Best of 2013!

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theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)

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A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!

LET’S GET GOING, 2014!

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Short & Sweet

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Much of the buzz surrounding Canadian writer Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win came from her affinity for the short story, a form usually spurned as a kind of bastard stepchild of literature. Munro doesn’t write the long, drawn-out novels the Nobel committee (and many readers) generally prefer; her concise, concentrated narratives pack whole lives into paragraphs, sweeping movements into a few pages. The effect is often riveting and sort of eerie—at the end of a good one you think to yourself, how did she do that?—and so quickly! Munro’s brand of elegant economy isn’t usually rewarded, so her win here counts as a real achievement.

As in literature, the theater doesn’t generally hold brevity as a virtue. Popular marathon performances (Gatz, The Coast of Utopia, Life and Times) are extreme examples of a general bent: Ticket-buying audiences prefer like their theater served in hefty, 90-plus minute servings, thank you very much.

But there is real value—and fun!—to be found in much shorter pieces, plays no longer than 30ish minutes or so. I recently saw three such works in various stages of development under the collective title Ladder to the Moon at HERE, and stand behind their shortness: Size needn’t matter!

Ladder to the Moon Here Arts Center

The first of these playlets—Harold, I Hate You by Amanda Szeglowski—imagines a trio of Girl Scout-like gals traipsing through the woods, voicing their anxieties in counterpart to a disembodied voice in a tent. The girls’ worries run the gamut—they fret over everything from death-by-mulch-grinder to sleepover abandonment. Their movement is highly stylized and choreographed, as are their mostly expressionless, monotone speaking voices. Before you know it, the story is over… and the briefness of these collective conversations is part of what makes the play successful: Enhancement might’ve spoiled the creepy and anxious space so quickly conjured.

The second piece, Ghost Stories (a product of Tiny Little Band, Jerry Lieblich and Stefanie Abel Horowitz), also trades in the world of worries, this time through—duh—ghost stories. Three narrators beckon audience members onto the stage, gather them around small lamps, and tell spooky tales of the supernatural. We’re talking good old fashioned, gather-round-the-campfire ghost stories. There’s some commentary, but mostly it’s the scary goods told straight up… and it’s awesome. The simplicity of good storytellers telling good stories holds up spectacularly, and, because it doesn’t need to prop up a two-hour evening, can stay as spare as it needs to be.

Ryann Weir’s The Dinosaur Playthe final piece, tracks two disenchanted employees at a zoo. Layering on their depressing-beige uniforms, polishing visitors’ glasses and ultimately pausing for a treatise on dinosaurs, they wallow in the doldrums of their sad-sack lives. (In a particularly funny/sad moment, one employee explains why it’s “financially irresponsible” for the workers to stay in their low-paying jobs.) Again, the impact comes swiftly and needn’t wallow. Clarity comes in the quickly-formed setup, climax and resolution (such as it is) of the narrative.

One, twice, three times Ladder to the Moon proves you don’t need to drone on to make a point or an impact. In that spirit, I’ll stop now, toast brevity, and shut the hell up.

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Let’s Chat! With Nikole Beckwith @ Colt Coeur

HEY Y’ALL! theater-words is back! After a summer hiatus, it’s time to dust the footlights… so LET’S GO!

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

First up for the fall is Colt Coeur’s Everything Is Ours, the funny/sad story of a sorta happy couple facing a very unexpected new member. (Favorite line: “I’m not crying — my eyes are allergic to feelings.”) Artistic Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt helms the production which runs thru September 21st at HERE. (You may remember the interview Campbell-Holt gave theater-words for Colt Couer’s last show — it’s a great read available HERE.)

Everything Is Ours playwright Nikole Beckwith was nice enough to answer some questions about her current play, as well as London vs. New York and what to see this season. Check it out…

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What was the inspiration for Everything is Ours?
I sat down to write it because I wanted to write the play that I most wanted to be in. Also, I learned from my mom that you are never really ready to have kids and I learned from my youngest sister that you are never really ready to be one, either.

In the play, an egg donor is presented with her biological daughter, and asked to take her in. If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?
Probably what happens in the play. I’d like to think I can rise to any occasion. With comedic timing.

The design is very striking in its off-kilter way. Did you always envision the set that way, or did it come in collaboration with set designer John McDermott?
I didn’t talk with John before the show, but I’m sure Adrienne did. A close friend of mine came to first preview and said, “It looks just like your first apartment in New York,” (where I lived when I wrote the play), and though I hadn’t thought about it before, she was right. The colors and feeling were very much the same, though my apartment didn’t have additions or tilted/odd sized doors. So John is just a very intuitive designer.  And a fair amount of the set dressing comes from my own home.

What is it like to work with Colt Coeur?
It’s great and exciting. They work really hard and really fast. I think we rehearsed two weeks for this show, and they built that set in two days — it’s crazy. They really go for it. And they are all also very charming and nice to be around, which is equally as important if you ask me. The cast and creatives and behind the scenes are all terrific human beings, putting so much of themselves into this work. It’s wonderful to be a part of.

You’ve done some work in London. What is it like to be a playwright over there versus in the States?
Theater happens so fast there. I wrote a play [Seven Sisters] at the National Theatre Studio January – March, and by May it was slotted to premier at the Royal Court Theatre in July. The RC came to The Studio, saw the reading, and programmed it based on the reading. They don’t have the same development culture we have; they like a play, they do it. Also, everyone sees plays there, everyone. Theater is much more a part of their pop culture and national identity than it is for us. They devour plays the way we devour movies and television. So, being a playwright in London feels a bit like being a part of a much bigger picture.

You write/draw comics in addition to plays. Are the skills needed for one similar to those needed for the other?
Kind of. It’s telling a story in a finite amount of time. It’s actually more similar to film than it is playwriting because the writing of it is so visual and you are telling the viewer where to look and what to see. Whereas on stage one audience member can have a completely different experience than the person next to them, based on what jumps out at them, who they are watching and how. When I’m writing a comic or a film, I give you your window and open it only as much as I want to. When I write a play, I leave the door wide open.

Seen any good theater lately?
MR BURNS at Playwrights Horizons. It is huge, and scary and true, while also being magical and funny and almost other worldly. But we are that world. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Find more info about Everything is Ours HERE.

Animal Drama

Members of the animal kingdom may pop up occasionally in shows (here’s looking at you, Annie) but these appearances are usually simple and little more than “awwww”-inducing.

And yet! Trevor (by Nick Jones at Lesser America/TFNC) takes a different tack, placing a chimpanzee dead center of its wild story. How exactly is this managed? By casting a human in the part. (Diversity advocates Animal Equity are surely up in arms about the decision.)

Picture 11Actor Steven Boyer inhabits the primate with little more than a waddle and gimp arms. Costume designer Elizabeth Barrett Groth continues with the minimalist approach, clothing Boyer not in fur but a polo and overalls. The suggestion of animal-ness rather a declaration of it avoids prosthetics and leaves much of the imaginative work to the audience.

Picture 10

Picture 12

The recent Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo functioned similarly: As the titular tiger of this Broadway show, Robin Williams looked basically human at first glance; it was only through the text, Williams’s performance, and a scraggly beard that the tiger-ness shone through. (Oh yeah—and the title.)

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

But the 2005 Broadway revival of Seascape took the opposite approach, outfitting its lizards in costumes that aimed for intense verisimilitude.

Seascape Broadway revival

Which do you think is the more effective approach? And what do you make of other tactics for depicting animals onstage, like the puppetry used in War Horse or The Lion King? Inscribe below!

Trevor photos by Hunter Canning

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– Fleet Week on Broadway
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LET’S CHAT! Joshua Conkel & “The House of Von Macramé”

Yes, that's a Snicker's bar... (photo by Crystal Arnette)

Note the Snickers bar. (photo by Crystal Arnette)

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 Boyrecently 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.

Joshua Conkel House of Von Macrame The Management

Conkel

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.

photo by Kate Hess

photo by Kate Hess

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 HorrorShock 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.

The House of Von Macrame Joshua Conkel The Management

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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.

Let’s Chat! with the BASiC Theatre Project


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 Madea 2006 play about twenty-somethings, loss, and growing up in the post-9/11 era.

Mistakes Madeline Made

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.
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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.

On BASiC…
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.

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The Mistakes Madeline Made runs through January 20th at the Theatre at the 14th Street Y
Click here for more info; here for tickets
Interview has been edited and condensed

 

 

Let’s Chat! with Adrienne Campbell-Holt

Enough about the Tonys, already—let’s go back Off-Broadway!

While lots of big, downtowny institutions sit dark over the summer, plenty of scrappier companies buckle down and brave the hot months. Case and point: Colt Coeur, a can-do ensemble founded in 2010 now on its third production, Eliza Clark’s Recall.

Colt Coeur’s first outings, Steven Levinson’s Seven Minutes from Heaven and Lucas Kavner’s Fish Eye, earned the company the kind of pull quotes many an uptown theater would kill for. The Times called Heaven “so real you almost believe it was written by one of its characters” and New York Magazine titled its review of Fish Eye, “Bringing Sexy Back to Off-Broadway.”

Behind this bringing back of sexy is artistic director and founder Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who directed all three productions. I chatted with her after catching a preview of Recall, a chilling, dystopian take on childhood psychosis (think We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Minority Report). Our phone conversation covered the play, the downtown scene, falling scenery, and everything in between. Enjoy excerpts, below.

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Why did you want to produce Recall?

I’ve always been a bit of sci-fi nerd—I love Philip K. Dick—so when my agent sent me the script, I fell in love with it right away. I had also just read the book Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which made me feel drawn to Recall’s alternate presence world and the menacing possibilities of it. I also really loved the book The Road, and I felt Eli’s writing had elements of that sci-fi alternate presence, while also being really firmly grounded in reality and truth. At its core it’s a mother/daughter story, a love story where all the characters are trying to protect someone.

The play’s pretty freaky—how do you go about making scary theater?

In theater there’s this opportunity to let things go unseen—it’s scarier what we don’t see, like in The Blair Witch Project. So, [in the play’s climactic final moments] not seeing the room fill with water is scarier and makes us think of more different things. Some people have said, “It made me think of the gas chambers,” or, “It made me think of burning people.” All these horrible things!

It’s so delicate. If we had a much a greater budget and unlimited resources, maybe we would’ve had to choose to be sort of expressionistic. Instead, our constraints forced us in that direction.

What’s the terrain like for young companies like Colt Coeur—is New York hospitable, or are things tough?

You probably got a sense on Saturday night of how tough things are. Everybody worked around the clock in the few days before previews started to build the set, but part of it fell on an actor’s head five minutes before 8 o’clock. That’s terrifying for me because, of course, safety first, and because it rattles the company. That night was also a really small house, and we had been full the night before—I feel like that’s representative of how hard and uneven it is.

When I was twenty two, I started a company in New York called Nest. It did well and it was fun, but I was naïve and had no idea how hard it was. When I started this company, I was in a different place maturity-wise and with connections, and it really helped to start it wish a group of artists that I trusted. I think that’s the most important thing when you’re starting a company, that you’re all working around the clock for zero dollars, and believe in it, and that you’re having a good time with each other.

Fortunately, the first two shows were received well. Some of the powers that be, like the Roundabout people, have been really positive, which helps. Also, a lot of the actors in the shows ended up signing with big agents and our costume designer just won a Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher. So, it’s cool that they still want to work on these shows.

Do you get the sense that the things for downtown companies are different now than they were 10 or even 20 years ago?

I used to work at the Wooster Group, and when they would talk about the 60s and 70s, I would get so jealous and nostalgic for that time—it must’ve been great for there not to be like 300 million different downtown theater companies! Now there are just so many.

[Read more...]

The Peripheral Cock

At one point in The Talking Heads’ concert-as-play The Peripherals, at Dixon Place, whimsically titled songs like “Bird Love Ballad” and “Song of Aunt Suzanne” give way to a moment of unexpected existential profundity. With an, “Omigod! OK. Omigod!” one bandmember stops the oddball meta-musical proceedings. “Suddenly I’m wondering,” she asks, “you think you know a person, and then you find out something surprising about that person, something you never expected to be true about that person—are they still them, or have they become someone else?” Thus begins a game of truth-telling to test this query… will the bandmembers still be the same after revealing their secrets?

Kookily costumed, diverse of age, uniformly peculiar, The Peripherals’ classifieds are unsurprisingly surprising: “I spent the first four years of my life in a home for the profoundly retarded,” answers one. “My kids call me Crudbunny,” says another.

What about “I’m a gay man but in love with a woman”? That would be the response of “John,” the oh-so-tormented axis of Cock, a new British import at the Duke. As the Peripherals would ask, upon revealing this choice news to his boyfriend, is John still John, or has he become someone else?

Or, more importantly, which John is the real John—straight John or gay John? That’s a question the man and woman sparring for John’s affections spill some heated emotional blood over. (And as inventively staged by James Macdonald on Miriam Buether’s intimate, plywood colosseum of a set, that battle is both delicately non-naturalistic and frighteningly real-life.)

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say the answer is complicated and uneasy. Come the finale, the question seems less about John’s sexuality than the high price of exposing one’s unassurednesses. (Pity, then, that so much of life is unassured!)

The Peripherals don’t let life’s identity crises bring them down quite like the characters in Cock, but they’re no less interested in those crises. Indeed, when a bandmember feels a revelation coming to mind, “It’s like God is moving all the furniture around in there.”

You can be a gay Brit or a Lower East Side rocker, but the game of life, it seems, is ever-changing, ever-perplexing.

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The Peripherals, at Dixon Place
By Ellen Maddow, directed by Ken RusSchmoll

Cock, at the Duke
By Mike Bartlett, directed by James Macdonald

The Peripherals photo by Darien Bates. Cock photo by Joan Marcus.

The Spring Season: Start Your Engines

The Spring season kinda already began, but hey, it’s still worth flipping through the listings to get excited. There’s a huge swath of tantalizing work, so these are just a few of the plays I’m excited to see, in no particular order. Note your own picks in the “comments” section!

1. Death of a Salesman I mean, obviously: Few shows are a sure thing, but this Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, seems pretty unassailable. I’m especially excited to see the original, Joe Mielziner set that this production is using.

2. The Big Meal Director Sam Gold has worked nonstop this year, and with good reason: his shows are always honest and surprising. The Big Meal, a multi-generational family play, is Gold’s collaboration with with Dan LeFranc, and will (hopefully) match up to his other work this season.

3. Newsies All sources say Disney’s done good by this Broadway adaptation of its flop-movie-musical, and I’m already excited about hearing the money note in “Santa Fe.” (Don’t lie, you know what I’m talking about…)

4. The Maids Red Bull Theater takes on this enormously difficult absurdist text, the strangeness of which is bound to make for a compelling and freaky evening.

5. Clybourne Park – This Broadway transfer has stirred quite the backstage hubbub, but Bruce Norris’ gentrification play would be pretty incendiary even without all the crazy producer drama. And that Pulitzer Prize doesn’t exactly hurt.

6. Nice Work if You Can Get It – George Gershwin, Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick? Done, done and done.

7. An Early History of Fire – David Rabe teams up with a certain Lily Rabe on this New Group world premiere. Advance plot details are scant, but Rabe (the dad) is always angry and exhilarating.

More off-off-Broadway excitement will reveal itself as the weeks wear on (downtown hits generally give less notice), but these titles should do for now.

And you kind sir/fair madame? Where will you be parking yourself Spring 2012?

photo by theater-words

Can’t Act, Can’t Sing, Can “Perform”

J’accuse!

All to often, avant-garde theater fetishizes performers of limited ability.

It’s a shrewd act: When actors self-consciously drone through lines, or affect melodrama or fall into stereotype, they evade notions of quality because bad acting is precisely the point of their work. Dramaturges pass performers’ limitations off as a formal choice that “draws attention to the text,” “reveals the falseness of society” or “unifies the play’s aesthetic,” but the fact remains: the performers just ain’t got skills.

Critics are complicit. When they praise experimental work, they do so “within the framework of the avant-garde’s goals and values” without questioning those goals or values.

Ineptitude might be fun/funny every now and then, but let’s not hang an art form on it!

Spring Fever

It’s marquee season on Broadway — the moment just before spring shows go into full swing, and freshly postered theaters taunt their half-baked wares to hungry passers-by. Every new show is a potential hit, and this sense of promise makes a theater-lover giddy with ticket-buying anticipation.

What to see first is the real question: “How to Succeed,” starring a wandless Daniel Radcliff? Or “Book of Mormon,” whose workshops were such a smash that reviews might be irrelevant? (As the show’s pervasive ad material frequently reminds us, “Vogue” has already surmised that “Mormon” might be “the funniest musical of all time.”) Then, of course, there’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the new project from the team behind that most rapturous of musical-theater perfections, “Hairspray.” Can they live up to their poppy, Tony-gilded reputation? Let’s hope so!

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Dating the Basketball Team

Last fall’s rumor mill hinted that heavy-hitting Liev Schreiber would star in a Broadway revival of Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season.” But “Season,” which sketches former basketball buddies some 25 years removed from their glory days, was deemed “dated” by Schreiber, and his roll went to the actor/comedian Jim Gaffigan.

“Dated.”

It’s certainly a word worth considering here — the characters’ rampant racism and anti-Semitism firmly plant the play in a decidedly pre-PC era. (That awesome, retro tube-TV helps, too.)

As for perspective: “Season’s” formula (sublimated anger + alcohol + eaaaarly morning) is a pretty standard and workable setup. Just look at classics like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Iceman Cometh,” or “The Seafarer” — angry, boozy, sleepy people are pretty mesmerizing.

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