Posts Tagged ‘jeff weiss’


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.

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.

jeff and carlos
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.

jeff weiss curtain call

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.”

nicky and mark
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.”

From the deep archives: Performance Diary 9/2/84

June 13, 2012

September 2 – Last night Stephen and I went to see Jeff Weiss at the Performing Garage. Harry Kondoleon joined us, along with Patricia Benoit and her German boyfriend Mark. I gave Harry a tape I’d just finished making for him with many songs he’d requested (Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life,” Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop,” “99 ½,” etc. – he ever so casually asked for things to be in a certain order, which I always take to be firm requests, Harry knows exactly the way he wants things but is a little embarrassed by the force of his will and tries to disguise or downplay it). The running refrain on the tape is Bette Davis saying “She liked it,” from Baby Jane. I called the tape “Labor Day Request Concert.” Harry told me that once he was listening to one of my tapes are rehearsal for The Fairy Garden and John Glover grabbed the Walkman and said, “What are you listening to?” It was just then that the tape was going from the Butthole Surfers (“There’s a time to shit and a time to pray…”) to Frank Sinatra singing with children. John Glover gave it back with a look of horror – Harry was secretly glad to counter Glover’s aggressiveness with something shocking, but he realized the weirdness of him sitting in rehearsal placidly listening to these insane juxtapositions.

Andy Jackness’s set for Harry Kondoleon’s play THE FAIRY GARDEN at the Second Stage Theatre

Jeff Weiss’s show was pretty crazy, too – another version of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, this time acted out by a full cast (the first time we saw this, he did all the parts himself – I remember that night vividly, also at the Garage, Tom Waits was there looking autistic), including several Wooster Group people, plus a bunch of really hunky actors, including an amazingly tall (possibly seven-foot) actor named Sturgis Warner who made me dizzy just to look at him, gorgeous, muscular, handsome in a Peter Evans sort of way. The show was a sort of detective caper, with Ron Vawter as a detective tracking down the Finnish gymnast who’s been killing people – of course it’s Connie Gerhardt (Jeff Weiss) imitating a Finnish gymnast. The sick thing about the story is that everyone starts imitating Connie’s pickup lines – the detective acts them out with his teenage songs in grab-ass sessions in the garage. (More kissing, wrestling, and groping – all gay – in this show that any I can remember.) The underlying story was the pathology and tragedy of real actors, with so many personalities trapped inside them – also the personal tragedy for Jeff Weiss of aging, of having worshiped youthful physique and maintaining it unnaturally into his 50s, now crumbling and sweating out time. The most moving, chilling, also bathetic moment was a scene on a bus after a wrestling match when Connie is thinking aloud to a young wrestler (actually his own son, long ago conceived with a lesbian so they could get welfare, named Narcissus) and begging him to run away with him and love him.

Jeff Weiss and Sturgis Warner

At intermission we stood out on the street. A rather bizarre homely straight couple stood against the wall making out and playfully imitating the pickup lines from the play. Three people passing by picked their way through the crowd on the sidewalk and one guy said, “This is like theater in the live.” We chatted a little with Patrick Merla, who was in the audience. He has crossed eyes, very disconcerting to deal with, and an incredibly queeny voice but in some ways he looks very charismatic with his leonine mane and grand manner. While talking to us, he waved at someone and imperiously called, “Come over here.” It was Keith McDermott, a former boyfriend of Edmund White’s who was in the show.

Jeff Weiss reminded me a little of James Leo Herlihy, whom I finally met when Stephen and I went to dinner with him, Joe Frazier, and John Tveit (Joe’s organist friend) in San Francisco. I was surprised to find that I liked Jamie a lot – perhaps because unlike most famous people he didn’t simply grab center stage and hold forth – he was very solicitous and personable. We quickly got into a conversation about altering sex habits to avoid AIDS. He confided that what he loved doing more than anything in the world was sucking cocks, and he’d decided not to do it so often and not to swallow cum anymore. He said whenever the possibility of sex arises, he always finds an excuse to go to the bathroom or be alone for a few minutes to ask himself if this encounter is really worth it – worth the emotional effort as well as possible health risk, or is it just a meaningless impulse – and he finds himself deciding against it more often than in the past. He recently sat by and watched his mother died from cancer, and his roommate/boyfriend in LA has AIDS.

Tallulah Bankhead and James Leo Herlihy

Jamie had a little notebook which he kept taking out to jot down felicitous phrases, even though Stephen says he’s given up writing. He was very impressed (and a little envious) to hear that I’d written my Shepard biography in six weeks while recovering from hepatitis. He loves Sam Shepard, loves movie-star bios. I told him the story Bill Kleb told me about Shepard peeing in a prop toilet during class, and Jamie insisted that I put it in the book – otherwise I would be doing a disservice. “This book is in part a love letter,” he said, “telling Sam Shepard you’re fascinating, you’re talented, you’re pretty, and so on. But it’s also a mirror – you have to say ‘And then there’s this!’ Stars want you to do that.” He said it’s demeaning to be “nice” in one’s writing. He quoted Tolstoy saying “The two things a writer needs are a dirty mind and a good sense of gossip.” He was very encouraging and flirtatious without being overbearing. He described his ass as looking like “a pair of used tea bags.” His second play Crazy October, which he ended up directing, starred Tallulah Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, and Joan Blondell – how unimaginable!

Three pictures of me taken within the space of three weeks in 1984

R.I.P.: Liviu Ciulei

November 19, 2011

I only just yesterday learned by chance that the great Romanian-born theater director Liviu Ciulei died October 25 at the age of 88 at his home in Munich. I met him in 1984 when he was artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and brought his countryman Lucian Pintilie over to make his American debut staging the best production of Chekhov’s The Seagull I’ve ever seen. He also invited Peter Sellars to the Guthrie to mount Hang On To Me, a beautiful mash-up of Gorky’s Summerfolk with Gershwin songs. I had the pleasure of interview Liviu several times, including for an article that ran in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times (Bruce Weber picked out all the best quotes for his obituary). He and his wife Helga were very smart, very sophisticated, very modest, and yet also not afraid to register sharp, witty criticism. Liviu was very much a product of the culture in which he created his career. On the one hand, he once told me with quiet outrage that under the Communist Ceauşescu regime in Romania, he was not allowed to stage Hamlet because it was forbidden to portray ghosts onstage. (He got to put on an excellent production at the Public Theater with Kevin Kline in the title role and the legendary Jeff Weiss as the Player King.) On the other hand, he insisted that story be off-the-record, lest it somehow get him in trouble. (Granted, this was before Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu were driven from power and summarily executed on Christmas Day, 1989.)

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