Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

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!

The Miracle Worker

In Broadway Theatre on April 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I can remember sitting in acting class back when I was eleven, listening yet again to my teacher’s anecdote about the power of being in character. She would whip this one out whenever one of my classmates would let their paramount, pre-teen “reputation” belittle their commitment to the scene.  But this story was a secret weapon of hers, whether she knew it or not; no matter how many times I heard it, it never ceased to inspire me.  It was the story of Patty Duke’s Helen Keller in the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and how she was so immersed in her blind and deaf character that when a set piece accidently collapsed, sending everyone leaping out of their skin, she didn’t even flinch.

Hearing this story again and again has caused me to have a natural affinity for this play, written by  William Gibson.  So, naturally, when I heard that The Miracle Worker was returning to Broadway for the first time since its premier in 1959, I knew I had to go.  Luckily I got tickets before its premature closing this Sunday, April 4th.

Seeing the show relatively late in its run, I had heard mixed reviews about its in-the-round staging at the Circle in the Square, and as I walked in to the space, I knew instantly what the critics were talking about.  The audience was presented with an array of levitating furniture, suspended at various heights, and I felt as though I had accidently walked in to Mary Poppins.  Settling into my seat in the top row, I had a sudden premonition that I may be subject to a wicker-framed performance, as one of the porch chairs was dangling conveniently in my line of vision.  Luckily, though, as the lights went down, the furniture went up, disappearing into a latticework-framed crevasse.  For each scene change, the set would ascend and descend from this ceiling hideaway like spiders on their spindles, allowing for swift scene changes and easy disposal of unnecessary set pieces.  However, I found that the 360 degree set up was inappropriate for this type of play.  It was an odd juxtaposition of contemporary staging with a late 19th Century setting, and as with many shows in the round, at least one side of the audience would always be robbed of a good view.  Despite director Kate Whoriskey’s diagonal blocking and set designer Derek McLane’s three-tiered stage, my sight line was inevitably obstructed at times by a set piece or an actor’s back, leaving me and my surrounding audience members out of key moments in the play.

The show itself, which I happen to love, did not realize its full potential for me in this rendition.  My attempts to subvert blocked vision with strategic neck-craning definitely detracted from my experience, but I also found that the show itself was somewhat underwhelming.  Much of the play seemed stale to me, and reactions or beats would unfold unnaturally.  This lacking sense of organic spontaneity was like a dusting of forensic powder, and I could see the director’s fingerprints all over it.  In one particularly labored bit, I could clearly hear Whoriskey’s direction, saying “Try to get Helen to stand nicely for three tries, and on the third one she will stomp away. It’ll be funny.”

Many of the performances themselves were also a bit lackluster–especially by the end–leaving me somewhat disappointed.  Alison Pill’s Annie Sullivan started out with great force, her head strong, unshakably determined demeanor commanding the stage.  However, by the end of the play, Pill seemed emotionally detached.  Though the role is undoubtedly draining, it seemed as though her emotional capacity was exhausted before the play’s poignant culmination, diluting the impact it had on the audience–her relief seemed to be more about the performance being over than about breaking through to her student.

Jennifer Morrison’s Kate Keller and Matthew Modine’s Captain were both less than admirable, exposing another obvious directorial fingerprint–“PROJECT!”  Morrison delivered her dialogue with unnecessary strain, as though her years in television erased her memory of how to act naturally on stage.  Modine was on emotional autopilot, his every reaction defaulting to anger, which resulted in a performance that was 99.5% bellowed and 0.5% effective.

Abigail Breslin, on the other hand, literally threw herself into the role of Helen Keller.  She never lost an ounce of energy or focus throughout the entire two hour production, which is highly commendable considering the amount of thrashing and stomping her role requires.  She explored her world with a mischievous curiosity that kept the other actors on their toes, and the exasperation and entrapment she felt as she battled her disabilities was palpable even from the back row.

But despite this show’s many shortcomings, I did find that some of Whoriskey’s directorial choices improved upon other renditions of the show that I have seen.  A subplot that can often seem like a tangent is Annie Sullivan’s childhood flashbacks.  She is haunted by the spirit of her little brother Jimmie, who died of tuberculosis when they were living in an orphanage together.  In the previous renditions I have seen, the role of Jimmie has been contained to the sound booth, manifesting in an ominous voice over.  However, Whoriskey chose to bring the role to the stage in brief, dramatically spot-lit flashbacks.  Lance Chantiles-Wertz gave an impressive performance, his skeletal body writhing with illness between line deliveries.  I found this to be an effective choice on Whoriskey’s part, as it directly reinforced Annie’s steadfast resolve in helping Helen; a child she may have the power to help since she could not save her brother.

Though this production was far from miraculous, it was definitely worth seeing.  The story itself prevails as an uplifting tale of triumph, and has never failed to inspire me.  I left the theatre with a smile on my face and a decidedly well spent Friday night.