Posts Tagged ‘bloody bloody andrew jackson’

Culture Vulture: Best theater of 2010

December 26, 2010


A strong year in theater, I would say. Here’s my pick of a dozen top productions:

1. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – Les Freres Corbusier’s smart/stupid rock musical, my first exposure to excellent writer/director Alex Timbers and his fearless crew, including rock-star caliber lead performance by Benjamin Walker. As the subway ads put it, “History just got all sexypants!”

2. The Myopia – David Greenspan in a spectacular solo performance of his own crazy play

Lily Rabe, Al Pacino, and Byron Jennings in "The Merchant of Venice"

3. The Merchant of VeniceDaniel Sullivan’s deep, upsetting staging of Shakespeare’s play in which Al Pacino’s Shylock and Lily Rabe’s Portia were 2 out of 20 strong performances

Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber in "A View from the Bridge"

4. A View from the Bridge – direction by Gregory Mosher, with terrific performances by Liev Schreiber, Jessica Hecht, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Cristofer, and Corey Stoll

Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, and Christian Borle in "Angels in America"

5. Angels in America – Michael Greif’s revival of Tony Kushner’s play with extra-fine performances by Christian Borle, Zachary Quinto, Bill Heck, Robin Bartlett, and Robin Weigert

Danielle Skraastad, Susan Pourfar, Marin Ireland, Miriam F. Glover and Michael Chernus in "In The Wake"

6. In the Wake – Lisa Kron’s play (lynchpin of the Public Theater’s admirable political-theater season) with superlative performances by Michael Chernus and Deidre O’Connell

Alessandro Nivola and Karen Young in "A Lie of the Mind"

7. A Lie of the Mind – Ethan Hawke’s surprisingly beautiful re-imagining of Sam Shepard’s play, with a revelatory central performance by Alessandro Nivola

8. A Disappearing Number – fine smart new work from Complicite directed by Simon McBurney with a dazzling production design by Michael Levine

9. The Kid – the smart and tuneful musical adaptation of Dan Savage’s memoir with a good cast well-directed by Scott Elliott, most notably Christopher Sieber, Susan Blackwell, and Jeannine Frumess

Jeffrey Wright in "A Free Man of Color"

10. A Free Man of Color – John Guare’s ambitious stylized epic staged in high style by George C. Wolfe with a huge cast in which standouts included Jeffrey Wright, mos, and Veanne Cox

11. Another American: Asking and Telling – perfect timing for Marc Wolf (above) to bring back his Anna Deveare Smith-like solo performance surveying the topic of gays in the military

Zoe Kazan, Christopher Walken, and Anthony Mackie in "A Behanding in Spokane"

12. A Behanding in Spokane – Martin McDonagh’s hilarious new play with knockout performances by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell and a superbly seedy set by Scott Pask

I’m not quite sure where to put three shows I’d seen before but were still high-water marks for 2010: Fela! (last year’s #1, which I saw twice again this year), Gatz (above, which made my top 10 in 2007), and the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic (the third revival, with a great new cast including Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk, Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan).

Miscellaneous highlights:

— William Kentridge’s dense and dazzling production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera and his equally theatrical retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art

— Norm Lewis singing “Being Alive” in Sondheim on Sondheim at the Roundabout

— Christine Jones’ set (above) and Michael Mayer’s direction for American Idiot
— Mark Rylance’s justly acclaimed performance in La Bete

The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway – sheer fun!

— Most Valuable Player (male): Scott Shepherd (above) for North Atlantic and Gatz

— Most Valuable Player (female): Bonnie Thunders, Gotham Girls Roller Derby (above)

In this week’s New Yorker (and other publications)

October 24, 2010

Here’s what is foremost on my mind politically these days: yes, I am disappointed with President Obama on any number of fronts,  but I’m not willing to let that disappointment turn the 2010 midterm election into a referendum on his presidency by thumbing my nose at him. To do so would be to allow the newly energized far-right to gain more power than would be good for anybody.

I suppose I’m one of those who would like to think that Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Linda McMahon are wingnuts whom the populace can’t possibly consider worthy of office. I am persuaded by David Barsamian’s interview with Chip
a journalist who has taken as his subject the rise of right-wing populism, that this would be stupid and naive. The Tea Party, Berlet says, “started out as a fake grass-roots movement funded by political elites. We call them ‘Astro-Turf’ movements. Republican and conveservative poltiical operatives were trying to create the impression that there was a groundswell of antagonism toward the Obama agenda. Some of the early activities were very thinly disguised Astro-Turf, but as the media began to pick up on it — especially Fox News — the Tea Party turned into an actual social movement. It escaped the specific economic-libertarian agenda set for it by Dick Armey, the former Republican House leader from Texas whose organization funds a lot of Tea Party events. Other agendas were brought in: anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-abortion, even conspiracy theories about the ‘new world order’ and the UN coming in black helicopters…”

Berlet goes on to say, “Sociologist Rory McVeigh did a great study showing how right-wing movements arise in defense of power and privilege. People on the right are fighting to keep something they don’t want to lose. That’s a strong motivator…You don’t build a campaign of prejudice out of thin air. It has to be rooted in the culture. So you start out with a rhetoric of us versus them: We’re good; they’re bad. We’re going to save America; they’re going to destroy it…It’s portraying the political opposition not as people with whom you disagree but as a force of evil with whom there can be no compromise. How can you compromise with Satan? How can you compromise with the people who want to destroy America? What happens in this situation is that people started getting killed.”

The interview ends with Berlet saying, “When you build a major social movement around scapegoating and resentment, things can move quickly in a bad direction…We’re not going to have a Hitler; we’re not going to have storm troopers marching in the streets. What we’re going to have is a Republican Party that moves to the Right and openly embraces racist, xenophobic ideologies, following the anger of the predominantly white Republic middle class. And the Democrats will follow them, or at least not mount a real opposition. There will be more anti-Muslim and antifeminist and antigay rhetoric. There will be more support for foreign intervention. And that’s our future, unless the progressive movement stands up and starts raising hell.”

Meanwhile, in the New Yorker this week there’s a long insightful profile by Nicholas Lehmann of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader who is one of the main targets that the Tea Party movement (i.e., all the money the Republican party and the oligarchy can come up with) is trying to take down. Reid is anything but a hell-raiser, quite uncharismatic and therefore quite susceptible to media-enflamed attacks by his opponent Sharron Angle. As the New Yorker so often does, Lehmann’s reporting takes us behind the scenes to see exactly how Reid has succeeded as majority leader in helping Obama make any number of legislative gains on the kind of unsexy but overwhelmingly important issues that government is supposed to address but that get undervalued in our crazy media world.

“Obama, with his big congressional majority and keen sense of the fleeting nature of political momentum, decided to be bold in his first two years in office. Although liberal voters are disappointed, the plain truth is that Obama, aided by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, passed much more liberal legislation at the outset of his term than his immediate Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter…In the partnership between the Obama White House and the Reid Senate, Obama supplied the eloquence and grace and originated the policy ideas. Reid’s role was to get it done. Between Obama’s Inauguration, in January, 2009, and the congressional recess early last month, more consequential liberal legislation passed than at any time since the Great Society: health-care reform, the economic-stimulus package, financial regulation, a big education bill, the rescue of the auto industry, and the second phase of the rescue of the big banks. Others (a large expansion of protected public lands, funding for universal broadband access) didn’t get the attention they normally would have.”

And I was very impressed and grateful to read the story in New York magazine by Jesse Green on Tony Kushner, whose analysis of this political moment I share:

“And the LGBT community, what are they, we, looking for? Yes, we’ve been asked to wait a very long time, asked to eat oceans of shit by the Democratic Party; we’ve been 75 percent loyal for decades without a wobble and without a whole lot of help from these people. And it’s important that somebody keeps screaming; the trick is how do you scream, and who do you scream to? If we’re dissatisfied with these Democrats, let’s get better ones instead of fantasies about mass uprisings that are going to resemble the October Revolution. Yes, it might sometimes feel good to throw the newspaper across the room. There’s much criticism of Obama that’s legitimate. He backs down on things, he waffles, like on the mosque, and you wince. And I consider his decision to appeal the Federal court ruling abolishing DADT to be unethical, tremendously destructive, and potentially politically catastrophic. But is Obama really supposed to say, as the first African-American president, that same-sex marriage is his first priority? Clearly he believes in it; he’s a constitutional scholar. It’s not conceivable to me that he believes that state-sponsored marriage should be unavailable to same-sex couples, even if he has religious scruples. But do I think he should have lost the election for the chance to say he supported same-sex marriage? No. Given that we would have had John McCain and Sarah Palin, I would have said, ‘Say anything you need to.’ So if he’s moving very cautiously, with two wars he’s inherited and a collapsing global economy and the planet coming unglued—Okay!

I continue, in my obsessive way, to appreciate and digest the Broadway show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for the way it cannily captures the proud, delusional self-righteousness of under-informed ideologues — Jon Meacham, whose biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize last year, writes a detailed (and approving) response to the play in today’s New York Times, “Rocking the Vote, in the 1820s and Now.”


October 18, 2010

Anybody who knows me is probably getting sick of hearing me rave about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but here’s my review for CultureVulture of the Broadway production. I think it’s a really smart play about the dumb people we are that uses very silly means to ask very serious questions about this project called America:

What was it for this country?
The farms and the blood across the prairie?…
What was it for?
The swimming pools?
The highways?
The ballgames in the dusk?

Performance diary: back and back and Bach

May 9, 2010

May 7 – I’m not the kind of theatergoer who sees shows again and again. I have to really like a show to see it more than once. Aside from the Wooster Group, whose every production I have seen three or more times (because I love them so), it’s rare for me to repeat. Same with movies, same with books: I’d rather experience something than revisit something I’ve already encountered, even something I loved. I have seen Fela! three times, and I saw Spring Awakening 4 ½ times (once I employed the time-honored theater-geek tactic of second-acting the show, grabbing a seat in the balcony just to re-live the ecstasy of watching the number “Totally Fucked” rock the house). My friend Tom Dennison is the opposite of me – when he likes something, he likes to watch it over and over. He saw Spring Awakening seven times (and that was after the original cast left), and he’s seen David Cromer’s production of Our Town about a dozen times. I admire that kind of devotion.

My friend Misha Berson, the theater critic for the Seattle Times, was in town this week for her twice-a-year marathon catching up on new shows, and we were supposed to see Enron together. But once they posted their closing notice, it seemed no longer newsworthy to cover, so she switched gears and arranged to see Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. Of course, I had no problem switching gears with you, since I liked the show very much. Seeing it a second time yielded no big rewards, but it was interesting to experience the squeeing of the Christopher Walken maniacs in the audience. Zoe Kazan and Anthony Mackie were very consistent and energized. I got the sense that Walken and Sam Rockwell were laying back, now that the show has been running a while. Not that they were phoning it in, but there was a certain slackness to their energy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed noticing the trade-off: what was lost in a certain kind of Pinter-esque tension, there was a gain in wacky rock-and-roll assurance between those two guys. Walken is so so deadpan, dropping his voice for impact so you have to really lean in and pay attention, while Rockwell relishes playing fast and loose, as if he’s some guy who just wandered onto the set. I did look forward to his front-of-curtain monologue, which does have an explosive impact on the audience. When he says, “I keep waiting for something exciting to happen. Maybe a prostitute will get stabbed…” the audience responds with a combined gasp of horror and surprised laughter. A guy in the balcony got caught up in a bout of barking laughter so helpless that Misha found it creepy, understandably. Classic McDonagh moment.

May 8 – Then Saturday afternoon we reconvened at the Public Theater for my second dose of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I loved again. I really respect the incredible energy of each individual performer, including the musicians, but of course most of all the charismatic Benjamin Walker in the title role. The staging is tremendous, and the play itself continues to impress me with its daredevil juxtaposition of classic American contradictions – generosity and selfishness, smarts and stupidity, victim and bully. Populism, yeah yeah! I understand they’re putting out an original cast album. Can’t wait! Misha had seen an earlier version of the show in Los Angeles and hadn’t cared for it, thought it was sophomoric and shallow. She liked it much better this time, said they’d sharpened the script, and that the addition of Danny Mefford’s choreography made a huge difference. It is sensational. In the lobby, Misha met a ninth-grade girl who was seeing the show for the third time. I can understand that. There’s a heat and energy to the show that’s just delicious to have blasting at you again and again.

Afterwards, I grabbed a falafel and lemonade at Tahini and then made my way to my next gig, a concert called “The Roots of Bach and Beyond” by the Dessoff Choirs at Calvary St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square. Okay, I went because my boyfriend sings with the Dessoff, but I’m so glad I went. It was a beautiful concert, organized and conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. The centerpieces were two Bach motets (“Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied” and “Jesu, meine Freude”), one before intermission and one after, each preceded by pieces by composers who influenced Bach: Mendelssohn, Kuhnau, Pachelbel, Schutz, Frescobaldi, and Buxtehude. (I just love saying the name Buxtehude.) Actually, the second half began with “Immortal Bach,” a fascinating, slightly nutty 1988 piece by the Norwegian Knut Nystedt in which the sections hold notes for different intervals. The choir was in fine voice, the acoustics in the church are amazing, and Quigley’s conducting and introductory chats were exemplary. A fine time.

Performance diary: THE NOSE, Linda Mironti, and BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON

March 28, 2010

March 25 –
I’m exactly the audience for Peter Gelb’s conception of the Metropolitan Opera. Not that I’m so young, but for the 30 years I’ve lived in New York I’ve very rarely attended performances at the Met. I’m a theater guy, and most of the productions there have been stodgy to an extreme. I’m not well-versed in classical music and I don’t follow singers or conductors, so I could care less about comparing this diva to that diva in the umpteenth iteration of the war horses. Most of what I know about opera comes from following the career of Peter Sellars, who favors highly theatrical, high-concept (sometimes gimmicky) stagings of Mozart and Handel operas or brand-new pieces. Since Gelb took over as general manager, I’ve bought tickets to four or five productions, mainly to see the work of directors I admire (Patrice Chereau, Robert Lepage). I wasn’t exactly dying to see Shostakovich’s The Nose – I don’t think anyone is, really – but I got intrigued by the New Yorker profile of William Kentridge, the South African artist whom the Met engaged to design and direct the show, and my friend Stanley made a pilgrimage from San Francisco just to see the Kentridge show at MOMA (which he saw on the last day of its run at SF MOMA) and the opera. So we all went together, Stanley and I and his friends Arunima and Deane.

My first and strongest impression was: wow, at last New York is getting European-style opera productions on a grand scale. Visually, The Nose is a knockout from the moment you walk in the door. Kentridge’s pre-show curtain is a crazy constructivist collage that already makes the room alive with energy, expectation, and historical content (both artistic and political). And the visual invention never stops – now that I think about it, it’s a little like Bill T. Jones’ production of Fela!, a flood of projections, videos, titles, and animations that keeps the visual field alive and interacting with the music and the story at all times (the exact opposite of the traditional park-and-bark style of opera staging). The score is very quirky, dissonant, angular – admirably unconventional but hard for me to love, although it’s exactly what you might imagine a 22-year-old super-talented composer in the thrall of Berg’s Wozzeck. The absurdist story – man has nose, man loses nose, man gets nose back – had all kinds of political and social meanings in Shostakovich’s (and Gogol’s) Russia. A piece of it that resonated with contemporary American life is the public’s mindless fascination with idiotic tabloid news stories (remember the balloon boy?). Paolo Szot’s performance in the central role was certainly a sharp contrast from what his did across the plaza in South Pacific – again, hard to love but admirable. Andrei Popov’s piercing tenor as the Police Inspector was also impressive. But mostly I was dazzled and thrilled by Kentridge’s energetic design, which realizes the artistic ambitions and experiments of Russian constructivist art and theater that Stalin shut down. I especially loved the films of the disembodied nose superimposed on old footage (of Shostakovich at the piano, of ballet dancer Anna Pavlova). Stanley and Nima and Deane had spent a couple of afternoons at MOMA and were excited to talk about the parallels between the opera design and Kentridge’s artwork, among other things, over a delicious dinner at Whym afterwards.

March 26 – Friends and family of Linda Mironti packed out the upstairs room at the Duplex for her show, “La Dolce Vita” (above). Linda and I have been friends for almost ten years – she and Michael Mele run Il Chiostro, whose week-long retreats in Italy include the gay men’s program I co-facilitate, “Come to Your Senses.” Linda’s a wonderful singer, and in this show she tells stories about her Italian grandfather and her years of toiling in Italian recording studios only to find her albums showing up years later on the charts in Korea. She sang a raunchy song about the physical indignities plaguing middle-aged women, which had the audience roaring with laughter. For me, the highlight of the show was the finale, John Lennon’s “Imagine” reconceived as a blues – though when I complimented Linda on it afterwards, she confessed that she stole the idea from Ray Charles. Well, if you’re gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best, eh?

March 27 – I’ve never seen the work of Les Freres Corbusiers before and now, after seeing their new musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theater, I’m kicking myself. I wish I’d seen them all, if they were anywhere near as good as BBAJ. Their program bio describes LFC as “a NY-based company devoted to aggressively visceral theatre combining historical revisionism, sophomoric humor and rigorous academic research. The company is committed to the notion of a Populist Theatre that draws on prevailing tastes and comedic sensibilities to speak directly to the mainstream audience routinely ignored by the American Theatre. Les Freres rejects the shy music, seamless dramaturgy and muted performance style of the 20th century in favor of the anarchic, the rude, the juvenile, the spectacle.” How’s that for a manifesto? It’s 100% accurate. The visceral begins when you walk in the door. I’ve been seeing shows at the Newman for 30 years, and I’ve never seen that space so transformed from wall to wall into an intimate nightclub ambience, a la Blue Man Group, with cool enough pre-show music that Andy and I were constantly checking Shazam to see what was playing (Spoon, Tegan and Sara, A.C. Newman). The show is indeed a historical pageant about the former POTUS (a renowned yahoo populist who rode into the White House on a flood of anti-government resentment) delivered in a totally burlesque, history-for-dummies style: hyped-up, anachronistic, slangy, no-joke-too-dumb, ADD to the max, stuffed full of music played by an onstage rock band, some songs lasting 30 seconds, Saturday Night Live meets Spring Awakening on speed. It’s the kind of thing I might usually abhor…and yet it captivated me, entertained me, enlightened me, and made me think. Although it seems to be recycling LCD humor, that’s a kind of pose – its aggressively relentless barrage of cultural references (from Michel Foucault to Valtrex) and edgy joking reminded me less of bad improv comedy than of smart rock bands like Of Montreal. (For example, there are very few characters who aren’t portrayed as big fags at one point or another, from Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams to AJ himself. This kind of gay-as-automatic-laugh-line could very easily grate on my nerves but is taken to such extremes here that it’s hilarious.) And I learned a lot about the crazy chaos of early American history. If I ever learned it, I hadn’t remembered that Jackson created the Democratic Party, outraged by the elitism of Republicans (!!). I’d been associating Jackson with George W. Bush but in this president-as-rockstar retelling he uncannily conjures Obama at times. But the piece doesn’t take one point of view or settle for easy parallels. The “serious” content of the piece is in constant contrast to the “silly” style, which I love. I’m totally impressed by Alex Timbers, the writer-director. Michael Friedman’s music rocks, and the performers – from Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson on down – give it their all.

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