Posts Tagged ‘american idiot’

Performance diary: doubling back

April 25, 2010

April 23 – Andy and I went back to see North Atlantic because you can never absorb everything about a Wooster Group production in one viewing. And indeed, it was very different this time sitting in the next to last row downstairs than it was sitting in the second row center. From the very front the actors were on top of us and overwhelming in their way. From the distance of the back row, the entire frame came into view, including the minimalist video representing the ocean surface behind the stage. When you’ve seen the piece once, you don’t have to focus on whoever’s speaking and you can pay attention to what crazy things the rest of the ensemble is up to. They’re not frozen in place – I just noticed this time the nutty shoeshine business that Doberman and Houlihan were up to as the military officers strode back and forth. I’ve just finished reading The Wooster Group Work Book, Andrew Quick’s incredibly detailed and engrossing study of five productions (from Frank Dell to To You, the Birdie!), in which Liz LeCompte talks about the paces she puts the actors through, having them work very hard to make something happen in the moment rather than looking overly rehearsed. So I was very aware of how, for instance, Scott Shepherd (below) managed the dead space around the leaden jokes he tells as Colonel Lud.

Almost all the notes I took were crazy little Jim Strahs lines I hadn’t necessarily heard before, such as:

— Waddya got for the layman, something that lights up and talks back?

— Ya gotta make ‘em squirt.
— I can’t do that. What does that make me, a soft-shell crab?

— You’re so deformed you could have been born in a can of Pepsi.

— Go ahead, wet your stick.

— Slithers??? Jumps!

— You’ll be shitting shoelaces for the next 35 years.

— Who’s he calling Schwitzpuppen?

The sound score is always subtly changing, throughout the show and from one performance to another, and you could spend the entire time just tracking that. I still giggle every time I think about the scene where the men down front are singing the dirty ditty “There’s a Place in France” (“where the women wear no pants”) while upstage the women are sliding on the tilted stage floor faintly mashing it up with snatches of Chic’s “Le Freak” (“awwww freak out!”). I spoke to Liz briefly after the show and that’s what she was fixated on – she said they’d only just solved some of the acoustic bugaboos in the theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center that North Atlantic has inaugurated. She also said the group is leaving soon to perform in Romania – “Don’t ask!”

Andy and I happily debriefed about the show walking up Ninth Avenue afterwards until we found ourselves stopping for dinner at a relatively new place, Terrazza Toscana, at 50th Street, where sat outdoors on the roof and had a delicious meal: spaghetti with lamb stew for him, orecchiette with pancetta and haricots verts for me, with a lovely bottle of copertino.

April 24 – Revisiting American Idiot: for all my grumbling about how the songs in the show  blurred together after a while, I notice that after listening to the original cast album now I can’t get several of them out of my head (“Are We the Waiting,” “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns”). I guess if I knew the Green Day album in advance – like apparently Theatermania’s Dan Bacalzo did – I would have been squealing with delight throughout the show at what Michael Mayer did with each song. That’s what I would probably do if someone made a stage show out of, say, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album. Not a bad idea….paging Michael Mayer!


Performance diary: AMERICAN IDIOT

April 21, 2010

April 16 – OK, American Idiot. Spectacular staging by Michael Mayer, who masterminded Spring Awakening, my favorite musical of the last 10 years and one of the most exciting and influential Broadway shows in recent memory. Mayer has his usual weaponry with him: dazzling set by Christine Jones, an art installation I’d be happy to visit on its own, pocked with 37 TV sets creating a Big Brother rec room from hell; state-of-the-art theatrical rock-concert lighting by Kevin Adams; smart original choreography by Steven Hoggett (who organized the memorable movement stuff in Black Watch); real rock ‘n’ roll played by an onstage band (with arrangements by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal fame); fantastically energetic performances by a young cast of all different sizes and shapes.
That much was exciting to me for about half the show. But ultimately the Green Day songs just didn’t hold up as theatrical storytelling for me. I don’t know the album, so the words weren’t familiar to me, and they don’t really read from the stage. The songs are peppy and melodic but eventually they start to run together – there’s one strand of angry white-boy blare and another strand of acoustic emo ballad. Mayer has taken Green Day’s catalogue and shaped a storyline to thread the songs together, focusing on three main characters: John Gallagher’s Johnny aka Jesus of Suburbia, who flees the suburbs for the big city to make it as a musician but has more success as a junkie and a half-hearted lover (his girlfriend, the impressive Rebecca Naomi Jones, is known only as Whatsername); Will, who would have joined that expedition but got his girlfriend pregnant so stays home planted on the sofa watching TV (the sadly underutilized Michael Esper); and Tunny, who (in a witty sequence) gets mesmerized by an Army recruitment video, goes to Iraq, gets his leg blown off, and comes home with a wheelchair and his nurse-wife.  (Tunny is played by Stark Sands, for me the finest performance in the show and he gets to do an aerial ballet with his Extraordinary Girl that isn’t exactly like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — see below.) Unfortunately, these stories come off as too generic to be really interesting – they’re sort of generational archetypes, like the characters in Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel show Movin’ Out. Recognizable and forgettable at the same time.

I wanted to love this show but couldn’t quite get there. Still, I admire Michael Mayer’s fierce devotion to channeling the defiance, anger, confusion, and hormonal power of youth into an alive theatrical canvas. And I respect the conceptual arc of the show – the title starts off as a reference to George W. Bush and his misguided “redneck agenda” but winds up referring to Johnny himself, who has to face the consequences of his own idiotic actions and consider what else is possible now.

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