Culture Vulture: Caryl Churchill, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Wallace Shawn, the Wooster Group, James Baldwin, and Leonard Cohen

March 1, 2017

I love artists who give themselves permission to throw out the rule book for their given form, who take for themselves the freedom to do whatever they want.

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Caryl Churchill is one of those. No two of her plays have much in common except in their rich, dense language and their wayward inventiveness. Escaped Alone, which began life at the Royal Court Theater in London and just finished a brief run at the BAM Harvey, runs 50 minutes long and takes place in a neo-realist backyard, where four women who are neighbors chatter about nothing and everything, and some kind of liminal space (two vertical planes defined by red LED rectangles), from which one of the women describes the aftermath of a global catastrophe. Into this framework Churchill pours torrents of thoughts, fantasies, worries, political commentary, and poetic musing. (My favorite: reminiscing about looking at clouds from an airplane window, one character wonders what Julius Caesar would have thought about this sight.) James Macdonald, Churchill’s director-of-choice these days, does a stellar job, as do his four strong performers (above: Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, and June Watson).

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If anything, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is even more outrageous than Caryl Churchill in the glee he takes dismantling theatrical conventions. I wouldn’t say Everybody (currently onstage at Signature Theatre) is a great play, but it’s fascinating, entertaining, erudite, and original, and it’s nothing like any of his previous plays (the ones I’ve seen were An Octoroon, Gloria, and War). Adapted from the 15th century morality play Everyman, the show doesn’t do anything in a normal or predictable way, starting with the announcement at the top of the show to turn off cel phones, etc. Four actors play set characters; five others participate in a golf-ball lottery that tells them what roles they will play at the performance you see, one of them being the title role. So five actors have to pretty much memorize the entire play and be able to roll with their assignments on a moment’s notice. A prompter stands by, and Lakisha Michelle May – my Everybody – did have to call “line” 5 or 6 times but she did so without breaking stride. The abundant cleverness never paid off in earth-shattering insight, but there’s a dance sequence that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Lila Neugebauer staged the hell out of the show, with a good game cast that also included Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, the adorable Marylouise Burke (as, hello, Death), Louis Cancelmi, 9-year-old Lilyana Tiare Cornell, revered veteran David Patrick Kelly, and – as Love – the lovely Chris Perfetti.

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Then there’s Wally Shawn, who always goes his own way. His plays are not so different from each other but they’re very different from other people’s plays, with their long monologues, unreliable narrators, language and actions that emerge from the shadowy depths of the human unconscious. Evening at the Talk House (currently at the New Group, in its home at the Pershing Square Signature Center) bears a distinct family resemblance to The Designated Mourner, representing a genre we might call Theater of Anxiety. After decades of close collaboration with Andre Gregory, Shawn has found another exceptional collaborator in Scott Elliott, who does an incredible job creating moment-by-moment theatrical life out of what could be a quite stagnant, talky script. Like the best plays reflecting the world we live in, it’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the theater, but truthful art is important to me, even when it’s dark and upsetting. I was impressed to watch the entire cast work quite outside where they’re comfortably known, from Matthew Broderick in the central role of Robert (with echoes of his performance in the film of Marie and Bruce) to John Epperson (Lypsinka in mufti) to Claudia Shear to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker to Shawn himself and his longtime compatriot Larry Pine. Annapurna Sriram was the only cast member new to me, strong and indelible in a cast of legends.

Not to mention the Wooster Group and its fearless director, Elizabeth LeCompte, masters of creating a theatrical universe with its own eccentric, exciting rulebook. I saw The Town Hall Affair when they first showed it last year, but as I’ve learned through long exposure to this exceptional company it always pays to go back and see the work again, as I did this week, because it’s so layered you can’t possibly take in everything at once. The first time you’re just absorbing the central narrative, which always has something bouncing off of something else – in this case, the Wooster Group recreating a 1972 Theatre of Ideas symposium organized so that Norman Mailer could “discuss” women’s liberation with Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling, which they bounce off of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s documentary film Town Bloody Hall, with scenes from Mailer’s own weird little home movie Maidstone lurking in the background and excerpts from Johnson’s Lesbian Nation framing the whole thing.

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The Wooster troupers are in fine form, with Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos splitting the role of Mailer, Maura Tierney returning as guest artist to play Greer, and Greg Mehrten manifesting magnificently as Trilling. But Kate Valk dominates the stage playing Johnston as a goofy intellectual free spirit in a silky long red wig. Every detail of the production has gotten deeper, richer, more precise, funnier and yet more pointed and profound in the year they’ve been honing the piece. Return visits allow you to tune into the intricate layers of sonic and visual material that LeCompte packs into the composition – the jazz piano (is it Cecil Taylor?) that underscores Valk/Johnson’s opening monologue, Shepherd double-tracking the women’s speeches in barely audible whispering into a mic. Second time around I connected Valk’s spectacular inhabiting of Johnston’s delivery of her stream-of-consciousness remarks with her incredible facility with Gertrude Stein’s text in the Wooster Group’s 1997 House/Lights. And Mailer’s insanely smug, self-amused, nonsensical spewing looks very different considering who’s in the White House now. Speaking of which, when Johnston mentions “White House briefing,” Valk charges forward with her podium, in a hilarious split-second reference to Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Oh, the layers, the layers, how I do love them….

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I also saw a couple of excellent documentaries about equally titanic sui generis artists. I Am Not Your Negro is both an incredibly stylish film and a powerful portrait of James Baldwin, whose incisive and deeply personal writing and far-seeing commentary has increased in value exponentially since his death in 1987. Director Raoul Peck not only selects astonishing swaths of riveting footage of Baldwin speaking – casually, publicly, oratorically, fiercely, studiedly, always eloquent, even in silence – but also surrounds it with incredibly fresh, witty, devastating samples of pop culture and newsreel coverage of Baldwin’s time and our own.

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Almost equally riveting are the sentences that pour out of Leonard Cohen’s mouth in Tony Palmer’s long-lost, recently restored documentary Bird on a Wire, for which the director followed the singer-songwriter around Europe during a month-long tour of Europe in 1972. This is no slick, smooth greatest hits compilation. The tour constantly teeters on the verge of disaster, with horrible sound problems, cranky audiences, and increasingly frayed nerves among all the musicians, culminating at a final concert in Jerusalem that ends abruptly halfway through the set with Cohen and crew backstage in tears. Yet the music Palmer captures is often ethereally beautiful, with often rough and improvised variations on recorded versions of the songs. And time after time, we see Cohen speaking to the audience during shows or being asked the most inane questions by idiotic interviewed, and he comes out with all manner of direct, soulful, deep, unpredictable statements. You can watch it on Vimeo here, and I hope you will.

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