hrj: (doll)

As has become custom, while in NYC for Thanksgiving, I took in the show playing at the theater where Lauri is house manager. This time it was "The Encounter" created, directed, and solo-performed by Simon McBurney. This work clearly falls in the general category of "experimental theater" so I'm going to come at this review from several different angles. The synopsis from Playbill gives the most basic background of the work: "In 1969, Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. Conceived as a theatrically aural experience, the audience is drawn directly into the middle of the action."

Starting with the technical angle: the aural environment is a major element of the performance--one might say the most important element aside from the script. Each audience member is given a set of headphones and--after a brief introduction--all sound, both live and recorded, is channeled through the sound system. The 360-degree stereo aspect is regularly played with, not merely to position sound effects behind the listener and provide the illusion of movement and location from imagined characters, but sometimes to deliberately contradict McBurney's physical position to reinforce the subjectivity of perception that is a major theme of the play. The physical staging is spare: a desk, a mannequin head on a post that stands in for the viewer/listener (as part of the sound pick-up system) and also stands in for various characters being interacted with. A handful of other props, such as water bottles and a mass of video tape, that are repurposed at various times.

The story itself is told in constantly shifting layers: McBurney the playwright interacting with the bedtime rituals of his daughter, McBurney the playwright collecting anecdotes others tell him about the photographer McIntyre, McBurney the narrator telling McIntyre's framing story, and McBurney the actor as McIntyre in the midst of his adventure. Shifts between the layers not only serve to comment on the act of storytelling and the ways in which narrative is bent to differing purposes, but also serve to break up some of the more intense scenes and "reset" the audience's emotional baseline.

All this fictionalization and subjectivity created (for me) a cloud of confusion over what messages the performance was meaning to communicate. For me the deepest story--that of the photographer McIntyre--kept feeling like it boiled down to, "white dude disrupts the lives of indigenous tribe and makes the whole thing about his own personal spiritual transformation, including attributing Mystical Powers and Spiritual Wisdom to the Magical Natives." But at the same time, the version of the story being presented on stage had gone through several transmissions and interpretations, so it was difficult to tell what aspects reflected McIntyre's view on his experience, versus how he presented that experience to others, versus how those others interpreted that story, versus what McBurney felt would make a compelling stage performance.

The various layers of narrative framing kept bringing my attention back to the play's commentary on the act of storytelling. From one angle, McIntyre's experience is set up almost as a portal fantasy or hallucinatory vision. The portal framing begins when he is dropped by plane in the middle of the Amazon jungle, encounters two members of the Mayoruna tribe, and follows them through the trackless vegetation until he loses his way and has no choice but to keep following them. The portal is exited later, after a climactic ecstatic ritual, when a sudden violent storm and flood leaves McIntyre floating downriver, separated from his Mayoruna companions and returning to western civilization.

But conversely, these distancing techniques that move the events of the story farther and farther into fictional territory are contradicted by the play's conclusion, which presents the playwright as having traveled to meet with the Mayoruna and discuss the performance with them. The problem is: by the time we get to this part of the performance, I've settled into an assumption that no specific element of the script can be taken as factual. So even this purported touch-back to the real people being depicted on stage (well, for a value of "depicted" that doesn't involve actors or physical presence) feels just as fictional as everything else.

So. What did I think? The work is technically impressive and memorable, but it feels exploitative. I keep coming back to "white dude makes encounter with indigenous people all about his own subjective spiritual transformation in which they are primarily stage props." In this light, the staging as a one-man show that seems designed to center McBurney's stage-chewing abilities is a perfect mirror.

hrj: (doll)

Shakespeare is often touted for the universality of his stories—the way the themes resonate down the ages even when the historic settings are long past. But the flip side of that is the ability to distance ourselves from those themes, not only because they are framed as entertainment, but because their historic grounding provides an easy out. “Yes, Romeo and Juliet is a universal story, but after all we no longer live in a society that marries off pre-teen girls or where private feuds spill over into public body-counts. (Except when we do; except where they do.)

Othello has a lot of fodder for relevance today, with its themes of racism, jealousy, and domestic violence. In its fourth and final show of the 2016 season, Cal Shakes takes a brutal approach to connecting that relevance to our own lives and times. The show is meant to be disturbing and painful—almost the opposite of “entertainment”—and that intent is framed by a number of unusual features of the performance meant to prepare and manage the audience reception. The connections are strongly drawn to contemporary racially motivated hatred, casual micro-aggressions, the burning anger of disappointed entitlement, the use of Islam as a looming faceless Other, and the explosive intersection of the power dynamics of misogyny and racism.

And the bedrock of how the play is staged relies on confronting the inescapable fact that the Cal Shakes audience skews very white and very affluent. The performance begins with a “pre-show” monologue by actor Lance Gardner (Cassio) filled with racial/ethnic/religious “jokes” drawn from the headlines that can neither be laughed at nor applauded nor met in silence when delivered from a black performer to a predominantly white audience. The purpose is to shake us up, to make us squirm, to warn us that this will be an uncomfortable show and that it’s ok to acknowledge that discomfort. It’s meant to signal us to listen to Shakespeare’s words with the same unease we would have if we heard them from the guy at the next table in Starbucks. (Oops, instead let’s go with Cal Shakes sponsors Peets Coffee & Tea.) When Iago taunts Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” we should hear the voices of right-wing hate radio. When Othello asks his fractious subordinates, “Are we turned Turks?” we should see how quickly and reflexively violent acts are ascribed to Muslims. As those four hundred year old lines roll resonantly off the stage, we’re meant to feel them as raw and in-our-face, not as the work of an Old Dead White Guy whose legacy can be shaken off as only “the context of his times.”

The staging was starkly bare: a ring of chairs, a table with a handful of props, a pair of microphones at the side for extra-textual asides (as when Desdemona’s strangulation is accompanied by a medical recitation of the physiological process), a projection screen used to label the setting change (and to project real-time close-ups of specific actors at key points). The only significant piece of scenery is the bed where Desdemona’s murder takes place. The costuming, too, pins us to current events, most overtly with Othello’s black hoodie.

The Cal Shakes casting choices are frequently race-neutral (at least when casting traditionally white roles) but although three prominent roles are filled by black actors, the choice is far from neutral. Othello, of course, is played by Aldo Billingslea (a Cal Shakes regular, most recently seen as main character Troy Maxson in Fences). But also his right-hand man Cassio (Lance Gardner, who has featured in all four shows this season), and the Duke of Venice (Elizabeth Carter, who also plays Bianca and some unnamed roles in this production). This adds an extra layer to Iago’s (James Carpenter) racialized sense of injured entitlement. Not only has Othello been elevated as general over him by a black duke, but Othello has (presumably in Iago’s mind) preferred Cassio over Iago, driven by racial solidarity. This adds another unspoken motivation for using Cassio as the weapon to strike at Othello’s equilibrium while shifting the implications of Desdemona’s fictitious transfer of affections.

The racial dynamics of Othello transfer fairly well across the centuries, but the role of toxic patriarchy in driving the tragedy was the water Shakespeare was swimming in. Desdemona (Liz Sklar) connects that part of the circle in one of the few costume-related actions. After the scene where Othello has struck her, as the next scene continues in her absence, we see a real-time projection of Sklar, backstage, applying make-up for a black eye in reverse-echo of endless women covering up the marks of their abuse.

At the climax of the play—just before Othello’s suicide—the cast breaks to address the audience, with Desdemona rising from the dead to take the lead, and leads a discussion of reactions and analysis. (I can’t really call it “breaking the fourth wall” because Cal Shakes kind of burned down the fourth wall a very long time ago.) It’s a moment that could feel unintentionally humorous but was all of a piece with the interactive nature of the performance. What did this work mean to you? How did it make you feel? What connections have you made? It was in this context that the themes of misogyny and domestic violence were addressed as they couldn’t be within the framework of Shakespeare’s script alone. And yet it was this discussion that made me realize the limitations of drawing the story into today’s headlines. We cannot escape the priorities and anxieties we bring to our experience. Othello’s story is that of a man deliberately destroyed, both in body and self-hood, because of racialized envy and hatred. But Desdemona’s story is that of a woman destroyed as a casual, objectified consequence by patriarchal structures and a system that presumes men’s ownership of women’s bodies and lives. To identify with her is to see Othello as a villain—not for his race, but for his masculinity, the very masculinity that he is fighting so hard to maintain. While to identify with him is to see Desdemona as a thing, a tool, a stage prop, someone who had no agency to affect her own fate and whose tragedy is not her own but part of Othello’s. In the conflict between these two narratives I couldn’t help seeing a reflection—though I don’t believe the performance itself specifically evoked this—of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown and the impossible tangle inherent in that particular overlay of social power dynamics.

In summary: a powerful, disturbing staging of Othello that succeeded in assaulting the concept of the audience as passive consumers of entertainment and went far beyond the usual goal of making Shakespeare “relevant.”

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

Shaw is known for witty, talky satires of what was perceived as the results of rapid social change (though what era has not perceived itself as assaulted by rapid social change?) and in particular, shifts in the expectations and perceptions of women's role in society. Although I've often seen Shaw's take spun as progressive and feminist, I've always felt that his female characters who stood up for the ideals of independence and self-determination seem to come in for the sharpest lampooning, and often seem to be the targets of ridicule for those ideals. Not a broad, openly misogynistic ridicule, but more of a smirking "I know what women really want" sort of ridicule.

"You Never Can Tell" features two of these targets: Mrs. Clandon, a feminist writer and single mother who has supported her family with lectures and high-minded educational tracts about how to live a progressive "20th century" life, and her eldest daughter, Gloria, who has grown up believing in those ideals and now finds them challenged by the romantic advances of a suave dentist. The action takes place in a seaside resort (translated, in the Cal Shakes production, to the Santa Cruz boardwalk) with an unexpected encounter with Mrs. Clandon's estranged husband, and the slapstick class-comedy interactions of an overly humble waiter and his upwardly-moble son, a judge.

Shaw has an undeniable way with snappy dialogue and social comedy. The puckish hijinks of Clandon's two young children throw all the other characters off balance to enable the drama. The boundary-transgressive character of the waiter is a showcase for the talents of Cal Shakes' perennial Fool, Danny Scheie (although the more often I see him in this sort of role, the more he always seems to be playing the same character over and over again). But in this day and age, it's very hard to view the dentist's courtship of Gloria as romantic comedy rather than as manipulative gaslighting with no respect for her as a human being of equal significance.

An enjoyable performance from a talented cast and crew, but not a play that strikes me as being of continuing impact and significance (especially in contrast to the previous performance, "Fences"), rather a period piece that must be appreciated "in the context of its time".

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

The second performance in this year's Cal Shakes season is August Wilson's "Fences", part of what came to be known as his Pittsburgh Cycle, a play set in each decade of the 20th century centering around the black neighborhood where Wilson spent half his life. "Fences" is set in the '50s, focusing around Troy Maxson, a former Negro League ballplayer, ex-convict, sanitation worker, outwardly devoted husband, and well-intentioned but stumbling father.

The setting and characters are solidly rooted in the racial history and dynamics of mid-20th century America, contributing to Maxson's frustration at the sports career he feels he was cheated out of, the uncertainties of his employment when he pushes for racial equity in job opportunities, and the constraints on his sons' opportunities, both in reality and in Maxson's imagination. But there are many universals in the play as well: the ways in which each generation struggles with the disfunctions of the previous generation and perpetuates them in the next. The ways in which ideals of duty and obligation can undermine empathy and humanity. The ways we lie to ourselves and those around us to become comfortable with the choices we've made. And--especially pointed for me--the ways in which women are expected to subjugate their own dreams and desires to support and further those of the men around them.

The character of Rose Maxson [1], Troy's wife and the mother of one of his three children, begins as something of a cipher, performing all those supportive roles and negotiating Troy's relationships with the other characters. But by the end of the play, we're allowed to see much of what she's been suppressing to maintain that role, and she has the bitter triumph of finding her breaking point and drawing her lines. This is a great American play in every meaningful sense of the term. Although the Cal Shakes run is over, keep an eye peeled for a chance to see it when you can.

[1] Totally irrelevant aside: my middle name is in honor of my great-grandmother, Rose LaForge Maxson. As Herb Caen used to say, there's always a local angle.

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Ordinarily, when I get to my Friday Review slot and have more than one item stacked up, I do a bonus review over the weekend. But in this case, I'm holding off on Kelly Gardiner's Goddess until next week because I expect the combination of a visit from Lauri back to back with Worldcon will play hell with my media consumption. One thing I really really love about my new website is the ability to have blog posts all drafted up and saved in advance, so I only have to hit "publish".

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)
The first show of the 2016 Cal Shakes season made two bold choices (and a number of more ordinary ones ones), one of them somewhat daring and the other less so. In my opinion, the daring one worked better than the less daring, though possibly for reasons of personal esthetics.

Among the more ordinary artistic choices were using the contemporary Bay Area for set and costumes, and using gender- and race-blind casting (as well as their usual multi-role small-cast approach) such that a black female Hero is wooed by an Egyptian-American female Claudio. The lesser of the bold choices was not only to gender flip both Benedict and Beatrice, but to play them respectively as a butch woman and a rather sterotypically swishy gay man.

The larger of the bold choices was to give the play a framing story that begins with the caterers cleaning up after the double wedding. Several of the caterers begin explaining the lead-up to the event to the others, and they begin acting out the events. For the remainder of the play, there is a regular shift between the presentation of the main plot, and stage business that reflects the ongoing post-event clean-up. This shifting and merging also applies to the roles. The staff who portray Beatrice and Benedict are introduced as bickering co-workers (with History); the staff who portray Claudio and Hero are clearly engaged in a flirtation with touches of jealousy; and the wedding musician who believes he is being stiffed for half his fee rolls his grumpiness and anger directly into Don John.

The framing story involves a fair amount of original dialog, in enthusiastically rhymed couplets. This is why I consider it the bolder of the two choices: it takes a certain amount of chuzpah not merely to edit Shakespeare (which everyone does, of necessity) but to add your own lines to the existing work. And as a way of making the story fresh and interesting, I thought the frame worked very well. It brought in the sort of play-within-a-play found in several of Shakespeare's works, and the "rude mechanicals" motif seen in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I rather liked the way the personalities and interactions of the caterers merged softly into the Much Ado roles.

I found the particular implementation of the gender-swap for Beatrice and Benedict to be less successful. It wasn't the gender-swap itself, but the specific gender stereotypes used to implement it that just didn't work for me. James Carpenter's Beatrice lands so solidly on the stereotype of a swishy gay man that I had too hard a time imagining romantic chemistry with Stacy Ross's swaggering, dykey Benedict. This is no doubt in large part a failure of my own imagination. Fortunately, Denmo Ibrahim's Claudio and Safiya Fredericks's Hero had enough romantic chemistry to satisfy my greedy soul.
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When Lauri suggested seeing a show in Chicago for my birthday (on the way to Kalamazoo), I left it to her to pick which one. For one thing, she's more likely to have already seen any of the current shows (and therefore might want to try something new), and for another, she'll know the buzz about what's likely to be good. She picked "Mary Page Marlowe" on the sound objective basis of personal connections to two people involved in the production (who, by unfortunate chance, were not actually present on the day we saw it, alas).

"Mary Page Marlowe" falls solidly in the category of "high concept", presenting a non-linear narrative of the troubled life of an American "everywoman", using multiple actresses to represent different stages of her life. In theme, this is perhaps the female parallel to the vast body of plays that ruminate on the life crises of the middle-American man, his relationships, his personal failings, and the overall meaninglessness of life. Not that that's a bad thing. It's quite refreshing to see women's lives treated as worthy of the same intense scrutiny and consideration. And it isn't simply a tour through the effects of multi-generation alcoholism, the personal consequences of failed relationships, the ways in which our parents fail us and we in turn fail our children, and all the usual stapes of the genre. It touches specifically on the gendered nature of these experiences and trips the viewer up when we jump to conclusions based on gendered expectations (e.g., regarding the reason for the divorce that is the focus of the opening scene).

Given my enjoyment of works that require the consumer to puzzle one's way back from clues to construct the over-arching story, you would correctly conclude that I found the non-linear, patchwork nature of the narrative enjoyably challenging. We jump around from the title character's first divorce, to college days, to end of life, to infancy, with other stops along the way. Each scene presents threads that tie in with the others, and only when all of them are laid out does the whole picture make sense. Or--having used the patchwork image--I might tie it in with the final scene where a late-in-life Mary Page Marlowe is discussing the cleaning of an heirloom patchwork quilt with a dry-cleaning attendant, while debating with herself whether the object actually has any sentimental value to her at all.

Unfortunately, the patchwork quilt metaphor is a bit too offhand to make a satisfying concluding connection for me. (It took until the very end of the scene for me to figure out exactly what the object was whose cleaning was being discussed.) There were a few other aspects where the concept required too great a leap of connection (even for me!) and so left me confused and scrambling rather than enjoying the challenge. The use of multiple actresses makes a great deal of sense given the age-span of the character they represent (as well as giving greater scope for the ensemble cast), but it meant that I experienced a bit of generational confusion, at first taking the protagonist's mother for another iteration of the protagonist. (I should have been cued by the costuming, but failed on this point.) I also conflated two of the protagonist's husbands due to a combination of name/face-blindness and the changed expectations of the multi-actor approach.

So instead of the final scene wrapping up the central character's life tidily so that all the elements settled into place, I was still sorting out exactly who came in which order, who was and wan't alive, and exactly how many different people I was keeping track of. In some similar cases, a second viewing of the show would be worth while, but this is a case where a lack of spoilers is essential for getting the full intended impact.

So, all in all, I enjoyed it. It was challenging and the performance was solid. I really liked the concept of the non-linear/mystery structure. But there were aspects of the execution of that structure that didn't entirely work for me.
hrj: (doll)
This will be the last of my year-end summary posts. Falling on Friday, as it does, I thought I'd sum up all the reviews I've posted in 2015.

Scheduling one day a week to do reviews has worked out fairly well - at least as long as I have a backlog of the lesbian movie reviews to fill in around the new material. This isn't a list of absolutely everything I read or watched this year. There were some book re-reads that I didn't blog, and I'm very irregular in reviewing short fiction. I also skipped a few new movies if they didn't grab me enough (or, in the case of the new Star Wars movie, because everyone's freaking out about spoilers, so I just did my discussion in some carefully labeled online discussion spaces). You could also count my discussion of podcasts and web magazines as reviews of a sort, but I haven't included them here. I've organized things by type of media and then somewhat thematically in the larger categories.

Books: Non-fiction
I don't generally do full reviews of non-fiction (other than the entire Lesbian Historic Motif Project being extensive reviews).

Margaret of Parma: A Life by Charlie R. Steen

Books: Fantasy
Five of these thirteen are 2015 publications, all are by female authors, most are fantasy as opposed to science fiction (only the Itäranta falls more in SF). Only two are by non-caucasian writers (although they're both in the 2015 publications, making 40% for that category).

Random by Alma Alexander
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Passion Play by Beth Bernobich
Queen's Hunt by Beth Bernobich
The Ghost Dragon's Daughter by Beth Bernobich novelette?
Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold novella
The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle audio
The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner also my pre-review

Books: Lesbian
Most of these are historical romance, with the Douglas being the only fantasy entry. (Although I could have double-entered Karen Memory here for lesbian fantasy.) Believe me, I would love to read more books in the intersection between fantasy and lesbian fiction, but I'm also very wary of much of what's being published in that intersection. Part of it is having some very specific tastes and standards, but part of it is a touch of paranoia around reviewing books too close to my own work. The simple fact is that I know that a lot of them aren't going to be up to my standards, but it's very easy for some people (especially in the close-knit and somewhat high-strung field of lesbian literature) to see a critical review by a fellow author as being a malicious attempt to "take down the competition". It isn't a competition. And yet I've seen enough things out there on the web to be extremely cautious about reading and reviewing lesbian fantasy unless I know right off the top that I'm going to love it, or I know that the author and the author's dedicated fans have a professional attitude. I suppose a could make an exception to my "review everything" rule, but that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don't want people to think that I'm deliberately avoiding books in this category because of this issue. There's also that I would very much want to love, love, love any lesbian fantasy novel I read, and it would annoy me more than usual if I found it simply ok. And of the five entries here (counting the three Bassett works as a single item), two made me wince, one was "eh, ok", one was "promising", and one was "I liked this!"

Lily in Bloom, My Lady's Service & A Sweet Revenge by Marie-Elise Bassett novelettes
Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies
Lancelot : Her Story - by Carol Anne Douglas
Petticoats and Promises, by Penelope Friday
Rughum and Najda by Samar Habib

Books: Other
I don't read much fiction that doesn't fall in either fantasy or lesbian fiction, but enough people had made comparisons of my books to Milan's historic romances that I decided to check one out. The Bechdel falls in here because it isn't a novel (or even really fiction).

The Duchess War - Courtney Milan
Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Live Performance
In addition to my usual Cal Shakes run (although I missed reviewing Twelfth Night for some reason), I took in three Broadway shows during two New York trips, and a local small theater production. Interestingly, that's more shows than the first-run movies that I reviewed (although possibly not more than I saw).

Cal Shakes: King Lear
Cal Shakes: The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
Cal Shakes: Life is a Dream
Broadway: Hand to God
Broadway: Fun Home
Broadway: Hamilton - An American Musical
Or by Liz Duffy Adams (Anton's Well Theater Company)

Historic Cookery (i.e., recipes I tried out)
Some years, the historic cookery section is much larger.

Alpennian Almond Cakes

Movies: Lesbian movie reviews
I revived (and reprised) a series of short reviews of lesbian movies in order to have a back-log of review material to fill in when nothing else offered. I still have a lot of items on video I could include here, but I'd need to actually watch them again!

Bar Girls
Carol (also under first run)
Cynara: Poetry in Motion
If These Walls Could Talk
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love
Kissing Jessica Stein
Mädchen in Uniform (1931, German)
The Midwife's Tale
Tipping the Velvet
When Night is Falling

Movies: first run
Other movies that I remember seeing, but clearly didn't review include the final Hunger Games movie and the new Star Wars movie. ETA: OMG and how could I forget Mad Max: Fury Road? Since I'm likely to use this post as a memory prompt for my Hugo nominations, I may keep adding to it if I remember more.

Into the Woods
Jupiter Ascending
The Martian
Mr. Holmes

Products and Services
Not so much a review as an explanation why I won't be trying and reviewing the product at the current time.

Apple Watch
hrj: (doll)
A couple references to this play had gone past on my twitter feed, especially from Ellen Kushner, and when one of those references mentioned it was playing in the SF Bay Area this week, I made an impulse buy of a pair of tickets. Alas, my quest to find someone to see it with me failed, but the play itself was well worth the impulse.

Aphra Behn was a mid-17th century English poet, playwright, libertine, and spy. She was of obscure origins, both in the sense of being of working-class birth, and in the sense that she re-invented her history often enough that there is little certainty about the facts. She may have traveled to Surinam as a spy, she may have married a man named Behn, she definitely was an ardent royalist and supporter of King Charles II, and worked as a spy on his behalf in the Netherlands. She may have gone to prison for debt as a consequence of never being paid for her espionage work. She definitely wrote a large number of plays, novels, and poems. And her work has a frequent them of erotic desire between women, though the extent to which she may have acted on such desire is unknown.

Adams' play opens with the (possibly fictional) stint in debtors' prison and revolves around Behn's ambition to establish herself as a playwright, entanglements in royal politics (and with the royal person), and a nuanced and complex imagining of Behn's erotic interests, including a mutual fan-girling with actress Nell Gwyn that evolves into a make-out session. The sexual element in combination with the inevitably comic device of staging a seven-role play with three actors (via quick costume changes and precipitous dashing in and out of hiding from each other) put this performance solidly in the category of "romp".

High points (for me) were the framed-as-spontaneous poetic banter between Behn and King Charles, the Comedic Servant both claiming and transforming her identity as Comedic Servant, the fate of former espionage-entanglement William Scot, and the way that Behn can be distracted from just about any other activity by the need to scribble down some lines for her current Work In Progress. The performances were all solid, though the layout of the performance space in a sort of 3/4-round made some of the lines of sight sub-optimal.

The work was staged by the Anton's Well Theater Company, evidently a very new, very small, local group. I got the impression that most of the audience members (of which there were 15) had some personal connection to the troupe. The performance was in a smallish room in the Berkeley City Club (a gorgeous building a couple blocks from campus and one of Berkeley's several pieces of Julia Morgan architecture) in which a 15-member audience was a reasonable number. The Moorish/Romanesque style of the room provided a charmingly period (if not exactly 18th c. English) setting along with the minimalist set, deployed largely to enable the necessary entrances and exits.

The last performance is tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 6) so I fear this review isn't likely to bring in any new viewers, but local folk may want to look into future productions by this group.
hrj: (doll)

Some time back, there was this growing presence in my Twitter feed of references to something titled “Hamilton”. It isn’t at all unusual for my Twitter feed to be full of people squeeing over some new media property, and Twitter doesn’t include a lot of room for context and nuance, so it took a little while for me to pick up enough details to know that what had everyone excited was a new Broadway musical that most of the tweeters had encountered only through the cast recording and You Tube clips. (Shh, don’t tell anyone there are You Tube clips. You all know you’re not supposed to be recording performances, right?)

So when L asked if there were anything in particular I’d like to go see while I was in town, I said, “I hear there’s this popular new show called Hamilton.” And she said, “OK, I’ll see if I can get tickets.” That was when I knew that the enthusiasm was a bit broader than my Twitter feed. “I’ll see if I can get...” But I had every confidence, and in the end a couple of phone calls got us aisle seats in the sixth row (and a chat with the house company manager before the show because, of course, he and L are old friends).

When possible, I like to go into shows “unspoiled” so I didn’t check out the album in advance, although I figured it would be a good idea to check out the plot summary on Wikipedia. (At which my reaction was: How in the world are they going to fit all that into three hours on stage?) So here’s as much as I knew: it’s a musical (though actually more of an opera in structure), in a rap / hiphop style, with almost all the cast being people of color in a way that can’t at all be considered “color blind” because of how the entire concept is used to comment on themes of race, culture, colonialism, and immigration.

Although the surface plot is the biography of Alexander Hamilton, there is an immense amount of social commentary on the current era woven through. (Just as a random example: the line where Hamilton and Lafayette look at each other in the middle of the Revolution and say, “Immigrants, we get the job done!”) And I think a lot of the energy around the show is precisely due to this interweaving, as well as the musical idiom -- which should not be as startling a choice as I confess I first found it. (I think it took me about five minutes to go from, “well, that’s an interesting statement” to “well, duh, musicals have always translated historic milieus into the idiom of the composer’s times.”)

In point of fact, the music draws on a wide variety of idioms, highlighting character and setting (e.g., King George’s songs are in a more traditional almost music hall style) and ranging from driving energy to mournful contemplation. By one of my personal metrics of success, there are several songs still playing in my head though I’m not yet at the point where I could sing any from memory. Let’s just say: the music, it’s wonderful. Listen. My brain is still thinking about comparisons between the rapid-fire rap numbers and an operatic recitative style, and how they drive the narrative forward with a bit more freedom than the pieces with a more structured verse style.

But I want to talk a bit about the staging as well. It’s a single fixed set -- essentially a two-story open atrium around the central stage, with ladders and balconies to play off of, with both furniture and a few other structural pieces moved in and out as needed by the chorus/ensemble. The main stage area has a two part rotating floor that adds to the dynamism of the already very dynamic dance numbers. My favorite use of both aspects is in the piece “Hurricane” where Hamilton sings fixed in the center while chorus members dance/rotate in slow motion around him holding pieces of furniture up to represent the storm debris. As with the music, there is a regular contrast between frenetic motion and calm. Interestingly, the overall tone moves from a very energetic/loud/fast-paced first half, winding down into a slower, contemplative, mournful finish. Given the overall story arc, this fits perfectly, and I wasn’t at all disappointed when the finale left one stunned and thinking rather than ending in a rousing crescendo.

For the costume aficionados, I think you’re going to like this. The representation is stylized, of course, rather than documentary. The chorus/ensemble is dressed in neutral beige, the women with a 18th c style corset over leggings, then men with a waistcoat-like object over the same. This allows them to take on various roles for the various armies, townspeople, etc. by adding appropriate coats or gowns. (The female ensemble members often fill male roles in the martial scenes.) The progression of styles worn by the central characters follows the appropriate historical silhouettes, which provides a useful reminder of the significant passage of time across the storyline.

Without meaning in any way to ignore the stellar performance by author Lin-Manuel Miranda as the title character, I have to give my heart to Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica (the Schuyler who steps aside to let her sister marry Hamilton). I’m left wanting an entire story about her. A number of comments I'd seen in advance noted the prominence of the female characters, and especially Eliza Hamilton's role in curating her husband's legacy. My own impression is that this "prominence" is mostly in contrast to the more typical erasure of women's roles in historic stories. Yes, the Schuyler sisters were given an active place in the plot, but this is still very much a male-dominated story. Also noteworthy is Daveed Diggs’ dual over-the-top roles as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. (Let’s just say that Jefferson does not exactly come across as a revered statesman in this version of history.)

OK, so in summary? I loved it. You probably will too. And assuming it continues to sell tickets as solidly as it currently is, you may even have a chance to do so. I’d go so far as to use the phrase “game-changing” for this show.

(Footnote: This may also be the only occasion when you will see the Museum of American Finance take out an ad in Playbill.)
hrj: (doll)
No, this isn't about books at all. When I posted my review of the Cal Shakes performance of Irma Vep, I did a little fan-girl squeeing over Philippa Kelly, the current Cal Shakes dramaturge who also gives the pre-performance "Grove talks" during the dinner-picnic hour before curtain time. Someone pointed her to my post and last Thursday she came over to chat with [ profile] thread_walker and me and said how much she'd enjoyed the review and had I written any others? So of course I popped off a link to my whole "reviews: live performances" tag, which includes most of this season and a sprinkling of earlier seasons (plus, of course, my Broadway reviews). So you never know who may be reading your reviews!

But the main point of this post is that she asked if I'd encourage people who attend Cal Shakes performances to come for the Grove Talks. Now I rather suspect that the overlap of the set of people who read my blog and the set of people who go to Cal Shakes performances can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, but here's my recommendation: If you get Cal Shakes tickets, definitely see if you can get there early enough to enjoy a leisurely picnic dinner in the eucalyptus grove before the show (the snack bar has a rather foodie bent and serves excellent offerings, if a bit pricey, or you can bring your own) and very definitely sit in the Grove Talk area (the first picnic area on the left as you come up the hill) so you can enjoy the lecture about the background of the play and the performance. It really rounds out the experience nicely. (And you can join the Philippa Kelly fan club.)
hrj: (doll)
Wednesday it almost looked like we'd be two for two in terms of getting rained on for Cal Shakes performances this year, which is distressingly ironic given the ongoing drought. Evidently the first preview performance Wednesday was rained on, which must have made the refrain With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain and the storm scene particularly amusing. But instead the Thursday night show had glorious weather.

It's no secret that King Lear is a tragedy in the "all die" tradition, though somehow I always forget just how high the body count gets by the end. With its themes of dysfunctional family dynamics, the obsoleting of the elderly, madness, and betrayal, I can't really say that Lear is an enjoyable play. The darkness of the theme also seems to make it easier to identify structural aspects that grate on me. It is, in many ways, a very misogynistic story. One of the underlying themes seems to be that if women are given power it will corrupt them even more than it would men, and that women with power will first emasculate the men around them and then reject them for being unmanly. To me, the frenzy of adulterous desire and murder that is provoked in the reigning sisters by Edmund (bastard son of Gloucester) comes out of nowhere without motivation. Edmund's own actions, in contrast, seem to derive naturally from anger at the undeserved position his bastardy puts him in. Though, curiously, he gets a lovely speech about how ridiculous it is that people blame their personalities and actions on the circumstances of their birth...and then goes on to demonstrate by his life that a bastard is necessarily a villain and a traitor simply because of the fact of his condition.

But on to the specific performance.

The "small cast" approach of Cal Shakes often makes for some interesting casting doublets. Sometimes the echoes across characters bring interesting alternate readings, sometimes they bring confusion. The choice of having Kjerstine Rose Anderson play both Cordelia and the Fool worked very well, in my opinion, not least because, within a script where both the Earl of Kent and Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar spend a great deal of time hanging out with Lear while disguised and unrecognized, one can appreciate an alternate storyline in which Cordelia--rather than spending most of the play safely off in France--has actually chosen to disguise herself as a fool to accompany, protect, and educate her errant father.

In my experience, the thing that keeps Shakespeare's language accessible to modern audiences is the ability of the actors to inhabit their lines as if it were a mother tongue. It's a reminder of how much of successful communication lies in extra-textual factors: cadence, emphasis, expression. When the lines are spoken by someone who makes you believe that you're simply hearing an interesting regional accent, it's easy for your brain to fill in around the specific vocabulary that may be unfamiliar. (I think the best example of this effect that I've heard is the prologue to Henry V in the Brannagh movie version.) But conversely when the actors aren't as comfortable, the audience too will stumble over the meaning. While I acknowledge that one must make allowances for previews, I had regular problems following El Beh as Regan, simply because the easy cadence wasn't there. Especially during the second act, I had similar issues with Charles Shaw Robinson's Gloucester. And every time the script fell into the rhymed iambic couplets that Shakespeare is so fond of using as dramatic punctuation, I felt they were being telegraphed as, "Hey, here comes a rhymed couplet!" rather than adding a near-invisible rhythmic emphasis and elevated tone to the speech.

The costuming was delightful in a dark, leather-goth uniform sort of way. Goneril's military-style jacket was swoon-worthy. Yeah, I could imagine being led to internecine war by someone with that sartorial flair! The set went for a kinetic industrial effect, with several large metal-framed "cages" being continually moved, spun, and recombined to signal change of setting and provide a both a frame for entrances and exits and a scaffold for various activities. Except for one brief scene with a temporary hanging, there were no curtains--in effect, no back-stage. In many cases the Orinda hillside provided the scenic backdrop. As a staging technique it worked except for one extreme annoyance. Lighting relied on a number of large floodlights, and in the final scenes a circle of floodlights were pretty much the only set. And most of them were set at ground level and pointed at the audience. This meant that we got a blinding glare throughout a number of scenes that not only made it impossible to see the actors but came close to being physically painful.

Overall, I have to say that while there were a number of bold choices for this King Lear, it was far from my favorite Cal Shakes performance.
hrj: (doll)
Once again I showed up with my season ticket in hand not having done so much as look up what the evening's performance would be. One of the delights of the Cal Shakes outdoor venue is the picnic area and the pre-performance talk there by the staff dramaturg, Philippa Kelly. ([ profile] thread_walker and I have decided we need to form a fan club for her. I've suggested showing up in embarassingly fangirly t-shirts. She's absolutely delightful.) As the pre-show talk started to go into the background of playwright Charles Ludlam I started to get nervous, expecting one of those angsty middle-american man-pain stories. Ok, SOOO not like that.

For those who, like me, were completely unfamiliar with The Mystery of Irma Vep it's a campy, over-the-top, chock-full-o-tropes Gothick [sic] mystery-thriller, with the gimmick (part of the original staging) that the seven or eight (or are they?) different roles, both male and female, are played by only two male actors, with lightning-quick costume changes and off-stage vocal misdirection. The plot involves just about every standard gothic horror motif one could think of: vampires, werewolves, a sinister housekeeper, a peculiar handyman, an isolated manor house, the looming memory of a deceased first wife, the resurrection of an Egyptian mummy...I may have left something out, but the play probably doesn't. There is a mystery to figure out, and though many aspects of it are predictable to anyone familiar with the genre of origin, there are enough convoluted twists and turns to trip up every expectation. But the point isn't to play a gothic mystery, it's to lovingly mock gothic mysteries.

The show is infused with a type of over-the-top campy innuendo-laden humor that often leaves me a bit cold. In this case, it was redeemed for me by the performances of Liam Vincent and even more so Danny Scheie who is a Cal Shakes regular and often plays Shakespearean clown roles such as Bottom, Dogberry, and Puck. That made it a bit easier for me to enjoy it as "this is a Danny Scheie role" rather than "this is a campy drag show role". Personal taste, but I'm going to be honest about it.

The set design was gorgeous and lush (as well as being entertainingly designed to accommodate the rapid on-and-off stage activity for the role changes. There are also some clever in-jokes, such as the painted backdrop for the Egyptian scene including a silhouette of the Transamerica pyramid alongside the more traditional Giza style.

It's a scheduling quirk of me and my theater partner that for the last couple of years the best ticket series for us to choose has been one of the preview nights. There's sometimes a bit of a rawness in the performance, but also an exciting energy. I think this aspect was behind the one apparent costume-change failure last night, when Vincent came on stage in the costume for Lord Edgar Hillcrest but was clearly playing a scene as the housekeeper Jane Twisden. (Made all the more confusing because the actor never flinched or stumbled.)

This will be the last Cal Shakes performance with Jonathan Moscone[*] as Artistic Director. (The final show of the season and the first two of next season will have guest directors.) One of the things I've grown to love about Cal Shakes is the intimacy of the setting and the direct interactions with the creative personnel. Moscone has always been there before the shows, chatting with audience members and giving the introductory remarks. (Given that we typically get front row seats, I've also grown very fond of interactions with Cal Shakes board member Jay Yamada who frequently takes a sort of pre-show house supervisor role at the front and is always happy to chat both then and during intermissions.) I'm sure whoever the new Artistic Director is, they will continue the great legacy of this organization, but Moscone's presence has always added a very special something.

[*] Local trivia for my non-local readers or those who may not make the connection. Jonathan Moscone is the son of the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated in 1978 along with prominent gay activist and politician Harvey Milk. The Cal Shakes family reacted with delighted glee when Jonathan Moscone and his husband announced their marriage in 2013.
hrj: (doll)
For the last mumblety-ought years, [ profile] thread_walker and I have gotten season tickets to Cal Shakes, the summer outdoor theater series held just the east side of the Hwy 24 tunnel in Orinda. One aspect of being a regular season ticket buyer is that I don't necessarily take a close look at what the specific plays will be. (I just make sure I have a calendar alert to remind me of the dates!) So when I saw that last evening's play would be something called "Life is a Dream", I confess I winced a little, assuming it was going to be one of those neurotic '40s or '50s suburban dude-plays.

ha ha ha ha ha

Somewhere around 1629, the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca composed a work on the themes of predestination versus free will, inherent nobility versus socialization, conflicts of loyalty, a mild (and unfortunately transient) commentary on gender roles, and how one should behave with respect to the subjective nature of reality. This version of "Life is a Dream" (La vida es sueño) was translated and adapted by Cuban-American Pulizer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.

Like the Greek tale of Oedipus, a king attempts to avoid the dire fate predicted for his son by rather drastic means and, in doing so, precipitates the very event he's trying to prevent. Unlike for Oedipus, both father and son survive to see the fate realized and then subverted in a way that allows a positive ending (in the context of the times). And unlike the usual reading of Oedipus, in which the message is, "Ha, ha, you can't trick the gods!" the message here is a more subtle, "Our measures to prevent a event may instead cause it."

King Basilio places a great deal of reliance on astrological predictions, so when a prophecy claims that his about-to-be-born son will be a monster who destroys the kingdom, the newborn is imprisoned in a mountain hideaway, his only companion the nobleman Clotaldo as jailor and tutor. The boy, Segismundo has grown to adulthood frustrated and despondent at his imprisonment and at not knowing the reason for it (or his own identity). Now the time is coming to choose an heir to the throne and the children of Basilio's two sisters -- Astolfo and Estrella -- have traveled from their home realms to compete for the position.

Estrella (played as a savvy, don't-mess-with-me politician and woman who knows her own mind by the stunningly gorgeous Tristan Cunningham) claims precedence as the child of the elder sister. Astolfo (more of an arrogant self-centered playboy, though a valiant soldier, played by Amir Abdullah in his Cal Shakes debut) claims precedence as a man. Yup, that's exactly what he says: you may technically be the more direct heir but I'm a guy and that should trump it. But Astolfo, seeing that he needs a bit more than that to succeed, suggests another option: the two cousins should marry, thereby making any sort of choice between them moot. Estrella plays along but (by winks and nods, so it isn't clear how much of this is in the original text) is unconvinced that she needs or would benefit by the stratagem. Furthermore, it's a sore point for her that Astolfo carries the portrait of an old girlfriend hidden under his doublet.

But I get ahead of myself. The play opens with two travelers stumbling across the imprisoned prince and being deeply touched by his plight. Rosaura, disguised as a man, has traveled to this realm bearing her unknown father's sword to find and avenge herself against the man who seduced and betrayed her. The man who to this day bears her portrait in a locket around his neck. Yep, you guessed it: Astolfo. (The second traveler is her Comic Servant, who will, at various points in the play, pass through being almost everyone's Comic Servant.)

The prince's jailor Clotaldo discovers the travelers and captures them, for his orders are than anyone who knows of the prince's existence must be sent to the king for execution. But when Rosaura (still in disguise) surrenders her sword to him...what is this? He knows this sword! This is the sword he left with his pregnant lover when he abandoned her many years before with a promise to return. (Rosaura deserves to have lots of abandonment issues.) I suppose the fact that he was appointed as a jailor/tutor in a remote location just might possibly explain his failure to return and make an honest woman of Rosaura's mother.

Torn between his duty to the king and his devotion to this previously unknown son (as he supposes), Clotaldo agonizes but then brings his prisoners to court. The anguish of this decision is erased because King Basilio has decided to give his exiled son one last (heck, one first) chance before choosing a different heir. Having announced the existence of Prince Segismundo to the court, the need to execute people who know of him no longer applies. Segismundo will be brought to court and installed as king to see if he rises to the occasion, in which case he will rule. But in what is intended as a mercy, in the event that he fails the test and must be imprisoned again, he will first be drugged for the journey so that the entire episode can be dismissed as a dream if necessary. (Hence the title.)

Somewhere in here, Rosaura's original gender is revealed and she becomes lady in waiting to Estrella. There is comic hide-and-seek to prevent her from encountering Astolfo, but eventually they confront each other when Estrella assigns her to retrieve the mystery portrait from Astolfo (which he'd promised to hand over to Estrella as proof that the woman meant nothing to him). In a complex confrontation, she tells Estrella that Astolfo has stolen her own portrait of herself to tease her and she wants it back, but that he still has the portrait of the mystery woman. The purpose behind this seems to be to continue to conceal her previous relationship with Astolfo from everyone else, either for the sake of her reputation of simply because she has her own plans for vengeance. But more of that later.

Segismundo, set on the throne and crowned and told he is the rightful ruler by virtue of being King Basilio's son, throws a major temper tantrum at how unjustly he's been treated all his life. The power goes to his head and he kills one man and threatens others. (Sean San José does an excellent portrayal of an out-of-control man-child in the midst of an emotional melt-down.) But in the midst of all this, he also re-meets Rosaura (not realizing she's the same person as the traveler) and has one of those "OMG, I've never seen a woman before in my life, but I instantly know I'm supposed to fall in love with them" moments. Well, ok, the first time he has this reaction is on meeting Estrella. He falls all over her, making her rather uncomfortable and Astolfo decidedly unsettled. But then he re-meets Rosaura and Estrella is replaced in his heart. (Or other body part.)

The whole "temper tantrum and killing people arbitrarily" thing is quite reasonably interpreted by King Basilio as proving that the prophecy was correct. He has Segismundo drugged again and returned to his prison, where Clotaldo convinces him that the whole episode had only been a dream. He ruminates on this idea for a while but eventually accepts it.

Now things get complicated. King Basilio's army, now knowing that there's a local (and--by the usual rules--more legitimate) heir to the throne available, rebel against the idea of handing the kingdom off to a foreigner (Astolfo/Estrella in any combination) and muster themselves to the mountain prison to free Segismundo and set him at the forefront of a revolution. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that now Segismundo is utterly confused as to what is reality and what is a dream. Somewhere in here, Clotaldo has had a heart-to-heart talk with him about the importance of doing right and being a good person even in dreams, to say nothing of reality. In the least plausible twist of the plot, this lesson sticks, and when the tables are now turned, Segismundo declines to execute his jailor and instead lets him return to the king.

Astolfo and Basilio are leading the loyal troops out to meet him. Rosaura seizes this as her chance to avenge herself on Astolfo and goes to join the prince, now presenting in a hybrid gender with technically female clothing (though masculine in style) but carrying her sword once more. She even makes a little speech to Segismundo about how "you met me three times: once as a man, once as a woman, and now as both/neither." (It should come as no surprise to anyone that in my private universe, Rosaura is the true hero of the play. Having been injured within a strongly female-gendered framework, i.e., that of the seduced and abandoned lover, she rejects the need for masculine assistance and claims the male privilege of setting out on her own to seek her vengeance using masculine tools and in masculine guise.)

At this point, there was an unscheduled intermission in the play. It had been drizzling all evening (outdoor theater, remember) and though never enough to provoke cancellation, they determined that safety required mopping off the stage before the climactic sword-fighting scene. They ran out of dry towels before Mother Nature ran out of rain, so in the end the remaining action scenes were all done in slow motion, which was actually a rather pleasing effect. Our play now resumes.

The armies meet and King Basilio is defeated, finding himself in the prophesied position of kneeling at his son's feet and at his mercy. Fortunately, mercy is at hand. Prince Segismundo has decided that free will is stronger than fate and that he can choose to be a good man and a good king after all. To tidy up the plot threads, he redeems Rosaura's honor by the traditional expedient of marrying her himself. As an almost offhand symmetry, he decrees that Astolfo and Estrella will marry as well, though the marriage is no longer strategic for them. And Estrella is acted as finding this expedient tiresome, if not actually distasteful. (Much eye-rolling occurs.)

Oh, and the Comic Servant? The only on-stage casualty of the war. In trying to hide from the combat, he places himself exactly where a stray bullet lands, thus getting to do his own speech about how our actions to escape fate only serve to bring us to meet it.

The philosophic themes in the play are deep and intricate. (The dramaturgist's lecture before the show gave some of the political background of the times, and there are interesting echos there as well.) The gender themes have some interesting echos with some of the analysis I've been reading in various early modern sources for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project (particularly the work of Lanser and Traub). The resolution is unsatisfying and stereotypical for the times, as might be expected. In essence, the women end up being door prizes for the men, after having a taste of being characters with power and agency of their own. What can you do? (Oh, wait, you can write your own stories, that's what you can do.)

Cal Shakes has once again done wonders with a small, tight cast and minimal staging. Several favorite actors returned from previous seasons but half the cast were new to the company for this performance. And kudos to both the company and the audience for sticking it out in the rain!
hrj: (doll)
Me and the author, Robert Askins, at the Booth Theater

I have to confess straight up that Hand to God is not a show that I would choose to see in ordinary circumstances. The basic premise is: good church-going Texas boy involved in puppetry ministry finds his puppet has turned EEEEEEVILLL. Oh, and there’s significant amounts of violence, gore, and sex. Also: puppet sex. As I say, not my usual thing. But it’s playing at the Booth, which is the theater where Lauri is house manager, and I never miss an opportunity to see whatever they're showing when I'm in town. I also confess, it’s a total kick to do the whole “going in through the stage door and being welcomed by all the staff and hanging out afterwards to discuss the show” thing. In this case, that included a chance to meet the play’s author, Robert Askins, who was a total sweetheart about me having an entirely different conclusion about what his play Is Really About.

Lauri shorthands the play’s genre as “tragic farce”, which works for a very high-level summary. It opens and closes with a monologue from the puppet about the invention of good and evil and a critique of religion. Seen within that framing, the story’s various scenes of hypocrisy, lust, repression, and both inarticulate and willful failures of communication fall more on the farce side. Jason, the teenage protagonist, has recently lost his father to a heart attack, is being pressured to participate in his mother’s religious puppetry project, and is fumbling towards an adolescent desire for Jessica (another of the puppetry students) while clashing with bad-boy Timothy. The other character is Pastor Greg, who has his own fumbling, unrequited desire for the newly-widowed Margery, the puppet lady (Jason’s mother). Within all this swirling angst, Jason’s puppet Tyrone appears to develop a consciousness and desires all its own, including a refusal to be removed from Jason's hand, resulting in most of Jason's interactions with the other characters to have a dual character.

It would be easy enough to see Jason’s relationship to the foul-mouthed, violent, sacrilegious, sex-obsessed puppet Tyrone as a displacement of the id onto an external agent. Tyrone stands up to the bullying Timothy. Tyrone expresses Jason’s budding sexual desire for Jessica. Tyrone is witty and articulate. Tyrone makes demands on others. And after Jason tries to suppress Tyrone’s inappropriate public behavior by ripping the puppet’s head off, Tyrone reappears on Jason’s hand in the middle of the night, mended and now with teeth. After that, things start going downhill fast and getting very dark. This is definitely not a children’s puppet show.

Only after a disturbingly violent climax where Jason/Tyrone has succeeded in harming everyone around him, both emotionally and physically, is the puppet (apparently) defeated and destroyed (while still on Jason’s hand--significant quantities of stage blood are involved) and his mother breaks through her own pain and confusion to recognize and try to help her son through his own. The ego regains control over the id (maybe) and there is hope of reintegration.

Or maybe the house of cards built on the hypocrisy of religious ideals practiced by flawed and repressed human beings simply crumbles under its own weight and the mutual victims crawl together out of the wreckage to stagger off together to find their own salvation. Or maybe...

But this is where my interpretation went off on a completely sideways tangent. Because I’m watching a story of a mother trapped in her own guilt and mourning, distracted both by fending off the unwanted advances of an authority figure (Pastor Greg) and failing her saving throw against the less complicated but taboo lust of teenaged Timothy, and in all this unable to recognize that her son (Jason) is gradually slipping off the cliff of sanity. In Jason’s anti-social outbursts (expressed via Tyrone), the unpredictable mood and personality swings (personified by the ongoing conversation between Jason and Tyrone), and ultimately the violence that Jason inflicts on those around him, on himself (in the guise of attempting to “kill” Tyrone), and on his mother when she tries to interfere with his self-mutilation, I saw the helpless despair of a parent trying to cope with the mental illness of a beloved child. A parent who would have been out of her depth even without her own emotional problems. And all this in a context where Jason’s mental illness is viewed as a behavioral problem, or as a religious crisis (the acting-out includes using the trappings of Satanism and provokes Pastor Greg to explore the question of how a Lutheran would perform an exorcism), rather than as a medical issue.

Whether one views the final epilogue, where Tyrone returns in even more demonic form to have the last word, as the author’s final commentary on organized religion, as the persistence of the id, or as the looming specter of a psychological condition that has no easy or immediate treatment, the resolution is ambiguous and open-ended. Nobody in this play is living happily ever after. Good art should be open to multiple and even conflicting interpretations, and although I have my doubts about classifying Hand to God as “entertainment”, I have no trouble classifying it as a significant work of art.

I was uncomfortable about the handling--or rather the non-handling--of one aspect of the plot. There is a nod to the inappropriateness of the sexual relationship between Jason’s mother and his peer Timothy. (It’s never stated what age the younger characters are meant to be, but there’s an implication of high school.) There even seems to be an indication that Pastor Greg feels the need to report it to the police (although this is mixed in with questions about reporting Jason’s violent behavior to the authorities), but in the end it’s clear that the two adults conspire to sweep the matter under the rug and Timothy’s “injury” is treated simply as sexual frustration. In the larger real-world context of church-related sex crimes involving minors, the fact that this reaction seemed to be treated as normal, expected, and not to be given any special condemnation struck a sour note. Perhaps it was meant to be part of the background hypocrisy, but I wasn’t laughing.

After the first act, I had a brief conversation with Lauri about whether the play could be considered to take a feminist view or whether the female characters were all about the male gaze, or what. After the conclusion, it seems to me that these questions don’t really come into play. The point of view is filtered so strongly through the protagonist, that we aren’t so much talking about a “male gaze” as a “Jason gaze”. Although the mother is certainly treated as a complex character with her own concerns, I would find it hard to consider the treatment feminist. There is a definite edge of mocking her for her sexual desires. The character of Jessica, as well, exists almost solely as a foil for Jason’s sexual impulses. She may be a sexually liberated figure, but it’s a liberation for the purpose of being available (though consummated only by proxy through the puppets) and so that she can do the emotional work that Jason is unable to perform for himself.

Steven Boyer carries off the show as Jason/Tyrone, essentially playing a dual role that includes a great deal of physical slapstick. Even in the most serious scenes, there is a constant comedic presence in the broad reaction-expressions of the actors, playing a silent counterpoint to the focal action. In fact, in the early scenes it’s easy to believe one has been set up for a comedy--one with a decidedly adolescent sense of humor. The continuing humor provides leavening as the mood turns darker, delivering a complex emotional punch. The sets were perfectly atmospheric and involved very clever mechanics that seemed to fold space sideways to recombine and shift the walls to switch scenes dynamically.

My overall take: if a disturbing psychological story of repression, desire, and hot puppet sex is your thing, you’ll probably enjoy Hand to God.
hrj: (doll)

I’ve been a fan of Alison Bechdel’s work since I first encountered the early “Dykes to Watch Out For” cartoons, syndicated in a local SF Bay Area gay newspaper in the mid-80s. I was a newly-out lesbian myself and was finding myself hopelessly unconnected with the “women’s community” (as we called it back then), despite living in that hotbed of gay & lesbian culture. But Bechdel’s cartoons gave me a sense of being part of it all even as an outsider. Though DtWOF was based on Bechdel’s own milieu in St. Paul, the characters she depicted had a sense of universality. I recognized them (while simultaneously realizing I wouldn't fit in with their world either).

Fun Home--the autobiographical graphic novel on which the musical is based--was a much more intense and introspective work. (Though the DtWOF collections were, of course, also largely autobiographical.) It differed also in being created as a unitary work, rather than being an ongoing narrative in episodic strips. The story chronicles Bechdel’s childhood and her coming out at college, but most especially her relationship with her father, a troubled, closeted gay man whose life was crumbling around him and who took his own life several months after she came out to her family.

A graphic novel may seem an odd venue for autobiography (though hardly unprecedented), and an even odder inspiration for a musical, but it works surprisingly well as a medium for turning private family drama into Art. This isn’t a musical in the “walk out of the theater humming the songs” style, but much more in the style of opera, where the musical presentation is a way of turning ordinary interactions into universal stylized ritual.

The show is running at the Circle in the Square theater--a theater in the round--and the staging was specifically adapted for this venue so successfully one might think it had always intended to play that way. Sets appear and disappear by elevators through the stage floor so seamlessly it feels like a cinematic dissolve, but even more than that, the stage mechanics become part of the dramatic action, where furniture descends in a metaphor for loss, and during the emotionally fraught song portraying the father’s final breakdown, the stage traps are left open as he staggers through “Edges of the World” and finally falls metaphorically (although not literally!) into the abyss.

The non-linearity of the memoir is represented to excellent effect by the presence of three Alisons--the child, the college student, and the memoirist--often present on stage simultaneously and interacting musically as memory, self, and commenter. While all the performances are solid, for me the runaway star of the show is Sydney Lucas, playing the youngest iteration, who not only holds her own in the ensemble pieces but sings several key solos. (The program notes that when she won an Obie for the off-Broadway version of the musical, she was the youngest ever recipient of that award at ten years old, and given how impressive her resume is already, I suspect she has quite a career ahead of her.)

The characters of the two child-siblings (they don't appear in older iterations) are the least prominent, but it felt like the mother's character was also comparatively effaced. My impression of this is, no doubt, a combination of the focus of the story being on the father, plus the fact that I'm currently reading Bechdel's second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? which explores the title character in much more depth.

The orchestration is light--primarily strings and keyboard--and felt almost invisible, but in a good way. The songs vary between exposition (Alison's coming-out epiphany "I'm Changing my Major to Joan"), atmospheric (the children's mock-advertising jingle for their father's funeral home business, "Come to the Fun Home", performed with an open coffin as stage, which lays out the normalization of an atypical upbringing), and structural ("Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue", which initially frames the father's house-proud passion for home renovation and decoration, hinting through a somewhat stereotypical filter at his sexuality, but then is reprised in a bitter, ironic tone by the mother toward the end of the show).

While the details of Alison Bechdel’s family history--and the artistic career that gave her the opportunity to bring it to us--are unique, a great deal of the charm of the musical lies in its portrayal of a lesbian everywoman. The childhood gender non-conformity, the later-recalled crushes on women, the self-awakening in college and painfully awkward coming out process, and the frustration of trying to share such a vital truth of one’s identity with a family that wants to make your inner journey all about them instead. Fun Home has exactly that balance of particularity and universality that makes for great art, though it will have a special meaning for lesbians of A Certain Age for whom, like me, it captures certain essential truths of our era, whether we shared those specific truths or not.
hrj: (doll)
I picked this “jukebox” musical for my second show on this trip. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy one of the “big” long-running musicals, but that would feel less of a special “only in NYC” event. Although the show is billed as the Carol King story (and does, indeed, revolve around her as the emotional focus), it covers the braided lives of two songwriting couples--Carol King & Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann--whose early careers as covered in the show spanned and illustrated the pop music evolution of the “long ’60s” from teeny-bopper song factories in New York to the LA rock industry. The book does a seamless dual job of tracing the characters’ personal and professional lives while setting up the musical numbers. And the songs--with only minor artificial tweaking of chronology--similarly illustrate popular and familiar highlights of their careers while commenting on the tensions and triumphs of their creators.

The show is fast-paced, with sets and backdrops being mechanically swept on and off around the performers (I'm guessing some sort of track mechanism in the stage?) and near-magical quick costume changes. Jessie Mueller, as King, nails the transition from wide-eyed teenager to mature professional and manages the difficult task of portraying an untrained voice. The musical numbers provide condensed snapshots of the hits in their iconic performances. Only two of the songs didn’t work for me musically. While the singers on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” were fine, the instrumentation completely overwhelmed the performance to a painful decibel level. And the final, namesake song “Beautiful” (final, not counting the curtain-call performance) was so vocally over-wrought that I couldn’t make out the lyrics at all. (It didn’t help that it’s the one song in the show that I couldn’t have sung along with from memory.) Those points aside, it was a gorgeous feel-good performance (if one may say that of a personal story that works through a fair amount of pain to get to triumph). Not, I would guess, destined to be a great classic, but solidly entertaining.
hrj: (doll)
Live theater is, by its very nature, a medium of illusion and belief. In an era where CGI in film comes close to removing the necessity for viewer cooperation, it can be good to be reminded that an audience’s imagination can be a far more powerful “effect”. The stage version of The Elephant Man has always placed an equal burden on the lead actor and the audience to cooperate in creating John Merrick out of nothing but a few twists of the human body and Bradley Cooper certainly does his share in the equation. During the initial “transformation” scene, when Dr. Treves is reading the description of Merrick’s deformities as the actor portraying Merrick gradually contorts his body into their representation, we are shown projected photos of the real John Merrick--a feature that I considered possibly superfluous, although I may be making a false assumption that most people at the should would already be familiar with the images.

The staging, like the portrayal of Merrick’s body, is on the minimalist side, focusing on a few key pieces of furniture and an active use of sliding curtains to conceal and reveal, and to move the focal depth on the stage. Only the costuming is fully detailed to the period rather than sketched and suggested.

The play itself also deals in illusion and viewer projection, as the various characters who come into Merrick’s life project onto him their own needs and desires, not so much treating him like a blank slate, but as a mirror where the read in him the person they want him to have been: a devout and saintly martyr, a practical hard-headed businessman, a philosopher, and so forth. If I had a criticism of the script, it would be the heavy-handedness of this scene, redeemed in performance by staging it as what it is: a series of formalized recitations. In the end, one wonders how much of the real Merrick we have been presented and how much is the creation, not only of the performers on stage, but of the series of researchers, biographers, and interpreters who cannot help but have infused his story with their own purposes.

But I should stick to the performance itself, which was enthralling. The play is currently in previews and will open on December 7. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in New York.

* * *

And, of course, I also had the fun of shadowing Lauri around for her pre-performance checks and watching the cast do their warm-ups and getting introduced to all the staff. No meeting actors this time because there were Much More Important People who wanted to do that. And a truly freakily-sized crowd waiting outside the stage door, presumably for Mr. Cooper. I confess I checked out his IMDB listing and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in anything on the screen. (Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t count as “seeing” since he only did voice-over.)
hrj: (doll)
menagerie photo
(me and Zachary Quinto after the performance - and, of course, the camera caught me with my eyes closed)

I end my tour of Broadway with The Glass Menagerie, playing at the Booth (where Lauri is house manager, so we spent a great deal of the pre-show time saying hi to staff and fielding multiple repetitions of “Wait, aren’t you on vacation this week?”) Unlike the previous two shows, this is one I’ve seen multiple times before, so I was focusing more on the specific staging and performances.

When Lauri first described the set to me (a sort of island surrounded by a moat filled with inky black liquid -- evidently something of an annoyance to stage) I had a hard time imagining what the purpose might be, but in context it creates a visual metaphor for the isolation of the people and action from society. Tom comes and goes to the larger outside world via the fire escape stairs but the family’s conversations and activities take place suspended outside time, surrounded by an impenetrable barrier. (It also serves to mark the passage of time by becoming a night sky with moon periodically.) The set -- while not being minimalist -- is properly claustrophobic.

Cherry Jones excels at the smothering, demanding, disfunctional Amanda. You can see the genuine love and concern underneath her terrifying attempts to control and direct her children’s futures. But this is a tragedy so there’s nothing to do but watch the train wreck take its course. Zachary Quinto is Tom, the authorial self-insertion, who walks a fine line between eliciting audience sympathy (“Run while you can!”) and disapproval (“How could you abandon your sister?”) For some reason, my recollection of previous encounters with this play had given the character of Laura a larger part overall, no doubt because of her prominence in the last act. But my recollection of the character had also seen her as simply paralyzingly shy (something I can relate to!) in addition to her limp, whereas Celia Keenan-Bolger’s performance clearly brings out her deeper psychological problems (schizophrenia in the character’s real-world model) which make Tom’s eventual escape more sympathetic. The fourth role of the Gentleman Caller (played by Brian J. Smith) comes across as boisterously outgoing with an odd mixture of consideration and obliviousness. (He takes in stride Laura’s oddness but takes entirely too long to clue in to the fact that he’s been set up as a potential suitor.)

In keeping with the distancing, isolating staging, the performance style worked to create separation with a somewhat mannered presentation that came across as the characters being self-aware of the theatrical nature of their lives. (Of course, the framing narrative within the script sets this up as well, creating multiple layers between the action at the heart of the play and the audience’s ability to inhabit the story.) Taken together these factors created a consistent “feel” to the intent of the performance that worked very well for me.

(And, as demonstrated above, after the performance, I got to meet several of the performers and even got permission for a picture. So this doesn’t quite count as a “typical” NYC tourist experience.)

ETA: almost forgot: Bechdel Test Score = pass (because Amanda and Laura discuss Laura's failed enrollment in business school, which I believe is only slightly tainted by "because if you can't get a man you'll need to support yourself").
hrj: (doll)
I'd actually intended to see No Man's Land. Not for any special reason, but because I'd tried and failed to get tickets to it when it started out at Berkeley Rep, and partly because I've already determined that I'm not a fan of Beckett. But Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart  were doing both on alternate evenings at the Cort Theatre and when Lauri got us tickets there was a complex confusion that ended up with us seeing Waiting for Godot instead. This was not actually a problem, because the main purpose was to get a chance to see McKellen and Stewart together on stage. And we accomplished that. And it was wonderful.

So, to begin with: I am not a fan of Beckett. This was adequately determined by seeing Happy Days at Cal Shakes a couple years ago. Depressing, incomprehensible, nihillistic rambling is Not My Thing. So I am not going to review the play itself.

But the framework of the play involves two old friends rambling and joking and reminiscing and coming around again to a continuing but ultimately unimportant topic, and reacting to the absurdities of everyday existence. And taken in that context, the two men were perfectly typecast. They managed to make Beckett's absurd drivel entertaining and amusing, as if you were listening in on a conversation between two charming and witty people where it was unnecessary to know what they were talking about to enjoy the experience. The physical comedy was another plus and I could swear there was a touch or two of improv at times. At least, there were times when the characters' laughter seemed to be based in part on genuine surprise at each other's antics, so either there was some improvisation going on or they really are just that good.

And they are just that good. I'll confess, there's enough of the fan-girl in me that I went solely for the chance to see McKellen and Stewart on stage live together. But anyone who can make me glad I sat through Waiting for Godot is Just That Good.

(Bechdel Test score: Fail)
hrj: (doll)
What, after all, is the point of hanging out in New York with someone in the theater business if you don't take in a few shows? One of Lauri's friends gave us tickets to her current show A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a delightful musical romp through cold-blooded mass murder in pursuit of inheritance and love. It's based on the same story as the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets and features the same conceit -- as portrayed by Alec Guinness in that movie (and by Peter Sellers in so many movies) -- of one actor playing half the cast, male and female both. In this case, the multi-faceted performer is Jefferson Mays who differentiates the nine roles (8 of them victims of murder) with the sort of broad music-hall caricature that the genre calls for. The other main pillar of the performance is Bryce Pinkham as the delightfully amoral aspiring heir.

The songs were witty, intelligible (not always a given!), and moved the plot along efficiently without much need for other explanation or background knowledge. This was helped, of course, by the plot being a string of basic well-known comedy tropes -- and I say this not in criticism but in admiration. It was a delightfully seamless package of familiar motifs with almost-hummable music. (There were some potentially squirm-inducing stereotypes in the sequence where Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith is being encouraged to go off on various hopefully-fatal missions to bring charity to assorted third world locales, but this was mitigated somewhat by the primary ridicule being of Hyacinth's motivations and clear ignorance of what she was getting into. Overall, the primary target of satire is upper class British entitlement and obliviousness and the ways in which other characters abet it.) And there was a delightful twist in the end that upsets the default trope of two female romantic leads squabbling over the man. (Although without disturbing the default assumption -- understandable for the Edwardian setting -- that their primary occupation will be squabbling over a man.)

The multi-frame design of the stage provided the opportunity for shifting quickly between various settings as well as visually representing the tale-within-a-tale structure of the narrative. Effective and restrained use of video projection as part of the scenery to enhance certain events that otherwise would rely entirely on audience imagination.

Perhaps one of the odder reactions I had to this performance was that I could easily see this work becoming a favorite of amateur musical theater groups. It's just downright fun.

(Bechdel test rating: fail)


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