Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Merchant of Venice tour

I'm not proud of it, but I don't know much about Shakespeare. (Hey, I wasn’t an English or theater major!) I know, I should probably be barred from the theater until I do my homework, right? Or, I could just go to more amazing productions like Theatre for a New Audience's tour of The Merchant of Venice and get schooled.

All the ads focus on Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham in a smart suit (see above)--and he is, unsurprisingly, excellent--but the star of this show is director Darko Tresnjak. By which I mean I loved everything about this show: the sleek set, the slick costuming, every single actor, and the use of the original language in a contemporary setting in a way that actually works. Tresnjak seems to direct many Shakespearean works. I don’t know if they’re all in this half-modern style, but if they were I would watch them all.

I find it difficult to follow Shakespeare live. The language is unfamiliar to me, so when it's spoken too quickly and in a pompous, stagy way, I get lost (even though it's generally easier to understand it on the stage than on the page). This production solves that problem entirely, though. Even when I missed a line or two because it was too quiet or too fast (or I was distracted by a terrible audience member), the superb acting got me right back on track.

What I find the most delightful, though, is that the actors look (in gestures and general movement) and sound (in cadence, inflection, and speech mannerisms) as though they're performing a modern play. There's nothing stuffy about their delivery at all because they clearly understand how every line they're saying would be translated in modern language. And they act and give line readings according to that modern dialogue while actually speaking the original words. It's thrilling to watch.

Scholars the world over study Shakespeare, so I won't weigh in on the various debates regarding anti-Semitism in Merchant. I will just say that as a viewer new to this play, I find the whole cross-dressing bit with the wives fairly weird. In fact, I find the mix of humor and drama odd. I'm a fan of black comedy, but usually the twisted comedy derives from the drama itself, and here it's more like a parallel story that doesn't quite mesh. Also, the play gets surprisingly gay there at the end (perhaps without enough of a lead-up?), complete with a full on-mouth kiss. I don't know if it's just this production, but I couldn't tell if Antonio and Bassanio are supposed to be good mates or soul mates in the original play or in this production.

The setup about the husbands stupidly giving away the rings from their wives (to their wives in drag) seems to be the only part that straddles the drama/comedy line and brings the various storylines together. Portia certainly seems justified in her worry that she comes second in Bassanio's heart. She cares enough to save him from losing his friend, which would likely break him, even though saving him means having to share her husband's love with another. (Because she actually loves him or because he was the best of the bunch of potential spouses?) I'm disappointed for Portia that she only has a portion of her husband's heart, and also sad for Antonio that he has to be grateful for Portia saving his life while being envious that she has married his true love. Am I alone in wishing this storyline had been developed a bit more? (Am I also alone in wondering what exactly Antonio did to secure Bassanio's devotion? He comes across as a feckless asshat to me.)

So, now that I've made it clear how little I know or understand about the Bard, I hope you will still take me seriously when I say that you should go see this show if you get a chance. It's at the Cutler Majestic in Boston through April 10. The $25 seats in the rear mezzanine have a good view. (If you see it, please come back and explain it all to me!)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Prometheus Bound at the A.R.T.

Gavin Creel as Prometheus. Photo by Marcus Stern.

This musical should be titled Prometheus's Abs. As with Hair and The Donkey Show, A.R.T.’s Diane Paulus once again uses naked flesh (in the form of Gavin Creel, again) to distract from a hot mess of a show. (Hair isn't a bad show, exactly--especially compared to the completely clothed Johnny Baseball--but it's not a particularly great one.)

For me, the most telling thing about this lackluster production is that while I continue to think of additional things I loved about The Dream of the Burning Boy that I left out of my review (the clever use of movable bookshelves, the preshow music, the awesome blackboard/backlight panel), I've already forgotten almost everything about Prometheus, which I saw only three days earlier.

Here are my general recollections of this collaboration between Paulus, Steven Sater (Tony winner for the very awkward book to Spring Awakening), and Serj Tankian (from band System of a Down, which I've never listened to):
Loud! abs! where'd they go? can't hear lyrics! on my table! plot??? hate this space! creepy chicks are awesome! LOUD!

As my husband complained to me, for as loud as the show is, and with all the jumping around, nothing really happens. And because of that, there are no character arcs. The lack of action makes the story about as engaging as reading a Wikipedia article about the myth. This is not helped by Sater's stiff and clunky writing in both dialog and lyrics (but his earlier work with Spring Awakening makes this unsurprising). Plus, the vocals are often drowned out by the music, so it's hard to follow what story there is.

 The show bleeds righteous indignation and aspires to be a political anthem for Amnesty International, to inspire the youth to rise up and take social action. But to me the script lacks heart and, worse, is mostly irrelevant to its cause. But at least there’s loud music and half-naked dancing, right?

 And the kids on the dance floor did have their hands in the air.

Eventually even the wonder of the abs wears off, and only boredom is left. As I mention in an earlier post, in the Oberon space I feel very detached from the show even when it is happening on top of my table. (I'm curious how that experience will compare to the also-immersive Hello Again, by New York's Transport Group, which I'm seeing on Sunday.)

 The most interactive the A.R.T.'s shows get is to require the audience to remove everything from their tables when the cast comes bounding up. Yes, everything, including the menu that the staff puts on the table and the drinks they sell.

Between straining to hear the lyrics, trying to follow the actors around the space, keeping my head and arms inside the vehicle at all times, and looking very hard for the point, my mind wandered. I wondered if Creel had that ripped body before or developed it over the course of this very physically demanding show, caught myself pondering his terrible dye job, then admired the tenacity of the body tape valiantly holding on the mic cord running down his back in the face of all that sweating and thrashing about. Bravo, tape!

For all its faults, though, this production has a lot going for it, which is why it's such a shame it's not better. The actors performed the hell out of the material given to them. (Unfortunately, Gabe Ebert as Hephaistos/Hermes was always breaking character--I assume an ill-chosen direction from Paulus.) A couple of the less musical-theatery songs sounded wonderful, enough overall that I'll definitely check out System of a Down, but except for the quiet ones sung by the Daughters of Aether the lyrics were so hard to hear that I don't remember which songs.

Other aspects I liked:

  • Uzo Aduba as Io. The only emotional part of the show is her story, and her pain is palpable (even though it's written as way too overwrought, she sells it). Although I wish some of her songs were quieter, subtler, Aduba acted the crap out of it.

 Prometheus is the protagonist, but whatever heart and soul this production has is Io.
  • Gavin Creel as Prometheus. Wow, the guy can sing. Imagine if he had better songs! Also, the spotlight just loves him, even when the script gives his almost nothing to do but belt out angsty songs while looking pretty.
  • The trio of Daughters of the Aether. Their songs are spooky and interesting, and I loved how Ashley Flanagan, Jo Lampert, and Celina Carvajal's voices meld together. Their movement around the club space is the only immersive aspect that makes sense for the story and is compelling rather than distracting (they're fairly peripheral to the story, lending atmosphere most of the time). Basically, they bring the cool.

  • Lea DeLaria as Force. Ok, mostly DeLaria being DeLaria, kicking ass and being generally awesome.
  • The crazy hair in the show. Especially the shaved/bright red 'do on one of the Daughters, Lea DeLaria's fauxhawk, and what the various band members sport. (Not Gavin's hair though. The black makes him look washed out, and the hair gets strangely poofy after all that writhing around.
  • Highlighting Amnesty International's work. After the curtain call, they tell the story of one suffering activist and invite the audience to sign postcards on her or his behalf. (Apparently a new activist is selected for each show.) Although I fail to see any strong connection between the show and this very important work for human rights--despite the note in the program asking "Are we in ancient Greece? Or is Prometheus a defiant dissident in modern-day North Africa? Or China? Perhaps Iran or Belarus?"--I'm glad to see the effort on behalf of Amnesty nonetheless.

All in all, it comes down to this: Once the show was over, instead of pondering Prometheus as a modern human rights hero, I was instead thinking of how much I loved the National Theatre's broadcast of Frankenstein (based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus) and Anais Mitchell's brilliant Greek folk opera, Hadestown. Both put the A.R.T.'s Prometheus Bound to shame.

For the sake of all that’s right and good, would someone please mount a fully staged production of Hadestown in Boston or New York already?

(ETA: Anais's manager says they're working crafting the show right now, to be ready sometime next year. BEST NEWS EVER.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Dream of the Burning Boy

If you've seen this production of The Dream of the Burning Boy, you will understand that my review could be adequately summed up in two words: REED. BIRNEY.

To say this is Birney's show is a gross understatement. His stunningly real performances can save otherwise flawed scripts--as in the good but not quite excellent Tigers Be Still--but there is no need for rescue here. In Burning Boy, David West Read has given us one of my favorite scripts in years, and my favorite of Roundabout's exciting Underground series for new works by emerging artists (granted, I missed The Language of Trees and Ordinary Days). With nary a false note, the script easily surpasses the delightful Speech & Debate and Tigers, and I can't wait to see what is next from this young playwright.

Combined with Birney's masterful delivery, the power of this show about the aftershocks of the sudden death of a student is stunning, heartbreaking, undeniable. Even gaping in awe of Reed's pitch-perfect interpretation, I was impressed with the other strong actors. Kristie Dale Sanders brilliantly walks the line between devastation and restraint as the grieving mother. Matt Delapina as the hapless but well-meaning guidance counselor was charming, as was Jake O'Connor as the romantically stupid best friend. Jessica Rothenberg and Josh Caras were both very real in much less showy roles.

The only hiccup in this otherwise perfect production (and I don't bestow that compliment lightly)--which I probably would not have noticed in a less stellar production--was a few "acted" line readings from Alexandra Socha, who was otherwise excellent as the not-yet-grieving sister--a part seemingly written for Ellen Page. (I loved her as my first Wendla in Spring Awakening back when she was an understudy, but once she took over the role her portrayal turned a bit wooden and she began acting mostly by squinting, a trait thankfully almost completely missing here.)

This topic and these are roles could so easily have been overdone and stagy, but the restraint (and lightly sprinkled gallows humor) is admirable, and the show shockingly steered clear of false notes and genuinely surprised me (especially the writing for the best friend). Grief is so difficult to write, and I kept expecting to be disappointed but it never came.

I really cannot say enough good things about this show, which has been extended to May 15 so far and deserves a much longer run. Catch it while you can.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Diane Paulus and the new A.R.T.

(Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Last night I sat through Prometheus Bound, Steven Sater's new musical written with System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian, at the Boston-area A.R.T., directed by the inexplicably popular Diane Paulus. Her star is on the rise after directing Hair on Broadway, which happens to be on tour in Boston at the Colonial Theater at the moment.

I'm not surprised that I didn’t love Prometheus. I clearly just do not like her work, and I suspect I never will. I didn't love Hair, with its paper-thin story full of characters I didn't connect with played by a highly energetic cast throwing out an impressive wall of sound on songs I knew but never had loved. I half-hated the complete two-headed mess of a musical that was Johnny Baseball (the modern half was a light and hilarious spoof of Red Sox fans, while the flashback was a muddled, preachy, ineffectual, sappy, and trite treatise against racism). And I despised The Donkey Show.

Most of all, I hate what Paulus has done with Zero Arrow Street in Harvard Square. I don’t find her use of the space to be daring or exciting or even particularly creative. In fact, it’s annoyingly disingenuous. It's one thing for a scrappy theater company to turn a run-down club into a low-budget, makeshift theater space. It's another entirely for a high-profile, well-funded company to turn a perfectly good theater with decent sound and sightlines into a crappy club performance space so that dancing half-naked actors can sing loudly at you and invade your personal space to distract you from the deficiencies in yet another underdeveloped show.

This immersive-theater style Paulus is cramming down our throats just makes me weary. I thought Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More was brilliantly immersive, with the audience roaming around four floors of an abandoned school out in Brookline to check out the amazingly detailed spooky-cool set design and then running to catch up with gorgeous dancers as they zipped from room to room to wordlessly interpret scenes from Macbeth. (Bringing Punchdrunk to Boston is Paulus’s best contribution to Boston theater so far.) She’s riding high on Sleep No More’s critical raves and The Donkey Show’s success (undeserved, I think--aside from the fun of drag kings and very pretty, very scantily clad go-go boys, I don’t see the appeal of this hideous disco-music sketch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Paulus now seems determined to force this in-your-face style onto pieces much less suited for it.

I neither want to stand for a 90-minute show on a crowded dance floor, getting pushed around to make room for actors and set pieces flying at me from different directions, nor do I appreciate having to crane my neck around this way and that to try to follow the action from the more expensive raised table seating. The lack of tiered seating upstairs and the action taking place mostly on the level below means someone else’s head is in your way even when the actors are directly in front of you. The floors on the upper level are creaky, and the actors are always stomping and jumping on and off tables and railings, so it's really loud. And with the mix of voices over music being woefully unbalanced, you just miss too much of the show visually and aurally.

I do wish I had seen Amanda Palmer as the Emcee in Cabaret there, since that seemed like a brilliant use of the space (and it wasn't directed by Paulus). And I must admit that the kids down on the dance floor at Prometheus Bound, and the gay men and bachelorette parties at The Donkey Show, seemed to be having a grand time and were likely to come back for repeat viewings. So it's clearly bringing in a new audience to the theater. So even if I don't like the style, and even if it will keep me from seeing future shows in that space, I must grudgingly admit that I’m grateful that Paulus is helping to make a new generation of theater-goers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Peter and the Starcatcher

Based on excellent word of mouth, last weekend I set aside one of my precious weekend-theater timeslots for Peter and the Starcatcher (or, as I think of it, Bloody Bloody Peter Pan) at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was what I imagine a crazy Hasty Pudding production is like, except without the charm and wit. I was not amused.

Peter displayed all the faults (distracting, inappropriate, juvenile humor) and none of the occasional brilliance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (interesting if superficial commentary on timely issues; catchy songs). Justly or not I blame Alex Timbers, who shepherded BBAJ ill-advisedly all the way to Broadway (for all its faults, I think it could have been a long-running cult hit off-Broadway). I don't find Rick Elice’s script for Peter particularly compelling, but I definitely hate the way Timbers (I assume it’s his fault, based on its type of "humor") ruined the flow by punching up the story with lame jokes winked at the audience. Without that interference, this might have been a charming and age-appropriate prequel to Peter Pan, albeit one I wouldn't have bothered to see.

I had been told this was a musical, but it was somewhere between a musical and a play with music, and it would have benefitted from moving a significant distance in either direction. I don't remember any of the songs, and the lyrics were fairly lame, so it probably would have been better as a simple children's play. Overall, I thought the show was trying too hard to be clever (just like BBAJ), but I didn't think the theater in-jokes were funny enough to justify breaking out of the story. It was just a mess: both too childish and too meta, in ways that didn't mesh for me.

All the performers did an admirable job with a lackluster script, but for all their effort to sell it, the show never got off the ground. Adam Chanler-Berat (previously a high school stoner in Next to Normal) and Celia Keenan-Bolger (once a child competitor in 25th … Spelling Bee and, more recently, in an adult role in Bachelorette) made charming and fairly believable children. I've only seen Christian Borle in this and in the current revival of Angels in America, each role over-the-top in its own way, and he certainly threw himself into both characters.

I thought wistfully about skipping the second act, but I really don't do that. (If I can live through the zionist musical The Time of Mendel's Trouble--both a terrible musical and in no way convincing anyone to move to the Holy Land, so a failure all around--I can live through about anything someone throws on stage.) I'm glad I stayed because the musical number that opened act II was so crazy. It certainly didn't fit well with the rest of the show, and I don’t think it was a good number, but it was certainly the most entertaining stretch of the show by far. I don't even remember what the song was about, but the costuming was genius: mermaid outfits constructed out of kitchenware, with those metal strainers that spiral out like flower petals as bras. It was stunning.

The high point of the show was its staging. I don’t know if it was the work of the codirectors (the venerable Roger Rees, whom I expected more from, and Timbers), “movement” coordinator Steven Hoggett (American Idiot and Black Watch choreographer), set designer Donyale Werle, or someone else. But the use of the show’s lack of space was absolutely brilliant. At one point a length of rope was stretched across the stage and shimmied to make ocean waves, and at another it was held up to make a door frame. This allowed for quick “set changes” that kept the otherwise dragging show moving along. At another point, ten or so actors were lined up shoulder to shoulder as a hallway of doors that were opened and shut in rapid succession, with crazy scenes behind each. I think even if I had loved the rest of the show, this creative staging would have been my favorite aspect.

Overall, I felt I could have used that time seeing something I would have enjoyed much, much more. Luckily, the other shows I saw that weekend were much better (Molly Sweeney at the Irish Rep, and The Other Place with the excellent Laurie Metcalf at MCC Theater).

JUNE 2012 UPDATE: Lisa saw the Broadway transfer and really likes it. I get the impression that I'm about the only person who doesn't.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Big musical number (list of shows seen)

To give you the idea of the scale of my theater-going activities, below are a tally and a list of (as far as I know) all the shows I've seen since September 2007 (plus one Broadway show I saw as a kid--the original production of A Chorus Line, late in its run). Some shows I have seen multiple times. A few of them a thoroughly excessive number of times. (Should I admit to which ones? Hmmmmmm, maybe later.)

2007 (September-December): 11
2008: 124
2009: 95
2010: 72
2011: 102
2012: ???

In previews (introduction)

Well, now I guess I have a theater blog. I figured I might as well give it a shot because I see so many performances each year that it's become impossible to keep track. I keep a running list, but it's hard to retain the details. Hence ...

I can't possibly have a theater blog as comprehensive, insightful, and hilarious as Jim's 100 Shows a Year, but this will help me if no one else.

In case you're wondering, I'm Mel from Boston, where I see several shows a year (generally at the New Rep and Huntington but occasionally at the Lyric, Speakeasy, Company One, and A.R.T. or national tour). But I see most of my shows in New York, where I have memberships at the Atlantic, MCC, and Vineyard this year (in the past Playwrights Horizons and Second Stage, too). I also see other Broadway and off-Broadway and smaller shows. On any given weekend, there's a better than 50 percent chance I'm on a Bolt or Megabus somewhere between Boston and New York. When I go in, I usually see two shows on Saturday and one (sometimes two) on Sunday.

I'm also a local-music fanatic, but that's another story entirely.