Posts Tagged ‘melanie joseph’

Performance Diary: LIVING HERE and FUN HOME

April 19, 2015

4-16 living here set
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.

4-16 living here audience
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.

4-16 don gideon

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

Culture Vulture: February 2013

February 18, 2013


Books: during my week-long vacation in Vieques, I hunkered down with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a novel friends have been raving about for years. I wanted to read it before seeing the movie.
Because six different stories travel back and forth in time, it takes a certain amount of concentration, perfect for lounging poolside in the sun in February. I liked the book and appreciated Mitchell’s clever narrative structure and imagination, though afterwards it occurred to me that almost all the stories boil down to one chase scene after another. I do look forward to seeing how it translates into a film.

DVD: the week in Vieques also gave me a chance to catch up with a bunch of screeners I’d borrowed from a movie-critic friend:

Brief Reunion – a good small psychological thriller, with a key performance by the great downtown stage actor Scott Shepherd (his first major role, I believe, and an excellent film debut — below with the movie’s central character, played by Joel de la Fuente);

brief reunion

Fairhaven – another small John Sayles-like movie about a bunch of post-collegiate friends drifting through their twenties. Curiously, an actress new to me – Alexie Gilmore – played the lead in both this and Brief Reunion;

Barbara – really smart beautiful film set in East Germany before the wall came down, with an excellent performance in the title role by Nina Hoss, even though she looks quite a bit too glamorous to be playing a small-town doctor (you can’t help seeing her as a young Jeanne Moreau — see below);

BARBARA  Regie Christian Petzold
Marley – Kevin Macdonald’s documentary gives an impressive overview of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley’s short, eventful life, with a special emphasis on his extremely poor childhood. But there are lots of holes in the narratives, which is one disadvantage to the choice of relying exclusively on talking heads. There are important pieces of Marley’s story that certain people didn’t live to tell or are not willing to tell on camera;

Seven Psychopaths – I saw Martin McDonagh’s second film in the movie theater but it was interesting to watch it on DVD with a group of friends, one of whom bailed out after 15 minutes because he couldn’t handle the violence. Too bad, because the movie doubles back on itself, critiquing itself as it goes along. It’s McDonagh’s philosophical meditation on his simultaneous attraction to and revulsion against violent stories, with game comic performances by Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and the fearless Sam Rockwell;

Pitch Perfect – I ordered this from Netflix because Andy’s a capella singer friends recommended it, but after 15 minutes he insisted we take it off because its portrayal of college singing groups was so fake it was fingernails on the chalkboard;

Not Fade Away – David Chase’s debut as film director resonates as a highly autobiographical film about a kid who plays in a rock band in New Jersey just out of high school in the late ‘60s. That era was my childhood, too, and I loved it that all the musical references were spot-on. The movie is quirky and aggressively minor-key, with a key misstep having the main character’s younger sister provide a voiceover narration – we don’t know enough about her to trust her perspective, and it feels kinda tacked on to ward off criticism that the movie is too male-centered.


TV: Girls. After watching Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture a few weeks ago, I needed to satisfy my curiosity about her TV show. After two marathon evenings with the first season on DVD, I’m hooked. She’s really something – brave, quirky, real, and unafraid to expose herself, her neuroses, her imperfect body, and her generation’s peculiarly tortured dance around intimacy, romance, and casual sex. It’s a mistake to think of Girls only as the antithesis of Sex and the City just because there are four central female characters. Dunham clearly models herself on Woody Allen as writer/director/performer, with a big hit of Louis C.K. It helps to have Judd Apatow as fearless producer. The writing is pretty amazing, the dialogue is super-fast, I could barely keep up. I know we’re supposed to think that Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver, just out of Juillard

(he's on the phone with his sister)

(he’s on the phone with his sister)

with great big ears and a Marine’s washboard abs) is a dick because he pees on her in the shower and jerks off in front of her, but I think he’s an awesome boyfriend. I love any opportunity to watch Chris O’Dowd. And I love seeing David Mamet’s daughter Zosia play the super-young motormouth Shoshonah, especially the episode where she gets high at a party in Williamsburg. “I smoked crack?? Don’t tell my mother! Don’t even tell me!” One advantage to watching the show via Netflix is to gobble up the DVD extras — commentary on three different episodes and a hilarious and illuminating conversation between Dunham and Apatow. Oh, how I love hearing a successful Hollywood writer/director/producer say the word “butthole” aloud in casual conversation!

good person playbill2.16.13
Good Person of Szechwan is another triumphant production by Melanie Joseph’s Foundry Theatre in collaboration with La Mama ETC. It’s one of Brecht’s essential texts, in which he repeatedly sets up genuine moral dilemmas – good people making bad choices and then trying to manage the consequences – and never gives definitive solutions, throwing back on the audience the responsibility to “Change the world, it needs it!” Lear DeBessonet’s lively production is Brechtian in the best sense: fun, funky, sly, surprising, shot through with music (performed live by a local skiffle band called the Lisps) and excellent comic performances. The title character is a prostitute, Shen Te, who does a kind deed for a trio of Diogenes-like gods passing through town looking for one good person. Her reward is enough money to start a little shop, which brings everyone in town to her doorstep for a handout. She’s too kind-hearted to say no, but she has enough sense to invent a male cousin, Shui Ta, who comes in and establishes order. This role is usually played by a woman who eventually dons male attire. One driving force in this production was the casting of Taylor Mac in the title role, who brings a whole other beautifully theatrical element to the gender-bending. Mac plays Shen Te with his customary bald pate and glittery eye shadow, in a red dress with hairy chest poking through (shout out to Charles Ludlam’s Camille); as Shui Ta, he wears a pinstripe suit, bowler hat, and stick-on handlebar mustache, sometimes changing in front of our eyes. (Clint Ramos’s costumes rock, as does Matt Saunders’s set, a study in the magic of cardboard.) The cast is full of downtown luminaries — Mia Katigbak, Annie Golden, and Vinnie Burrows as the gods, Lisa Kron in two contrasting roles – surrounded by a bunch of excellent game team players (I was especially impressed with David Turner as the improv-ready MC/water-seller, Kate Benson as Mrs. Shin, and Brooke Ishibashi and Darryl Winslow as utility players).

good person prodshot

The show got a rave review from Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, so the short run sold out quickly. Luckily, the Foundry added two matinees, which is how I got in. It was nice to see a heavy-duty downtown theater crowd in the audience: Jennifer Miller, Jessica Hagedorn, Mary Louise Wilson, Mac Wellman, Marc Robinson and Erika Rundle. We were handed programs leaving the theater, and my appreciation for the production extended to reading the program notes later. In the spirit of Brecht’s frank matter-of-factness about economics, the program includes a detailed production budget – first time I’ve ever seen that! Melanie Joseph is an amazing producer. Also, this was one of the rare productions where I found myself wondering who the dramaturg was who wrangled this translation (by John Willett) and helped the director keep everything fresh — the answer is Anne Erbe. Good work, Anne!

good person budget


Film: I guess because I once wrote an admiring article about Christopher Shinn’s first produced play Four, I got multiple invitations to the screening of the film version at BAM’s Rose Cinema, as part of the 3rd Annual New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, from the first-time director Joshua Sanchez and the producer Allen Frame (an old friend and associate from Soho News days).  Four tells two parallel stories – on a steamy Fourth of July night, a middle-aged black man named Joe hooks up with June, a white teenaged boy he met online, and his daughter Abigayle slips out from taking care of her sickly mother for a tryst with Dexter, a jivey jock who wishes he were black. The play is a yearning young man’s tale about that time (those times) in your life when people keep asking “What do you want? Where do you want to go?” and the only honest answer is a desolate howl of “I don’t knoooooooooow!” The movie captures all that yearning and awkwardness, with an especially good understated performance by Wendell Pierce in the trickiest part of Joe, the father. The movie felt a little slower and more ponderous than it needed to be. And I have strong memories of the original stage production, in which Dexter was played by a skinny white redhead; E. J. Bonilla in the role doesn’t really read as white, so his wannabe status is muted. Those are small points, though. It’s a nervy little art film that has the courage to zero in on a couple of heated pockets of psycho-sexual ambivalence.



Performance diary: David Greenspan’s THE MYOPIA

January 24, 2010

January 16 –
I often feel unsettled by how cranky and picky I am about theater. Will nothing satisfy me? Then something comes along to remind me that, yes, excellence in theater is totally possible. The latest example: David Greenspan’s The Myopia. Greenspan is a major cultural hero of mine, and virtually everything he’s involved with piques my interest. His participation as an actor or adaptor in other people’s work amps up the excellence factor tenfold. And his own work is practically unparalleled. With The Myopia, beautifully produced by the Foundry Theatre and skillfully directed by Brian Mertes, Greenspan is at the peak of his form. As a playwright, he is inventive, poetic, hilarious, entertaining, and erudite all at once. As a performer, he is an absolute master of economy in gesture, vocal dexterity, and focus. How is it possible that this one man can appear onstage with no props other than a wooden armchair and a water bottle and keep 100 people mesmerized and barely breathing for two hours? It’s possible because Greenspan is a rare breed of theatrical showman who is also a philosopher and teacher, in a smart, engaging, and charismatic way. The Myopia is a play that he wrote ten years ago (it was published in Yale’s Theater journal and is available online as a PDF here), and he’s performed it under limited circumstances before. The Foundry is presenting it in tandem with weekend performances of Gertrude Stein’s Plays, a lecture about theater that Greenspan makes hilariously entertaining but also lucid and extremely illuminating. These works are all part of Greenspan’s ongoing work in the theater, which operates at the highest level of scholarship and passion. A couple of years ago Target Margin produced The Argument, which was Greenspan’s explication of Aristotle’s Poetics – again, an excellent and entertaining stylized performance that digests Aristotle in a way I’d never encountered before. The Myopia tells a very elaborate story with four interwoven strands having to do with Warren G. Harding, a man writing a musical about Harding, his wife who’s a fairy-tale princess (she starts off as a Rapunzel-like character in a tower and ends up a gigantess whose fist is bigger than her husband), and a narrator/orator and his doppelganger, who sounds remarkably like Carol Channing. It sounds crazy and impossible, and nothing is more thrilling than a theater artist pulling off something crazy and impossible. Greenspan is one of those geniuses of the theater (not really comparable to anybody else, but of the caliber of Charles Ludlam). If I were a nominator for the MacArthur Foundation fellowships (aka “genius grants”), I’d be militating for Greenspan big-time. But I’d also nominate Foundry Theatre maestro Melanie Joseph for that honor as well. The Myopia is only the latest in a long string of eccentric, brilliant theater pieces she’s sponsored.

Excited packed house for the show. Also in the audience: Andrea Stevens, who was my editor for years at the New York Times, and theater critic-scholar Eileen Blumenthal. I went with Marta and Andy, who both loved it as well. Andy and I had dinner at Suenos, yummy Mexican/Southwestern food, where we spotted David Byrne at a nearby table.

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