Posts Tagged ‘taylor mac’

Performance diary: Harry Kondoleon’s ZERO POSITIVE at the Public Theater’s New Work Now

September 13, 2013

9.11.13 – The Public Theater’s New Work Now series has started including a play from the past, and this year’s selection was Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive, which Joseph Papp originally produced in 1988. Published in M. Elizabeth Osborn’s anthology The Way We Live Now, Zero Positive was part of the second wave of plays about AIDS, a lyrical and theatrically free-wheeling step beyond informative first-line dramas such as As Is and The Normal Heart. It’s one of the strongest plays in the body of work by Kondoleon, who sadly died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. The original production was a troubled one in that the playwright became dissatisfied with the actor in the central role, Reed Birney, and fired him, which made the director, Mark-Linn Baker, resign in solidarity. Birney’s replacement was no slouch – David Hyde Pierce – and director Kenneth Elliott picked up the pieces, but the show didn’t make much of an impact, and the play remains one that is more admired than produced.

zero positive
Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, assembled a fantastic cast for this one-night-only reading, which served the purpose of establishing that the play has lost none of its emotional resonance in the intervening years. Himmer lives with his father, Jacob Blank, a poet and philanderer whose estranged wife has very recently died, sending him into a grief-stricken time warp. Himmer’s BFF Samantha arrives with the news from her doctor that she and Himmer have both tested positive for HIV. Their friend Prentice, who is probably infected but is opposed to taking the test, insists, “It doesn’t mean anything.” Himmer knows different. “It’s a death sentence,” he says – a bit dramatic but not an untypical response in the dark ages before new treatment options made HIV manageable.

As a tribute to his mother, Himmer decides to put on a verse play called The Ruins of Athens he’s found among her papers and approaches his actor friend Patrick for help. Patrick is so spectacularly self-absorbed he can do little except complain about how his brilliant auditions never get him hired. He does know a woman named Debbie Fine who’s recently come into several million dollars from her family, and he enlists her to bankroll putting on the play. When Debbie Fine arrives, Jacob mistakes her for a nurse, she plays along, and they improbably fall in love. She makes a big donation to a local hospital to convert a conference room into a solarium that serves as theater for the play, in which they all perform.

I got to have a conversation after the reading with Benson, who told me she came across Harry Kondoleon’s plays when she was a young theater artist in her teens and twenties growing up in Scotland and eager to learn about American theater. We talked about what a strange play Zero Positive is – how it begins in a kind of living-room naturalism but then progressively departs from the mundane reality of clothes and food (the stage direction “It is lunchtime. It is always lunchtime” is a classic Kondoleon) until it arrives at a timeless theatrical zone. A toy train set figures heavily in act one and poetically implants a disorienting sense of scale. Each of the five scenes takes a slightly different form, almost becoming its own play. The fourth scene in particular becomes a kind of existential way station – the characters are ostensibly having an indoor picnic in the bare hospital room that will become their theater, yet they end up acting like they’re outdoors. And Kondoleon’s writing rises to exquisiteness as each character reveals something of his or her essence.

Debbie Fine describes her generic life before meeting Jacob Blank: “I had other boyfriends. We did things together, looked at movies, ran around tracks, ate unusual flavors and discussed fluctuations of all kinds.” Jacob, who seems crusty and cruelly remote until her arrival on the scene, surprisingly announces, “My childhood was only good, glorious I’d go as far as to say. I found two pearls on the open clam of my arrival: I called them my parents. They called me their prize.” Himmer reveals in one outburst his bedrock weltschmerz: “Enough of all these flowers – flowers are no more than, at their best, bright little sex organs hoodwinking insects into their sticky business and passing themselves off then hypocritically at holidays as fit subjects for centerpieces.”

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Benson, who directed Reed Birney in a blazing award-winning production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, was aware of his unhappy history with the play and attempted to provide closure by casting him as Jacob Blank, but ultimately he wasn’t available and the great Larry Pine played the role in the reading. Himmer’s barely contained hysteria was suitably conveyed by the great Taylor Mac – the first time I’ve ever seen him not in elaborate drag (he returns to the Public Theater later this fall with a revival of Lear de Bessonet’s terrific production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan). Two wonderful actors, B.D. Wong and Ana Reeder, played Prentice and Debbie Fine, and two young actors new to me, Gayle Rankin and Arian Moayed, played Samantha and Patrick. Moayed (who appeared on Broadway in Bengal Tiger in Baghdad Zoo) blew me away with his quick-study portrait of Patrick, a tricky role to pull off with his two crazy a capella songs and easily parodied actor-ish narcissism. Tony Shalhoub played this role originally, magnificently, but I found Moayed especially touching in scene 4, when his self-centeredness became a poignant existential cry: “I just want a big part. I just don’t want to come on with very little to say and then go off. I’ve done that. I want to make a difference. I want to know when I go off it makes sense that I came on in the first place.” Don’t we all want that? And Rankin, playing a role first performed by Frances Conroy, assumed a transcendent radiance when Samantha, as the goddess in the play-within-the-play spoke lines that connected all the dots from ancient Greece to the AIDS epidemic to the aftermath of 9/11:

I answer your call

although the city is alive in death

with screams for salvation barely audible

as the walls are torn down to

the merry whistle of the flute.

Death’s caprice is playing there;

empires dissolve in song.

Many longtime Kondoleon fans and followers attended the reading. A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards (Stephen Soba and his partner Jonathan, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Rita Ryack and her partner Porter, Ellen and Judy Dennis) for delicious food and wine at Aroma, where we reminisced about Harry and exchanged notes on the real-life experiences that fed into the writing of Zero Positive. We were all very grateful to Jonathan Lomma, the William Morris agent who represents Harry’s work, for instigating this return visit to a beautiful play.

9-11 zero positive posse on doorstep

Culture Vulture: February 2013

February 18, 2013

2/2-9:

Books: during my week-long vacation in Vieques, I hunkered down with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a novel friends have been raving about for years. I wanted to read it before seeing the movie.
cloud-atlas-book-cover-01
Because six different stories travel back and forth in time, it takes a certain amount of concentration, perfect for lounging poolside in the sun in February. I liked the book and appreciated Mitchell’s clever narrative structure and imagination, though afterwards it occurred to me that almost all the stories boil down to one chase scene after another. I do look forward to seeing how it translates into a film.

DVD: the week in Vieques also gave me a chance to catch up with a bunch of screeners I’d borrowed from a movie-critic friend:

Brief Reunion – a good small psychological thriller, with a key performance by the great downtown stage actor Scott Shepherd (his first major role, I believe, and an excellent film debut — below with the movie’s central character, played by Joel de la Fuente);

brief reunion

Fairhaven – another small John Sayles-like movie about a bunch of post-collegiate friends drifting through their twenties. Curiously, an actress new to me – Alexie Gilmore – played the lead in both this and Brief Reunion;

Barbara – really smart beautiful film set in East Germany before the wall came down, with an excellent performance in the title role by Nina Hoss, even though she looks quite a bit too glamorous to be playing a small-town doctor (you can’t help seeing her as a young Jeanne Moreau — see below);

BARBARA  Regie Christian Petzold
Marley – Kevin Macdonald’s documentary gives an impressive overview of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley’s short, eventful life, with a special emphasis on his extremely poor childhood. But there are lots of holes in the narratives, which is one disadvantage to the choice of relying exclusively on talking heads. There are important pieces of Marley’s story that certain people didn’t live to tell or are not willing to tell on camera;

Seven Psychopaths – I saw Martin McDonagh’s second film in the movie theater but it was interesting to watch it on DVD with a group of friends, one of whom bailed out after 15 minutes because he couldn’t handle the violence. Too bad, because the movie doubles back on itself, critiquing itself as it goes along. It’s McDonagh’s philosophical meditation on his simultaneous attraction to and revulsion against violent stories, with game comic performances by Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and the fearless Sam Rockwell;

Pitch Perfect – I ordered this from Netflix because Andy’s a capella singer friends recommended it, but after 15 minutes he insisted we take it off because its portrayal of college singing groups was so fake it was fingernails on the chalkboard;

Not Fade Away – David Chase’s debut as film director resonates as a highly autobiographical film about a kid who plays in a rock band in New Jersey just out of high school in the late ‘60s. That era was my childhood, too, and I loved it that all the musical references were spot-on. The movie is quirky and aggressively minor-key, with a key misstep having the main character’s younger sister provide a voiceover narration – we don’t know enough about her to trust her perspective, and it feels kinda tacked on to ward off criticism that the movie is too male-centered.

2.13.13:

TV: Girls. After watching Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture a few weeks ago, I needed to satisfy my curiosity about her TV show. After two marathon evenings with the first season on DVD, I’m hooked. She’s really something – brave, quirky, real, and unafraid to expose herself, her neuroses, her imperfect body, and her generation’s peculiarly tortured dance around intimacy, romance, and casual sex. It’s a mistake to think of Girls only as the antithesis of Sex and the City just because there are four central female characters. Dunham clearly models herself on Woody Allen as writer/director/performer, with a big hit of Louis C.K. It helps to have Judd Apatow as fearless producer. The writing is pretty amazing, the dialogue is super-fast, I could barely keep up. I know we’re supposed to think that Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver, just out of Juillard

(he's on the phone with his sister)

(he’s on the phone with his sister)

with great big ears and a Marine’s washboard abs) is a dick because he pees on her in the shower and jerks off in front of her, but I think he’s an awesome boyfriend. I love any opportunity to watch Chris O’Dowd. And I love seeing David Mamet’s daughter Zosia play the super-young motormouth Shoshonah, especially the episode where she gets high at a party in Williamsburg. “I smoked crack?? Don’t tell my mother! Don’t even tell me!” One advantage to watching the show via Netflix is to gobble up the DVD extras — commentary on three different episodes and a hilarious and illuminating conversation between Dunham and Apatow. Oh, how I love hearing a successful Hollywood writer/director/producer say the word “butthole” aloud in casual conversation!

good person playbill2.16.13
Theater:
Good Person of Szechwan is another triumphant production by Melanie Joseph’s Foundry Theatre in collaboration with La Mama ETC. It’s one of Brecht’s essential texts, in which he repeatedly sets up genuine moral dilemmas – good people making bad choices and then trying to manage the consequences – and never gives definitive solutions, throwing back on the audience the responsibility to “Change the world, it needs it!” Lear DeBessonet’s lively production is Brechtian in the best sense: fun, funky, sly, surprising, shot through with music (performed live by a local skiffle band called the Lisps) and excellent comic performances. The title character is a prostitute, Shen Te, who does a kind deed for a trio of Diogenes-like gods passing through town looking for one good person. Her reward is enough money to start a little shop, which brings everyone in town to her doorstep for a handout. She’s too kind-hearted to say no, but she has enough sense to invent a male cousin, Shui Ta, who comes in and establishes order. This role is usually played by a woman who eventually dons male attire. One driving force in this production was the casting of Taylor Mac in the title role, who brings a whole other beautifully theatrical element to the gender-bending. Mac plays Shen Te with his customary bald pate and glittery eye shadow, in a red dress with hairy chest poking through (shout out to Charles Ludlam’s Camille); as Shui Ta, he wears a pinstripe suit, bowler hat, and stick-on handlebar mustache, sometimes changing in front of our eyes. (Clint Ramos’s costumes rock, as does Matt Saunders’s set, a study in the magic of cardboard.) The cast is full of downtown luminaries — Mia Katigbak, Annie Golden, and Vinnie Burrows as the gods, Lisa Kron in two contrasting roles – surrounded by a bunch of excellent game team players (I was especially impressed with David Turner as the improv-ready MC/water-seller, Kate Benson as Mrs. Shin, and Brooke Ishibashi and Darryl Winslow as utility players).

good person prodshot

The show got a rave review from Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, so the short run sold out quickly. Luckily, the Foundry added two matinees, which is how I got in. It was nice to see a heavy-duty downtown theater crowd in the audience: Jennifer Miller, Jessica Hagedorn, Mary Louise Wilson, Mac Wellman, Marc Robinson and Erika Rundle. We were handed programs leaving the theater, and my appreciation for the production extended to reading the program notes later. In the spirit of Brecht’s frank matter-of-factness about economics, the program includes a detailed production budget – first time I’ve ever seen that! Melanie Joseph is an amazing producer. Also, this was one of the rare productions where I found myself wondering who the dramaturg was who wrangled this translation (by John Willett) and helped the director keep everything fresh — the answer is Anne Erbe. Good work, Anne!

good person budget

2.17.13

Film: I guess because I once wrote an admiring article about Christopher Shinn’s first produced play Four, I got multiple invitations to the screening of the film version at BAM’s Rose Cinema, as part of the 3rd Annual New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, from the first-time director Joshua Sanchez and the producer Allen Frame (an old friend and associate from Soho News days).  Four tells two parallel stories – on a steamy Fourth of July night, a middle-aged black man named Joe hooks up with June, a white teenaged boy he met online, and his daughter Abigayle slips out from taking care of her sickly mother for a tryst with Dexter, a jivey jock who wishes he were black. The play is a yearning young man’s tale about that time (those times) in your life when people keep asking “What do you want? Where do you want to go?” and the only honest answer is a desolate howl of “I don’t knoooooooooow!” The movie captures all that yearning and awkwardness, with an especially good understated performance by Wendell Pierce in the trickiest part of Joe, the father. The movie felt a little slower and more ponderous than it needed to be. And I have strong memories of the original stage production, in which Dexter was played by a skinny white redhead; E. J. Bonilla in the role doesn’t really read as white, so his wannabe status is muted. Those are small points, though. It’s a nervy little art film that has the courage to zero in on a couple of heated pockets of psycho-sexual ambivalence.

Four-Joshua-Sanchez

 

Theater review: THE WALK ACROSS AMERICA FOR MOTHER EARTH

February 2, 2011


It seems absolutely fitting that the last show to go into production at La Mama ETC before that Off-Off-Broadway landmark theater’s legendary founder Ellen Stewart died January 13 was a collaboration between two generations of experimental theater artists — the young writer-singer-songwriter-director-drag-artiste Taylor Mac (above center, with James Tigger! Ferguson and Will Badgett) and the Talking Band, an ensemble that has been creating and performing its own work since 1974. My review of The Walk Across America for Mother Earth has just been posted on CultureVulture.net.

“The play tells the apparently pretty much true story of Taylor Mac’s involvement in an actual 1992 grass-roots march from Pennsylvania to Nevada by activists demanding that the government return to the Shoshone people land that it had appropriated as a nuclear testing ground. But it’s no kind of earnest documentary. The show combines ramshackle vaudeville, a Mickey-and-Judy version of commedia dell’arte (on LSD), and a real play that channels Chekhov and The Wizard of Oz.

You can read the entire review online here.

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