Category Archives: Theatre

in all its forms

Getting back to Blogging, and Detroit Culture Vulture-ing

My first few days back in Southeast Michigan have brought a lot of driving, reunions, food, logistics, and just one film. Time will tell if I’m able to get this blog back up to regular speed. I think it is doable.

The one film, Amy, is clearly one of the most powerful entertainment (as opposed to human rights or other subject) documentaries I’ve ever seen. Using a combination of home movies, existing concert and interview footage, and present day voice-only interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the film charts the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who achieved her widest fame for her “Back to Black” album around 2007, before falling into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to her premature death in 2011.

The success of the film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia, lies in its ability to refocus the narrative about Winehouse from a one-hit punchline into a full complex person. The viewer walks away with a clear and devastating understanding of how the acquisition of fame changed her life and what those around her could and could not enforce to make sure she was still herself.

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One post per month at the moment

my current internet living situation is one where there is no connection in the house. so I have resolved that this summer’s blogging will be down to one post per month.

The summer has brought a welcome continuation of being directly involved in theatrical productions – this time here – and I’ve been able to keep up my filmgoing in a slightly modified form, given that most films reach this small island (especially this year with two additional cinemas reopened after an unfortunate hiatus) but some do not.

The best film of the summer so far for me was easily Love and Mercy, an intimate and sharply focused biopic looking at the life of erstwhile “Beach Boy” Brian Wilson. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack shared the lead role, playing Wilson at different times in his life, and were supported by a game team of skilled actors. Elizabeth Banks appeared in Cusack’s timeline as a new girlfriend who becomes increasingly important in his life, and Banks rose to the challenge well with thoughtful dramatic depth.

My most notable film experience of the summer came about by attending a special sneak preview of the new film Southpaw, which went on general release this weekend. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal was in attendance for the screening, and in addition to giving a question and answer session about the film, he ended up sitting directly behind me for the entire length of the film. Definitely the first time I have ever had the star in the audience and in such proximity while watching a film.

And what else? I kicked things off with Mad Max: Fury Road, quickly followed by Tomorrowland, and then it was… an encore screening of Ex Machina, followed later by Ted 2 and then Inside Out and most recently Trainwreck. So, not as many films as I might think – but a good selection of product.

As for the theatre, we’ve been having a very full summer. Most of my time is spent on an ongoing outdoor production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged (Revised) – and if you’re reading this on Martha’s Vineyard, you should come by.

A New Play plays the provocation card

This weekend’s entertainment/arts culture vulture journeys led me to take in two stories that both explored the art and challenges of what is known and unknown in any given situation, and how individuals work around those issues – or not – and maintain a sense of awareness in their possible confusion.

I’ll save the movie for a separate post; here is a focus on the play:

Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI, is currently offering (just) the third professional production of Luce, a new play by JC Lee that premiered at NYC’s Lincoln Center last year. I learned that Lee had been a writer in residence for a year at my California hometown theatre, Marin Theatre Company.

The play is very much of the moment, with references to Facebook, mobile technology, teen obsession with texting, high school social dynamics and more. But the broad portrayal seen at Meadow Brook, while commendable, did not seem to fit with the ethos of emphasizing the smaller moments that the playwright was clearly going for.

Experienced and versatile local actress Serab Kamoo carries the show as Amy, Luce’s adoptive mother who wants nothing more than the best for her son. The rest of the cast gives strong effort to their roles, but I felt that only Kamoo truly convinced in her part. As Luce himself, Leroy S. Graham fares best with a monologue partway through the show, which is the only chance that the character has to truly speak for himself.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the show would have played differently on a smaller stage and with a more unified sense of direction. The script never spells our Luce’s specific intentions when his actions are called into question, but it never allows the character to get to the heart of the matter, either. Meadow Brook’s stage is well used in the design, with a clever conceit of a downstage area doubling as two locations thanks to some lighting maneuvering, but some of the intimacy of the drama is also lost in the wide space.

The play is performed without intermission and suffers from a sense of anticlimax. Several scenes close to the end could easily be the end, and when the last scene comes around, the resolution feels less satisfying than if the story had closed on a more ambiguous note. Similarly, since Luce’s true intentions are never made clear after his actions are called into question, a note of uncertainty might have driven the plot home in a deeper and more direct way.

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I am always grateful when a theatre presents a new piece, and especially if it is something that stimulates a feeling of engagement and discussion.

London Theatre Doubleheader

What a treat it is to be back in a place where I can choose my theatregoing based on the venue’s reputation – and my previous experiences seeing shows there – rather than the title itself.

That’s just what I did for two plays yesterday at the Royal Court and Almeida theatres at opposite ends of London. I joined the legions of tube and on foot commuters in the interim period with an extended stop at Leicester Square, which just happened to be on full showman mode with the UK premiere of Cinderella.

IMG_1002But back to the plays. First up was How To Hold Your Breath, running at the Royal Court. In some ways it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on in this story, but as the tale went on, it became clear that was part of the point. We’re introduced to Dana (Maxine Peake), a woman who appears to be in her 30’s or 40’s and is struggling to make ends meet. In the beginning of the story, she may or may not have sold herself for romance with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), but (since this is a play!) they have an argument that sets the plot in motion and leads to Dana thinking that Jarron also holds supernatural powers which haunt her as the story goes on.

Dana brings her sister and roommate Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) into the action, and is trailed by a mysterious librarian (Peter Forbes) as her journey goes on. The supernatural thread expands with the story, leading to a series of arresting and memorable physical images near the climax when Dana is isolated against an army of people also suffering from her plight.

Because the plot meandered from point to point, it was difficult to tell when the conclusion was being set up and led to the story feeling anticlimactic for me – it would have surely been more effective with a dramatic denouement in the image described above, for instance. However, the design team offered a crackerjack sense of compactness, with backdrops rising on top of each other in the modestly sized Royal Court stage, and effective hints of sound design sprinkled throughout the narrative.

When the script by Zinnie Harris played with its lines and a sense of repetition, also near the end, that also created a feeling of taut anxiety and uncertainty. Although in a broader sense the play remained successful simply from showing two strong female leads and the sense of a realistic world nestled within current events.

(If I knew more about current political affairs in Europe I might have appreciated the play more, but I certainly felt like it could still be appreciated on its own merits.)

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In the evening I ventured back up to the Almeida Theatre in north-central London’s Islington district. Their current production, Game, drew me in with its promise of a unique viewing experience, and convenient “late show” 9:30pm start – the performances are actually twice per night because it’s a short length play. The show has drawn strong reviews from all major local sources.

The show takes a provocative premise and really runs with it. We’re introduced to a young couple moving into an affordable house and getting to know their new living quarters. But it immediately becomes apparent that their presence in the house is part of a sadistic plot for members of the public to improve their shooting skills. In a sharply constructed 60 minute viewing experience, we’re given a sense of what the couple must endure to live in that environment and how their efforts to live a “normal” life are severely compromised. Although the voyeuristic shooters remain somewhat thinly drawn, they get a moral conscience with one character who rises in importance during the story.

I’m sure I will remember the show most for the novelty of its staging, in which the Almeida’s modestly sized auditorium was reworked into a series of arcade style viewing experiences, with the audience (divided into three or four separate sections) seated on backless benches looking in at the central set. Viewing was also augmented by medium sized televisions above the set, and all of the scenes not involving the couple took place in areas that are part of the audience seating area, with the images being transmitted to those in other sections. Finally, the audio of the experience was through headphones rather than live listening, and the actors had to expertly coordinate between their lines onstage and off, and sometimes overlapping.

It’s clear that the writer, Mike Bartlett, intended for his piece to be cultural commentary in our ever – expanding age of reality shows and celebrity obsession. I would say that he and the design team, led by director Sacha Wares, succeed in balancing a sense of satire and one of nervous drama.

While it’s possible this show experience would be different if it was a longer or less radically conceived piece, I think it was right in tune with the challenges of today and how things could turn if we collectively don’t take more humane charge of our future lives.

A Satisfying and Overdue Return to London Theatregoing

Barbican SignI’m writing this from my old stomping grounds of London, England, and very happy to be back here for the first time in just over seven years.

Although this is a short trip, theatregoing is naturally still a focus, and so I made sure to include at least a few plays on my itinerary. First up this afternoon was Antigone at the Barbican Centre, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Coincidentally I worked on another Sophocles translation by Carson with The Penny Seats last summer.

It was such a pleasure to be back amongst the appreciative UK theatre crowd, who treats theatre like Americans treat the movies (as a frequent and enjoyable pasttime) and are respectful about the process of putting on the show without being overly gregarious; standing ovations are rare!

As for this production, I feel like it did not fully realize its potential, although there were certainly some strong moments. And perhaps the performance will improve as time goes on, where the cast is proceeding on an extensive tour after the London engagement, traveling to multiple countries over the next six months.

Binoche anchors the story with an expected gravitas. However, I was intrigued and pleased by her choice to play the character much softer than many of her film roles. I feel that she often projects a natural confidence or comfort onscreen in many of her performances, whereas in this role, there was a humbleness and meek quality I picked up on that seemed like a completely new component of her work. As Antigone, she’s not quite as visible in the story as one might think, leaving a large chunk of the story to the work of the ensemble cast.

That was where my challenges with the show came in. Not so much with the ensemble performers, who all worked strongly with each other, although I can’t single them out because I don’t know their other work. The performers worked off a modest but spacious set and a generous lighting design. A key component of the lighting was a large center stage moon that changed as the play went on from smaller to larger. But once it expanded to its full size, it was right in my line of sight from my seat, and kept taking my attention away from the actors, like if a television was on at the same time you’re trying to talk with someone in a casual setting.

Similarly, the production couldn’t seem to decide how much modern touches it wanted to include. A large screen was occasionally used to accentuate the narrative, and led to some dramatic moments, but also felt jarring in its inclusion, like the narrative wanted to add a grander touch and move away from the focus on the words.

To conclude, it’s commendable that the Barbican hosted a production like this and clearly continues its objective to bring a wide global range of theatre to discerning audiences in London. I’m thrilled to have made the effort to see this show and to get a chance to update my experiences with one of London’s most unique artistic venues.

Barbican Flyers

Good Men and True

Last Friday night I enjoyed a belated first visit to Hamtramck, Michigan’s Planet Ant Theatre, a small venue that has an ambitious slate of provocative plays. As sometimes happens, I’d wanted to go to this theatre earlier on and didn’t. But it was rewarding to be able to make the time to attend the Opening Night of this particular production.

The publicity materials for the show take care to spell out the basic premise of the play (what if a trio of protagonists from some of Shakespeare’s well-known works meet up in a single story?), but, delightfully, don’t give a sense of the creativity and free spiritedness of the production. The play has received additional press attention in a positive review by John Quinn of Encore Michigan and a feature article running in The Detroit News.

For me personally, the show was a delightful mash-up and reminder of a more creative side of theatre that I sometimes feel sad to not see very often in the professional world. This approach that I speak of is one that is not afraid of taking risks, rolling with the possibilities of a prompt or suggested activity, and being comfortable with the dramatic ambiguity or simply not knowing how a creative exercise might turn out. This was a hallmark of some of my most memorable improvisation and creative discovery based courses over the years, and in some cases, audience attending, such as at San Francisco’s BATS Improv.

In Good Men and True the four actresses (Jaclynn Cherry, Kez Settle, DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton and Jackie Strez) perform confidently and comfortably as their roles undergo various switchups and moving of layers, literally and figuratively. Their vocal and physical inflections and character choices from the first moment on stage show a strong command of the material and willingness to take risks. I look forward to remembering the fresh and exciting feel of their play – and the associated creative confidence they project with the material – for some time.

Falling Slowly Onstage

The touring version of Once: The Musical is now in residence at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre through February 15th. Since that’s just up the street from me, I attended their first preview performance on Tuesday night.

I’d forgotten that the play originally began its dramatic life at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) back in Cambridge. It’s not surprising that the play found further success, where ART has successfully repositioned itself over the last few years (under the shrewd leadership of Diane Paulus) as a major feeder of new or reimagined stage work into the Broadway and national theatre conversation.

Of course, Once takes its story from the movie of the same name. If you’ve seen the film, you know the basic story about the Guy meeting the Girl who inspires him to refocus on his songwriting and use his songs to convey his emotions… and that doesn’t change here on the stage. The play does, however, adroitly open up the story to more of an ensemble production, with a modest band starting the experience with pre-show songs and several scenes featuring ensemble members (either in one or multiple roles) interacting with the protagonists.

The play also creatively invites the audience to come more directly into the story, in that drinks are served onstage before the start of the show and during the intermission. My friends and I enjoyed the pre-show option, and I found it to be a fresh and fun way to get into the story, standing onstage for a few minutes with fellow audience members, and then being allowed to stay there for a few more minutes while the cast came onstage and began their pre-show medley.

I can’t say that the story creates a revelatory level of dramatic depth. But I would say that the play is worth attending for its fun and fresh onstage experience, and the chance to take in some very well-done acoustic songs in a refreshingly intimate story setting.

Throwback Thursday: Theatre Commute

In early 2009 I commuted for a few weeks in “figure 8s” around the Bay Area from the East Bay into San Francisco and down to San Jose, then back to the East Bay. I compiled a few highlights for LiveJournal on several of the days, and here’s one of them.

I resumed my temporary routine of (total) 125 miles driving and travel from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose and back today, a geographic figure eight around the Bay Area. Things were pretty smooth today, though here are some episodic highlights:

10:45am: Leave the house. No traffic on 580 East.
11:03am: Pass the Bay Bridge toll. Am surprised by the fact that the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up after the morning commute.
11:25am: Am detoured from my usual parking spot by today being a “street cleaning” day. Instead I go to a completely different neighborhood where I know parking will be free and non-stickered.
12:00pm: My MUNI trip inbound from Noe Valley is free when the conductor waves passengers past the non-working ticket machine.
12:05pm: During the MUNI trip, I see an intense panoramic view from the top of Dolores Park that I had never seen before.
4:05pm: Near the end of my work shift, I step outside for a few minutes and have an experience out of an action movie. I’ve arranged to give a black suitcase filled with laundry to the show’s costume designer. Instead of stopping, she pulls up to the curb and wordlessly gestures for me to drop the suitcase in the open bed of her truck. I do, and feel like it should have contained lots of money, or we should have been filmed, especially since it is right on Market Street.
4:50pm: During the MUNI trip back to the parking spot, two high schoolers near me decide that they will make the biggest PDA possible while jointly blowing smelly bubble gum.
6:05pm: Arrive at the theatre in San Jose and am pleased that there was no traffic going south on 280.
11:20pm: Leave theatre and begin the trip home on 880.
12:00am: A CHP car suddenly begins to weave across the highway just a few cars ahead of me. Turns out there’s been a minor accident, and that was this officer’s way of alerting the drivers.
12:25am: Arrive home.

Reflecting on Square One

Square One's original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

Square One’s original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!

The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)

In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:

I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.

Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.

Mathnet

I was very excited to finally see the original Mathnet HQ in Los Angeles on a March 2013 visit to the area.

I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.

I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!

And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.

Closing Day at Grover’s Corners

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, California, today is the closing performance for the Shotgun Players production of Our Town. I was very pleased to be in the audience for this show on New Year’s Eve, and had meant to write about it here sooner… but it feels appropriate to give it a tip of the hat at the end of its run. Bay Area audiences were receptive to this particular version, as it extended two weeks from its original engagement and reportedly packed the houses throughout the run.

I knew going in to the show that director Susannah Martin (a past colleague) would probably bring her characteristically spare yet precise staging quality to the text. Surprisingly, as a native New Englander, this was my first time seeing the play live onstage. And the “once something comes into your life it reappears very soon” rule seems to be in full effect, as I will see it again in about a month in a high school production that a family member is directing, and am looking forward to comparing the similarities and differences.

with cast member and close friend Molly

with cast member and close friend Molly

This was a perfect play to close out the old year and bring in the new, with its themes of life and death and life events and the simple things that may or may not give way to big impact. It was the centerpiece of my short yet memorable visit back to the Bay Area itself, and I found myself appreciating the chance to take a moment and intellectually engage, in the midst of racing from place to place and attempting to cram as much as possible into a two day span.

The cast offered impressive ensemble work, led by Madeline H.D. Brown as the stage manager. I was initially drawn to seeing the piece after learning that theatre friends Molly, Don and Tim had central roles in the play, and they were supported by a skilled group of fellow performers, with El Beh a particular standout as Emily Webb. Again, like life itself, the play offered little snippets of events coming together (and in some cases falling apart), changes in families, questioning choices, regrets, delights, marriages, births, deaths, new beginnings and a sense of resiliency. Martin’s staging heightened the sense of everyday life, with the actors performing on a mostly bare set and occasionally sitting in or amongst the audience if they were not part of an onstage scene.

I deliberately chose a first row seat when I booked my ticket for the show, but I did not expect the side effect of intense and visceral engagement with the piece, and the art of telling a theatrical story, to come as a result of being right there with the action and the actors. As it was I found the play and the whole theatregoing experience that night to be a potent, inspiring and motivating reminder of what it is that we do as theatre/arts makers and why we do it. I’ll be continuing to remember that as 2015 unfolds.