Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

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.

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).

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.

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.

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….

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.


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.

Culture Vulture: Year in Review

December 27, 2016



  1. Notes from the Field – Anna Deveare Smith’s latest triumph in channeling the zeitgeist focuses on education, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the killings by police of black men, zeroing in on exactly what we need to be thinking and talking about. Smith (above) gives voice to an astonishing array of characters (including Congressman John Lewis) with precision and extreme down-to-earth humanity in a way that arrives at hope and inspiration. I wish this show were broadcast on TV for everyone to see every week for the next year.


  1. Kings of WarFlemish director Ivo van Hove, one of the great theater artists of our time, brought his virtuosic Toneelgroep Amsterdam to BAM to perform this wildly ambitious 4 ½ hour mashup of six Shakespeare histories (from Henry IV to Richard III) in Dutch with English surtitles. The breathtaking inventiveness of Jan Versweyveld’s multimedia design made these political dramas excruciatingly immediate. A countertenor, four brass players, and a DJ provided strange and beautiful underscoring, and Hans Kesting gave an unforgettable performance as Richard III as a demonic wounded monarch cocooned in the mirrored chamber of his power-madness.david-hyde-pierce-in-a-life-joan-marcus
  2. A Life – Adam Bock never fails to impress me with his gift for character, language, humor, soulful reflection of contemporary life, and most of all the extraordinary freedom he takes to shape his narratives in theatrically surprising ways. He outdid himself with this show at Playwrights Horizons, which occasioned a low-key yet astonishing performance by David Hyde Pierce (above), with a uniformly excellent supporting cast well-directed by Anne Kauffman on an ingenious Laura Jellinek set.


  1. The Encounter – Simon McBurney conceived, directed, and performed this fascinating experiment in theater-via-headphones (on Broadway!) depicting an American photographer’s adventures with South American shamanism, similar to the terrific Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent.
  2. YOUARENOWHERE – former Wooster Group associate Andrew Schneider (above) and a cutting-edge tech-savvy design team created this dazzling mindfuck of a performance piece at 3-Legged Dog.


  1. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music – Generosity of spirit, woke politics, musical chops, and playful theatrical nerve made queer genius Taylor Mac’s epic vision a delight-filled call to arms, with peerless costume-design-as-gesamtkunstwerk by Machine Dazzle and music direction by Matt Ray.
  2. Steve – Mark Gerrard’s script captured the intersection of sex, relationships, and social media in gay life today to a T. Cynthia Nixon directed a fine cast for the New Group, but Matt McGrath’s performance dove several layers deeper than almost any I saw this year.
  3. The Crucible – I didn’t think I needed to see another production of Arthur Miller’s classic again but damned if Ivo van Hove didn’t find a dozen ways to make it a stark and terrifying reflection of today’s chilling political climate, with another mind-boggling design by Jan Versweyveld and a cast mixing terrific Brits (Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan) with great downtown actors not usually seen on Broadway (Bill Camp, Jason Butler Harner, Thomas Jay Ryan, Brenda Wehle, Teagle Bougere).
  4. portrait of myself as my father – Nora Chipaumire’s exploration of black African masculinity is set in a boxing ring. But the costumes, the gestures, the masks, the soundscore, and the movement pile onto the boxing metaphor numerous other frameworks: hiphop concert, voodoo ritual, club performance, shamanic trance ceremony, and Wooster Group-style mediated theater. The three performers (Shamar Watt, NC, and Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, above) push themselves to extremes of physical ability, gender identification, and cultural cross-reference.
  1. Dear Evan HansenSteven Levenson’s morally complicated book, Pasek & Paul’s tuneful score, Michael Greif’s staging, and the lead performances by Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss made this the most substantial original musical of the year.

Some Other Goodies: the Encores production of Sunday in the Park with George, especially Annaleigh Ashford and Phylicia Rashad; Benjamin Walker’s central performance and Duncan Sheik’s ‘80s-techno score for American Psycho; the Canadian dance company Holy Body Tattoo’s revival of Monumental with poetic texts by Jenny Holzer and a brooding/squalling score performed live by Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Charlayne Woodard in Branden Jacobs-Jenkin’s War at LCT3; Kiki and Herb at Joe’s Pub (below).


Some Great Music: Ego Death by The Internet, Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, Black Noise by Pantha du Prince, multiple Mixcloud playlists compiled by Nick Francis (Quiet Music), lowlightmixes, and Halftribe.

Some Great Films:
Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Tangerine, Arrival (above), April & the Extraordinary World.

Culture Vulture: Adam Bock’s A LIFE at Playwrights Horizons

December 4, 2016

I saw Adam Bock’s tremendous new play A Life at Playwrights Horizons for the second time yesterday. It impressed me again with its deep humor and humanity and with the playwright’s amazing skill at creating characters, writing amazing scenes, and taking unbelievable freedom for himself in shaping the narrative. The first half hour of the play is an extraordinary long monologue by the main character, played by David Hyde Pierce. When I first saw the play in previews, the audience in the intimate Peter Sharp space upstairs at Playwrights was pretty quiet. This time, after stellar reviews, the audience was quite excited, plus clearly many were there who were major David Hyde Pierce fans (including Andy’s friends from London whom we took to see it). And the way he responded to every tiny little ripple in the audience — including instantly saying “Bless you” when somebody sneezed — was fantastic to witness. Tonight is the final performance.

One of the things I always love about seeing shows at Playwrights Horizons is that almost always you can pick up in the lobby afterwards a simple Xeroxed copy of an interview with the playwright conducted by either artistic director Tim Sanford or the literary manager Adam Greenfield. These smart, in-depth interviews almost always tell you everything you want to know about the show you’ve just seen. The interview with Bock doesn’t answer ALL my questions but it’s a fascinating conversation nevertheless. You can read it online here. Check it out and let me know what you think. There’s also a ton of other intriguing stuff about the playwright and the play on the theater company’s website — see here. adam-bock




Culture Vulture/Playlist: Rough Trade haul

October 10, 2016

After attending the early screening of Dan Savage’s Hump! Film Festival in Williamsburg and eating nearby at the yummy Le Fond, Andy and I made our semi-annual pilgrimage to Rough Trade, one of the last remaining record stores in the city. As Andy likes to say, I “accidentally” bought a stack of eight CDs. Even though I get plenty of new music via Napster, Spotify, and NPR, I found myself unable to resist the fiendishly effective salesmanship of the stickers found on every item on the racks at Rough Trade.

First stop, the bargain bin:

ohmysexylordOH MY SEXY LORD (with bonus disc, MUSIC ROCKS): “Marijuana Deathsquads is the ever-evolving experimental project led by Ryan Olson (producer/writer of Polica and GAYNGS), Isaac Gale, and Stefon Alexander (P.O.S.). With multiple drummers, a slew of electronic instruments, and highly effected vocals, their live shows are a violent onslaught of…”

THE WAITING ROOM (limited deluxe edition CD+DVD): “Tindersticks’ new album is a milestone not just numerically (their 10th) but musically and creatively. Their first studio album since 2012’s critically acclaimed THE SOMETHING RAIN is the most ambitious, diverse and elaborate album you’ll have heard from Tindersticks in recent…”

And then the total wild cards:

LIITAL: “Aby Ngana Diop was the most famous taasukat in Dakar, Senegal, in the 1980s and 1990s. Taasu is a Wolof-language poetic style, usually performed by women griots over frenentic drum patterns, with an aggressive verbal flow thought to presage rap. Her only album LIITAL was groundbreaking in the history…”

IMARHAN: “Imarhan were born in Tamanrasset, Southern Algeria, a city where the Tuareg community of Norther Mali, Kel Tamashek people, ended their exile in the early 1990s, following the multiple struggles they have been experiencing since the 1960s. Imarhan, meaning the ones I care about, started out around…”

LATE NIGHT TALES (limited edition with exclusive download bonus): “Standing at the intersection where techno meets classical music, Olafur Arnalds directs the newest Late Night Tales, set for release on 10th June 2016. After releasing the breakthrough album And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness in 2014, he was awarded a BAFTA  for best original music for…”

DESDES: “At the age of 28, Awalom Gebremariam arrived in the United States, following a years-long jourey from Eritrea. He’d made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia several years ago and eventually attained asylum status for passage in America. But before he left his hometown, Eritrea’s capital Asmara, he made…”

WHAT?: “Based on tracks from the best-selling William Onyeabor album. Fantastic interpretations by Hot Chip, Optimo, Joakim (and more). Remixes by Daphni, Scientist, Justin Strauss and even more all done as part of the Luaka Bop/MOOG Remix Project.”

And a CD+DVD package from this obscure performer named Beyoncé called LEMONADE.


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Taylor Mac at St. Ann’s Warehouse

October 4, 2016

(click photos twice to enlarge)

I loved seeing Act VII of Taylor Mac’s epic 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse, which covered 1956-1986, though it’s hard to describe exactly what I saw. Judy (Taylor Mac’s preferred pronoun) called it “a performance art concert,” which gave judy license to do pretty much whatever the hell judy and judy’s collaborators cared to dream up. This show has been developed in bits and pieces all over the country for several years, and diehard fans had been reporting day-by-day on Facebook as the production rolled out its first and probably only complete performances, which will culminate October 8-9 in a continuous 24-hour marathon. Let’s just say it’s a highly subjective queervisionist history of the United States steeped in the political ferment of this minute.

The show began in the lobby, which may have been the only but definitely the best place to store the costumes that Taylor would wear for the 24 decades, all of them meticulously designed and built by the fiendishly brilliant Machine Dazzle. Those in the know explained to newbies whatever they could: “Oh, that was the white trash segment, with the potato chip bags and the gay porn. And that was for The Mikado performed on Mars.” Machine Dazzle sauntered by for a photo op, chewing gum and looking all yeah-yeah-I-did-all-this-no-big-deal.

At showtime Taylor blazed onstage (in a Pop Art mashup outfit topped with a shawl of Campbell’s Soup cans) crooning an almost unrecognizable speed-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Judy prefaced the evening with a slight recap of the previous episode, which required segregating the audience, a witty way to theatricalize 1950s America. Taylor designated the section right in front of the stage (prime VIP seating) as “inner city” and the side sections as “the suburbs.” On cue, the white people in that section were instructed to enact (in slow motion) “white flight” by surrendering their seats and moving to “the suburbs.” Meanwhile, the people of color in the audience were invited to move to the “inner city.” This was not optional. Taylor enforced the rules quite strictly. This may have happened to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.”

The rest of the first hour revolved around the 1963 March on Washington – getting on the bus and riding the “Freedom Highway.” A show of hands brought out two audience members who had been on the march. Taylor did some very humorous yet savvy “calling in,” inviting white people to “Think” (“like maybe thinking about working for the movement rather than leading, listening rather than talking…”). The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” gave Taylor a moment to introduce two terrific backup singers judy had collected while working on the piece in Detroit (well, judy admitted, Ann Arbor), Stephanie Christian and Thornetta Davis. The set also included “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and a beautifully earnest down-in-one version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”


The Brooklyn United Marching Band provided an ecstatic transition (“Movin’ On Up”) to the next section, in which Taylor – wearing a crazy glittering disco-ball of a headdress, sparkly hot pants, and a giant peace sign strapped to Judy’s back like wings or a crucifix – focused on the Stonewall Riots as the centerpiece of the decade 1966-76. “Every song in this section was on the jukebox at the Stonewall,” judy lied, seguing into an amazing if out-of-context rendition of Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” Taylor’s posse of Dandy Minions passed out ping-pong balls for the audience to pelt judy with, representing homophobia as judy passed through the house singing “Born to Run” (oh, THAT gay anthem….). In honor of Judy Garland, he sang Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” with a smidge of “Over the Rainbow” at the end. “Gimme Shelter” factored in there somewhere, too.


One of my favorite parts of the whole show was watching the intimate spectacle of Taylor Mac changing costumes onstage between decades – stripping down to flesh-colored briefs and then rebuilding the next vision with the help of Machine Dazzle, who didn’t stint on his own amazing costumes. For this transition he wore most of Taylor’s glam-rock costume and feathery Mohawk headdress onto the stage and transferred it all to the star, though keeping for himself the Mapplethorpian bullwhip-up-the-ass tail. I took all the other pictures I’m posting here except for these two, which are by Jackie Rudin, who has done an amazing job documenting this performance.


The 1976-86 section perversely turned the entire theater into an imaginary backroom sex bar, with Taylor perhaps paying homage to Torch Song Trilogy with judy’s own detailed reminiscences of The Cock and The Slide and The Hole, to the tune of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” During “Heroes” the balcony became a curtained-off orgy space (with the Dandy Minions putting on a filthy shadow play). Taylor had the audience pair up into same-sex duos for a middle-school slow dance to Ted Nugent’s “Snakeskin Cowboys.” (In case it’s not clear, this show was ALL about audience participation, some of it simple hand gestures developed in collaboration with choreographer Jawole Jo Willa Zollar. But the alter kocker sitting in front of us would have none of it – he slept through the first hour and spent most of the rest of the evening playing bridge on his phone while his long-suffering wife and daughter seemed to enjoy themselves.) “Purple Rain” became a rousing singalong, while a giant inflatable American flag phallus balloon bounced over our heads. And the decade ended with a remarkable version of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” an endurance test for the audience to supply the ah-ah-ah-ah-ah rhythm track.

I would love to have seen the last act, whose themes were Direct Action (the AIDS/ACT UP years), Radical Lesbians (with guest appearance by Sarah Schulman), and Originals (for the last hour, it’s just Taylor onstage singing judy’s own songs), but c’est la vie. Big props to the incredible team of artists who made this show a memorable spectacle, including music director and arrange Matt Ray, the sizzling band (led by guitarist Viva DeConcini), and – as the pictures can attest – lighting designer John Torres. Not to mention the conceptual genius, stamina, vocal talent, political savvy, goodheartness, and generosity of Taylor Mac.


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