Archive for the 'performance diary' Category

Performance Diary: Wally Shawn fever

October 22, 2021

Most people who aware of Wally Shawn know him as a funny face in movies like The Princess Bride or a funny voice in animated films like Toy Story. A subset of the population associates him with My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film of Shawn and director Andre Gregory sitting in a restaurant talking about life and death and art; apparently, a whole new generation has caught onto this film thanks to references on The Simpsons and TikTok parodies, and it’s been cited as progenitor to the world of low-budget mumblecore movies. Shawn’s most substantial contribution as an artist, however, is his body of work as a playwright. He hasn’t written that many plays, and they’re not performed that often. When they do, it’s a cause for celebration and attention.

Currently onstage at the Minetta Lane Theatre is the one-person play The Fever, co-produced by Audible (which plans to release it as an audiobook) and the New Group, whose artistic director Scott Elliott is one of Shawn’s primary champions in the theater world and who staged this production, which stars Lili Taylor. Tiny, whip-smart, and super-appealing, Taylor previously appeared in Shawn’s play Aunt Dan and Lemon, also directed by Elliott for the New Group. The Fever is a tricky, intellectually thorny, emotionally challenging piece (the complete text is available online here), and Taylor (below, photographed by Daniel Rader) dives deeply and bravely into this exercise in thinking out loud.

Originally performed in 1990 by Shawn himself, The Fever is a 1 hour and 40 minute monologue by a character known as The Traveller. Sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a hotel room in the middle of the night, “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken,” she experiences a dark night of the soul, brooding about her life and especially her relationship to money, her economic class, poor people, world politics, and the death penalty. Typical for Wally Shawn’s plays, the character is slippery – at times she evokes identification and sympathy, other times you draw away from her. You’re constantly having to gauge your distance from her. She fanatically examines what she’s observing in great detail, whether it’s her internal experience of being at a cocktail party or ruminating over the meaning of the expression “commodity fetishism” as it turns up in Karl Marx’s Capital.

At the core of the piece is a moral wrestling match that many of us experience walking down the street in New York every day. You see a homeless person begging on the street – you think, “I’ll give him some money” – a voice inside you says, “Why not give him ALL your money?” – you retort, “I can’t give him ALL my money…” In The Fever Shawn carries that internal dialogue on to the nth degree. It could devolve into liberal hand-wringing but it never does, because Shawn’s prose is so carefully wrought and Taylor’s performance stays absolutely present. Shawn’s work always makes audiences uncomfortable, and this play is no exception – some people will find it very hard to take. But I respect it tremendously.

Writing the play coincided with a political awakening for Shawn. He first started performing it in people’s living rooms before taking it to theaters all over New York City and then in England. Taylor is not the first woman to undertake the role, Clare Higgins played it onstage in London in 2009, and Vanessa Redgrave made a film of The Fever in 2004 (directed by her son, Carlo Gabriel Nero) that softened the edges of the play. (Shawn approached the amazing Kathy Baker to do the play onstage in New York and/or Los Angeles, but she said no.) I appreciated the beguiling levity Taylor brings to the performance; Shawn wrote a charming opening scene for her to greet the audience and set the stage.

I still cling fondly to the memory of the last time The Fever was produced in New York, when Scott Elliott directed Shawn in a beautifully nuanced staging that explicitly conjured a connection to the existential starkness of Samuel Beckett’s monologues that I’d never previously perceived in Shawn’s work. (During the pandemic, Elliott created a Zoom version of Waiting for Godot, in which Shawn gave an astonishing performance as Lucky to Tariq Trotter’s Pozzo, with Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo as Didi and Gogo.) In the intimacy of the Minetta Lane, Taylor occasionally spoke so softly that passages got lost, including the powerful last couple of lines. All the more reason to anticipate the audio version when it’s released by Audible. Shawn himself recorded the play in 1999 for a 2-CD package released in 2006 that is now out of print, but apparently some used copies are available online through Amazon.

Speaking of audio versions, a huge mid-pandemic gift to theatergoers in general — and Wally Shawn fans in particular — arrived this year in the form of six-part podcast versions of his plays The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. These productions reunite Shawn with director Andre Gregory and the original New York casts of the plays. In collaboration with sound designer and composer Bruce Odland, they’ve created exquisite “theater of the ear” to match the best Broadway original cast recordings (especially those of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals).

David Hare first staged The Designated Mourner in London with three actors sitting at a bare table and filmed that production, which featured Mike Nichols in the title role. In New York, the play ran for a few months at a 30-seat theater in a disused gentlemen’s club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawn’s longtime companion), and Larry Pine. That production was revived in 2013 at the Public Theater (a co-production with Theater for a New Audience), and that’s the production captured for the podcast edition.

Some people, including myself, consider The Designated Mourner to be one of the most profound pieces of writing created for any medium in the last 20 years. It is a bleak, dread-inducing meditation on the decline of Western civilization delivered through monologues by three inhabitants of a politically repressive country where intellectual freedom has effectively been persecuted out of existence. To indulge in Wally Shawn-like hyperbole, I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better, though not necessarily happier place, if all students, teachers, politicians, fornicators, and Netflix subscribers put down their magazines, turned off their cel phones and TV sets, and read, re-read, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. Written 25 years ago when it seemed like a dystopian fantasy, the play depicts all-too-recognizably the inexorable drift toward anti-intellectual authoritarianism that we’re viewing today not just in Russia and China but in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and that roguest of rogue nations, the United States of America.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a different animal altogether. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London (where My Dinner with Andre also got its start), Grasses made its American debut at the Public Theater as part of the same deal with Theater for a New Audience. It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist named Ben who’s overwhelmingly fixated on his penis – the sort of thing that never happens in real life — and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”

In London, Miranda Richardson played both Cerise (live and aglow with flecks of glitter oiled into her skin) and Blanche (exclusively on film, often with a red ribbon tied around her neck); in New York, those roles were played by Julie Hagerty. A surprising presence was Jennifer Tilly as Robin, who brings a fascinating and unpredictable mixture of vulgarity and enigma to the role. And Emily McDonnell, a young actress from the Richard Maxwell downtown theater world, played Rose. (Pictured above) This strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O, is quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner). The audio version is a wild ride, alternately hilarious and grotesque, poetic and appalling, outrageous and riveting.

Critics and commentators have often noted that Shawn’s plays tend to gravitate toward long monologues, sometimes elaborate storytelling, sometimes deeply internal reveries, imparting a literary, novelistic flavor. That’s what makes the audio versions really work – there’s very little action that you’re missing. I’ve saved the best news for last: these podcasts are available for free from Apple Podcasts. Check them out and let me know what you think.

Performance Diary: THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS in Central Park

September 9, 2018

An old man seeking sanctuary is stopped at the border and separated from his two daughters, who are taken off to prison – especially cruel since the man is blind. The question of whether immigrants and refugees are welcome in this country was not in play when The Gospel at Colonus premiered in 1983, but it added another layer of sentiment to the beautiful 35th anniversary restaging at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s musical mashup of Greek tragedy and an African-American church service, which had me in tears several times.

The evening was chilly and it drizzled steadily the first half of the show, but since it was the last night of a short run, the performers were real troupers. So great to hear this fantastic score again, with one killer song after another: “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?,” “Numberless Are The World’s Wonders,” “Sunlight of No Light,” “Eternal Sleep,” “Lift Him Up.” So great to see many of the original cast still working their magic (J.D. Steele, Kevin Davis, Carolyn Johnson-White); Bob Telson at the piano alongside the original musicians Sam Butler, Jr., Butch Heyward, and Leroy Clouden; the amazing Blind Boys of Alabama with a new lead singer, Jimmy Carter, in place of the late great Clarence Fountain (the first blind man to play the blind king Oedipus); Willie Rogers channeling Sam Cooke with the Legendary Soul Stirrers. A real preacher, the Reverend Dr. Earl F. Miller, played the Messenger, the role – part MC, part minister, part shadow Oedipus — first filled by Morgan Freeman, and the terrific Greta Oglesby (whom I admired as the lead in Caroline, or Change at the Guthrie Theater) played Antigone, the part memorably filled by Isabell Monk in the original production.

It’s such a strange piece, in its way, tapping the roots of theater in spiritual ceremony both conceptually and concretely. It’s a tribute to the genius of Lee Breuer that it hangs together the way it does. One of Breuer’s great gifts as a director is to empower talented performers to create performances that are authentically their own. We saw that all over the stage at the Delacorte. And the many forces (financial and administrative) that helped create this run in the park share a commitment to theater as a utopian proposition, a place to keep alive a strong, deep, inclusive vision of humanity and love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Performance Diary: PRELUDES, ADA/AVA, and AND THAT’S HOW THE RENT GETS PAID

July 18, 2015

Extraordinary week of theater.

Saturday July 11: I’m a huge fan of Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, the writer-composer/director team who created Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Ghost Quartet, and now Preludes, the spectacular production at Lincoln Center Theater’s tiny black-box space called The Claire Tow. The show, which Malloy and Chavkin developed together, was inspired by the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and takes place, the program says, in Moscow 1900/the hypnotized mind of the composer. Apparently after early success starting at age 19 with his “Prelude in C# Minor, op. 3, no. 2,” Rachmaninoff experienced a major setback when his “Symphony No. 1 in D. minor, op. 13” premiered in St. Petersburg with a drunk conductor and an underrehearsed orchestra. The viciously negative critical reaction sent the 24-year-old composer into a three-year depression that stopped him in his tracks and ended with the help of a hypnotherapist named Nikolai Dahl summoned by his wife. Mimi Lien’s dreamscape of a set, Paloma Young’s costumes and the fine six-member cast fleetly and wittily straddle the historical time period and casual contemporary references. As the central character, named Rach, tall handsome Gabriel Ebert gives a performance that is impressive without being overly showy; I’ve seen him before but not in Matilda so I was bowled over by how nimbly he displayed his musical, physical, and acting chops – brooding artist who’s part dancer, part clown. He plays piano half-decently, though the show’s spritely musical director Or Matias mostly inhabits Rachmaninoff at the keyboard.

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Nikki M. James is lovely as Rach’s piano-teacher wife Natalya (though she has to fake it when she sits down to play), and Eisa Davis brings the strong, confident, brainy presence we’ve seen before in Passing Strange and her own Angela’s Mixtape to the role of Dahl. (I loved Chavkin’s casting choices. Along with everything that’s impressive about Hamilton, I can’t help noting that the hip multiracial casting coexists with a square attitude when it comes to gender.) The score mashes up Rachmaninoff pieces – some well-known, some rare and exquisite — with Malloy’s original songs, many of them “suggested by” the composer’s work, with the occasional snatch of Beethoven or Mussorgsky. A short gorgeous section from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (which moved Andy, an a cappella aficionado, to tears) was only one of numerous moments where the show took an unexpected turn. In the middle of the show, a trippy number called “Loop” suddenly transports us to a rave in Goa. And the climax of the show is a long (possibly too long) demonstration of Dahl’s work with Rachmaninoff, “Hypnosis.” Stories about blocked artists dangerously court all kinds of clichés, and afterwards I had some nits to pick about the story and the script. But while I was watching it, I was completely absorbed in the ingenious, frequently surprising unfolding of Chavkin’s staging.

Sunday July 12: The Chicago-based performance collective Manual Cinema has evolved its own fascinating funky original form of theater combining shadow puppets, live music, sound and visual design, and performance-art presence. Their first piece, Ada/Ava, was performed in a first-floor apartment window in Chicago in 2010. Since then it’s been performed at various festivals (including the Tehran International Festival of Puppet Theater, the first Americans to play there) as well as opening the show for a Bonnie “Prince” Billy concert. The company’s five founders – Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter – came to NYC to perform Ada/Ava at 3-Legged Dog in the Financial District as part of The Tank’s Flint & Timber series. Presumably inspired by tech-savvy ensembles like the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, Manual Cinema favors low-tech materials (overhead projectors, black construction paper, homemade masks) deployed with tremendous ingenuity and sophistication. The show tells the story of two elderly twin sisters, inseparable all their lives until one collapses dead at the chessboard, and how the survivor experiences her grief, depicted via crazy dreams, ghostly hauntings, and mysterious visits to a carnival sideshow’s hall of mirrors.

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The eerie and poignant Hitchcockian hour-long wordless shadow play appears on a screen hung from the ceiling, and everything that the performers do to create their simple theatrical effects is fully visible to the audience. The performers operate four projectors while two musicians (Kauffman and Vegter) play a delicate, Daniel Lanois-like original score on guitar and keyboards and Maren Celest mixes in sound effects from a laptop.

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Drew Dir explains how the overlapping projections work to simulate animation.

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Sarah Fornace demonstrated the that prop that created the old-lady silhouette for both Ada and Ava.

Afterwards, the company invites the audience to stay, hang out, ask questions, manipulate the puppets, and take pictures, which turned out to be as charming and fascinating as the shadow play. The show has been extended twice (largely thanks to a deserving rave review in the New York Times) and plays now through July 26.

Tuesday July 14: The big event of the week was the three-night revival at the Kitchen of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the notorious/legendary extravaganza created by masterful performer Jeff Weiss and his partner Richard C. Martinez that ran off and on for many years at various downtown venues (mostly the Performing Garage and P.S. 122), morphing into a show called Hot Keys and eventually Come Clean. Weiss and Martinez started out doing this and other shows at their storefront theater on East 10th Street. Some years ago (maybe 15?), Martinez started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, Weiss suspended his acting career (he’d started getting gigs uptown, on Broadway and at Lincoln Center) to care for him, and the couple moved back to Weiss’s home town, Allentown, PA.

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This revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid was masterminded by director Brooke O’Harra, best-known for co-creating her own long-running lesbian comic soap opera Room for Cream with the Dyke Division at La Mama. For this occasion, O’Harra pulled together many of the performers who appeared in How the Rent/Hot Keys over the years (including the invaluable singer/actor/musical director/impresario/right-hand-man Nicky Paraiso, musical director emeritus Mark Bennett, Brenda Cummings, Dorothy Cantwell, Sturgis Warner, Christine Donnelly, Keith McDermott, Mary Shultz, and Kate Valk), invited other actors from the extended downtown theater world to join the cast (the likes of Greg Mehrten, Jim Fletcher, Jennifer Miller, Moe Angelos, and Tanya Selvaratnam), and rounded out the roster with a bunch of the next generation of cutting-edge/gender-queer hotshots (notably Becca Blackwell and Jess Barbagallo) and kids right out of college new to the scene. Each of the three nights featured more than a dozen scenes, most of them two-handers, none of them repeated. Between scenes, the Glee Club (a volunteer chorus of 20-odd singers) performed all kinds of music: Weiss-Martinez originals for chorus, some solos, and a few standards, including “the traditional opening number,” “Where or When,” and the closing number, “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World),” which believe me, in this context, did not sound like either Herman’s Hermits or the Carpenters.

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Jeff Weiss…And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid…Hot Keys…it’s hard to convey what these cultural phenomena mean and meant to anybody who wasn’t in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s. Jeff Weiss was a gay theater pioneer going all the way back to the early days of Caffe Cino and La Mama ETC. This show (Rent/Keys) has always been an outrageous live comic book/soap opera, really dirty, really gay, really un-PC. The basic story concerns Conrad (Connie) Burkhardt, a closeted married husband and father who cruises the streets in the persona of Bjorn, a Finnish gymnast, who lures guys into sex and then sometimes kills them. He is pursued with Javert-like avidity by detective Tom Persky, who’s always keeping tabs on Connie/Bjorn but can never quite pin anything on him. The action travels backwards and forwards through time, from gay bars and bathhouses in Manhattan to the Jersey shore home of jewelry merchants Sol and Vicki Sheisskopf. A lot like John Jesurun’s (somewhat more highbrow) Pyramid Club serial Chang in a Void Moon, the shambolic non-linear scenes were mostly a showcase for terrific, wild vaudevillean comic turns by downtown performers. The first time I saw And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, at the Performing Garage in 1980 or ’81, Weiss played all the roles himself and Martinez ran the lights and sound and everything else. The next time I saw it, the original Wooster Group all-stars and extended fellow travelers played all the parts (alongside Weiss and Paraiso). I saw Hot Keys several times at P.S. 122. The shows were always long (three to four hours, sometimes more), sometimes tedious, sometimes amateurish, sometimes incoherent, and yet often riveting and surprisingly poignant, with unbelievably good performances. As I wrote in a 1996 review,

The unabashedly queer sitcom sketches Weiss writes are perverse, filthy, and played for laughs… Eros rules in this universe. Every human action turns out to be driven by some sexual fetish, some humiliating desire, some outrageous passion. And yet the tone of the show stays unswervingly sweet, like an East Village version of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, complete with tall tales and special guests.

When I showed up for the first night at the Kitchen (the whole run sold out as soon as tickets went on sale — thank you, Nicky, for organizing the tickets for me), I wasn’t expecting Jeff Weiss to be on hand, but there he was, in a comic crown, meeting and greeting. “I know you!” he said, hugging me (and every other familiar face in the crowd). It was not only an all-star cast, it was an all-star audience: I saw John Jesurun, Everett Quinton, Alisa Solomon, Robert Blacker, Jim Leverett, Neil Greenberg, Linda Chapman and Lola Pashalinski with Jim Nicola (the New York Theater Workshop crew), Cynthia Hedstrom…it was a kind of great, exhilarating reunion of a certain tribe from downtown theater. It was super-exciting, fun to be there with Andy (who had no file on Jeff Weiss whatsoever), great to see old friends…and yet I found myself unexpectedly emotional, sad, close to tears on and off throughout the evening. A lot of ghosts flying around. (To name just a few: Ron Vawter, Paul Schmidt, Charles Ludlam, Harry Kondoleon, John Bernd…)

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Before the show began, Jeff (above) made it a point to introduce the oldest living lesbian drama teacher, a mentor of his from back home in her nineties, attending with the woman who was about to become her fourth wife. Jeff asked them if they had any questions for him. The “child bride” piped up: “Do you believe in God?” Jeff turned away, paused for a long moment, turned around and very evenly said, “Yes. He gives good plague.” His devastating, flip response hit the nail right on the head for me. This was a roomful of people who had lived through the horrible years of the AIDS epidemic that swept mercilessly through our community. For all the fun and festivity that this evening at the Kitchen would bring, for many of us it was also a gathering of grieving survivors whose experience of massive losses (not just from AIDS, but mostly from AIDS) we will never recover from. Ever.

Let me describe some high points from the show. It opened with an extremely provocative scene father-and-son sex scene with (very brave) Jim Fletcher as dad and Danny Ryan as his son, his drawers stuffed with an insanely huge Tom of Finland dick. When he came in his pants and dad demanded to see, Ryan called out, “Props!” and someone came running to empty two canisters of whipped cream into his underpants. Dad wanted a taste, then Jeff Weiss wanted a taste, and then the three of them went through the house offering anyone who wanted a taste of the boy-cream. In the Hot Keys tradition, every scene ends with an actor calling “Blackout!” After that first scene, a stream of audience members (all women) headed for the door, clearly not prepared for what this comic extravaganza had in store. What else? In scene 2, an actor described auditioning for a show called I Helped My Mother Die – the Musical. One of the early between-scene songs was sweet Brenda Cummings strumming her ukulele and singing the Petula Clark classic “Downtown.” Kate Valk commanded the stage playing Tom Persky (a role originally played at the Performing Garage by her Wooster Group colleague, the late great Ron Vawter) with lines like “Connie showed me the naked ass of evil.”

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There were three and a half musical directors on hand to play piano and conduct the Glee Club: in addition to Paraiso and Bennett (above), there was a one-night-only appearance by Michael Roth, an old chum of Weiss and Martinez who now works mostly in theater and film in LA but flew in for the occasion, and a young protégé of Paraiso’s, Dane Terry, who performed a long intriguing spoken-word/song from a show he’ll perform at La Mama next season. Tanya Selvaratnam was an amazing Vicki Sheisskopf.

Weiss would introduce many scenes with reminiscences that sometimes wandered quite far into the weeds. He loves nothing more than jokes about sex, bodies, and poop. He announced, “My sphincter is a mess,” rummaged around in his pants for evidence of his frequent involuntary flatulence, and offered a sniff of his fingers to people in the front row. But then he suddenly launched into a rendition of “Just a Gigolo” that was both stylized Brechtian and scary desperate. Certain scenes between Connie and his mother and his sister pretty clearly lean into autobiographical material. The scene where Connie (played by the amazing  Becca Blackwell) visits his sister in the state hospital pulled an astonishingly deep and emotional performance out of Dorothy Cantwell; during it, Weiss slowly circled the stage until he was standing against the back wall, and as Blackwell-as-Connie started reassuring Annie by singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Weiss started singing along – who knows if that was rehearsed, but it was a stunning example of upstaging as coup de theatre.

The likes of this show will not be seen again. And now I can’t get out of my head the lilting strains of the “love theme” from Hot Keys, “Please, Let Love Pass Me By.”

Performance diary: GROUNDED and THE NIGHT DANCE

April 27, 2015

It was one of those only-in-New-York weekends of performance-going. Saturday night Andy and I went to the Public Theater where we sat 20 feet away from Anne Hathaway performing George Brant’s Grounded in a spectacular production staged by the great Julie Taymor. Hathaway plays a female pilot who, after many missions flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, meets a man on leave and gets pregnant, which means getting reassigned from “the blue” to the “chair force”: sitting and watching a high-definition black-and-white screen as the remote operator of a missile-mounted drone tracking targeted individuals in…Pakistan? Iraq? The play isn’t great literature; it arrives at a moral point of view most of us walked into the theater already holding. But it is an honest, dense, skillfully crafted performance poem that Hathaway handled with impressive skill (despite a wandering Wyoming accent).

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And the production surrounding her is intensely dazzling, thanks to Taymor and her stellar team of designers (Riccardo Hernandez sets, Christopher Akerlind lighting, Will Pickens sound design, Peter Nigrini’s projection design, Richard Martinez electronic music design , with original music and soundscapes by Elliot Goldenthal). As my friend Jeremy Gerard wrote in his review, “this master of spectacle is just as imaginative and ingenious working on an intimate scale as she is on larger canvases.”

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Then Sunday afternoon I went by myself to the Park Avenue Armory to see The Night Dance, an hour-long recital with Charlotte Rampling reciting poems by Sylvia Plath and Sonia Wieder-Atherton playing Benjamin Britten cello suites. It was a beautiful, elegant, austere, and — you can imagine — fierce performance. Wieder-Atherton bowed, plucked, and strummed her way through Britten’s pieces, by turns keening, lyrical, and brooding, usually on their own but occasionally overlapping with Rampling’s simple, inhabited recitations of familiar poems (“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus”) and less familiar ones. “It is a terrible thing/To be so open: it is as if my heart/Put on a face and walked into the world.” The rapt audience in the cozy Board of Officers Room at the Armory (capacity 200?) was full of women Rampling’s age and temperament who grew up with these poems, felt all the rage and confusion and feeling contained in them, and still survived, miraculously.

 

Performance Diary: LIVING HERE and FUN HOME

April 19, 2015

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I’ve gone to see many Foundry Theatre productions over the years — great shows from David Hancock’s Deviant Craft to David Greenspan’s The Myopia, from Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales to Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty, season-long colloquia on topics like money, values, and hope — but the other night the Foundry Theatre came to me. The current production, Gideon Irving’s solo Living Here, happens in a different New York City apartment every night, and the performance I volunteered to host in my living room took place last Thursday.

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It was a trip to have 32 people (half of them my friends as guests, half paying customers unknown to me) cozily jammed into my midtown abode watching an extraordinary show. Gideon has been doing home shows for several years now. He used to play in a band and got tired of playing crappy venues to semi-attentive audiences. (You can read an interview about the evolution of the show online here.) He did his first home shows in New Zealand, pedaling his instruments from gig to gig in a wagon behind his bicycle. Living Here combines songs and stories. The songs displayed his magnificent eccentric roar of a voice and his exquisite restless musicianship (he played banjo, guitar, Irish bouzouki, mbira, kazoo, harmonium, and electronic keyboard with special effects, including a looper he used to sample a classic ringtone from an audience member’s iPhone). And his stories reported from the front lines of his peripatetic survey of humanity, full of juicy details from his encounters with a potato warehouse manager to the son of a kazillionaire (who hosted a show in a multimillion dollar apartment with a staff of nannies, caterers, and assistant nanny caterers), an audience with a goat, what little kids yell out in the middle of his show, and tidbits culled from the casual conversation he’d had with me about my apartment during the sound check (below). It was an amazing show. I don’t think anyone who came will ever forget it.

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I admire Melanie Joseph, who started the Foundry, as much as anyone I’ve ever met in the theater. Her commitment to high-quality artists, radically unconventional theater, and social awareness inspire and amaze me. It’s borderline crazy what she does. There’s very little money to be made doing this. It’s a constant high-wire act, and the stress must be overwhelming. And yet she and her artists keep going, making magic against all reasonable expectations. Living Here plays through May 2 — catch one of the remaining shows if you can.

Adventures like Living Here spoil you for regular theater. Almost any other conventional play or musical looks stodgy and staid by comparison. And then there’s Fun Home, another show so original, so deep, so beautifully made, so unusual that it lives in a category all its own. This is the musical based on the graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her complicated relationship with her father, a funeral director and high school English teacher who was himself a closeted gay guy who committed suicide when she was in college. NOT standard material for musical theater, but as adapted by fantastic playwright Lisa Kron with a score by the great Jeanine Tesori guided by the fine director Sam Gold, it is nothing less than great theater.

FUN HOME PLAYBILLIt was a huge hit last season at the Public Theater, where Andy and I saw it twice. Now it’s been remounted on Broadway, extensively revised and radically restaged in the round at Circle in the Square. The work that the creators have done on the show had nothing to do with making it more palatable to an uptown audience or commercially viable but everything to do with making it a truer, deeper work of art. So much about the show is unprecedented — there’s never been a lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical, a character played by three actresses representing the real Alison Bechdel (or T-Rab, as the cast apparently likes to call her) as a child, a college student, and an adult (Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Beth Malone). Stories about fathers and daughters are relatively rare, but when do we ever hear lesbians talk about their relationships with their fathers? And this father (played by the excellent Michael Cerveris) is so complicated — brilliant, high-strung, overbearing, creepy, and increasingly crazy. The score is full of great songs, at least one major aria for each central character. We all know Jeanine Tesori is a wonderful composer, but the secret star of this show is Lisa Kron, whose book and lyrics excel. The strong cast give impeccable performances (I haven’t yet mentioned Judy Kuhn, Roberta Colindrez, and Joel Perez). The staging in the round sometimes diffuses focus (there are definitely moments I miss from the Public Theater production) but just as often it opens up new pockets of theatricality in telling the story and revealing the relationships, thanks to David Zinn’s protean set design and Ben Stanton’s essential lighting. This is clearly not a show for everyone — two small groups of women (a pair and then a foursome) walked out of the intermissionless show, apparently unable to tolerate the sight of two gals making out in a college dorm-room bed — but for me (and surely most of the otherwise sold-out house that leapt to its feet as soon as the show was over) it’s right up there in the pantheon of great unorthodox original musicals, a la Spring Awakening and Fela! We walked out emotionally shaken, thought-provoked, and ecstatic.

4-18 fun home

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