Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: ONE IN TWO, FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, HALFWAY BITCHES GO STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN, and other plays

December 11, 2019

For a three-actor one-set 85-minute no-intermission play, there’s A LOT going on in Donja R. Love’s one in two, which just opened in a production by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Theater.

It’s part of the single most exciting development in contemporary American theater, the explosion of productions by playwrights of color who are not only telling stories we otherwise wouldn’t be hearing but conveying them in convention-smashing, formally inventive ways that are reconfiguring our fundamental ideas of what theater can be. As a 60-something white cismale theater maven, I love watching the trickle of once-a-generation innovators like Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Young Jean Lee turn into a torrent of fiercely talented, jaggedly individual poets of time-space-language (Jackie Siblies Drury, Aleasha Harris, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, to name just a few of an emerging fertile crop). Donja R. Love belongs to a subset of that group, the tribe portraying queer black male experience with tremendous courage, humor, and sexual honesty (cf. Robert O’Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael R. Jackson). Even within that group, Love steers into a much smaller subset of writers dealing with the ongoing impact of HIV on black gay lives; most of the others that come to my mind (Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint) were swept away at the height of the epidemic.

The title refers to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 that chillingly asserts that “one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.” (By comparison, the stats are one in eleven for white gay or bisexual men, one in four for gay or bisexual Latino men.) Numbers figure heavily in the play. When the audience enters, the three actors sit silently on the austere white set (by Anulfo Maldonado) under screens racking up numbers at an alarming rate. When the play starts, their first action is to “take a number” like from a deli counter, and then they engage the audience in an applause-o-meter process of deciding which of them will play characters #1, #2, and #3. Jacobs-Jenkins used a similar ploy with his play Everybody, in which certain roles were assigned by lottery, but after seeing one in two it’s even more mind-boggling to realize that all three actors have the entire script memorized and are ready to play any of the characters at a moment’s notice.

The main character, #1, has a name (Donté), while the other two actors play all the people he encounters on his journey from HIV diagnosis through all the hurdles of denial, depression, telling your family, getting treatment, joining a support group, contemplating suicide, negotiating hook-ups, the solace of substances. These fleetly morphing scenes are skillfully staged by Stevie Walker-Webb with minimal props and Cha See’s evocative, precise lighting. At the performance I saw, chubby, dark-skinned Edward Mawere played #1 (below, right, photos by Monique Carboni), while willowy, light-skinned Jamyl Dobson was #2 (below, left) and buff, scruffy Leland Fowler was #3. All three were excellent, brave, and beyond vanity. One provocative aspect of the show is contemplating how different certain scenes might have looked if the roles were switched around.

A statement by the playwright, handed out with the program as the audience leaves, reveals to what extent the play is autobiographical and how much speaks for the community of his peers. Because like the earliest AIDS plays (I’m thinking of William M. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart),  one in two functions as potentially life-saving community education. It’s easy to be blasé about HIV these days. I mean, everyone knows it’s evolved into a manageable chronic disease, treatable like diabetes, right? And everyone knows that there’s this miraculous new drug regimen called PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) that pretty much guarantees you will never contract HIV, right? Well…not so fast. Not everybody has the same access to information, resources, community support, and internal wherewithal.

Watching the play I was haunted by a disturbing op-ed piece by a young black gay writer named Daryl Hannah that ran in the New York Times in September 2017 with the headline “Why Anti-HIV Medicine Isn’t For Me.” Much as I wanted to argue with Hannah, I couldn’t contest his personal feeling of lacking a community of peers with whom he could sort out his anxieties and hesitations, any more than I could dismiss the widespread suspicion the black Americans have toward doctors and Western medicine, given the Tuskegee syphilis trials and other hideous historical abuses. And not just black Americans. Hannah’s op-ed piece appeared the same week that the supernaturally gifted theater composer Michael Friedman died of AIDS at age 41. You would think such a death would be preventable in this day and age, in New York City…and yet I just heard another sad story of a biracial 32-year-old suicide in Brooklyn, too isolated and too scared to share his HIV status with his family.

one in two doesn’t traffic in preachiness or Pollyanna attitudes. It lays out messy scenes from Donté’s dilemma in the manner of Brechtian lehrstücke (learning-plays). I can imagine a peer-group discussion minutely dissecting the scene in which Donté fumbles his way through questions about disclosure and condom use with a Grindr hookup who calls himself Trade Hung Like Horse Underscore 99 (one of many hilariously meta touches in the play).

The playwright impressively omits easy conclusions. As soon as I saw the set, I noticed there were no exits onstage. Besides referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama, Maldonado’s set also reminded me of Adrian Piper’s stark-white installation What It’s Like, What It Is #3, with its evocation of prison surveillance panopticons. And the play doesn’t wrap things up with a tidy ending because, guess what, the story of HIV isn’t over.

Other Culture Vulture expeditions in brief: among the seven other shows I saw in the last two weeks, the only one that really left me cold was 32 rue Vandenbranden by the Flemish company Peeping Tom at the BAM Next Wave Festival, an acting-school exercise in competing for attention onstage. I didn’t love Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette musical on Broadway I had such high hopes for (mainly out of admiration for book writer Diablo Cody), though I completely dug Lauren Patten’s understated performance as teenage lesbian Jo, whose literally show-stopping rendition of “You Oughta Know” (above, photo by Matthew Murphy) has Tony Award written all over it. (Director Diane Paulus engineered that for Andrea Martin in her staging of Pippin.) Oskar Eustis’s revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day at the Public Theater is as clunky and unsatisfying as the original was, but Crystal Lucas-Perry is dazzling as Zillah, and Jonathan Hadary as Xillah speaks not just for the playwright but for the audience when, pointedly likening the current political atmosphere to German in the 1930s, he delivers the raw cry, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I very much admired Thomas Ostermeier’s well-acted production of History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse, my introduction to hotshot young French literary star Edouard Louis. I loved seeing the multimedia spectacle Come Through at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn (above, photo by Eric Timothy Carlson), a strange and sublime collaboration between the St. Paul-based company TU Dance and adventurous experimental rocker Justin Vernon, whose band Bon Iver shared the stage performing a mixture of songs from their latest album and odd numbers written just for this piece.

I also loved Stephen Adly Guirgis’s rambling, raggedy Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (above, photos by Ahron R. Foster), with its crazy, beautiful, harrowing, poignant scenes of life in a Harlem women’s shelter and a gigantic ensemble of amazing actors, including LAByrinth Theater Company superstar Liza Colón-Zayas (below left, with Andrea Sygowski), who I think is one of the finest actors onstage today.

Best of all was Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience. I’m one of the dinosaurs who can boast of having seen the legendary original 1977 production at the American Place Theatre, directed by Fornes herself, most memorable of course for its unprecedented middle section, which shuffled the audience through four scenes taking place simultaneously in different areas of the theater. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Blain-Cruz’s production, though, is better in every way. Sleek, beautiful, wittily designed (count the animal images hidden like Hirschfeld Ninas among Adam Rigg’s set and Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes — see below, photo by Gerry Goodstein), wonderful performances by excellent actors, all of it perfectly preserving the enigmatic poetry of Fornes’s play.

I enjoyed having dinner afterwards with my friend Jay (at the delicious new Mexican gastropub around the corner, Las Santas) and parsing the echoes of Mabel Dodge Luhan (intimate friend of Gertrude Stein’s) in Fefu, expounding on how the final image of the play influenced Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and counting the number of lesbians onstage.

 

 

Culture Vulture: Soho Rep, AKHNATEN, BLACK EXHIBITION, the new MOMA, and MARRIAGE STORY

November 19, 2019

Another Culture Vulture marathon! (click photos to enlarge)

Thursday night at Soho Rep with for all the women who thought they were   Mad by Zawe Ashton, the British actress and author currently on Broadway in Betrayal. The idea of the play was worthy: a young businesswoman juggling numbers and motherhood struggles to find her way up the corporate ladder while haunted by the voices of the women from her village life back in Africa. The protagonist (ironically named Joy and played by Bisserat Tseggai, below photographed by Julieta Cervantes) occupies a glass-walled cubicle that spins midstage, while her sister-relatives sit, sing, chant, and sprawl around her. I admired the costumes (by Andrew Jean) and the many amazing faces among the female cast (Gibson Frazier has the unenviable task of playing all the smug white men in Joy’s life) directed by Whitney White, but the play’s dry, pretentious language left me out.

Friday night: the Metropolitan Opera’s ravishing production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, staged by Phelim McDermott with production design by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard, and knockout performances by Anthony Ross Costanzo in the title role of 14th century BCE Egyptian pharaoh and J’Nai Bridges as his wife Nefertiti, conducted by Karen Kamensek. I agreed with Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review in viewing the opera as ritualistic and mystical; I also agreed with Justin Davidson’s Vulture review referring to the show as the essence of capital-C camp. (To get a sense of what I mean, you only have to read the program’s synopsis of Act I, preferably aloud in the portentous, shouting-to-the-fifth-balcony voice of Zachary James playing the quasi-narrator.)

Unlike both reviewers, I never got tired of watching the team of jugglers (led by choreographer Sean Gandini) whose ball-tossing struck me as a witty and fun visual corollary to Glass’s looping repetitive score.

After a visually trippy-murky first scene of his predecessor being eviscerated and his heart being weighed in relation to a feather, Costanzo as Akhnaten makes his entrance stark naked (with a gold stripe on his forehead) and takes six minutes to descend 12 steps to the stage floor. He prostrates himself, and a troupe of courtiers picks up his rigid body and airlifts it into a pair of pantaloons before snapping him into a giant skirt-cage over which they arrange the most fluffy-gilt Bo Peep costume you can imagine (above, photo by Karen Almond). It’s another several minutes before you hear Costanzo’s amazing countertenor voice break into song (a lot of “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”).

His love duet with Nefertiti (above) and his “Hymn to the Sun” in Act II are gorgeous, slow, shimmering, staged against large bright symbolic geometric sets. In the course of the opera, Akhnaten’s gender seems to morph. He and Nefertiti both wear gauzy garments over smocks with drawn-on breasts and female genitals; I found myself thinking about punk artist Genesis P-Orridge and his mate Lady Jaye, who underwent a series of cosmetic surgeries in order to resemble one another. But when their six daughters appeared wearing indigo weaves, facelift bandages, and goth-girl makeup looking like refugees from a John Waters movie (see below), I couldn’t help audibly snickering.

I’m glad I saw it, though. Who knows what the regular Met audience made of it. The woman to my right gamely compared-and-contrasted it with Doctor Atomic, John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer. The man to my left turned to me afterwards and said, “Give me a one-liner.” I said, “I’m not good at one-liners.” He said, “Give me a two-liner then. I’m puzzled.”

Saturday afternoon: Black Exhibition at the Bushwick Starr, aka “for colored faggots who considered suicide/when feeling invisible in gay paradise.” Five queer black men representing five literary figures (Kathy Acker, Samuel Delaney, Yukio Mishima, Gary Fisher, and Tiger Mandingo – the last not a writer but the guy convicted of having sex without disclosing his HIV+ status) haunt the mind of @GaryXXXFisher (the non-secret pseudonym for Jeremy O. Harris, currently represented on Broadway with his edgy Slave Play) hanging out in Fire Island Pines. “I came here to write and all I did was look…all I did was fuck and cry…all I did was read.” Very incantatory, referencing Suzan-Lori Parks specifically and Ntozake Shange implicitly. Aggressively sexual, even hostile, extremely explicit. In three parts, the third of which takes place in Berlin, where he attends the Laboratory and likens playwriting to being face-down ass-up in a dark room waiting to see if anyone takes an interest.

In this last section Harris lolls about onstage in a jockstrap talking about how tight his hole is, at considerable length. Lots of repetitions of a favorite tweet: “Ooops! Fleet water too hot. I almost made chitlins.” The last literary figure to arrive is Mishima (Miles Greenberg), who seems ready to enact a bondage/flogging scene with Harris/Fisher (above, photo by Sara Krulwich) but suddenly says, “You’re too skinny, I want to see you eat!” Et voila, two tables arrive onstage with gigantic trays of take-out food, and the four other performers chow down – until Harris dashes offstage to the bathroom to purge. It’s a phenomenally raw and honest outpouring.  I appreciated that, except for Frank J. Oliva’s set design (a haunted house version of Pines boardwalks) and Christopher Darbassie’s deep-dub sound design, almost the entire crew are women of color, which is what happens when you have a smart, savvy woman of color director, Machel Ross.

Sunday: first walk through “the new MOMA.”

It was the end of the day, so I only had time to stroll through “Surrounds: 11 Installations” on the top floor, pausing to inspect Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s The Killing Machine (above) and Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (below).

Among the galleries devoted to new juxtapositions from the permanent collection, I admired Morris Hirshfield’s Inseparable Friends (1941).

David Siqueiros’s trippy textured Collective Suicide (1936) never fails to catch my eye and drag me ten feet.

Then there’s member: pope L., the generous retrospective of this tireless eccentric artist’s multimedia tricksterism.

Along with paintings, drawings, and objects, much of what’s shown documents his ephemeral performances, often nearly naked in public places, as artist-sannyasin. The walls and art works frequently have holes drilled into them, a witty placeholder for what’s holy and what’s missing/unknown/unknowable.

Sunday night: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. A rare peek into the exotic mating rituals of white cisgender heterosexuals. Excellent performances throughout, none more so than the amazing Adam Driver whose finest moment is such a surprise I don’t want to spoil it for you. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda surpass themselves (a tribute to fine writing and directing) playing contrasting flavors of warrior divorce lawyers. The supporting cast brims with wonderful New York stage actors (Matt Maher! Merrit Wever! Becca Blackwell! Jasmine Cephas Jones! Julie Hagerty! Wally Shawn, perfectly capturing the veteran ensemble actor always boring other company members with his name-dropping tales of long-distant triumphs!). Lovely score by Randy Newman. It’ll be on Netflix any day now, but I was perfectly happy to watch it at the Paris Cinema, the last single-screen theater in Manhattan.

Culture Vulture: Sunday afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum

November 4, 2019

A big rich cultural week — Faure’s Requiem sung by the Dessoff Choirs; for colored girls at the Public Theater; smart/sexy singer-songwriter Dane Terry at Joe’s Pub; “Howard’s End” on Netflix; Bong Joon-Ho’s crazy, creepy Korean Almodoviarian “Parasite” in the movie theater; John Cameron Mitchell’s amazing podcast/radio series “Anthem: Homunculus” on Luminary; Ira Sachs’s Chekhovian drama Frankie, starring Isabelle Huppert and exquisitely shot on location in Sintra, Portugal; David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway, all good stuff — wound up at the Guggenheim Museum on NYC Marathon Sunday.

I was determined to see “Defacement: The Untold Story,” the exhibition of a rare Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and other artifacts from the time period (early 1980s), before it closes November 6. So I moseyed up the ramp, strolling through the major show in the rotunda — “Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection” — and ducking into the side gallery showing “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now.” When I got to level 4, I noticed a long line snaking down the ramp — turned out it was all people waiting to get in to the tiny gallery showing the Basquiat, and the wait time was an hour…by which time the museum would be closing. Aaargh! I took a deep breath and resolved to come back when it was likely to be less crowded.

Nevertheless, I had a fantastic time with the other two shows, which both operate on the premise of asking contemporary artists to dialogue with a body of artwork. For “Artistic License,” six artists who’ve had solo shows at the Guggenheim — Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems — got a free pass to run through the museum’s collection and choose as many works to display as would fill one floor of the building’s famous spiral.

Meanwhile, for “Implicit Tensions,” associate curators Lauren Hinkson and Susan Thompson chose a selection of works from six other queer photographers — Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya  — to create a kind of dialogue with the vast array of Mapplethorpe works that the artist’s foundation recently gifted to the museum and that were shown in part one of the exhibition earlier this year.

Along the way I encountered a treasure trove of fascinating work, much of it by artists I’d never heard of — the best possible benefit of seeing group shows like this. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Cai Guo-Quiang’s contribution to “Artistic License” came with the label “Non-Brand,” meaning that he picked work by well-known artists that didn’t look like what you expected, such as these decidedly non-Rothko-looking Mark Rothkos, “Brighton Beach” from the mid-30s and “Untitled” from 1942:

And this perverse blurry titillating untitled 1960 painting by Lucas Samaras, more known for his photography:

Jenny Holzer’s section focused on works by women, Paul Chan sorted for images related to water and bathing, and Carrie Mae Weems chose works primarily in black-and-white. Most of the work that grabbed my attention, though, came from the galleries curated by Julie Mehretu and Richard Prince.

I’d never heard of Corneille but he sounds like a character, and there are elements in this striking painting that foreshadow Basquiat:

Loved these canvases by Georges Mathieu, “Untitled” and “Black and White Abstract”:

There’s a lovely Pollack (“Number 18”) and an intriguing faux-Pollack that’s just too on-the-nose.

Here’s a name I didn’t expect to see in this show: Stuart Sutcliffe. Famous for being the Beatles’ first bass player, also an artist, who died young.

The Mapplethorpe show is engrossing, dominated by Glenn Ligon’s detailed dialogue with Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, in the form of quotes from a variety of literary figures and gay bar habitues. I always love seeing work by Zanele Muholi, but Rotimi Fani-Kayoda is a name new to me. (That he died in London in 1989 at the age of 34 says a lot to me.)

Hungarian Simon Hantaï also new to me.

This textile piece by Alan Shields was beautiful and also has a hilarious name.

Mary Bauermeister is apparently still alive, but who knows if she’s still making this kind of wacky beautiful quirky objects.

Hello, Joseph Beuys!

Hello, Giacometti! (This piece is called “Le Nez (The Nose”).)

I did go back the next morning when the museum opened and was able to tour the Basquiat exhibit with only a few people around.

It’s a beautiful sobering show, a reminder of how long this violent abuse of black men has been embedded in our culture.

Basquiat’s “The Death of Michael Stewart” (originally painted on a wall in Keith Haring’s loft, eventually cut out of the wall and placed by Keith in a gilded frame) bounces off a David Wojnarowicz drawing for a political flyer.

But Haring’s own tribute, “Michael Stewart — USA for Africa” in the adjacent room, is overpowering.

Great to see Basquiat’s “Self-Portrait”

Also “Tuxedo,” both huge and monumental.

I rode my bicycle home down Fifth Avenue listening to the Spotify playlist created by Jon Baptiste to accompany the Basquiat show — a mix of early hip-hop and the classic jazz so frequently referenced in Basquiat’s paintings.

 

 

Culture Vulture: PLAY YOURSELF benefit reading

October 9, 2019

Fresh on the heels of its latest Broadway transfer (Jeremy O Harris’s edgy Slave Play), New York Theatre Workshop launched its 40th anniversary season Monday night October 7 with a benefit reading of Harry Kondoleon’s Play Yourself. In a program note and at the reception afterwards, the company’s quiet powerhouse of an artistic director, Jim Nicola, acknowledged that “Harry Kondoleon has been at the heart of New York Theatre Workshop longer than I have.” Indeed, Kondoleon’s 1983 Christmas on Mars was NYTW’s first production (in partnership with Playwrights Horizons), and Nicola produced the New York premiere of Play Yourself in 2002 in a beautiful staging by Craig Lucas starring the late great Marian Seldes and the phenomenal Elizabeth Marvel.

For this reading, Lee Sunday Evans (who directed one of last season’s most remarkable shows, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation) assembled a fascinating cast. Off-Broadway veteran Leslie Ayvazian played the role of Jean, an aged former Hollywood B-movie starlet who’s now long retired, half-blind, living in happy obscurity with Yvonne, her former East Village club-kid daughter, now a depressed stay-at-home. Yvonne was played by Rachel Brosnahan, who last appeared at NYTW as Desdemona opposite David Oyewolo’s Othello and Daniel Craig’s Iago, but of course is better known as the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. They were joined by the adorable comic character actor and former rocker Annie Golden playing Selma, an ardent fan who tracks Jean down, bringing along with her Brother Harmon, the charismatic founder of a “home for the hopeless,” played by Arian Moayed, who appeared on Broadway in The Humans and is currently on the TV show Succession. Having only had three hours’ rehearsal, the actors did an amazing job of conjuring the play to life.

Play Yourself has all the ingredients that make Harry Kondoleon’s plays distinctive — the vibrant voice, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, the off-handed poetic diction (death is referred to as “oblivion’s lily pad”), the magical transformations, the delicate evolution from familiar living-room comedy to something deeper, stranger, philosophical. At the benefit reading it sounded as fresh and funny as it was when it was written in 1986, and possibly even more pertinent now in the #MeToo/Time’sUp era with its knowing depiction of Hollywood’s callous treatment of women. I attended the reading with the Harry Kondoleon posse — his family (represented by his nephew Lucas Wittmann and his wife Victoire), his William Morris agent Jonathan Lomma, and his best friend and literary executor Stephen Soba.

Afterwards Stephen and I had a fun, spirited conversation with Ayvazian, who knocked us out playing Jean. It turns out Ayvazian knew Harry and a lot of his work. “He wrote great parts for women,” she declared. “He gave them teeth! And cunts!”

At the reception around the corner at Nai Tapas, I chatted up the delightful Ari Moayed, who reminded me that he’d been in the reading of Harry’s Zero Positive at the Public Theater a few years ago. And I had an extended passionate, intimate conversation with Annie Golden about the intense years of the AIDS crisis in NYC and the loved ones we lost to the plague (including her brother and our Harry). Big gratitude to Jim Nicola, Linda Chapman, and all the folks at New York Theatre Workshop for making this one of those fun, crazy nights that make life in New York so special.

Culture Vulture: Nicky Paraiso, Amanda Palmer, WHITE NOISE, Basquiat, and more

April 29, 2019

April has been a cultural smorgasbord!

April 6 – Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton (at the Golden Theatre) feels weirdly similar to his previous play, A Doll’s House Part 2: an extremely unlikely Broadway show starring the great Laurie Metcalf as a powerful woman in a showdown with the husband she has very mixed feelings about, with two ancillary characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief. Set on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008, loosely based on real-life happenings, the play pivots on an invented encounter with Barack Obama, who shows up to offer Hillary the vice presidential slot if she’ll drop out of the race, but really exists as an extended meditation on the power of the imagination to invent multiple parallel universes. On Broadway it serves the purpose of giving New Yorkers devastated by the results of the 2016 election some liminal space to gain strength and hope from the idea of possibility and change. I enjoyed the framing device, in which we watch Laurie Metcalf come out as herself and with no more than the power of suggestion transform into Hillary Clinton; I admired the performances and the simple staging by Joe Mantello. But, like Doll’s House Part 2, it struck me as an exercise and left no lasting impression.

April 7 – In 1986 I wrote a piece for the Village Voice that began: “What becomes a legend last? Surely it’s the Off-Off-Broadway star, the performer who devotes the best part of a career to toiling for no money in the back alleys of lower Manhattan. The machinery exists to turn film and television performers into international celebrities quicker than you can say Live at Five, but some of the most original and creative actors in America continue to work year after year in basements and lofts, in semi-obscurity and near-poverty, resisting embitterment while clinging to whatever environment will allow them to become more and more themselves. Though you won’t find them in Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame, actors such as Ruth Maleczech, Kate Manheim, Ron Vawter, Jeff Weiss, and Crystal Field are nonetheless national treasures, and any ranking of them must include the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s leading lady Black-Eyed Susan.”

photo by Albie Mitchell for the New York Times

Nicky Paraiso belongs in that pantheon as well. Even among the colorful creatures of the downtown theater world, there is no one else like Nicky – multitalented, vivacious, ubiquitous, universally beloved by and unstintingly generous to his fellow artists. Since I moved to NYC at the tail end of 1979, Nicky has always been a fixture on the scene. He was a key collaborator for decades with Meredith Monk, Yoshiko Chuma, and especially Jeff Weiss – none of whom provide the financial security that collaborators named Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy would. In middle age Nicky was barely scraping by waiting tables at McBell’s when Ellen Stewart, with her super-power for genius-spotting, zeroed in on his networking skills and made him resident curator, booking music, theater, performance art, spoken word, and miscellaneous events for The Club at La Mama and eventually becoming coordinator of the annual La Mama Moves! dance festival. All this and much more childhood and family history got folded into now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories at the La Mama Annex. Because Nicky is Nicky, he got John Jesurun to direct and design the show, and he corralled four respected downtown choreographers (Irene Hultman, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Paz Tanjuaquio) to improvise onstage alongside his autobiographical monologue, in addition to a fun video appearance by two other high-powered Filipino-American downtown legends, Jessica Hagedorn and Ching Valdes-Aran. The show amounted to a kind of life review (not unlike John Kelly’s Time No Line, which played in the same space last year), an impressionistic chronology from growing up in Queens to the present moment. Touching, funny, and honest, the show among other things showcased Nicky’s wizardry as a musician. Every so often he’d wander over the piano and bang out some brief brilliant burst of music (pop, classical, cabaret, show tune) before leaping up and moving on to something else. Weirdly, he never so much as mentioned the Laura Nyro song from which he borrowed the title of his show. But I enjoyed imagining Nicky encountering Nyro’s wildly passionate original musicianship as a queer kid and using that inspiration to launch his own artistic spirit.

April 10 – I’m a big fan of Taylor Mac, but his play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (another highly unlikely Broadway mounting) left me cold. The performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and a vocally overtaxed Julie White amount to an exhausting mugfest. And George C. Wolfe’s busy busy busy staging reminded me of his production of Shuffle Along: all footnotes, no show.

April 19 – I was psyched to see Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage at Film Forum because it promised to be a sexy, gritty portrait of French gay male sex workers. In some ways it provides a fascinating glimpse of Eastern European gay-for-pay street hustlers gathering in packs for survival and scrambling to make it work under crummy circumstances. The depiction of older schlumpy customers (one in a wheelchair, one recently widowed) is honest and compassionate. But the story revolves around a wildly unbelievable main character who is a manifestation of a curiously French attachment to the notion of the noble savage, lurching from touching moments to scenes that are ugly and sensational.

April 20 – Amanda Palmer started out as a street performer in Boston and played with Brian Viglione as the punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls for years before launching her solo career. She recorded and toured behind her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign; a memoir and a TED talk detailed her road to success via her knack for The Art of Asking, and along the way she acquired a famous husband, the fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The social media savvy that made her a DIY cult figure Rockstar also generated a lot of nasty blowback that got so ferocious that Palmer had to take a break. Now, after four years, she’s back with a new album, There Will Be No Intermission, and an 18-month international solo tour, just her and her piano and her ukulele. Andy’s a diehard fan and got tickets for her show at the Beacon Theater as soon as they went on sale. The day of the concert, an email arrived announcing that the show would start promptly at 7:30 and be over at…11:30. We’d seen her in concert three times before, and I liked her fine, but I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for four hours of Amanda Palmer solo. We gave ourselves permission to bail when we’d had enough, but we stayed for the whole thing. Palmer referenced both Springsteen on Broadway and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (both Netflix specials), and they clearly influenced her decision to undertake the brave notion of a solo concert that combines music and storytelling (a LOT of talking) with a very specific political agenda. She’s had three abortions in her life, she’s been raped twice, and she’s had a miscarriage, and as she says in the show after those upsetting experiences she looked around for some art work (movies, books, plays, songs, albums) that reflected the range and depth of emotions she was feeling and didn’t find any. So in this moment when access to abortion is again politically under assault, she resolved to fill in the gap and Talk About It herself. It makes for a bold, challenging show that alternates between songs from her new album, selections from her back catalogue, and fun covers. For all the ways she teeters on the verge of insufferable self-indulgence – let’s just say she needs a lot of attention – she does have an extraordinary ability to read the room and disarm an audience. Early on she warned the Beacon crowd what was coming and established a rule: at any time, anyone in the audience could call out “Amanda, I’m feeling so sad!” and she would immediately respond with the jaunty opening of her song “Coin-Operated Boy.” And that did happen several times during the concert. And it made a 2000-seat theater feel like a pretty cozy living room.

April 21 – “I can’t sleep” is the first line of Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise (at the Public Theater), which addresses the mixed blessing of being #woke – it’s both empowering and exhausting. Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist; his white girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a lawyer. Their best friends (and former significant others) are Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), a white English professor, and Misha (Sheria Irving), a performer who hosts an edgy podcast called “Ask a Black.” The set-up feels rom-commy, but as usual Suzan-Lori Parks can’t help coloring outside the genre-lines – as staged by Oskar Eustis, the play unpredictably veers into pockets of farce, tragedy, melodrama, soliloquy, and performance-art weirdness. After Leo is roughed up on the street by cops, he conceives of a provocative art project for his own healing: he talks Ralph (who comes from a rich family) into buying him for 40 days of slavery. Being owned settles Leo down emotionally and energetically; he’s finally able to sleep. Meanwhile, Ralph surprises even himself by how much he gets into ownership, and the two women resume their on-again off-again love affair, which has its own kinky aspects. For all the elements that land as contrived and preposterous, the mood of the play matches the feeling of the American zeitgeist over the last two years, with the shredding of the social contract, white supremacist bullying fully emboldened, and (as Dawn asserts in her monologue – each character gets one) doing good is seen as suspect activity by clueless libtards.

What is Parks saying, that blacks should give up and that White Makes Right is manifest destiny? Even as my friend Jay and I stood in the lobby of the Public having a juicy conversation about the play and our quibbles with certain plot points (yeah, right, an unpublished author can write a story and get it published in the New Yorker in less than six weeks), I received the play in the Brechtian sense I believe it is intended. Brecht was no fan of dramatic naturalism and emotional plausibility. His fantasy was that critical thinking — that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now — acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment.

At a typical play, according to Brecht, most people say to themselves: “Yes, I have felt like that too — Just like me — It’s only natural — It’ll never change — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable — That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world — I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.” He wanted spectators at his theater to say: “I’d never have thought it — That’s not the way — That’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary — That’s great art: nothing obvious in it — I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”

April 26 – What can I say about the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the newly renovated Brant Foundation Art Study Center in the East Village? Being in the presence of almost 70 Basquiat paintings over the four floors of the gallery made me absolutely crazy with joy. I don’t know how to explain it, because normally I live with a distinct aversion to chaos. But when I look at Basquiat’s work, especially the gigantic paintings busy with lists and icons and as many overlapping narratives as a medieval tapestry, I don’t see chaos but feel privileged to be viewing the inner workings of…not just a mind but a heart and a sensibility super-alive to child-like playfulness and sophisticated art-music-life references.

The Brant Foundation show is running for another couple of weeks, through May 15. Tickets are required, it is ostensibly sold out, but the waitlist shifts all the time; be patient with the confusing and arduous process and you might well end up in the door after all. The show includes some famous Basquiat works (Hollywood Africans, on loan from the Whitney, and the untitled skull painting that sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million) but also lots of stuff I’d never seen before, some stuff that hasn’t been exhibited in New York before. (The show was put together by Dieter Buchhart for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.) My friend Clint described me as looking like St. Teresa de Avila in a state of rapture. There is, of course, the gift shop on your way out the door that sells among other things a Basquiat yoga mat. I didn’t get one, but you know, I have a birthday coming up….

Speaking of my birthday, if anyone wanted to gift me with a pair of tickets to see Lizzo at Brooklyn Steel on Sunday May 12, I wouldn’t say no. Her single “Juice” has already established itself as candidate for The Song You’re Going To Be Hearing All Summer Long. Her video featuring stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race is hilarious:

April 27 – Curse of the Starving Class was the first in a sequence of five semi-autobigraphical family dramas that represent the single strongest period of Sam Shepard’s long, anything but homogenous playwriting career. Set in the semi-rural Southern California of Shepard’s adolescence, it portrays an almost cartoony family of Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister just on the verge of combustion from a flammable combination of dreams, despair, hormones, addiction, financial distress, and genetic predisposition for self-destruction. Julian Crouch’s set for Terry Kinney’s revival at Signature Theatre captures the fragility of the environment spectacularly well, and the zeitgeist ensures that Shepard’s fable of family life as metaphor for American life and/or Western capitalism stays pertinent. Having studied and written about Shepard for 35 years (the first edition of my biography was completed in 1984, the revised edition in 1997), I view productions of his work from so many different angles. I had mixed feelings about this one, mostly because of quibbles with the casting. Gilles Geary gives a one-note dead-eyed performance as Wesley, the poetic-souled son, and both Maggie Siff as his mother and Lizzy DeClement as his sister were too perky and clean-cut for my taste. Meanwhile, David Warshofsky as the dissolute, mercurial dad was just about perfect. I somehow hadn’t realized how consistent this string of family plays returns to the concept of role reversal – it shows up most clearly in act two of True West but it starts with Curse, continues in Buried Child, and returns in A Lie of the Mind (and beyond, in The Late Henry Moss). The pleasures of a Sam Shepard play almost always include boldly visceral real-time theatricality: a nude body, a live animal, the smell of breakfast cooking.

April 28 – Thaddeus Phillips (above) is a travelling man, and his solo performance 17 Border Crossings at New York Theater Workshop does what it says on the tin. With the simplest of means, and in close collaboration with lighting designer David Todaro and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, Phillips recollects a globe-sprawling array of encounters (most but not all his own) with customs and immigration officials, some of them uneventful if humorous, others hair-raising. It’s a sweet short (90-minute) exercise in theatrical storytelling that starts with a burst of Shakespeare, segues into a succinct history of passports, and carries on unpredictably from there. My plus-one was Laurie Anderson, who introduced me to Arto Lindsay (they’d just had a meeting with some cutting-edge sound designers). I in turn introduced Laurie to Jackie Rudin (see below), who had just seen Laurie at the Kitchen in Anohni’s performance She Who Saw Beautiful Things. After the show, Laurie and I had a delicious dinner at Piccolo Strada, the minuscule trattoria a few doors down from the theater.

 

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