Posts Tagged ‘playwrights horizons’

Culture Vulture: Jean Genet, Shirin Neshat, IT’S A SIN, and NOMADLAND

February 21, 2021

I have a theory that we will look back on this winter as the hardest time of the pandemic, second only to March and April of last year when it first came crashing down. Starting in November, when the weather started to turn cold, and lasting through whenever spring starts to thaw us out, we’ve been confined to quarters, enduring horrible news, ongoing dreadful death rates, excruciating isolation, mind-numbing boredom, and pretty universal depression. In New York City, Andy and I have been combating that somewhat with weekend art excursions.

We started our Saturday afternoon art adventure by watching the first explicitly erotic gay film – Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), a silent film about prisoners and the sadistic guard who spies on them masturbating (an astringent sound score by Simon Fisher Turner was added later) – and ended the evening watching the latest gay erotic show, It’s a Sin, the latest HBO series by Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies.

In between we trekked to the Chelsea art district to see Shirin Neshat’s show “Land of Dreams” at the Gladstone Gallery. I’ve been a huge fan of Neshat’s work since I first saw her images combining veiled Muslim women holding weapons and Persian calligraphy. Neshat’s Iranian parents sent her to Los Angeles to attend high school, and she was enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley when the Iranian revolution occurred. She has not been back to Iran since 1996 and currently lives in New York.

For her latest show, she travelled around New Mexico meeting people, taking their photographic portraits, and asking them to tell her their latest dream. At the gallery 111 of these portraits hang, each of them with calligraphic additions – their names, their birthdates, sometimes the text of their dreams, sometimes images from their dreams.

In an adjacent gallery, Neshat shows a two-channel video installation that is a fictionalized version of her travels through New Mexico, juxtaposed with scenes from a sinister sort of factory employing dozens of lab-coated “dream scientists.”

Shortly after we walked into the gallery, a woman asked Andy to snap a picture of her and a male friend of hers. It turned out to be Neshat, who showed up to rendezvous with her friend and collaborator Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian photographer (above). So we got to meet the artist and chat with her a little bit, which excited the fanboy in me. I can’t remember if she told us this or if we heard her say it in one of the several YouTube videos we watched later, but she doesn’t actually think of herself as a photographer. She said she doesn’t own a camera, and indeed in videos she’s seen directing a cameraman who actually takes the photos. She has made a number of films, most of them – like the one playing in the gallery – pristinely shot in black and white, juxtaposing weathered unusual faces with wide-open stark landscapes. The two-channel video can be viewed on the gallery’s website at certain hours of the week, along with a 25-minute documentary about the making of the show.

While we were in Chelsea, we poked our noses into a couple of other galleries. The Jack Shainman Gallery is hosting “Half and the Whole,” a show by photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks of images from 1942-1970 that document the civil rights movement, including some beautiful candid shots of Malcolm X. I was struck by this curious, anomalous image from 1962 called “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York.”

Some dazzling and trippy geometric prints caught our eye at the Dobrinka Salzman Gallery. They turned out to be early works by an Italian artist named Riccardo Vecchio.

Once you’re in the art trance, even trash on the street starts looking like readymades.

We had two more predetermined destinations. One was the new Daniel Moynihan Train Hall, with its gleaming interiors (currently sparsely populated of course, but envisioned to be teeming with commuters sometime), spectacular skylights, and all kinds of artwork including this colorful three-part stained-glass piece by Kehinde Wiley called “Go” on the ceiling of the 35th Street entrance.

After that spectacle, a walk up Ninth Avenue brought us into the armpit of Times Square, the stunningly ugly backside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In the grimy underpass across the street, one of several vacant storefronts in the neighborhood featured artwork sponsored by Chashama, the public art project enterprising curator Anita Durst operates using disused corners of her family’s vast real estate empire.

Our final art destination was the storefront for Playwrights Horizons, one of NYC’s great Off-Broadway theaters. It’s been shuttered since last March, like all theaters in the city, but incoming artistic director Adam Greenfield enlisted our friend David Zinn, the Tony Award-winning set and costume designer, and Avram Finkelstein, one of the founders of the AIDS-era art collective Gran Fury, to curate a lively public art project keeping the block activated.

The first artist they commissioned was Jilly Ballistic, who created a gigantic mural in the form of a dollar bill regularly updated with a reference to the number of Americans who have died of covid-19.

Being on Theater Row at dinnertime led us to one of our favorite local restaurants, Mémé Mediterranean on 10th Avenue at 44th Street. They were being scrupulous about allowing indoor dining with a limited capacity; there were only two other tables dining when we sat down for a delicious tagine and a shawarma royale.

It was a very satisfying expedition. We spent the after-dinner hours with It’s a Sin (just the first episode) and Shirin Neshat interviews on YouTube. Sunday afternoon we watched Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland on Hulu, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving collaboration between the director (I recently saw and loved her Songs My Brother Taught Me) and actress/co-producer Frances McDormand, who gives yet another spectacular, vanity-free performance as a miner’s widow living in her van barely scraping by as a day laborer on a series of hard low-paying jobs. Long wordless scenes of her rolling through Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and South Dakota eerily echo the wide-open spaces we saw in Shirin Neshat’s film the day before.

And then, as we generally do, we repaired to our separate abodes to cook food for the week. Andy set about making a big pot of jambalaya, and I applied myself to following Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe from last week’s New York Times Magazine for Russian salad, which is refrigerating overnight and gave me a chance to sample a new taste treat I discovered at the farmer’s market yesterday – pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Culture Vulture: Adam Bock’s A LIFE at Playwrights Horizons

December 4, 2016

I saw Adam Bock’s tremendous new play A Life at Playwrights Horizons for the second time yesterday. It impressed me again with its deep humor and humanity and with the playwright’s amazing skill at creating characters, writing amazing scenes, and taking unbelievable freedom for himself in shaping the narrative. The first half hour of the play is an extraordinary long monologue by the main character, played by David Hyde Pierce. When I first saw the play in previews, the audience in the intimate Peter Sharp space upstairs at Playwrights was pretty quiet. This time, after stellar reviews, the audience was quite excited, plus clearly many were there who were major David Hyde Pierce fans (including Andy’s friends from London whom we took to see it). And the way he responded to every tiny little ripple in the audience — including instantly saying “Bless you” when somebody sneezed — was fantastic to witness. Tonight is the final performance.

One of the things I always love about seeing shows at Playwrights Horizons is that almost always you can pick up in the lobby afterwards a simple Xeroxed copy of an interview with the playwright conducted by either artistic director Tim Sanford or the literary manager Adam Greenfield. These smart, in-depth interviews almost always tell you everything you want to know about the show you’ve just seen. The interview with Bock doesn’t answer ALL my questions but it’s a fascinating conversation nevertheless. You can read it online here. Check it out and let me know what you think. There’s also a ton of other intriguing stuff about the playwright and the play on the theater company’s website — see here. adam-bock





December 8, 2013

12.5.13The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George at Playwrights Horizons is one of those plays with an interesting theme – the search for mechanized perfection – and a clever conceit through which to pursue it. A super-smart computer programmer named Eliza is creating a robot-helper (picture a life-sized full-bodied Siri) whom she has named Watson, and her quest is bounced off historical scenes featuring other Watsons: Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick and Alexander Graham Bell’s right-hand man, with glancing reference to the IBM computer of the same name who famously beat human contestants on Jeopardy. Ultimately, though, the play devolves into a kind of heterosexual soap opera about Eliza, her ex-husband Merrick, and the computer repair guy – also named Watson – he hires to spy on her. The clever contrivances don’t actually deliver believable human truth, though. The actors have fun playing several roles in several periods.

curious case
I found Amanda Quaid (above) appealing and persuasive, and John Ellison Conlee (above) inhabits all the Watsons beautifully, but David Costabile might have been miscast as Merrick – he’s so high-strung that there’s no way to take him as anything other than The Bad Guy, which quickly gets tedious.

12.7.13 — Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Theater for a New Audience’s splendid new theater down the street from the BAM Opera House, is fantastic – spectacular design, hugely inventive staging, stuffed with terrific performances. I’ve seen any number of productions over the years, and by halftime I was already convinced this is the best ever. Each scene came with some original, funny, sexy, visually stunning, or otherwise delightful element. Some that stayed with me: at the very top of the show, out comes Puck – a very small androgynous creature (renowned British performer Kathryn Hunter) in clown makeup, bowler hat, and a suit that might fit an organ-grinder’s monkey made of soft rumpled gray fabric (the first of what seems like hundreds of amazing costumes designed by Constance Hoffman). The only thing onstage is a bed, Puck lies down to sleep, and the bed rises up with tree branches underneath. The guys who will later turn out to be the “rude mechanicals” come onstage, saw the tree branches loose from the bed, which flies to the ceiling and disappears behind a white sheet, on which the title of the play appears. I’ve never seen a production frame the entire play as Puck’s dream and was curious if we would come back to that at the end. Not exactly. Taymor comes up with another beautiful, quiet, unexpected image involving a sleepy girl and a dog mask, coming back to the sleepy/dreamy image but transformed. And so it is throughout the production, one transformation after another.

The fairies are played by a rambunctious batch of 20 children (Taymor originally wanted 100), who sing, dance, do acrobatics, manipulate scenery and props, wear masks, scream like banshees, and sometimes get hauled around like real-life bunraku puppets by black-clad manipulators. David Harewood and Tina Benko, both great actors, make the most striking Oberon and Titania I’ve ever seen – he’s black black black, with spiky gold armor and gold tattoos across his chest and down his back; she’s white white white with boob-lights on antennas and transparent clamshell wings. Taymor dresses the rude mechanicals like working men and cast them with some great veteran actors who can play broad comedy without making it stoopid, most notably Max Casella (unforgettable as Timon in the original cast of Taymor’s The Lion King) as Bottom.

The whole sequence at the end of the first half is thrilling: Bottom is transformed with a donkey’s head with creepily human nose and lips which Casella manipulates with hand-held remotes; smitten Titania invites him into her hammock bed, which drapes across the entire stage; and their union is consummated with an explosion of color and light that is funny, sexy, ecstatic, and mythological all at once. The young lovers give the weakest performances in the large cast, but once they’re all in the forest in the middle of the night they wind up stripping down to their underwear and having a pillow fight, which is not a chore to watch at all (especially hunky hunky Zach Appelman as Demetrius). The puppets, masks, and constantly morphing sets are clearly a collaboration between Taymor and her designers (scenic designer Es Devlin is clearly some kind of theatrical genius himself), and Eliot Goldenthal’s music contributes numerous perfect multiflavored touches. For all of its fun, sexiness, and visual splendor, this is no dumbed-down Shakespeare for the masses but a smart and deep interaction into the dangerous fields of love, where casual cruelty often masquerades as play. I’d like to see this production two or three more times. It only runs til January 12 and I suspect there are very few tickets left. What are you waiting for?

By the way, Theater for a New Audience has made available online a free PDF of an extensive study guide to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that includes some terrific essays an an in-depth interview of Taymor by Alisa Solomon.

12.8.13 – The live broadcast of The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s play about actors rehearsing a play about W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten at Oxford, showed up for one screening in New York as part of the National Theater’s 50th anniversary celebration. It’s one more brilliant play from the author of The History Boys, The Madness of King George, Bed Among the Lentils, and so many others. And another extraordinary production directed by Nicholas Hytner with a superb cast headed by the late great Richard Griffiths (below) as a fat, shambling, supernaturally eloquent Auden, Alex Jennings as Britten, and the amazing Frances de la Tour as the stage manager who keeps the rehearsal going. On the National Theater Live’s website, you can also download a free PDF of a lavish 33-page programme with essays about Auden and Britten as well as an introduction by Bennett.

habit of art

Performance diary: THE BLUE DRAGON and MR. BURNS

September 24, 2013

9.20.13 – The Blue Dragon at the BAM Next Wave Festival is a spinoff from The Dragons’ Trilogy, the two-part six-hour epic that I saw at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990, my first exposure to the work of Quebecois director Robert Lepage. Set in Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver, the trilogy told a sprawling story about the influence of Chinese immigrants on Canadian culture in the 20th century. The Blue Dragon concerns two Canadian characters from the trilogy 25 years later in Shanghai, art dealer Pierre and vacationing ad executive Marie, where they interact with a young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling, Pierre’s protégée and lover. Pierre and Marie married for a lark as kids and never bothered to divorce; now Marie wants a child and has come to adopt – or, more accurately, buy one on the black market.

The Blue Dragon
contains all the things I admire about Lepage’s work – the visual splendor, where the sets and images are constantly transforming from one thing to another; the narrative ambition to connect vastly disparate worlds; the low-key humanity at the heart of the performances. I’d never seen Lepage perform onstage until now, only on film, and he has a compelling intimacy and beautiful speaking voice. The works he creates with his company (first Theatre Repere, now Ex Machina) always contain little nuggets of research on topics that seem offhand but wind up pertinent to the plot (Chinese calligraphy is a big one here). The play is co-written with Marie Michaud, who plays Marie, and Xiao Ling is played by Tai Wei Foo, a Singaporean dancer who does two gorgeous dances that show off the mesmerizing and original lighting design by Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun. My only quarrel with the play is dramaturgical – the set-up of the story is compelling and rich, but at a certain point the authors realized that they’ve set up an easy plot resolution (Xiao Ling becomes pregnant, Marie wants a child, so…) and then contort the story to avoid landing at what seems like a perfectly obvious and reasonable conclusion, and the contortions don’t make sense. I love that the script is published as a graphic novel (below), which I bought at the BAM bookstall.


9.21.13 – Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of interviewing Lepage live in front of an audience as part of BAM’s Iconic Artist Talk series at the Hillman Studio in the new Fisher Building. He talked a little bit about his early training with Alain Knapp and the influence of artists like Lawrence and Anna Halprin, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Pina Bausch on his aesthetic taste in composing theater. A period of time he spent working in Japan directing opera made a life-changing impression on him. And he talked a little about the tetralogy he is at work on now called Playing Cards, which concerns the impact of the Arab world on global culture.

9-21 lepage et moi
9.22.13 – Something told me I had to see Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns – a post-electric play at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Steve Cosson (of The Civilians) with music by Michael Friedman. It’s a smart, unusual variant on the much-used theme of “what if X-and-such cultural artifact was the only thing left after the apocalypse and creatures from other planets relied on it to make sense of life on Earth?” After nuclear plant explosions have wiped out the electrical grid, survivors form community around recalling episodes of The Simpsons (which are themselves repositories of a dense assortment of cultural references). The first two acts are intriguing and surprising; the third goes on about three times longer than is needed to make its point. The cast is one of those high-powered ensembles of Off-Broadway heavyweights: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright (the characters are named after them). This is one of those brave Playwrights Horizons productions that divides its core audience – some people who get the cultural references love it, some people hate it, not much in between. As usual, the theater has made available a bunch of cool background material for people who want to know more about the show — online you can listen to separate podcasts with the author and composer, and at the theater after the show you can pick up a copy of a long illuminating interview with Washburn by artistic director Tim Sanford.

Theater Review: ME, MYSELF & I

September 28, 2010

I’ve just started a new gig covering New York theater for a website called I made my debut on the site with a review of Edward Albee‘s Me, Myself & I at Playwrights Horizons.

“It revolves around a pair of 28-year-old identical twins and their mother, who’s so monstrously self-involved that she can’t tell them apart. “Which one are you?” says Mother, played by Elizabeth Ashley as a fabulous frazzle, propped up in bed next to her elderly doctor boyfriend (Brian Murray), who’s fully dressed in three-piece suit. “Are you the one who loves me?” Clearly, everything about the twins’ lives has been arranged for her convenience, including their names: OTTO and otto….

“At its best, “Me, Myself & I” is an extended theatrical prank that pays homage to Albee’s roots in what critic Martin Esslin labeled Theater of the Absurd, a somewhat dodgy catch-all to describe the playwrights who emerged from the existential funk of post-World War II Europe. The minimalist set and language of “Me, Myself & I” refer explicitly to Samuel Beckett, one of Albee’s heroes, just as the replication of names pays homage to Eugène Ionesco (who once wrote a children’s story about a family whose members were all named Jacqueline). And the play’s self-referential theatricality has its roots in Luigi Pirandello (“Six Characters in Search of an Author”).”

See the whole review here.

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