“Much Ado About Nothing” Isn’t Just a Comedy

Much Ado About Nothing

You can call it a comedy all you like, but MUCH ADO is nothing of the sort. Though often funny and sometimes hilarious, Shakespeare’s yarn of headstrong lovers is fascinatingly woven with threads of malice, cruelty and sadness.

Melancomedy” is more like it.

Onstage now in a wonderful Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Jack O’Brien, this MUCH ADO gets all the laughs you’d hope it would… but it also prompts rage at the injustices performed by fickle, proud men. Over and over, the play’s women play victim to male (or at least authority-based) idiocy; the results are sure to leave you fuming, but also newly appreciative of that Shakespeare fellow’s wisdom.

There’s a lot to this play, but the bit that concerns us here is this: When Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is tricked into believing that his fiancé Hero (Ismenia Mendes) has been unfaithful, he abruptly jilts her at the altar. It’s an absurdly extreme reversal: Soaring professions of love are replaced by fits of sharp-tongued barbs that traumatize Hero so seriously she almost dies.

You can feel the audience’s loathing toward Claudio in this charged moment. Why is he so quick to believe the worst about someone he claims to love? Why does he not ask for her side of the story? Why does he act so swiftly, without any room for question? (Hero’s father behaves similarly, slandering her without pause as she weeps.)

Then again, is such flip-flopping to be unexpected, considering the haste with which Claudio corralled Hero into engagement? After all, few were the words exchanged between them before Hero’s father presented her, trophy-like, to Claudio.

Thankfully, the truth does eventually out: Hero’s name is cleared and, true to form, Claudio and the father promply revert back to adoration. All’s well that ends well, right?

Of course not!

Shakespeare seems to be saying that love can only be partly successful in a world where half the population is refused agency. True, Claudio loves Hero by the end of the play, but what’s to happen the next time she’s accused wrongly? The next time he flies off the handle?

The play also suggests that men suffer from such an imbalance, too; that they are less than they could be, and behave worse in a world where women are either saints or whores, where the sexes sit on an unbalanced and unchanging seesaw of power.

All this from a play usually praised for its romance, wit and laughter.

Yes, the romance, wit and laughter are there, but the play is bigger and better than just that. By incorporating streaks of darkness, it becomes profound, moving and relevant.

It becomes, well, true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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Best of 2013!

photo

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!

Favorite Moment: FUN HOME

Fun Home Public Theater Michael CerverisThere’s a lot to love about Fun Home, the hot new musical down at the Public Theater. It’s got great material, a talented cast, the most beautiful set in town, and—wonder of wonders—very few projections! So, picking a “favorite moment” here is a terrible, Sophie’s Choice kind of conundrum.

And yet… hard decisions have to be made.

But before that, some background: Fun Home tells the true, growing-up story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is based on her fantastic graphic memoir of the same name. Both book and musical tell a swirling tale of family, growing up and sexuality. It’s deep, meaningful, fun stuff.

At the Public, three actresses play “Alison,” the narrator and protagonist. The eldest (Beth Malone) looks back at the story of her life by way of elementary- and college-aged versions of herself, played (perfectly) by Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha. Adult Alison struggles to reconcile her coming out and life-narrative with those of her father, a difficult, closeted gay man (Michael Cerveris).

The Three Alisons

The Three Alisons

My favorite moment of the show comes early, as adult Alison goes through an old box of heirlooms and, on the other side of the stage, child Alison does the same with her father and their own box. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s wonderful musical plays, we gradually realize that the two boxes are, in fact, one and the same, here realized at different times in Alison’s life.

In an unobtrusive moment—one that could only happen in the theater—adult Alison and her father each reach into their respective boxes, and (cue the shivers) each pull out the same, silver coffee pot.

Incarnating this single pot twice, across decades, is a simple, Proustian way of saying everything about time, memory and history that no essay or description ever could. (Clearly, that’s not stopping me from trying!) Instantly, past is both infinitely removed and utterly of-this-moment; the object takes Alison back, but also emphasizes how far away that “back” is. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in The Glass Menagerie: “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Indeed—no more so than two places separated by a few feet of stage and a lifetime of experience.

This moment also illustrates unique power of simultaneous action, a device the theater shares with few other forms. Unlike a film, a play can stage two scenes and versions of the same character in direct physical proximity and have them interact. A few years ago director Michael Mayer spoke to the Times about this phenomenon in reference to his On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, praising it as “the beautiful theatrical gift of simultaneity.” Like Fun Home, Clear Day divided its protagonist between separate actors to (my opinion) brilliant effect, and thus let the audience in on a kind of dramatic irony: We got a perspective—wide, complex, funny—the characters never had, and got to see “self” interact with “self” in an imaginative, otherworldly and theatrical way. Fun Home does much the same, never more so than in this beautiful coffee pot moment.

Interestingly, simultaneity is also a prime feature of graphic novels, Fun Home’s form-of-origin. A caption “happens” alongside a picture; the resultant power can be in repeated emphasis (a picture illustrates what a caption describes), or in dissonance (a picture illustrates the opposite). Either way, the result equals more than the sum of the disparate parts.

In Fun Home’s coffee pot moment, the power is both one of repeated emphasis and one of dissonance: the pot, seen twice, shows how some things never change; Alison, also seen twice, shows how completely other things do.

Cool stuff. Cool stuff, indeed.

photos by Joan Marcus

Endurance Theater: “Life and Times, Part 1″

life_and_times nature theater of oklahoma

Life and Times (at the Public Theater) is likely to send you down a domino line of responses—

  1. How cool!
  2. Those actors—what stamina!
  3. This audience—what stamina!
  4. Screw stamina, I want out.
  5. …but this is kind of amazing…
  6. …why am I crying?
  7. INTERMISSION?! The show’s not over?!

And—repeat! repeat! repeat!

Phew, right?

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 RadarLife 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.

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma

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.

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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

public theater renovated renovationIMG_3171

Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

This fall, two exciting plays premier at the newly-renovated Public Theater

Present circumstances being what they are, the thumb of theater-words isn’t as closely bound to the pulse of New York theater as it usually is. So what are we most bummed about missing this fall season? Achem…

1. Sorry, at the Public Theater. The third entry of Richard Nelson’s remarkable “Apple Plays,” Sorry takes us back to the now-beloved Apple family in Rhinebeck, NY for an evening of taut, unprepossessing drama. Just like it’s two predecessors (That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad), Sorry is an “up-to-the-second” play taking place on election night, 2012. The first two plays about the family were delivered with breathtaking intimacy and honesty; there’s every reason to believe that Sorry will continue the trend.

2. The Whale, at Playwrights Horizons. The is a tale of a six-hundred pound dude, his estranged daughter, and a young angry Mormon—all sure-to-be-potent ingredients when Samuel Hunter is the playwright and Davis McCallum is the director. And hey, there’s the thrilling prospect of watching Shuler Hensley wear a monstrously large fat suit.

3. Fun Homeat the Public Theater. Oh, agony of agonies to miss this one. theater-words has been keeping tabs on this new musical for quite some time, so its continued development is especially exciting. But to miss its premiere… oh dear. Why the enthusiasm? Fun Home was first published as a singularly brilliant graphic memoir by the peerless Alison Bechdel; the family drama therein was pretty much beyond compare. Adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa KronFun Home is the kind of story that makes you knock your forehead: “Of course! What a perfect idea for a musical!” Director Sam Gold is the bee’s knees in pretty much everything he does, and will doubtlessly deliver an intelligent and sensitive production.

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There are, of course, plenty of other shows worth being excited about (here’s looking at you, The Heiress, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to name a few) but in terms of very-limited runs, for my money it’s gonna be hard to beat the three above picks.

Do you plan on seeing any of these titles? What are your thoughts? And, post-performance, how were they?

Five Reasons Shakespeare in the Park is NOT like the DMV


Ok, ok sure—they look similar at first glance. At both, you wait for hours and hours, uncomfortable, and emerge with a little piece of paper for reward. But no, I insist, NO! Waiting at Shakespeare in the Park is not like waiting at the DMV!

For proof, I’ve gathered five pieces of evidence at recent visits to both Esteemed New York Locales.

SITP and the DMV differ in…

1. The quality of fellow line-waiters.
At the DMV, everyone burrows into AngryBirds and trades scowls. SITP, conversely, produces an endlessly interesting supply of theater-lovers there to remind you that even though it’s 5AM and rainy, it’s not too early to debate the merits of Barbara Walsh’s “Ladies Who Lunch.”

2. The setting.
Um, so which do you prefer? A beautiful, bucolic urban paradise, or a windowless maze of nylon cords, blinking LEDs, and Helvetica? Well?

3. The drama.
This one’s a little less clear, I’ll give you. SITP enjoys clear, obvious action: Murder! Incest! Straight-toning! But while the drama of the DMV doesn’t project to the back row in quite the same fashion, it can be just as compelling: Watch, as that woman quietly dissolves into a puddle of impatience. Watch, as that aspiring rapper Def Poetry Jams to himself for two hours. Watch, as the girl reaches the front of the line and learns that her Social Security Card only counts as two points of identification, not three. Oh, the tragedy!!!

4. The quality of the line monitors.
Eric, the amazing SITP shepherd, infuses an appropriate sense of occasion and intensity when he warns patrons with omens like “this line is gonna get long and it’s gonna get long fast.” That sad man at the DMV? Well, he just looks confused.

5. The price.
I may have dropped out of AP Calculus, but I do think that $60.75 is more expensive than “free.” Enjoy that cash, DMV… ENJOY IT.

“Drama” excepted, I rest my case.

So there.

Cinderella of the Pacific Crest Trail


At the behest of Oprah, I recently read the new, bestselling memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild tracks the author on an eleven-hundred-mile backpacking grunt across the Pacific Crest Trail in California, where her emotional demons are purged through the exorcism that is long-distance hiking.

Strayed’s dependent-yet-hate-filled relationship with her boots (they hurt like hell) is one of the book’s highlights, and when she loses half the crucial pair off a mountainside cliff, it’s almost too much for her (and readers!) to bear. “I let out a stunned gasp,” she writes. “My boot was gone. Actually gone.” This poor woman!, you think, reading. Hasn’t she suffered enough?

It’s a great part of the story, but not only does it make for good reading, it elevates Wild to the level of fairy tale. Indeed, watching the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into the Woods, the Sondheim/Lapine fairy tale mashup of a musical, Wild came to me in a medium-transcending thunderclap.

Strayed, I instantly realized, is a latter day Cinderella.

Hobbling along the pathway to a better life, both she and Cinderella lead lives of despair and pain; both she and Cinderella are utterly alone; both she and Cinderella face a climactic moment of “one-shoedeness.” 

Indeed, Strayed’s description of herself might as well be a summation of Cinderella: “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.”

Fortunately, Strayed manages to moor herself by the end of the book, as does the Cinderella of Into the Woods. Both go to the mountaintop, learn big, soulful lessons, and emerge equipped to re-enter real life. Whether it’s in the bipolar range between personal loss and shocking natural beauty (Strayed), or in that same expanse between endless housework and princess living (Cinderella), each realizes that equilibrium lives somewhere towards the middle.

As Cinderella sings to her prince, “My father’s house was a nightmare/ Your house was a dream/ Now I want something in between.” The highs and lows make for good storytelling, but living, breathing people need to split the difference.

As for me—and probably you?—I’m tempted by those extremes… tempted, just as long as I don’t have to put on those boots.

But Strayed and Cinderella shoved on their boots and slippers, no messing around.

And perhaps that’s their biggest shared trait of all:

Gumption.

photo by Joan Marcus

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 336pp

Into the Woods, Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
directed by Timothy Sheader, Co-Directed by Liam Steel

Favorite Moment: As You Like It

David Furr and Lily Rabe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There’s plenty to love in the Public’s As You Like It in the Park: the killer cast, the relaxed style, and the lucid storytelling for starters. Director Dan Sullivan’s interpretation puts to focus squarely on the text, so left to pore over the wordy jewels Shakespeare weaves into his story, you’re sure to encounter your own thematic insights.

I, personally, was most struck by the wonderful kindnesses in the play. Over and over, to degrees large and small, people expecting hardship and aggression encounter unexpected generosity.

My favorite of these kindnesses—and my favorite moment of this production—came when banished Orlando storms into the Duke’s forest campsite, momentarily holding the thoughtful Jaques hostage. “I almost die for food,” shouts Orlando, “and let me have it.”

The response of the onlooking Duke? “Sit down and feed and welcome to our table.” This immediate assent disarms Orlando. “Speak you so softly?” he says. “Pardon me I pray you.” Orlando then joins their woodsy meal as a brother, not a threat.

In this and other moments, As You Like It posits charity as the ultimate act of diplomacy. Not only does it diffuse tense moments, it turns enemies into friends, rivals into comrades.

“February House,” All Amped Up

A.J. Shively and Erik Lochtenfeld. Photo by Joan Marcus

Conventional wisdom says that music-theater amplification is all bad, a lousy concession to contemporary audiences weaned on high-decibel concerts and blaring iPods. And conventional wisdom is mainly right: most any new Broadway musical is “sweetened” to a bafflingly dehumanizing degree.

And yet… every so often there’s a show that uses amplification perfectly, not for grotesque overemphasis, but as an unobtrusive magnifying glass, a useful, delicate projector.

February House, Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley’s wonderful new musical at the Public Theater, is one such show. Directed by Davis McCallum, it’s a quiet, gently ornate piece that wafts from performer to audience, all on a beautifully melancholic melody of banjo, violin, clarinet, etc. Yes, there are a few “belty” numbers (see “A Little Brain,” sung by Kacie Sheik) but the folk-styled score is mostly understated and quiet. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design ensures that Kahane’s music retains that quality, even when surreptitiously boosted by the sound system.

The plot: February House chronicles the true story of a group of creatives, among them W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Carson McCullers, brought together by editor George Davis for an experiment in artistic, communal living. These and other boarders shared a house in Brooklyn where they could both work privately and live in community. (The preponderance of February birthdays among the tenants lent the enclave its moniker.) Unfortunately, World War II and personal dynamics broke up the utopia.

The perfectly calibrated performances of these celebrity characters mesh seamlessly with the material, with Erik Lochtenfeld (Auden), Kristen Sieh (McCullers) and Julian Fleisher (Davis) as particularly adept modulators of soul and song. Indeed—back to amplification!—the actors seem acutely aware of the ways to take advantage of their microphones–see Fleisher’s soft falsetto, on frequent display, for example.

The last song of February House is a beautiful lullaby called “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.” The tenants have left, the dream of a “house of art” is over, and Davis soothes himself—and us—to conclusion. As performed by Fleisher (and amplified by Rothenberg) that lullaby is every bit as light, caring, and fragile as a mother’s intimate bedtime song. Properly done, theater can preserve those whispering, quiet places, and still be seen, still be heard.

February House
Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane
Book by Seth Bockley
Directed by Davis McCallum
at the Public Theater

Mike Daisey Goes Viral

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was hands down one of last year’s best and most provocative plays–in it, solo performer Mike Daisey tracked his visit to a Chinese factory that produces Apple products. It was a damning, complicated and funny saga, one that lingered long after the curtain.

I joined Daisy’s  mailing list after the show, and have been getting period emails since. Yesterday’s update, below, is seriously exciting and worth reading. Yes, theater matters!

Hello All,

I can’t tell you how excited I am to send this email to you.

First, if you haven’t heard, during this break in the run at the Public we spent a month collaborating with Ira Glass and THIS AMERICAN LIFE to adapt THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS for the radio.

It aired the weekend of January 6th in a special episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE where the only story was our excerpt of the monologue adapted for the radio, followed by a discussion featuring TAL doing extensive fact checking, interviews with Chinese labor activists, and a debate between myself and Nicholas Kristoff.

You can listen to the show here:

http://tinyurl.com/8aypq8a

Apple was asked to be on the show or to respond in any way. They refused.

In its first week the episode was the most downloaded in THIS AMERICAN LIFE’s history. The internet exploded, and the story went everywhere—I received over a thousand emails in just a few days; the response was overwhelming.

That same week news broke that hundreds of Foxconn workers had a stand-off that lasted two days, where they were all threatening mass suicide by throwing themselves off the roof of the plant over their working conditions.

[Read more…]

Susan and Wendy, in Their Own Words

Sontag Reborn, at the Public/ Under the Radar. Photo by James Gibbs

It’s all about the sources in “Wendy and the Lost Boys” and Sontag Reborn, two wholly different cultural artifacts that hold microscopes to egoistic, road-paving women. For “Lost Boys,” a biography by Julie Salamon, that giggly specimen is playwright Wendy Wasserstein; for the new play Sontag Reborn it’s writer and uber-critic Susan Sontag. Each piece features valuable contributions from biographer or adaptor—Salomon’s chronicle of Wasserstein’s untimely death is literally tear-jerking, and actress Moe Angelos gives Sontag’s glittering words, drawn verbatim from her journals, some human pettiness and petulance.

But it’s fundamentally the voice of the first person, independent of interpretation or commentary, that is most powerful in both works. For “Lost Boys,” that’s quotes and letters from Wasserstein and contemporaries. For Sontag Reborn, it’s the original, Sontag journal. The book and the play are valuable insofar as they give us a chance to hear the clear voices of these women—individual, insecure, ambitious—one more time. Here’s a very small sampling of  some unadulterated, straight from the source gems.

“WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS”

Letter to Caroline Aaron

When Aaron, an actress in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced in the New York production, Wasserstein started out an apology note with typically funny, food-related self-deprecating humor.

Dearest Caroline;

Oy Gavlat!! I’ve had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces [sic] before I sat down to write this note. I can’t tell you how difficult this is, or how very fond of I am of you…

Of that letter, Aaron later said,  “It was a lesson everybody in show business could learn. Good manners go a long way. But even people in the mafia have better manners than in show business.”

[Read more…]

The Best of 2011!

Lay on the eggnog! Toss the confetti! It’s time for the 2011 superlatives! Huzzah! This year’s winners of the internationally renowned theater-words awards are listed below, roughly in the order they opened.

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BEST CASE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE WELL-MADE PLAY:

Good People, MTC/Broadway

Here’s how it goes: There’s an interesting lead character who wants something that she has to fight hard to get. A shocking setup, I know, but we Aristotelians in the audience at David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest were giddy at the elegance and payoff of this perfectly crafted and relevant class drama.

BEST REMINDER THAT TONY KUSHNER ROCKS AND TOTALLY DOESN’T CARE ABOUT NON-COMMERCIAL TITLES:

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, the Public Theater

Mr. Angels in America’s four-hour behemoth stood proudly on its own, complicated terms: Spectacularly performed and directed, it simultaneously made you uncomfortable and blissed out—not exactly an easy combination.

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Sweet and Sad and Cheap

You know that wonderful relief you feel settling into a new episode of a favorite TV show? That’s the sensation I got at the Public’s Sweet and Sad, a real-time sequel to last year’s That Hopey Changey Thing. “It’s the Apple family!” you think with a smile. “My how I’ve missed them!” (Both plays are by Richard Nelson.)

Hopey Changey was “about” the 2010 midterm elections, Sweet is “about” the tenth 9/11 anniversary, but what makes the plays wonderful is the fully-realized characters and the episodic pleasure that comes with returning to them. Fortunately for us, the entire cast of these two “Apple Family Plays” has remained the same. Their super-naturalistic performances were great then, and they’re great now.

And all for $15? Who’s knows how the Public is managing that one, but their LAB series officially makes theatergoing cheaper than the movies.

Fingers crossed the Apples are back next year, too!

Alas, It’s True: We’re Gonna Die

Young Jean Lee (photo by Kevin Yatarola)

Young Jean Lee’s just-closed cabaret at Joe’s Pub ends with the simple, comforting song “We’re Gonna Die.” (It’s also the name of the show.)

We’re gonna die

We’re gonna die someday

Then we’ll be gone

And it’ll be ok (Listen to the song here)

Lee isn’t the slightest bit ironic or sardonic – the evening’s jumble of stories and songs exists, she tells us upfront, to generate some kind of collective comfort to suffering, to make private unhappiness a public, unifying bond. Lee’s message is delivered in a refreshingly heartfelt, anti-arch way. It’s like a good backrub: “it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok.”

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Two New Plays: Of Church and Theater

Would that all family talks were so well lit. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s a mythical, religious undertone in two new shows off-Broadway, “Go Back to Where You Are” (at Playwrights Horizons), and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (at the Public).

“Go Back,” written by and starring David Greenspan, is a breezy breath of a play, a stream-of-conscious trip to Montauk by way of ancient Greece. Greenspan plays a displaced actor from BC times, one who probably “originated roles” in “world premieres” of plays like “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea.” (!) In true Greenspan, shape-shifting fashion, he assumes two contemporary personalities — the first, a depressed lover; the second, a dowdy, British librarian.

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