The hottest line on Broadway is… drumroll please…
“We’re not goin’ on no goddam picnic.”
(I think Ellen Burstyn, left, agrees with me.)
photo by Joan Marcus.
Without question the wittiest, best-dressed bunch of bitches currently playing New York is the cast of The House of Von Macramé, a “pop horror fashion show” currently strutting its stuff at the Bushwick Starr. The musical is a grunge-glitzy slasher with generous doses of kitschy sass and bite, and springs from the talent of playwright Joshua Conkel, composer Matt Marks, and director Nick Leavens. Conkel, known for the plays MilkMilkLemonade and The Chalk Boy, recently answered some questions via email about the show, the state of theater, and where to find one especially potent piece of costuming—the vagina jegging.
Where did the idea for Von Macramé come from?
I’ve wanted to write something with built-in runway shows since college. I love fashion, and costumes are always one of the things little theaters have to skimp on. I wanted to write a show that celebrated costumes, that paraded them.
When I got invited to make work for The Bushwick Starr about a year and a half ago, I knew I could do whatever I wanted. Nobody could say no. The most painful thing for me as a playwright is people saying “no.” (When you’re relying on theaters to produce your work, but your work is naturally sort of crazy and queer, it can be really frustrating.) Whether explicit or not, a pressure has started to build to begin writing smaller, more naturalistic plays.
The House of Von Macrame is very, very me. I got to toy with clothes, blood, new wave music, camp… all the weird things that I’m passionate about. For better or worse, it’s probably the most pure expression of my obsessions and interests as I’ll ever write, and that’s because nobody could say no to me.
The show began in a serialized format at the Flea Theatre. How did those beginnings shape its development?
Most of the characters and a lot of the jokes come directly from The Flea serial. It pained me to have to cut some favorite characters, like a model named Corvette Summers who was actually a killer android, or kooky plot lines, like Topaz’s secret anal pregnancy.
The structure of a successful serial and a successful two act play are very different, but the new musical does contain a lot of those fun, soap opera-ish elements. In the end I probably kept too much of the serial, and now begins the long slog of perfecting the show.
You’re better know for your straight plays. What were the major challenges in making a musical?
Well, I don’t know about “straight.” Most of my work is pretty over-the-top and kitschy. MilkMilkLemonade, for example, is about five seconds from being a musical. It even has built-in dance breaks.
Our composer, Matt Marks, and I have so much in common. We both love disco, girl groups, new wave and horror films. We both have an interest in work being less pretentious and “dumber” if that makes sense. Working together was so natural and right.
The challenges on working on a musical, for me, are logistical. It costs a lot more, takes more time and there’s a greater chance that things can go wrong just because you’re spinning so many plates. This shit is hard. Just sitting with Matt Marks and director Nick Leavens and dreaming up songs or tasteless jokes? That part is easy and fun.
What’s it like being the producer AND the playwright? [Conkel is co-artistic director of The Management, which is producing Von Macramé.]
My greatest successes have been plays I produced myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy I’m a widely produced playwright. I’m so, so lucky to get produced as often as I do and in so many cool places around the globe. But the old adage comes to mind: if you want something done right, do it yourself.
I think it’s really useful to produce your own work, particularly in first productions. It gives a chance to work on things. Then you can perfect it by trial and error and send it out to other people. This was my model for MilkMilkLemonade and it worked really well.
Now we’re working on The House of Von Macramé. After this production closes we’ll make some tweaks and cuts and hopefully be able to send it on to somebody else to produce. We already have interests in out-of-town producers, so it’s looking hopeful.
Of course another part of this equation is the audience. I’ve built a perfect support for my work over the years and have a strong following that is young, queer, adventurous etc. If any of my wilder plays, like The House of Von Macramé, premiere before a general audience, they tend not to do as well. In short, these are cult plays and written for the cult. The cult nurtures and supports the work and sometimes it can move onto a general audience and sometimes it can’t. But this is the only way I’ve found to do adventurous work.
I love how some of your plays have this fascination with pop culture. What is it about that world that interests you?
Really, all of my plays are rooted in pop culture because I live here and now. The simplest reason is that I love it. I love B movies, comic books, pop music, fashion, television… I tend not to separate high and low brow culture and none of my pleasures are guilty.
In a larger context, I’m kind of floored by the theater’s unwillingness to move forward, by its obsession with the past. This is just my opinion, but our devotion to Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen is killing us. Even most new plays I see feel dusty as shit to me and now it’s getting worse because everybody is falling in love with naturalism again and every new play is about rich honkies on vacation. Blergh.
I know it’s just my personal taste, I know, but there it is.
Where do you think “VM” lives in relation to other pop-horror musicals like, say, Carrie or Little Shop?
I actually don’t know Carrie at all, but I was obsessed with Little Shop as a kid. I still know every lyric and line of that show and—I’m not afraid to say it—I think it’s as moving as it is funny.
“(Downtown) Skid Row” is the best chorus number ever, as far as I’m concerned. I think of it all the time when I walk along Broadway in South Williamsburg, with its above ground J Train, and I’m feeling particularly down and out.
In terms of other musicals, I think we owe a debt to Richard O’ Brien, who created Rocky Horror. Having said that, the musicals that Matt and Nick and I discussed the most are relatively obscure. They were Phantom of the Paradise, a 1970′s take on Phantom of the Opera, and O’Brien’s follow-up to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment, a criminally maligned and overlooked new wave musical. God, Shock Treatment is good. I wish more people appreciated it.
What’s your favorite model/housewives TV show?
I love them all. I watch basically anything Bravo puts out, but I have a special place in my black little heart for Kim from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She’s such a tragic figure, and any shot of her riding in a limo alone after being ditched for the thousandth time is like food for me.
Did you make macramé as a child? (Because I definitely did.)
Actually, I didn’t. I didn’t do anything, really, except watch television. A childhood well spent!
And, most importantly, where can I buy a pair of vagina jeggings?
Maybe the costume designer Tristan Raines would make you a pair. You may have found a really lucrative business venture for him.
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
- The Carrie Counter
- Let’s Chat! with Adrienne Campbell-Holt
The House of Von Macramé runs through Februay 16th; find ticket info HERE.
Life and Times (at the Public Theater) is likely to send you down a domino line of responses—
And—repeat! repeat! repeat!
What show could be so strange as to conjure such schizophrenic feelings? What kind of a varied, diverse script could create such a roller coaster of an experience?
Something fascinatingly repetitive, banal, and mundane, that’s what.
A Soho Rep/ Nature Theater of Oklahoma production at Under the Radar, Life and Times is the musicalized result of a phone conversation between NTO company member Kristin Worrall and Life and Times directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. As here represented, Worrall’s narrative—the story of her life—features stories and memories, but also anecdotes, tangents, and asides, with every “um,” “y’know” and “like” left intact. (It’s a verbatim-musical technique Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe used to different effect in the National Theatre‘s London Road—read about that production HERE.) Life and Times is broken into episodes; four of a projected sixteen are now in rep. I attended Episode One.
For three and a quarter hours, Worrall’s meandering, shuffled speech is set to cute, sometimes touching melodies played on piano, xylophone, flute, and ukelele, all sung by an ensemble of remarkable endurance (several actors almost never stop moving). Their movements usually match the pedestrian nature of the libretto: They bounce up and down, up and down, side to side, side to side; they add a spin, and an occasional choreo number; then it’s back to the bouncing. There are a few props (red balls here, yellow frisbees there), and their arrivals qualify as major events in an otherwise steady visual sphere.
But what of it?
Plays, and entertainment, usually live off revelation—the introduction of a new character, say, or the discovery of whodunnit. It’s a steady stream of new information that keeps an audience engaged. Life and Times discards with this MO from the first, and instead buries you, pebble by pebble, under the weight of repeated detail and repeated movement.
Occasional glimmers of transcendence burn through, but they feel more flukey than planned, and before they even start to fade, it’s back to the hops and the monologues, back to little tales of friendships and lunchtimes and parents and obsessions.
These pebbles don’t mean much on their own. But collectively, over the hours, they start to coat you, like so many layers of wax coating a wick; before long, a candle has appeared; before long, you feel, somehow, very different.
Why? You’ve had no choice but to bend to the will of the performers—the room is unequivocally theirs, and if you’re to survive, you have to get on board with them. You have to. Without knowing it, you adjust. Minute by minute, in a process only achieved through the arduous accumulation of time, you almost become one with them.
In this way, Life and Times becomes a case study in the strange, cool bond that can grow between performer and viewer: Even though you’ve not set a foot onstage, you feel like you have. You’re exhausted, they’re exhausted. It’s theatrical empathy, brought about by some of the strangest means I’ve ever encountered.
Just make sure to stretch at intermission.
Life and Times, Episode 1
The Public Theater/ Under the Radar/ Soho Rep/ Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Conceived and directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper
Original Music by Robert M. Johanson, Julie LaMendola, and Daniel Gower
More info HERE.
Watch excerpts from Episode 1 HERE.
photo (above) by Reinhard Werner-Burgtheater; photo (middle) by Markus Scholz; photo (below) by theater-words; pictured: the beautifully renovated Public Theater.
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
– Alas, It’s True: We’re Gonna Die — thoughts on Young Jean Lee’s Cabaret
– Tyvek and Gaffe Tape — the SITI company tears it up in Under Construction
If you’re like me, old, repurposed theaters both thrill and dismay you. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see something familiar in a surprising light (how will they use that mezzanine?!); on the other, it’s always a bit sad to see the breeding grounds of art turned into a deli or a shoe store.
That melancholic mixture—half smile, half tear—arrives full bore at the Empire Garden Restaurant in Boston. Known in legitimacy as the Globe Theater or as Loew’s Globe Theater, the EGR successfully retains much of its theatrical charm, making a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Still… it makes a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Enough said.
Dipping under its deep red marquee, a small, uneventful lobby takes you to a TV-studded, classical stairway.
Another lobby waits at the top…
… and snif snif—you’re in dim sum land!
Make sure to mind the carts as you enter the gorgeous seating area. (Apparently the panels in the proscenium open up to reveal another dining area, opened for weddings and such.)
After ordering, run on up to that proscenium and take in the plaster.
Just don’t think too hard about the strange collision of Eastern and Western art behind you!
The entire restaurant, the owner explained to me, sits one floor level above what would’ve been the orchestra section. (As if the stairs weren’t enough of a giveaway, the proscenium’s legs tell the original story: They’re almost comically short.)
But that original ground level grants no hint of its glitzy, lavish past. Today, it’s an Asian foods market.
So: Yes, it’s cool to have your lunch in such gilded splendor. Who doesn’t want a little cherub watching as you eat pork dumplings?
But it’s also a bit sacrilegious, isn’t it? Knawing your way around a temple of theater?
Forgive us, Bacchus, as we slurp and chew.
Poor Crystal—her kid’s in foster care, sales at the Saturn dealership are down, and now she’s squatting in an abandoned home. Hey, at least this one’s got water and electricity, right?
That’s not much consolation in Bethany, Laura Marks’s new play at the Women’s Project, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Nope, Crystal (America Ferrera of Ugly Betty) needs more than just utilities to pull her life back together.
One day that miracle seems to appear in the form of Charlie (Ken Marks), an inspirational speaker who trades in Purpose Driven Life-style consumerist optimism. And when he makes moves on a sexy new ride, the hefty commission waiting for Crystal seems like an answered prayer. And yet… Charlie isn’t quite who he seems, plunging Crystal into a web of deceit and manipulation, turning her into a pawn in the evil chess game of post-millennial economic malaise. Yes, my dears, there will be blood.
The discomforting conclusion is that vice begets vice. As the world mistreats Crystal, so too does Crystal mistreat the world. The play’s best scene actually tracks this flip flop in real time: Upon learning threatening information, Crystal instantly morphs from abusee to abuser, no blink, no thought, no pause. (It is a credit to the writing and Ms. Ferrera’s effortless charm that you never fault the character for her bad behavior.)
Behind this screen of personal drama Bethany successfully hides a political message, one that condemns Crystal’s society, not Crystal herself. In Bethany that’s a society of manifest destiny consumerism, of the “law of prosperity.” It’s a kind of material-oriented thinking that leaves Crystal and company in the dirt. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks at one particularly distressing moment.
No easy answers, not in 2013.
What is she supposed to do?
All of us are wondering.
Bethany, by Laura Marks, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
featuring Emily Ackerman, America Ferrera, Kristin Griffith, Ken Marks, Tobias Segal, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
at City Center II, through February 17
click HERE for tickets
photos by Carol Rosegg, pictured above: Tobias Segal and America Ferrera; below: America Ferrera and Emily Ackerman
Like what you see? You might enjoy…
- Detroit House, an exploration of an abandoned theater and a meditation on economic decay
- Feminism to the Rescue?, a writeup of Rapture, Blister Burn and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
Happy birthday, theater-words, and welcome to the terrible twos!
Last year was a full house of commentary, musings, interviews, pictures, and everything in between.
Of particular note was that beautiful, abandoned Detroit theater (featured on Freshly Pressed!), and the start of the exciting TheaTour! series. There was the Joe Mielziner lovefest, and those beautiful Grandma Plays. We even found Cinderella of Into the Woods in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild.
Smash (oh Smash!) made for good interview fodder and photo fun, and the Let’s Chat! series launched with Colt Coeur’s Adrienne Campbell-Holt. A new trend, the DEOSP, was spotted. And the TEAM’s Mission Drift made a good launching pad for some NYC-related pondering.
All that was good. But next year will be better. I PROMISE!
Bring on the teething!
There are few sights quite so tantalizing as that of a Broadway load-in…
Are you salivating yet?
BRING IT ON, BABY! 2013 GONNA REPRESENT!
I’m pretty much definitely the only person who finds this interesting (am I? am I?), but it seems that the Roundabout Theatre Company is doing a bit of rebranding. Witness the swanky new poster pasted on 44th Street…
Cool, right? It feels current, stylish, casually affluent. The abstract-y comedy/drama masks, the mod coloring, the artful nod to diversity, the focus on YOU (“exposing you,” “introducing you,” “it’s about you”)–it’s a far cry from the more traditional lettering more commonly associated with this reputable, classics-heavy company:
Does this advertising shift herald a new programming focus?
Time shall tell…
Between Under the Radar and COIL, January is the month for downtown theater. But those two festivals aren’t the only place to get your wintry, under-14th Street fix: The BASiC Theatre Project is having a go at Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Made, a 2006 play about twenty-somethings, loss, and growing up in the post-9/11 era.
I recently spoke with BASiC artistic director Zi Alikhan about the play, his company, and about Meriwether, who, since first writing Madeline, has made it big in Hollywood, penning the screenplay for No Strings Attached and creating the Fox sitcom New Girl. Here’s what Alikhan had to say.
On first encountering the play…
I read Madeline in a class called Contemporary American Playwrights [at NYU] in fall 2008. The class was such a cool experience, but I was having a hard time identifying with any of the playwrights or their plays. It wasn’t until I read Liz’s plays that I was like, “Oh shit, this is a girl who’s not much older than me, who’s lived a very similar experience to me.”
Then she came to the class and was this awkward girl in big glasses who lived in Williamsburg. I was like, “You’re awesome—you’re just like every girl I see walking down the street!”
On Elizabeth Meriwether…
She’s been really supportive of the project. We were having a very hard time getting the rights to the play because her agents didn’t want a young theater company doing her work right now, when she’s so hot. So I wrote directly to her and said, “I’ve loved your plays for the past five years, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do right now.”
On the play…
Madeline is about being in your early twenties, about being in New York City, and not having any idea of your sense of purpose. It’s also about a generation of young adults surrounded by constant war, feeling kind of desensitized to it, and what it means when war personally affects you.
On New Girl…
Yes, I am a New Girl fan—I started watching it and I still dabble in it. That being said, I think Elizabeth’s writing for the stage is what drew me to her in the first place. She’s such a strong stage writer. I actually think this is why she writes so well for someone like Zooey Deschanel—she really likes eccentricity.
As much as it’s about creating theater, I’ve always been interested in creating community, and I think that’s what we’re doing.
Fun fact: Not all Masonic temples house self-flagelating albino monks or creepy, cloaked knights. (Thanks, DaVinci Code and Eyes Wide Shut for that one.) As I found out in Detroit—on tour with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie-–some such temples are pretty normal, pretty cool theaters. (As for the above photos, yes, that’s a prop milk jug. Such are the trappings of children’s theater.)
Our particular haunt sported some religious-y flying buttresses and a Gothic, arched ceiling. But the rest of the digs were purely secular. Some good, blood-red “legs” (as they’re called in the biz) framed our singing and dancing…
… and a set of dainty ropes started their trip to the fly tower, ready to open vents in case of fire.
More vintage treasures were to be found here…
… but pity the actor forced to rely on this set of floor directions:
After all, if they directed him here, to the American Horror Story-style loading dock, who knows what could happen to him?
Even worse, how could he defend himself in the elevator from these terrifying miscreants?
Hmm… maybe “Masonic Temples” aren’t so benign after all…
“Cruel” is not a word usually liked to Our Town, that glorious, perfect play of the everyday and the cosmic. But it’s highly appropriate in the case of the Huntington Theatre’s current production, a revamp of David Cromer’s devastating, super successful staging previously seen in Chicago, New York, and L.A.
Playwright Thornton Wilder’s contention is that it’s nearly impossible for humans to appreciate their lives. “Saints and poet, maybe—they do some,” Wilder writes, but the rest of us are left floundering in “ignorance and blindness.” His play, then, serves as a wake-up call: Look at everything!, it cries, take it all in!
How, you ask, is that cruel?
It’s all in the actors.
Cromer has guided them to quick, plainspoken, totally unsentimental performances. They sit with nothing—words and scenes whizz by at an exhausting clip. Even at the gorgeously written finale, the big revelations play out even before they seem to have begun. Speeches that usually get a more thoughtful pace stampede out of view; you almost feel yourself reaching out, gasping for breath, “Wait, wait for me!”
This tactic is, in a word, cruel—if you love this play (as I do), you want to soak everything in, moment by moment. At the Huntington, you are totally denied this desire. Cromer refuses to meditate on things, instead hurrying unblinkingly to the final blackout. The delicious moments of transcendence only brush your tongue before getting yanked away. It’s frustrating. It’s exasperating.
And it’s wildly, brilliantly appropriate. Thanks to Cromer’s take, the play become a two-hour metaphor for a lifetime of hurried, unappreciated living; by forcing you into the agonizing position of harried observer, Cromer and Wilder shake you into self-awareness, into becoming an observer of both a play and your own life. In both this production and life, events zoom by, the next thing rolls along, then poof! another act, another year’s gone by.
Like a booming drum, this Our Town practically screams out into its final silence, Life is short. Moments disappear. Grab them by the horns.
“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company
photo by T. Charles Erickson, pictured: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly
Theater tourism took me to Boston recently. Did Beantown deliver? Listen my children and you shall hear…
It’s gotta be where its spirit can run free, indeed: Over at the American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus has reimagined the classic Pippin as circus fare performed by a troupe of acrobats and storytellers. Cue the bedazzled leotards! Setting this groovy, 70s musical thusly is an innovation—apparently no such directive exists in the original Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson material. (Yes, I did just out myself as a Pippin virgin.)
But Paulus’s concept feels so inevitable, so part and parcel of this furiously entertaining coming-of-age tale, that it’s hard to imagine the show any other way. After all, the material (presentational, narrated, whimsical) practically screams “kooky framing device!” Also, hiring real acrobats (Paulus has drafted members of the Québécois company Les 7 Doigts de la Main) lends the show a kind of storytelling WD-40. Whenever you think, wait–what? (and let’s be real, Pippin‘s dramaturgy can be a bit zany), those sexy tumblers slink onstage and lube the proceedings into a more abstract, magical light; their glow makes the storytelling sins seem less mortal.
Sins aside, when the show works, it works. Andrea Martin is gloriously joyous (and dizzying) in “No Time at All.” Patina Miller delivers chill after chill in the opening number, “Magic to Do.” And Matthew James Thomas enshrines “Morning Glow” in the pantheon of great act 1 kickers. Time and time again, you think, “why aren’t all musicals this fun? this magical?”
For above all, this Pippin is thrillingly, heart-poundingly magical. The levitating bodies, the knife throwing, the impossible feats of balance—Paulus has taken the lyric “magic to do” literally, her stagecraft underscoring the transporting, fantastic, musical theater-ness of everything. All tuners aspire to this alchemy, but the rarity of the Pippin-induced rush I felt at ART is proof of how mysterious and elusive it is.
Thankfully, ART’s production is headed to Broadway, where lots of ink will surely spill over Paulus’s interpretation, her “take.” But ultimately, and to its credit, this revival is more than just a “concept.” It’s a show, a gosh-darn, full-blooded, mouth-gaping show.
Boston, Part II: “Our Town,” at the Huntington, will appear soon…!