreshing reminder of an often-sacrificed concept in theatre: play.  The performers were clearly having a fabulous time, and their pure joy permeated the audience; we were right there with them, through the flubbed lines and technical glitches, gasping at shocking moments, cheering at exciting ones. The best part of it was that we got to play with them, even casting our votes for the next mayor.

I have to say, the show’s cheesiness was geniusly crafted.  I feel that in order for a corny melodrama to really work, there has to be talent at the root of it—you have to actually be “good” to successfully play “bad.”  And this worked.  Not only did it poke fun at daytime drama, but it also satirized relevant social and political issues, especially surrounding the gay community.  It even spoofed the current eco-craze, as the local sex shop Progressive Pussies received New York Times-level recognition after “going green.” And though I am usually not amused by vulgar humor, which all-too-frequently serves no purpose other than shock value, I found that this show was clever in its obscenity. The narrator would dictate the steamy, graphic sex scenes, his words reminiscent of a deliciously trashy romance novel, which was just indulgent enough for a live audience. The actors would remain standing, acting out their sexual ecstasy without enacting the narrator’s words, leaving just enough for the imagination. It was smart, raunchy comedy.  And it was fantastic.

Room for Cream was definitely worth the month-long wait, my only complaint being that I can’t catch the past seasons on hulu.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself buying a season pass for next year–as with any good soap opera, I’m one episode in and I’m hooked.

Toshiki Okada’s Enjoy

In Off Broadway Theatre on April 4, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I love Japan.  Ever since my trip to Tokyo in spring of 2007, I have been enthralled by the culture, the language, the food–everything.  So hearing about Toshiki Okada’s new play Enjoy got me really excited.

Okada is a Japanese playwright and a representative of the “Japanese lost generation…of 25-35 year olds,” as stated in the program.  I remember first hearing about him during January’ s Hot Ink Festival–an annual play reading extravaganza that celebrates international playwrights–and I was intrigued by the comments I heard about his unique writing style.  His plays are translated from Japanese slang into English, making for a fascinating cultural crossover.  Needless to say, I was pretty pumped to see this show.

Enjoy takes place in a manga cafe in Tokyo, a uniquely Japanese recreation facility with food, showers, karaoke, comic books, and even napping services.  The atmosphere of the theatre transported me instantly back to Tokyo, with hip, electronic music blasting, and the set’s powder pink floor tiles radiating under the fluorescent lights.  Even the programs kept with the theme, designed like menus that numbered the actors like fast food items.

Once the play started I began to understand the comments and critiques I had heard about Okada’s writing technique.  The play is heavily dialogue based, and the words themselves are colloquial and are delivered in a stream-of-consciousness manner.  The actors stop mid-sentence, talk over themselves, and jump around to different parts of their story, just like conversation in real life.  At first the show may have been hard to follow, but I really appreciated how Okada captured the vernacular of 21st Century language.  Listen in on any conversation in the subway station–maybe a girl telling her friend about last night’s date–and her speech will be riddled with idiomatic “likes” and “ums” and “wait, no but FIRST’s”.  It was like watching my everyday conversations, only more artfully crafted.

The play contemplates the main themes of age, gender, and relationships, and revolves around a group of part-time employees in the manga café.  The characters are obsessed with age and have segregated themselves accordingly –those in their 20’s often mocking their slightly older coworkers, while the 30-year-old’s brood about how they feel that their lives are over.  For example, in Act I a scandal breaks out in the work place because one of the 30-somethings asks the new girl on a date.  The only problem is that this new girl is 22 (“so young!”).  The play only loosely follows a plot line, however, and is mainly a cultural and social examination of living in modern day Japan, being in love, and having a few decades under your belt.

Listening to the dialogue, I felt as though Okada had entered the human mind with a tape recorder and had transcribed every thought that passed though the person’s head.  His ability to verbalize train of thought is astounding–the characters would speak through their thought processes, analyzing a situation from every possible angle, dancing circles, squares, and polyhedrons around the main point.  Though at times this was admittedly tiresome to listen to, the more I focused, the more I realized how much I related, recognizing my own thinking patterns in the ramblings on stage.

I also appreciate how Okada deviated from theatrical tradition with this play, redefining the relationship between characters, actors, and audience members.  The performers in the show were not so much “actors” as envoys of storytelling, weaving in and out of narration and enaction.  The roles were interchangeable, as one performer would step in for another and take on a different facet of the same role, either continuing the thought process or offering commentary on it.  Interestingly, it was always easy to tell who was playing whom at what time.  With a play like this I feel that it would have been easy for the actors to run off with the words, leaving the audience in the dust.  But in this production, the actors securely buckled us in to the roller coaster of a play, subtly altering their physicality and intonations when inhabiting a new character.

Okada also achieved something with this play that I have seldom experienced.  As an audience member, I felt as though I mattered. The characters would often consult the audience in their monologues, as if seeking counsel or confirmation, even peeking nervously in our direction during uncomfortable encounters on stage. This made me feel as though I played a vital role at these moments in the characters’ lives, like they needed me there to advise and comfort them, which invested me further in the performance.  Because I mattered to the characters, they conversely mattered to me.

Throughout the play, however, I kept wondering how this English translation differed from the original transcription.  Watching a contextually Japanese play transposed on to American actors was a bit awkward, to be honest, as Japan has such a richly unique culture.  However, the universal themes of the play overcame that issue for me, as any human being can relate to fears of aging and that enigma called love.

Enjoy is a complex, innovative play that brings theatre to a new dimension.  Its thought-provoking subject matter connects the actors to the audience and vice versa, making for a stimulating theatrical experience.  This is the type of play that you will want to talk about for days after you have seen it.  The show is running until April 25th at 59E59, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:15, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:15, Saturdays at 2:15, and Sundays at 3:15.  I highly recommend seeing this show if you get the chance—enjoy!