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Archive for April, 2015
It was one of those only-in-New-York weekends of performance-going. Saturday night Andy and I went to the Public Theater where we sat 20 feet away from Anne Hathaway performing George Brant’s Grounded in a spectacular production staged by the great Julie Taymor. Hathaway plays a female pilot who, after many missions flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, meets a man on leave and gets pregnant, which means getting reassigned from “the blue” to the “chair force”: sitting and watching a high-definition black-and-white screen as the remote operator of a missile-mounted drone tracking targeted individuals in…Pakistan? Iraq? The play isn’t great literature; it arrives at a moral point of view most of us walked into the theater already holding. But it is an honest, dense, skillfully crafted performance poem that Hathaway handled with impressive skill (despite a wandering Wyoming accent).
And the production surrounding her is intensely dazzling, thanks to Taymor and her stellar team of designers (Riccardo Hernandez sets, Christopher Akerlind lighting, Will Pickens sound design, Peter Nigrini’s projection design, Richard Martinez electronic music design , with original music and soundscapes by Elliot Goldenthal). As my friend Jeremy Gerard wrote in his review, “this master of spectacle is just as imaginative and ingenious working on an intimate scale as she is on larger canvases.”
Then Sunday afternoon I went by myself to the Park Avenue Armory to see The Night Dance, an hour-long recital with Charlotte Rampling reciting poems by Sylvia Plath and Sonia Wieder-Atherton playing Benjamin Britten cello suites. It was a beautiful, elegant, austere, and — you can imagine — fierce performance. Wieder-Atherton bowed, plucked, and strummed her way through Britten’s pieces, by turns keening, lyrical, and brooding, usually on their own but occasionally overlapping with Rampling’s simple, inhabited recitations of familiar poems (“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus”) and less familiar ones. “It is a terrible thing/To be so open: it is as if my heart/Put on a face and walked into the world.” The rapt audience in the cozy Board of Officers Room at the Armory (capacity 200?) was full of women Rampling’s age and temperament who grew up with these poems, felt all the rage and confusion and feeling contained in them, and still survived, miraculously.
I’ve gone to see many Foundry Theatre productions over the years — great shows from David Hancock’s Deviant Craft to David Greenspan’s The Myopia, from Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales to Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty, season-long colloquia on topics like money, values, and hope — but the other night the Foundry Theatre came to me. The current production, Gideon Irving’s solo Living Here, happens in a different New York City apartment every night, and the performance I volunteered to host in my living room took place last Thursday.
It was a trip to have 32 people (half of them my friends as guests, half paying customers unknown to me) cozily jammed into my midtown abode watching an extraordinary show. Gideon has been doing home shows for several years now. He used to play in a band and got tired of playing crappy venues to semi-attentive audiences. (You can read an interview about the evolution of the show online here.) He did his first home shows in New Zealand, pedaling his instruments from gig to gig in a wagon behind his bicycle. Living Here combines songs and stories. The songs displayed his magnificent eccentric roar of a voice and his exquisite restless musicianship (he played banjo, guitar, Irish bouzouki, mbira, kazoo, harmonium, and electronic keyboard with special effects, including a looper he used to sample a classic ringtone from an audience member’s iPhone). And his stories reported from the front lines of his peripatetic survey of humanity, full of juicy details from his encounters with a potato warehouse manager to the son of a kazillionaire (who hosted a show in a multimillion dollar apartment with a staff of nannies, caterers, and assistant nanny caterers), an audience with a goat, what little kids yell out in the middle of his show, and tidbits culled from the casual conversation he’d had with me about my apartment during the sound check (below). It was an amazing show. I don’t think anyone who came will ever forget it.
I admire Melanie Joseph, who started the Foundry, as much as anyone I’ve ever met in the theater. Her commitment to high-quality artists, radically unconventional theater, and social awareness inspire and amaze me. It’s borderline crazy what she does. There’s very little money to be made doing this. It’s a constant high-wire act, and the stress must be overwhelming. And yet she and her artists keep going, making magic against all reasonable expectations. Living Here plays through May 2 — catch one of the remaining shows if you can.
Adventures like Living Here spoil you for regular theater. Almost any other conventional play or musical looks stodgy and staid by comparison. And then there’s Fun Home, another show so original, so deep, so beautifully made, so unusual that it lives in a category all its own. This is the musical based on the graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her complicated relationship with her father, a funeral director and high school English teacher who was himself a closeted gay guy who committed suicide when she was in college. NOT standard material for musical theater, but as adapted by fantastic playwright Lisa Kron with a score by the great Jeanine Tesori guided by the fine director Sam Gold, it is nothing less than great theater.
It was a huge hit last season at the Public Theater, where Andy and I saw it twice. Now it’s been remounted on Broadway, extensively revised and radically restaged in the round at Circle in the Square. The work that the creators have done on the show had nothing to do with making it more palatable to an uptown audience or commercially viable but everything to do with making it a truer, deeper work of art. So much about the show is unprecedented — there’s never been a lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical, a character played by three actresses representing the real Alison Bechdel (or T-Rab, as the cast apparently likes to call her) as a child, a college student, and an adult (Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Beth Malone). Stories about fathers and daughters are relatively rare, but when do we ever hear lesbians talk about their relationships with their fathers? And this father (played by the excellent Michael Cerveris) is so complicated — brilliant, high-strung, overbearing, creepy, and increasingly crazy. The score is full of great songs, at least one major aria for each central character. We all know Jeanine Tesori is a wonderful composer, but the secret star of this show is Lisa Kron, whose book and lyrics excel. The strong cast give impeccable performances (I haven’t yet mentioned Judy Kuhn, Roberta Colindrez, and Joel Perez). The staging in the round sometimes diffuses focus (there are definitely moments I miss from the Public Theater production) but just as often it opens up new pockets of theatricality in telling the story and revealing the relationships, thanks to David Zinn’s protean set design and Ben Stanton’s essential lighting. This is clearly not a show for everyone — two small groups of women (a pair and then a foursome) walked out of the intermissionless show, apparently unable to tolerate the sight of two gals making out in a college dorm-room bed — but for me (and surely most of the otherwise sold-out house that leapt to its feet as soon as the show was over) it’s right up there in the pantheon of great unorthodox original musicals, a la Spring Awakening and Fela! We walked out emotionally shaken, thought-provoked, and ecstatic.