Posts Tagged ‘daniel sullivan’

Culture Vulture: Dancenoise, Gymna Dalang Cilik, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, and CYMBELINE

August 4, 2015

7.24.15 I’m no expert on Dancenoise, the performance art duo Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton (below), but they’re legendary to me nevertheless. In their heyday (late ‘80s/early ‘90s), they never did shows that had long runs. They were more likely to manifest in late-night club dates (at 8 B.C. or King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut) and one-off festival appearances while I was busy going to sit-down shows in theaters. I did glimpse them occasionally doing walk-ons at the Bessie Awards shows or group-show galas but never felt I’d really gotten the full whammy. So thank you, Whitney Museum, for “DANCENOISE/Don’t Look Back,” a mini-retrospective inaugurating the performance facilities at the new venue in the West Village. There was an installation, some film screenings, a variety show, and then a three-night full-length performance of new and old material.

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It’s hard to describe what they do in their string of funny, savage, politically pointed vaudevillean sketches, except that they generally gravitate toward everything women are NOT supposed to do. The program notes at the Whitney quoted Tom Murrin the Alien Comic calling them “the premier practitioners of synchronized aggression,” which is a great succinct summation. After a brief funny freshly finished Charles Atlas film of them running through the museum on their way to the show, they made their usual famous entrance: completely naked except for high heels, flaunting their completely real now-aging unshaved untucked bodies with the fierceness of warriors. They ran through a multitude of costumes, pulled guns and shot each other repeatedly like tireless kids playing, they yielded the stage for scantily clad bump-and-grind boys (including the likes of hunky actor Jonathan Walker, drag clown Hapi Phace, monologuist Tony Stinkmetal, and Elevator Repair Service’s Mike Iveson), they flung fake blood everywhere. In my favorite section, the high-quality sound system blasted Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” while Lucy and Annie did some partnered ballroom dancing with genderqueer partners (Richard Move and Connie Flemming), all them in black bras and panties, eventually joined by a whole stage-ful of folks in the same outfit bouncing up and down to the music. No big verbal commentary, just a lot of anarchic energy and sexual vitality, which was exhilarating. Coming right after the revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid at the Kitchen, it felt like a fun and funny time-warp. A lot of the same faces showed up in the audience – Andy and I sat next to Nicky Paraiso and chatted afterwards with John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and William Niederkorn. At home I dragged out Cindy Carr’s anthology On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century and read out loud her observant piece on Dancenoise, which was published in April 1989 but pretty much described the show we’d just seen:

“These are terrorists wielding a shtick, and with it they attack power in its many disguises. Their shows are always teeming with pop culture junk, since that’s where power hides and where it emanates from – the evening sound bites, the advertising arias, the fashion forecasts, the top forty wool-gatherers. The Dancenoise way of knowledge is to see life as one ungentrified unregenerate 14th Street, just a ramshackle boulevard where everything from Shakespeare to the unwritten law on how to wear a leotard can finally be destroyed and displayed in a bin. The performances level everything in their path, turning slogans into mantras, banality into ritual, pearls into swine. As a rule, they’re a riot and a gas.”

7.29.15 For gamelan musicians, playing for a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) constitutes an unusual challenge – although there’s a basic score with familiar notation, the music has to go wherever the dalang (storyteller) goes, so the players have to be alert to split-second stop-and-start cues. I finally got my first crack at playing under those circumstances when Gamelan Kusuma Laras accompanied the performance of “The Story of Gatotkacha” at the Indonesian Consulate featuring a dalang named Gymna Cahyo Nugroho, an eleven-year-old prodigy from Yogyakarta, Java, who was in the U.S. for the first time for two shows (the night before he was in Washington, DC).

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He travels with his father, his teacher, and some key musicians (including the kendhang player, who essentially conducts the ensemble with his drum), none of whom spoke much English. The afternoon rehearsal was a little rough, and afterwards Gymna looked very tired and wrung out, probably jet-lagged. But he put on a pretty amazing show, manipulating the leather puppets, singing and voicing the various characters, and improvising jokes and reactions to the audience.

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Most wayang kulit tell stories from the Mahabharata, and one thing you quickly learn is that there are tons and tons of battle scenes, which meant that a lot of our score required playing long sections of sampak — bang-bang-bang-bang loud and fast, kind of exciting and kind of monotonous.
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Sitting and playing for hours is pretty punishing on the body. But we had a full responsive house and a lot of fun. Gymna seemed shyly proud of himself and smiled a bit except when cameras pointed at him, in which case he snapped into a very solemn professional pose.

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7.30.15 I didn’t see the original stage production of The Last Five Years but I got a lot out of the original cast recording of Jason Robert Brown’s intimate musical, mainly because of the cast. Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz are arguably the finest musical theater performers of their generation, and the album displays them at their very best. The show runs on two conceptual elements. It portrays the arc of a relationship from  his-and-hers perspectives, proceedings backwards in time (from breakup to first meeting) by not-quite-making-it actress Cathy and forwards (from first date to walking out) by hot young best-selling novelist Jamie, and it tells the story entirely in songs, with very little dialogue. And Brown writes some strong solid songs: “Still Hurting” and “A Summer in Ohio” are highlights for her, “Shiksa Goddess” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You” for him.

I was happy to learn that it was made into a movie by Richard Lagravanese and curious to see how it played out. The movie was released in an unusual manner – pay-per-view before theatrical release, which is several cuts above direct-to-video and mainly aimed at the theater-geek audience that made the live broadcasts of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan such big hits. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan (above) are appealing actors with musical-theater cred, and their drama is touching at times. I confess I got a little tired of their voices, which were a little too nonstop theatrical for me, spoiled as I am by the warm, flexible, more singer-songwriter pop-oriented voices of Scott and Butz.

8.3.15 Daniel Sullivan’s production of Cymbeline is a triumph for Shakespeare in the Park. Especially given the play’s insanely complicated, even ludicrous plot, the show is unexpectedly entertaining. Sullivan smartly addresses head-on the absurdly dense exposition that happens at the top of the show and the equally dense final scene that has to wrap up every conceivable variety of plotline the playwright ever used (a program note mentions that “scholars have counted 27 revelations in the final scene alone”) with a sly attitude that makes merry of the play without trashing it altogether. And he’s assembled a terrific ensemble of solid veterans, all of whom get doubly or triply cast (usually with at least one surprise appearance.)

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater are very fine as the young lovers, though Rabe is never very convincing disguised as a boy and Linklater is more fun playing the buffoon Cloten than the quasi-hero Posthumus. Patrick Page is excellent in the title role, as is Steven Skybell as hard-working servant to the Queen, played by Kate Burton a little too timidly for my taste. Raul Esparza absolutely steals the show, though, as flashy, fast-talking bad guy Iachimo. The production makes great use of Esparza’s razzle-dazzle Broadway song-and-dance chops but he also nails both the sound and the sense of Shakespeare’s language. These folks are amply aided by top-notch sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by David Zinn (loved the Queen’s costume, which looks like something out of a Tim Burton production at the Metropolitan Opera), lighting by David Lander, lovely original score by Tom Kitt, and the other actors I haven’t mentioned: Teagle Bougere, Jacob Ming-Trent, and David Furr.

Culture vulture: a week in New York

June 24, 2012

June 15 – I wasn’t planning to see End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play about Judy Garland, but Kai invited me to go with him, so I figured why not? Well, it turned out to be everything I’d suspected – a mediocre play, an unnecessary theatrical event. I thought I might at least admire Tracie Bennett’s much-ballyhooed performance as La Garland, but I didn’t see any of the extreme desperation or corrosive self-hatred others reported. I’m told Bennett has scaled her performance back since the show opened on Broadway. Understandable, but no fun for latecomers like me.

June 16 – Andy and I stood in line for two and a half hours to get free tickets to see Daniel Sullivan’s production of As You Like It at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, largely on the basis of having admired his Merchant of Venice on Broadway. Both productions featured Lily Rabe in the central female role. But the production was so unengaging that we ended up leaving at intermission. John Lee Beatty’s set design was drab, and although Rabe was lively enough, most of the performances seemed stiff, distant, and/or unintelligible. I felt most sorry for poor Stephen Spinella, playing a nearly static Jacques in a bad wig and scraggly beard. The one pleasure of the evening came from Steve Martin’s surprisingly fresh bluegrass-scented score, beautifully played by an onstage band (Jordan Rice, Tony Trischka, Tashina Clarridge, Skip Ward).

June 18 – I’m very much liking Fiona Apple’s new album, another one with an unwieldy title that most commentators have consented to just call The Idler Wheel…. I was tripped out by Dan P. Lee’s profile of Apple in New York magazine – fascinating and yet disturbingly intimate. I guess if you’re going to stay up all night getting “very stoned” and drunk several times with the subject you’re writing about, you might as well include it in the story. But it ended up seeming creepily exhibitionistic, and I wondered if Apple really consented to Lee’s hyper-exposure.

June 20 – Andy and Jonathan accompanied me to see the Keith Haring show at the Brooklyn Museum. Both of them enjoyed it very much – the show focuses on very early, pre-stardom Keith Haring (essentially 1978-1982), before either of them lived in New York or were aware of Haring’s work. Since I was living in NYC and working for the Soho Weekly News during much of that time, I was around when the wunderkind was making his chalk drawings on subway posters, and one aspect I loved about the show was its time-capsule flavor (all praises to the late Tseng Kwong Chi, who documented all this stuff at the time, because his photos preserve ephemeral work for posterity). I also liked getting a look at Haring’s art-school notebooks, the unexpectedly academic working-out of what became iconic images, the room-sized painting The Matrix (above), and his early inconsequential videos. But ultimately I was unsatisfied with the narrow range of the work on exhibit because I couldn’t help holding it up against the vast range of what came later, the stuff he showed at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and the increasingly ambitious multimedia collaborative stuff that MOMA beautifully showcased in the retrospective that happened before Haring left us way way way way way too soon.

We toodled around a couple of other exhibits at the museum, checking out the small but intriguing display of newspaper articles written by Djuna Barnes, quirky intrepid gal-reporter pieces from the lesbian novelist best-known for Nightwood. (The show is installed in the corridor next to Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Party.) We also walked through the “American Identities: A New Look” show, a potpourri of stuff from the permanent collection, including an early figurative painting by Mark Rothko (Subway, above; I never knew he did anything but the color-field paintings for which he’s famous), some striking neo-icons by Kehinde Wiley (below), and John Koch’s titillating painting The Sculptor.

June 20 – Andy had never seen Bonnie Raitt live, so it was doubly joyous for us to see her opening night at the Beacon Theater. The temperature had soared to the high nineties, and Bonnie gave thanks that the concert wasn’t outdoors, like some of the shows on her tour. The concert was terrific. She looks amazing, she led a smoking hot band, and she sang her heart out. She did almost her entire new album, Slipstream, but my favorites were two great ballads radically re-arranged: John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and then her own “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which I didn’t dream of hoping she would even be willing to sing nowadays. It was actually the first encore because she said she didn’t know where else to put it in the show. I found it a little strange that she seemed to apologize for doing ballads and felt like she had to immediately do a bunch of peppy songs right afterwards so the audience didn’t get depressed or bored. Her ballads are the best part of her repertoire – they’re beautiful, deep, and true, and she could sing them all night as far as I’m concerned, whereas I could care less about hearing songs like “Real Man” or some of the medium material on the new album. But, still. Love me some Bonnie Raitt. Mavis Staples opened the show, and it was fun to see her bask in the glow of legendhood. Bonnie’s keyboardist Mike Finnigan got to do a solo number called “I Got Some News,” which had some funny lyrics: “You came in smiling/With your lipstick a mess/I didn’t understand that….”

June 21 – I blow hot and cold on Wes Anderson, but having been dazzled by the visual sweep and crazy ensemble cast of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I figured I’d better see the similar-sounding Moonrise Kingdom in the movie theater rather than on home video. I’m glad I did. As usual with a Wes Anderson film, the word that keeps coming up to describe it is “twee,” cute to the point of precious in a curdling sense, and yet I totally admire its quirkiness and originality. It’s not copying anything, and in fact as a crazy young adult saga I love that it presents the romantic heroic journey of two unlikely nerdy kids (played by Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, above). I want there to be more non-conforming quirky nerdy heroic kids in the world. That the soundtrack toggles back and forth between Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams becomes its own running joke. And the assortment of amazing actors running around in mostly small, nutty parts (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban) makes the movie fun and never boring. Not to everyone’s taste, but surprisingly satisfying to mine.

June 22 – George Harrison: Living in the Material World is one more in an unbroken string of Martin Scorsese’s phenomenal rock-music documentaries. I’m not a completist fanatic like Allan Kozinn, but I’m a hardcore Beatlemaniac and I thought I’d hoovered up everything there is to know about the Fab Four, but this two-disc, nearly four-hour documentary uses no familiar material and rounds up tons of odd scraps of film and video from the full history of the Beatles. Focusing on George makes for a very different retelling of the familiar Beatles saga, because he was in some ways the most enigmatic of the four. I learned a bunch of stuff I didn’t know – mostly trivia, but fun facts. After totally giving George credit for the classic guitar riff of “And I Love Her,” Paul McCartney talks about another recording session (only four years later) when George kept playing guitar solos on every line of “Hey Jude” and Paul asked him not to. This, in its own way, signaled the beginning of the end of the Beatles. I love seeing recent interviews of Paul and Ringo talking about the Beatles. You can’t help noting that, for all his eloquence and humor, Paul is kind of a dick — bossy, self-satisfied, pompous even when he’s trying not to be. Even so, he has made some great solo records, which can’t be said of George. The documentary never says so explicitly but watching it you can’t avoid the plain fact that George’s songwriting after the Beatles was never that good – his rhythms often plodding, his melodies banal, his sentiments kinda preachy. But it’s fun to see and hear about the origins of his best songs, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” and his extraordinary range of friendships, including Eric Clapton (even after Clapton fell in love and then married George’s first wife, Pattie Boyd). Two very fleeting references are made to serious drug problems – someone says “George did everything all the way, whether it was cocaine or meditation” – though we do see him performing “What Is Life” totally wasted, his voice a wreck. Tom Petty is another compelling commentator, talking about the Travelling Willburys. But a key moment I’ll take away is Ringo talking about his last encounter with George, who was being treated for his cancer in Switzerland. Ringo mentioned that he was on his way to Boston because his daughter was being treated there for a brain tumor, and George, who was in terrible pain and could barely sit up, said, “Would you like me to go with you?” And then, wiping away a tear, Ringo says, “I feel like I’m on  Barbara Walters….”

June 23 – On the last day of the show, I got to see “Boat,” Laurie Anderson’s show of paintings at Vito Schnabel’s pop-up gallery on Leroy Street. Wow! I’m so glad I did. They’re monumental. I’ve been seeing Laurie’s work since the year I got to New York (1980) and have admired to varying degrees her experiments in music, performance art, video, film, photography, book-making, sculpture, storytelling, and political commentary. I’ve written about her a lot over the years, and we’ve gotten to be friends. She hasn’t ever had a show of just paintings before – she’s often evinced mixed feelings about the official Art World – but then these aren’t just paintings. The strongest feeling I had walking into the gallery was that of witnessing grief. The centerpiece of the show is “Lolabelle in the Bardo,” a series of ten charcoal-on-paper drawings imagining her beloved rat terrier in the state of being that The Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests the soul inhabits for the 49 days after it leaves the body. (Lolabelle died April 17, 2011.) These large canvases swirl with movement and recurring images (diamonds, spinning tops, and of course dogs), and they’re not without humor (Osama Bin Laden died May 2, and the artist imagines him cohabiting the bardo with Lolabelle). But a sense of loss and mourning, and the disorientation that goes with those experiences, pervades the whole show, which includes some paintings on fabric, some canvases so dark they look like sketches on blackboards (such as the painting that gives the show its title, with its mythological references to Cerberus and Styx), and a hologram of Laurie and Lolabelle sitting in armchairs while Laurie tells a story called “From the Air.”

In the evening, Andy and I trekked to a movie theater in Astoria we’d never been to (Kaufman Astoria Stadium) to see Brave. Andy’s a huge fan of Pixar and has been keen to see this movie since it was first announced that the studio famous for Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E was finally doing a movie with a girl as the heroic lead. As is so often the case, the trailer gives you the best part of the movie in two and a half minutes – the rest of it is a rambling fairy tale that gets vague and mushy at the end. Mostly, it’s a movie about hair. Merida does have an amazing mane of blazing red hair, depicted like no hair has ever been seen in animated film before. Not enough for me, though.

Top theater of 2011

December 19, 2011

NEW YORK THEATER: Top Ten Productions of 2011

1. JERUSALEM – Jez Butterworth’s dense, lyrical, astonishingly original play superbly directed by Ian Rickson, centered on the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance (above) as half-man half-myth Rooster Byron, with help from a sturdy ensemble cast and production design by the artist known as Ultz.

2.  THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) – Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway lived up to the company’s high standard for wit, depth, theatrical liveliness, and tech savvy. Great ensemble performance directed by John Collins, with a special shout out to lead actors Mike Iveson and Lucy Taylor, supporting performers Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, and the amazing Kaneza Schaal, and production designer David Zinn.

3. THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRE — an unlikely match and another beautiful triumph for Elizabeth LeCompte and her brave actors, led this time by Ari Fliakos as the author’s stand-in with all subtext stripped away.

4. THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT – Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play kept me laughing really hard at the most heartbreaking scenes, where cruelty and romance kept morphing into one another. Top-notch cast, though for me the revelation was Yul Vazquez as the scene-stealing cousin.

5. OTHER DESERT CITIES – Jon Robin Baitz’s taut play, a showcase for five excellent actors beautifully directed by Joe Mantello (I preferred the Lincoln Center cast with Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin).

6. SLEEP NO MORE – British theater company Punchdrunk’s ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare and Hitchcock made for the year’s single most original theater experience, a dreamscape sprawling over 100 rooms in two adjacent former warehouses in Chelsea.

7. THE ILLUSION – Signature Theater’s Tony Kushner season ended with Michael Mayer’s gem-like staging of this lyrical bit of poetic philosophy featuring memorable performances by Lois Smith, Henry Stram, and Peter Bartlett.

8. BURNING – Thomas Bradshaw’s haunting, provocative play working the raw edges of sex, race, and politics staged with gleeful perversity by Scott Elliott.

9. THE PATSY & JONAS – the incomparable actor and playwright David Greenspan had another banner year with his own play Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons and this quirky double-bill of solo virtuosity.

10. SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK – I saw the final performance that could legitimately be said to reflect the work of director Julie Taymor (above), with its mind-boggling sets by George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and I thought it was terrific. Sue me.


•    James Macdonald’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, headed by the formidable trio of Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw (below);

•    David Leveaux’s smart revival of Tom Stoppard’s towering Arcadia

•    Taylor Mac’s collaboration with the Talking Band, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth at La Mama, a perfect tribute to the recently departed champion of idealistic experimental theater

•    The Book of Mormon, thanks to the fearless Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the clever Casey Nickolaw

•    Daniel Sullivan’s lucid Shakespeare in the Park staging of All’s Well That Ends Well

•    David Lindsay-Abaire’s troubling but sticky Good People – Frances McDormand justifiably got the reviews and the awards but let’s not forget Patrick Carroll’s exquisite supporting performance

•    Nina Arianda’s scintillating howdy-do in David Ives’ Venus in Fur (above right, with Hugh Dancy)


November 20, 2010

My review of Daniel Sullivan’s production of The Merchant of Venice has been posted on

I didn’t manage to see the show when it was first staged in Central Park last summer, in rep with Michael Greif’s version of The Winter’s Tale, but I’m glad I caught up with it on Broadway.

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

“It’s a deep and upsetting rendition of one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies….Sullivan’s subtle yet pointed staging made me unusually aware of the numerous contractual agreements in the play and how each of them comes loaded with some element of whimsy, perversity or downright cruelty. The scene where Shylock gets his day of reckoning could be considered the climax of the play, followed by some light-hearted comic business. But in this production, that tense scene launches an increasingly sickening series of humiliations, and nobody gets off the hook.”

You can read the complete review online here.

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