Posts Tagged ‘wooster group’

Theater review: EARLY PLAYS

February 26, 2012


My review of Eugene O’Neill’s Early Plays, the collaboration between Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and the Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse, has just been published on CultureVulture.net. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

My life as a Culture Vulture: week of February 19

February 25, 2012

Busy fun culture week.

SUNDAY: I got to see the penultimate performance at the Encores! series of Merrily We Roll Along at City Center. It’s always been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, if not my very favorite. This is the adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart show-biz drama that moves backwards in time, starting from the present when the central character, Frank Shepard, is a super-successful Broadway composer who’s sold out to Hollywood and then moving back through the pivotal experiences and relationships that made him who he is.  I’m not even that much of a musical theater geek, but I saw the short-lived original Hal Prince production in 1981 and loved the show and the music and the emotional sweep of the show, despite the ridiculous costumes and production design. As with many Sondheim shows, it was impeccably recorded (by Thomas Z. Shepard for RCA Records), and it’s through the original cast recording that many, many people grew to love this show. It’s great theater for the ear and a fantastic score. To my taste, there’s never been a better Charley Kringas than Lonny Price (especially his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and I’m very partial to Ann Morrison’s performance as Mary (for me, she kinda owns “Like It Was” and “Now You Know”) — plus Jason Alexander’s finest moment, as Joe.


I’d go see any production of Merrily that comes down the pike. I did see the pretty mediocre York Theater production (directed by Susan H. Schulman, starring Malcolm Gets) but the gold standard has always been James Lapine’s staging at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 with John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather McRae. Encores! tapped Lapine to mount the concert version at City Center, and he did a great job — not quite obliterating my fondness for the La Jolla version, partly because the full staging made that production more forceful. But it was pretty damn good at City Center. The show is such a moving, intense, bittersweet, super-ambivalent slice of adult wisdom — rueful in suggesting that we inevitably lose significant shards of our integrity as we age, upsetting in its honesty about the light and shadow aspects of friendship,  and yet inspiring in the way it captures youthful idealism. It’s a deep show, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the kids at the end claiming “It’s our time!” At City Center, I couldn’t help thinking that today’s versions of the twentysomething Frank and Charlie and Mary would be Occupying Wall Street.


Lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mary and Charley, but for me two other performances by non-hyphenated actors were revelations: Colin Donnell as Frank and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie (above). Donnell is so good I may have to go see Anything Goes, and Stanley is definitely star material — she got to do the new number that Sondheim cooked up for this production, the act-two opener that gives us an excerpt of Frank and Charlie’s hit show, Musical Husbands.

MONDAY: I’m a big fan of Edmund White and will read anything he writes. I enjoyed Jack Holmes and His Friend a lot while reading it, so I was surprised to feel a little letdown by the very ending. It seemed weightless and inconsequential. But the form of the novel, which centers on a gay man who is in love with a straight friend, is somewhat experimental, so it works on you after the fact. The four sections alternate between third-person omniscient narrative and first-person narrative by Will, the straight guy — I think this is White’s first attempt to write in the voice of a heterosexual male, and at times it seems strained and somewhat cliched, though I can’t be sure if that’s intentional on White’s part. Ultimately, it’s an intriguingly detailed, characteristically sexually explicit take on how the advent of AIDS affected the kind of straight people who were just starting to explore the sexual freedom gay men claimed for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s.


I was alarmed to read an interview with White in the Gay and Lesbian Review, where he mentioned that he recently had a stroke. Nevertheless, his writing here is strong, and many passages dazzled me and made me laugh, such as this description of two women working as personnel directors for a literary magazine: “They’d been sitting in the same small office, with its dust and snake plants, for thirty years. Every surface was covered with files. They wore hats perched incongruously above their wide, bloated faces, like flowers taped to livestock.” And: “He’d never thought of his grandmother as a woman before — more as a matron with a firm, molded mono-bosom and a diamond brooch and a low, Southern twang than as a woman with soft white breasts like warm dachshunds in constant motion, dogs with huge brown noses.”

TUESDAY: Anthology Film Archives in the East Village is running a fantastic and comprehensive film series devoted to the Wooster Group, including a 10-program retrospective of film and video documentation of their glorious stage productions. When I ran into Cynthia Hedstrom at St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, she urged me to show up for the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road, and I’m so glad I did. The middle piece of the group’s Three Places in Rhode Island, Rumstick Road was really the work that launched Spalding Gray’s career as a solo performer and storyteller. At the center of the piece is Spalding telling the story of his mother’s suicide, using tape-recorded recollections by his father, his grandmother, and a psychiatrist who’d treated his mother. And Elizabeth LeCompte was just beginning to hone the tools that have made her the legendary genius director she is: having the actors lip-synch the recordings and developing with her three outrageously talented and fearless performers (Gray, Ron Vawter, and Libby Howe) and kindred-spirit techies (Jim Clayburgh and Bruce Porter) a variety of physical actions and visual images to complement the verbal material.


The piece was first shown in 1977 and performed periodically through 1980 (I saw it, weirdly enough, when it had a brief uptown run at the American Place Theater), back when the Wooster Group was called The Performance Group and were virtually unknown and barely scraping by. Various bits and pieces of Rumstick Road were captured on video, film, and audiotape but never a complete documented performance. Recently, LeCompte and filmmaker Ken Kobland sat down with the hodgepodge of chunks and ingeniously reconstructed the entire performance. It’s very rough and sometimes crude, which is of course perfect for LeCompte’s aesthetic. And looking back at the piece now, it’s astonishing to see how original and strong a work of art it is. The reconstruction includes a number of close-up shots that enhance the viewing experience (I hadn’t retained a clear memory of the crazy moment when Ron Vawter, wearing a latex old-lady mask, examined Spalding’s mouth at length, pulling out and stroking his tongue with his fingers). It was thrilling to re-experience the show, but also sad recalling those wonderful young actors lost to AIDS (Vawter), suicide (Gray), and mental illness (Howe).

WEDNESDAY: Rehearsal with Gamelan Kusuma Laras. I’m excited that I’m slowly, slowly starting to learn how to play a new instrument, bonang panerus (below), with lots of help and coaching from more experienced players (thanks, Carla! thanks, Dylan! thanks, Oki!).


THURSDAY: I finally finished reading Electric Eden, British music critic Rob Young’s dense, ambitious, obsessive, and impressive history of a certain stripe of British pop-folk music. He originally set out to focus on a specific set of quirky, seminal bands and performers who bridged the gap between traditional English folk music, rock and roll, and post-Dylan singer-songwriters — the likes of Fairport Convention (whose members included Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny), the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Donovan, and Nick Drake. But his research led him to deep thinking about the British history and culture and geography that music emerged from, and he also found himself tracking the artists forward through the tributaries of psychedelia, art-rock, glam-rock, punk, and other sound experiments. It’s one of the most impressive, intelligent books about pop music I’ve ever encountered, extremely well-written, scrupulously factual, and free of cheap, stupid generalizations.

I learned lots about music that was near and dear to me as a precocious teenage listener, and he writes about tons of artists I’ve never heard of before who sound fascinating (Mighty Baby? Comus?). His discography alone provides a graduate-level study guide to some beautiful and curious musical byroads. I never knew, for instance, that the Beatles created a 15-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” around the time of Sgt. Pepper! Here’s his succinct description of the tipping point, when the hippie-dippy pastoral rootsiness of acts like the Incredible String Band began to be eclipsed by the dark urban edginess of David Bowie: “If folk, folk-rock and its tributaries were, however subconsciously, believed to spring from collective, stable racial memory, glam tipped music into a wilderness of masks and mirrors, divided selves refracted through a succession of grotesque invented facades.”

FRIDAY: I was asked to give a nine-minute talk introducing the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard film Paris, Texas at the Rubin Museum‘s Cabaret Cinema series, which prompted me to read this informative interview with Wenders and also gave me the delightful opportunity to watch the film again. I hadn’t seen it since it opened at the New York Film Festival in 1984. Man, Robby Muller’s cinematography is spectacular, starting from the opening shots of Harry Dean Stanton striding with absurd purposefulness through the lunar landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Ry Cooder’s music has never been more beautifully matached with a film. I will admit that I slipped out early, so as to avoid watching Nastassia Kinski, whose performance I recall as acutely embarrassing. The Rubin is a great museum, the people who work there are super-nice, the place was packed and buzzing on a Friday night, and I look forward to using my gift membership to view their always-engrossing exhibitions, starting with a show I know Andy will want to see: “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

Top theater of 2011

December 19, 2011

NEW YORK THEATER: Top Ten Productions of 2011

1. JERUSALEM – Jez Butterworth’s dense, lyrical, astonishingly original play superbly directed by Ian Rickson, centered on the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance (above) as half-man half-myth Rooster Byron, with help from a sturdy ensemble cast and production design by the artist known as Ultz.

2.  THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) – Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway lived up to the company’s high standard for wit, depth, theatrical liveliness, and tech savvy. Great ensemble performance directed by John Collins, with a special shout out to lead actors Mike Iveson and Lucy Taylor, supporting performers Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, and the amazing Kaneza Schaal, and production designer David Zinn.

3. THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRE — an unlikely match and another beautiful triumph for Elizabeth LeCompte and her brave actors, led this time by Ari Fliakos as the author’s stand-in with all subtext stripped away.

4. THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT – Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play kept me laughing really hard at the most heartbreaking scenes, where cruelty and romance kept morphing into one another. Top-notch cast, though for me the revelation was Yul Vazquez as the scene-stealing cousin.

5. OTHER DESERT CITIES – Jon Robin Baitz’s taut play, a showcase for five excellent actors beautifully directed by Joe Mantello (I preferred the Lincoln Center cast with Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin).

6. SLEEP NO MORE – British theater company Punchdrunk’s ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare and Hitchcock made for the year’s single most original theater experience, a dreamscape sprawling over 100 rooms in two adjacent former warehouses in Chelsea.

7. THE ILLUSION – Signature Theater’s Tony Kushner season ended with Michael Mayer’s gem-like staging of this lyrical bit of poetic philosophy featuring memorable performances by Lois Smith, Henry Stram, and Peter Bartlett.

8. BURNING – Thomas Bradshaw’s haunting, provocative play working the raw edges of sex, race, and politics staged with gleeful perversity by Scott Elliott.

9. THE PATSY & JONAS – the incomparable actor and playwright David Greenspan had another banner year with his own play Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons and this quirky double-bill of solo virtuosity.


10. SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK – I saw the final performance that could legitimately be said to reflect the work of director Julie Taymor (above), with its mind-boggling sets by George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and I thought it was terrific. Sue me.

Runners-up:

•    James Macdonald’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, headed by the formidable trio of Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw (below);

•    David Leveaux’s smart revival of Tom Stoppard’s towering Arcadia


•    Taylor Mac’s collaboration with the Talking Band, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth at La Mama, a perfect tribute to the recently departed champion of idealistic experimental theater

•    The Book of Mormon, thanks to the fearless Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the clever Casey Nickolaw

•    Daniel Sullivan’s lucid Shakespeare in the Park staging of All’s Well That Ends Well

•    David Lindsay-Abaire’s troubling but sticky Good People – Frances McDormand justifiably got the reviews and the awards but let’s not forget Patrick Carroll’s exquisite supporting performance

•    Nina Arianda’s scintillating howdy-do in David Ives’ Venus in Fur (above right, with Hugh Dancy)

Performance diary: NORTH ATLANTIC

March 19, 2010


March 18 –
The Wooster Group’s North Atlantic at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Fantastic show! When the Wooster Group first mounted North Atlantic in 1984, it was an anomaly among their works – an actual complete play, as opposed to the multimedia spectacles they’d previously done that included fragments of classic plays exploded and Woosterized. At the time, it was primarily a genre piece playing off clichés of old war movies funneled through author Jim Strahs’ machine-gun-rapid, energetically obscene, imaginatively free language. Commissioned as a collaboration with a Dutch company (Globe Theater in Eindhoven), it began as a very, very loose adaptation of South Pacific. (And I use the term “loose” purposely as an excuse to quote one of my favorite lines from the play:  BENDERS: Now, don’t tease me, Ann. Is she really that way? Is she really that loose? ANN Loose! Why my goodness, General, you could drive a dump-truck down that alley and K-turn without even using the rear-view mirror.) Aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe, a crew of male navy intelligence officers and female “nurse/word-processors” are engaged in some elaborate activity having to do with coding and decoding military messages…or maybe they’re a decoy operation trying to draw enemy attention away from the real operation. But of course they spend most of their time trying to entertain themselves telling filthy jokes, plotting sexual intrigues, fighting, singing, dancing, and planning a Wet Uniform Contest. The original cast featured the founding Woosters in their glory: Spalding Gray, Kate Valk, Ron Vawter, Willem Dafoe, and Peyton Smith, with Nancy Reilly, Michael Stumm, Anna Kohler and Jeff Webster. It was revived in 1999 with a cast that included Steve Buscemi and new Wooster stars Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd.

Steve Cuiffo, Zachary Oberzan, Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk, and Paul Lazar

Now the play takes on a whole other currency, since we’re in the midst of a war where intercepting and interpreting terrorist communications is front and center, not to mention interrogating suspects and sexual politics within the military. But just in case that sounds like some kind of straightforward earnest plot-oriented gritty realistic play, rest assured that it’s still classic Wooster Group: high-powered acting and exquisitely choreographed theatrical chaos. The cast is fantastic: Ari Fliakos as Chizzum, the hot-headed, unbelievably fast-talking captain (originally the Ron Vawter role), Kate Valk as the goofy, sexy Ensign Ann Pusey, Paul Lazar as the creepy General Benders (originally played by Spalding Gray), Scott Shepherd as visiting hot-shot Lud (the Willem Dafoe role), Frances MacDormand as Master Sergeant Mary Bryzynsky (Peyton’s role), and a bunch of terrific young new Wooster-ites, including Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan who are hilarious and wonderful as two doofy Marines under Chizzum’s command. Typical for the Wooster Group, even though they’ve done the show a couple of times before, it never looks exactly the way it did before – there’s always tweaking and adapting to the space, the actors, and to the visual/theatrical whims of genius director Elizabeth LeCompte. The final tableau is one I didn’t remember – maybe it was always there, but it’s amazing to encounter. And the performed version differs quite a bit from the published version of the play, which you can download from Strahs’ website along with his other plays and his fiction.

Ari Fliakos and Frances MacDormand

This show inaugurates the Wooster Group’s residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center – a step up from their original home base, the Performing Garage, in terms of capacity and room to maneuver. Weirdly, though the seats look plush, they’re not so comfortable – my butt never falls asleep at the theater but it was uncomfortably numb before the 90-minute intermissionless show was over. Excited crowd in the house, a lot of press. I chatted beforehand with filmmaker Michael Almereyda – good to catch up – and I brought with me a posse of 8, some Wooster Group veterans, and some virgins, including Andy, whose brains were absolutely fried by the show, and Marta, who was super-thrilled to be sitting a few feet away from Frances MacDormand, whom she idolizes. Then when we went to Market Café for dinner afterwards, MacDormand and two friends plunked down at the table next to us, and Marta went into fits of fangirl frenzy. I emboldened myself to chat MacDormand up — she was annoyed by the interruption but patiently indulged me as I showed her pictures on the Harry Kondoleon website of her in a blond wig in the Yale Repetory Theatre production of Harry’s play Rococo, back in 1981.

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