Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: ANGELS IN AMERICA

April 15, 2018

I’ll admit it — I’m one of those obnoxious guys who loves to brag “I saw it first.” I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater before it became a Broadway blockbuster. I saw Prince at the Bottom Line, a tiny nightclub, at the time of Dirty Mind. And yes, I saw Angels in America in its first incarnation at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, when the second play, Perestroika, was still an unfinished rough draft.

I reviewed David Esbjornson’s bare-bones production for the Village Voice (see here)I believe it was the first New York review, and I got a very sweet letter from Tony Kushner afterwards.

The following year I traveled to Los Angeles to see the official “world premiere” at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone, who had commissioned the play for Eureka. And in 1993 I saw the original Broadway production, staged by George C. Wolfe, and wrote a cover story for the Voice that centered on a long, fascinating interview with Kushner. When Mike Nichols’ made-for-TV movie came out in 2003, I watched it three times. And I saw and reviewed Michael Greif’s Off-Broadway revival of the play at Signature Theater in 2010. I was out of town when Ivo van Hove’s stripped-down production played the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2014 so I wasn’t even tempted to go. By the time Marianne Elliott’s production for the National Theater in London became a big hit and transferred to Broadway, I kinda felt like I’d had my fill of Angels in America and would be content to skip it, relishing my memories of past productions. But the reviews and word-of-mouth were so stellar that curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to buy a ticket at the last minute to see Part 2, Perestroika, because it’s been dramatically different in each previous production and I was curious to see what Elliott — who staged the thrilling Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — has done with it.

I didn’t love it. Nothing about the production improved on previous versions I’ve seen. A major selling point for the Broadway transfer was the casting of two famous names in major roles — Andrew Garfield as the central character Prior Walter, a 30-year-old cater-waiter with AIDS, and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. Both disappointed me. Garfield gives a shockingly shallow, mannered externalized reading, the epitome of a straight guy acting queeny. He evinces none of the rage and despair that Stephen Spinella brought to his definitive performance in the role. I wasn’t aware until the curtain call that Garfield is English, which made me understand another layer of his distance from the character, even if he did get choked up giving the show’s pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I found some of the other British actors equally unsatisfying — Susan Brown’s drab turns as Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother, and Ethel Rosenberg, for one, and Denise Gough, who was so fiery and intense in People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall but here barely conveyed the damaged soul of Harper.

I did admire handsome James McArdle’s performance as Louis, and perhaps the best thing about the production is the theatrical spectacle of having the Angel played by Amanda Lawrence as a stark, ravaged creature whose wings are manipulated by a team of “Angel Shadows” (reminiscent of the puppetry in War Horse, which Elliott also directed). Nathan Lane…bless his heart, I always like it when he plays mean, unsympathetic characters but he can’t help overplaying his plentiful laugh lines so the performance comes off as familiar shtick. I admired some things about Lee Pace’s performance as Joe, the tortured bisexual Mormon lawyer, a very tricky role that walks a narrow path between enigmatic and underwritten — Pace embodies the enigmatic part but I didn’t feel any real emotional connection between him and either his wife or Louis, with whom he has a coming-out affair. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett was okay as Belize but again was directed to go heavy on the physical flamboyance but never quite felt like the solid moral center of the piece, which is how others (Jeffrey Wright on Broadway and in the movie, Billy Porter in the Signature revival) have played the role. Nathan Lane’s understudy is Mark Nelson, a terrific character actor whom I would love to see play Roy Cohn; I would also be happy to see Beth Malone, who was the wonderful adult Alison in Fun Home, who is the understudy for Amanda Lawrence and plays Wednesday matinees.

Clearly, I am not the ideal audience for this production. I probably sound like one of those jaded opera queens who natter endlessly on comparing historical productions of “Cav and Pag.” People who’ve never seen Angels in America may well find this Broadway production revelatory. It is absolutely an astonishing piece of work. And despite all my qualms about the performances, I wept all the way home, unable to shake the memories the play dredged up of those years people like me spent visiting hospital rooms, tracking every emerging opportunistic infection and promising pharmaceutical treatment, and burying friends and loved ones.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: springtime in New York

April 8, 2018

The Spring Culture Season blossoms forth!

March 30God’s Own Country on DVD (I didn’t love it the way many others have — the central relationship seemed more schematic than plausible to me).


March 31Cabaret Luxe at Lot 45 in Bushwick, inspired by Weimar-era German club performance, with maitresse of ceremonies Dorothy Darker…

leather-lunged diva Dee Dee Vega backed by punk klezmer rock band Amor Obscur…

and burlesque performers Lewd Alfred Douglas…

Divina Gransparkle…

and Deity (pictured below with the entire cast).

April 1David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum, fun immersive experience.

While we were there, we strolled through the ongoing exhibition “Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas,” with its eerie kachina dolls and awesome thunderbird masks.

Afterwards Andy and Tansal and I had lunch at Kiwiana in Park Slope, which serves all New Zealand cuisine, including the irresistible dessert known as pavlova.

April 5Yerma at Park Avenue Armory, Lorca’s play adapted and directed by Simon Stone with a ferocious cast led by Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell (below, photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times) and a spectacular set designed by Lizzie Clachan.

April 6Wild Wild Country on Netflix, the riveting six-part documentary about how rural Oregon dealt with the sudden emergence of an Indian sex guru (Rajneesh, aka Osho) and his community of devotees in their midst.

April 7Isle of Dogs at Cinépolis in Chelsea — we loved it.

April 8 — Museum of Modern Art. Final day of the Club 57 show. Ann Magnuson put out the call for a closing day party, so the basement of MOMA thronged with senior citizens who once upon a time were the hippest and grooviest of East Village clubgoers, along with plenty of excited visitors too young to have seen the club back in the day.

This delightful cartoony Kenny Scharf painting (“Escaped in Time, I’m Pleased,” above) prepared me for the colorful figuration all over the Tarsila do Amaral retrospective, with its inquisitive-looking critters and its theme of anthropophagy.

And upstairs a rich, heady, comprehensive survey of rigorous conceptual artist Adrian Piper, with its witty dada performative moments (I loved the idea of the humming room, very Yoko Ono — and I love that a security guard stands by whose job it is to make sure you’re humming when you enter the room).

 

Culture Vulture: New Georges Theater

February 25, 2018

2.25.18

I’ve been making an effort to reserve my increasingly limited theatergoing time for plays and artists that are new to me, bypassing revivals and work by people whose work I know thoroughly. I’ve long admired the idea of New Georges, Susan Bernfield’s theater company devoted to producing work by women, even though I’ve seen little or none of their work, and I’d yet to check out shows at the spiffy new Flea Theater space in Tribeca. So the description of the current double bill of Sound House and This Is the Color Described by the Time called out to me big-time.

We started with the Sunday matinee of Sound House, Debbie Salvetz’s production of Stephanie Fleischmann’s play about British electronic composer and sound designer Daphne Oram. I’d never heard of Oram, and I loved the nerdy non-glam period style of the actress who plays her, Victoria Finney. But the piece as a whole chopped up Oram’s story into incoherent bits shuffled together with an invented and much less interesting narrative about a character named Constance Sneed (Susanna Stahlman) and her stormy relationship with an elderly downstairs neighbor. The three actors (James Himelsbach plays a colleague of Oram’s named Horace Ohm) spend a lot of time arranging and rearranging antique sound equipment around the stage to no great import. I left unsatisfied.

Happily, its companion piece later that evening was a different story. Conceived and directed by Lily Whitsitt and originally developed by a performance lab called Door 10, This Is the Color Described by the Time went much deeper into sound exploration, with the help of Elevator Repair Service’s longtime sound designer Ben Williams. The performance begins with audience members donning individual headsets, which allows us to dive sonically inside the mind of Gertrude Stein (Christina Rouner), holed up with Alice B. Toklas (Stephanie Roth Haberle) in their countryside home in Bilignin during the Second World War. Many layers of atmospheric sound drift through our ears as we watch Stein at her desk writing (the text includes chunks of her play “Mexico”), Toklas cooking, the two of them eating and nuzzling and being domestic, receiving letters from Stein’s friend and protégé Thornton Wilder (played by Williams) and their French protector, gay aesthete Bernard Faÿ (Ean Sheehy).

Capitalizing on recent scholarship (the program includes a substantial bibliography, including Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice and Barbara Will’s Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma), the piece expands beyond familiar portraits of Stein and Toklas to explore the moral complications and vulnerability of two Jewish American lesbians surviving Nazi occupation of France with the help of Faÿ, an official with the Vichy regime who espoused anti-Semitic views and was jailed after the war for his collaboration. Short on verbal narrative and long on theatrical imagery, this beautifully designed (sets by Amy Rubin, lighting by Reza Behjat) and performed show creates an atmosphere of tension and emotional complexity. Watch how a handful of tomatoes stand in for the fowl Toklas cooks for dinner and how a giant misshapen stuffed pillow comes to represent the cancer that killed Stein shortly after the war ended.

Between the two shows, we walked over to the Leslie-Lohmann Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street and checked out the two shows on display there. “Haptic Tactics” is one of those dense, intellectually rigorous shows with much to admire – I like that almost nothing looked like a conventional painting, photo, or sculpture – but not so much by way of beauty.

Around the corner is a show by Leonard Fink consisting largely of nude self-portraits, many of them shot among the ruins of the West Side piers. I love a guy who’s willing to give his work titles like “Self-Portrait Giving a Blow-Job.”

With both shows, I marveled at the museum’s scrupulous attention to the eccentric materials and pervy preoccupations of LGBTQ artists.

We stopped in for refreshments at the coffee shop Baked on Church Street – I had tea and some little round balls that are the vegan equivalent of doughnut holes – but they closed at 5:00, which left us with a couple of hours to kill. We would have eaten an early supper at the Aussie bistro Two Hands but they also closed at 5, so we ended up happily biding our time at the New Orleans-themed restaurant 1803, where Andy had the pulled pork sandwich and I the Cajun niçoise, both delicious. We got a 15% discount because they have a deal with the Flea Theater, where I was also touched to see Liz Swados’s well-worn leather jacket displayed with suitably fetishistic devotion.

Culture Vulture: Best of 2017

December 18, 2017

 Top Theater of 2017


The Band’s Visit – David Yazbek’s sublime musical score, impeccably direction by David Cromer, wonderful ensemble headed by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk (above).


Poor People’s TV Room – this haunting multimedia performance by electrifying dancer-creator Okwui Okpokwasili at NYLiveArts, with terrific cast directed by Peter Born, Okwui’s partner (their previous collaboration, Bronx Gothic, inspired a documentary film that was also a highlight of the year).

A Pink Chair (in Place of a Fake Antique)
– the Wooster Group outdid themselves with this almost unbearably beautiful homage to Polish theater legend Tadeusz Cantor at Bard College’s Summerscape with ambitious music overseen by Gareth Hobbs.


The Glass Menagerie
– Sam Gold’s iconoclastic Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams’ classic (above), with Sally Field, Joe Mantello, wheelchair-bound Madison Ferris as Laura, and a stark set by Andrew Lieberman, wasn’t to everybody’s taste but it was to mine.


The Town Hall Affair
– the busy Wooster Group continued to expand and refine their restaging of a 1971 forum on women’s liberation with Kate Valk’s standout evocation of Jill Johnston.


The Antipodes
– Annie Baker’s very strange and surprising play at Signature Theater beautifully staged by Lila Neugebauer (whose crazy-good production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s wild Everybody, also at Signature, was another favorite).


Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
– Mark Brokaw’s brutal revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play.


People, Places, & Things
– an excellent cast headed by Denise Gough (superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin) and Bunny Christie’s astonishing set lit up a tough play about addiction written by Duncan Macmillan (who also wrote and directed, with Robert Icke, the terrific adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 on Broadway).


Also: Phyllida Lloyd’s The Tempest set in a women’s prison with original score by Joan Armatrading; Manual Cinema’s gorgeous Mementos Mori with music by Kyle Vegter; Laurie Metcalf and Condola Rashad in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2; Rebecca Taichman’s inventive staging on Broadway of Paula Vogel’s Indecent; Jo Bonney’s impressive revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s F**king A; KPOP, the witty, immersive piece about a Korean popstar factory at Ars Nova; David Greenspan’s miraculous solo performance of Eugene O’Neill’s nine-act Strange Interlude, directed by the Transport Group’s Jack Cummings III; Keegan-Michael Key’s lively Horatio in Sam Gold’s impenetrable staging of Hamlet at the Public; Ramsey Nsar in Ivo van Hove’s spectacular if unsatisfying staging of The Fountainhead at BAM (above); Taylor Mac’s holiday extravaganza at Town Hall; and David Zinn’s  extravagantly fun sets and costumes for SpongeBob SquarePants (below).  

Movies That Meant a Lot to Me: I Am Not Your Negro, Julieta, Get Out, Icaros: A Vision, Marjorie Prime, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, The Ornithologist, Bird on a Wire (Tony Palmer’s Leonard Cohen documentary), Long Strange Trip (Amazon documentary about the Grateful Dead).

Culture Vulture: TAYLOR MAC AT TOWN HALL

December 14, 2017


Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History: Holiday Sauce was in some ways a New Orleans-style funeral for drag legend Mother Flawless Sabrina disguised as a Christmas show. Between some of the most savage, scornful renditions of carols and pointedly political commentary, Taylor shared the pearls of wisdom that judy gleaned from a long apprenticeship with Flawless Sabrina, who died three weeks ago at the age of 78. An icon within the drag/faerie/trans community, Sabrina was best known for organizing a national drag competition that culminated in an event at Town Hall that became the basis for the award-winning documentary film The Queen. That made this concert at Town Hall exactly 50 years later a very special convergence of powerful forces.


“Remember your substitution skills” was a Flawless Sabrina axiom that Taylor Mac employed in order to give a queer spin to classic holiday numbers (“O Holy Night” was thoroughly sliced and diced to layer acceptably inclusive meanings over heterosexist Christian-capitalist propaganda). And the essence of Mother Flawless Sabrina’s teaching was that “expression is an act of citizenship,” a lesson Taylor Mac has thoroughly absorbed.


The show was a sort of coda to the 24-Decade History of Popular Music that judy unfurled at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, with the same extraordinary collaborators, genius costume designer Machine Dazzle and supernaturally gifted music director Matt Ray. Taylor’s first outfit combined a Christmas wreath headdress that conjured Medusa, a camisole with roast-pig epaulets, and a tutu-skirt of candy canes, reindeer antlers, and pussy-grabbing hands; while Tigger Ferguson performed the inevitable striptease (to “Spirit in the Sky”), Taylor changed into a Glinda tiara with carousel hoop-skirt.


Machine of course appeared as well, first as a Christmas tree, then as naughty housemaid.


From the piano, Matt Ray took the exquisite eight-piece orchestra through a nutty unpredictable set list that ended with the whole house quietly humming “Silent Night” along with the distinctly New Orleans-flavored horn section. Additional special guest Glenn Marla came out as Hot Santa to demonstrate how every mall in America could use this season to conduct a Sexual Consent Workshop.


It was one of those all-star audiences that convene for special occasions in New York. Andy and I went with our friends David Zinn, Bob Mower, and Phil Hayes (who jumped onstage when Taylor Mac summoned all the Brits to sing along with the Pogues’ beery pub anthem “Fairytale of New York,” above). There was Jackie Rudin, of course, with Fussy LoMein, and Wesley Morris, and Rob Marx and Jim Ingalls, and Emily McDonnell, and Gabriel Ebert, and and and. The minute the show ended, everyone looked at their phones and learned the good news from Alabama, and the theater erupted again with cheers and tears.

A bunch of us repaired to Cafe Un Deux Trois afterwards for refreshments. O, what a night!

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