Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself)

Performance Date: 12.11.09

Cherry Lane Theater

I wish I could do any impression as well as Antoinette LaVecchia can do her mother.  It makes me angry.  These people with parents from other countries are so lucky.  Not only do they possess a natural ear for homeland dialects, but their family stories are so much funnier because they get to use accents.

And accents are funny.  Is that simplistic?  Do I offend?  Well too bad, because it’s true.  Here’s the thing that saves it though – the funny isn’t because of some moronic delight at hearing words pronounced strangely.  The funny is because a spot-on accent is like a fast track to a specific and believable character – and that’s what real funny relies on.  Being specific and believable.

I say this like I’m a comedy expert.  Well I am.  We all are.  We all know what makes us laugh and what doesn’t.  And when someone tries to make us laugh and fails, we all pretty much know why.  We say, it was too much of a shtick, or he’s trying too hard, which basically translates to it wasn’t specific or it wasn’t believable.

Now performing comedy?  That’s a different story.  When it comes to performing comedy, I am squarely at the student level.  Sometimes I succeed at making people laugh, sometimes I don’t.  Yet when I fail – which feels awesome! – I can pretty much always track it down to that same thing.  I wasn’t specific and believable.  Whatever idea was in my head, whatever impulse I had – I didn’t commit one-hundred percent to the truth of it.

Unlike Antoinette LaVecchica, who does commit one-hundred percent to the truth in her one-woman show How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself).  Her portrayal of her Italian mother in this show is hysterical.  So complete and whole, so detailed and real, that you immediately get the sense that this must be exactly how her mother really is.  And perhaps I’m off base here, but I do suspect that the character’s accent – which was wonderful to listen to and perfect in the way only family can pull off – really might have been integral to all that wonderful specificity.  I imagine that for Antoinette, replicating the cadence, tone, and vowel sounds of her mother’s dialect must automatically come with corresponding changes to her body, face, and hands.  Or maybe I’m wrong.  But whatever the case may be, it worked.  Her portrayal was specific and believable, and the natural humor of having an overbearing, unrelenting, she loves you so much she wants to kill you for making her worry, old-country Italian mother simply rose to the surface, ready to be skimmed like so much delicious cream. 

Some favorite Mother moments:
  • Her divorced actress daughter doesn’t want curtains for her new apartment.  The mother’s response?  An exasperated clapping together and clasping of her hands up to God, accompanied by her head turned away, eyes closed, and brows furrowed with vexation.

  • After a protracted and infuriating battle of wills, her daughter finally consents to curtains – as long as they are white.  The mother’s response?  A humoring smile and scrunch of her nose, her head tilted and softly shaking, as she says, “No, En-do-nay, you no want white curtains.”  

  • Her daughter lets the machine pick up on the umpteenth phone call that afternoon.  The mother’s response?  To cap her message with the following helpful information, delivered slowly and oh-so-dearly: “My name is Maria.  I am your mother.”
You may have noticed – particularly if the above examples incited shudders of recognition – that specific does not have to mean unique, and believable does not have to mean subtle.  Dear, sweet, horrible Maria is a universal character, as well as larger-than-life, and the frequent knowing laughter from the audience that night testifies that the comedy worked like a charm.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Performance Date: 12.09.09

Lyceum Theatre

If intermission at the matinee of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is any guide, it seems we all have a need for better conversations about sex. 

The play was not a sex farce.  It’s not even overtly about sex.  In fact, it’s a smart, well-written play (by the on-fire playwright Sarah Ruhl) about connecting authentically with oneself and one’s loved ones.  But it does feature a vibrator, and an old-timey one at that. 

Set in upstate New York in the 1880’s, at the dawn of electricity, an upstanding doctor treats women suffering from “hysteria” in the manner of the day –  by the application of “electrical massage” upon their nether regions.  I’m not making this up.  Within minutes of the application, the treatment would induce “paroxysms” and dispel “excess fluid from the womb,” which was thought to be the cause of the illness, thereby restoring the women to a more contented and relaxed state.  Again, I am not making this up.  The treatment was not understood to be sexual at all, but merely medical, and the new appliances invented for this purpose were an improvement upon the “manual treatment” that had previously been prescribed since the days of Socrates.  Hand to god.  (So to speak.)

Ah, yes.  You can imagine the natural comedy this type of setting might inspire.  And indeed it did.  But it was the laughter at intermission that really caught my attention.  As soon as the curtain fell, pockets of laughter erupted throughout the theater, and continued periodically until the lights dimmed for the second act.  These were not quiet, titillated giggles.  They weren’t even subversive, behind-the-hand snickers.  These were loud, cackling, jubilant guffaws.  From women, mostly.  Who sounded as though they must be turning to their girlfriends and gleefully releasing a roiling, pent-up joy. 

I mean, it sounded like delirious relief in there.  It sounded like women who were utterly, deliriously, happily relieved.  It was a warm atmosphere.  A casual atmosphere.  As if the formality of “going to the theatre” had been dropped, and now we were all amongst great friends.  It felt like family. 

Why this reaction?  I return to my opening statement.  I think, on some level, we all desire to have better conversations about sex.  And there’s simply no place in our culture to have them.  Not without first having to sweep aside feelings (genuine or feigned for someone else’s benefit) of embarrassment, fear, and shame.  So I think when there is a play like this, that speaks of sex humanly, there is relief.  When we see women who, due to the limits of their era’s understanding of sexual pleasure, are enjoying the rapture of their bodies innocently, there is relief.  When we are reminded that we too can enjoy the pleasures of our bodies innocently, there is relief.  And with this relief, with this collective release of pretense by an audience at a Wednesday matinee, there can come a feeling of genuine connection.  A feeling of family. 

We need theater for this reason.  We need theater because theater is a culture having a conversation with itself.  And sometimes there are conversations we just don’t get anywhere else.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Misunderstanding

Performance Date: 11.19.09
Horizon Theatre Rep, at The Flea Theater

Have you read any Albert Camus?  I haven’t.  Did you know he wrote plays?  Me neither.  But that’s one reason I’m doing this Year of Plays.  To get me some edumacation.

But I’m gonna leave the playwright of The Misunderstanding aside.  And the director and designers (friends and relations, some of them), and most of the cast (including the lovely Ellen Crawford), to focus on the actress playing Martha.  Because she had me riveted.  Something about what she was doing, perhaps something about her, was so different.  I liked it and I wanted to puzzle out what it was.

I don’t like to bother with too much exposition about a play – I get distracted and end up in Review-land – so suffice it to say that The Misunderstanding is not unlike a Greek tragedy, with Martha as the central character.  She begins as a quiet and unassuming daughter but ends up as something of an unleashed monster.  In between, she journeys through fear, desperation, anger, rage, incredulity, and finally pretty much just goes batshit crazy.

With these circumstances, it seems any talented actress would be well set-up to give a “powerhouse” performance.  And this woman did, in my opinion, with the emphasis truly on “power.”  Power of presence, power of intention, power of voice.  She had all of it going on quietly at the start of the play.  But by the end of the play, the power was turned up a notch.  She was like a wrathful, Tolkien-esque, spirit queen who rises from the earth, opens her mouth to a gaping size, and spews out a tidal wave of biblical proportions – complete with tridents and kraken and spirit boats filled with doomed sailors – to knock her enemies down. 

I have two theories for why she was so powerful.  One, it’s the woman.  She is actually part spirit queen and the kraken is just part of her particular casting package.  Two, and I really want this to be the real reason, it’s The Alexander Technique.  I didn’t pull this out of thin air.  The woman’s bio proudly states that she teaches Alexander, and I’ve latched onto that fact as the secret behind this woman’s performance.

What is Alexander and why do I so want it to be the cause of such ferocity?  Alexander Technique is a way of working with your brain and body to improve ease and freedom of movement, balance, support, and coordination.  When you learn Alexander Technique, you essentially learn how to rewire your nervous system for better physical use.  It’s used by actors, dancers, singers, musicians, athletes, and many others, and was introduced to me by the great Frank Ottiwell and Glenn Canin at ACT.

Believing in Alexander Technique is like believing particle physics.  The evidence is there, but somehow it just feels impossible.  In Alexander, what you actually DO is so small compared to what you are trying to GET.  In Alexander, what you actually DO is merely think, merely direct your brain to give your body specific instructions, and what you eventually GET is a golf swing that breaks 300 yards, a pirouette that holds it’s center, a voice that reaches the back of the house, a presence that commands attention with no movement at all.

It’s so hard to believe that just thinking makes it so.  And in truth it takes a long time of practicing this method before the effects of Alexander truly manifest.  Which is why it feels impossible.  And while you’re working with it, all you want is a short cut.  All you want it to muscle your way to the end result.  To end-gain, in Alexander parlance.  But when you do that, you just end up with your same crappy golf swing and straining voice. 

I do believe in Alexander Technique.  I’ve seen the results, in myself and in my friends.  And yet whenever I begin to apply the lessons from Alexander to new challenges, all I want to do is skip to the end.  To end-gain.  That’s why I want this woman to have gotten what she has through Alexander.  If it is true, then she can be a beacon for me.  A shining light to help me keep the faith. 

A particle and a wave.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Performance Date: 11.11.09
Neil Simon Theatre

I went to see Ragtime and I liked it.  It didn’t have me at hello – like the first time I saw Les Miz or the first through fourteenth times I saw Rent (don’t judge) – but I liked it. 

I’d come in with high expectations.  After all, this is the show that got transferred to the Great White Way after a three week run in DC, giving the musical it’s first Broadway revival a scant 10 years after the original production closed.  Talk about buzz.  Plus, my friend Jay said Ragtime was one of his favorite musical scores of all time.

I’d never seen the show before, or even heard the music, so some of my enjoyment was from watching the story unfold for the first time.  But it was not only that.  I liked the performances – a dry humor from the nurturing leading lady, an unnerving intensity from her explosives expert younger brother, the easy charm of the ragtime piano-playing leading man.  The voices and the music were enjoyable.  The story had enough to it to keep me engaged.   I dug the minimal set.  All in all, I left feeling rather satisfied.

But then something funny happened.  I started comparing notes with other folks who’d seen it, and began to doubt whether I really enjoyed it after all. 

First up I polled some musical theater acquaintances.  They weren’t that impressed.  I asked what they thought of this one actor and they said his voice was “weird.”  Intrigued, I asked what they meant by that.  His voice had “no breath” and was “muscled” they reported in a way that made me sure this was a bad thing.  Now, I remember this guy’s voice being particularly strong and shiny sounding, like a trumpet hitting a high note.  In fact, as soon as he opened his mouth, I had the feeling he would be a star.  But maybe I was wrong.  Maybe shiny trumpet voices are bad and muscley.   After all, this was niche expertise, from people who know more about singing than I do. 

Next I remembered hearing about someone who saw the DC run of the production and had announced that it was “exactly like the original production” and therefore no great shakes.  Interesting.  More niche expertise, from someone who had actually seen the original production, whereas I had not.  Had I been duped by a knock-off?

Finally, I had dinner with a wonderful actress, singer, and musician friend who confided that she didn’t really like the music in Ragtime.  That she didn’t feel any of the songs really grabbed her.  Aha.  Highly valued niche expertise from a trusted friend.  Suddenly I wondered if I hadn’t gotten it all wrong.

Well dear reader, you’ll be happy to know I have shaken off this self doubt, and chosen not to believe as others do just because they might know better.  Yes, it’s an After-School Special moment, everyone.  But of course that’s not the point.  The point is that there’s something to this belief in niche expertise.  The belief that if someone is more experienced in a subject than yourself, his or her opinions are more valid than your own.  As someone who has watched After-School Specials and Flashdance, I know the experts aren’t always right.  But that doesn’t stop me from seeking out more informed thoughts than my own.  Not a bad thing necessarily, but supplanting my own judgment with someone else’s?  That’s like Junior High 101.  We’re not supposed to do that.  

Still, it’s tempting.  Maybe because we all possess niche expertise in some area or another, and when it comes to our own expert knowledge, we believe others should submit.  For example, due to my particular training as an actor, I believe tortured, emotional, Method-inspired, acting performances have absolutely no place on stage.  (Film’s another story.)  I find them horrible, indulgent, nearly offensive, and I think anyone who is impressed by them is a sucker.  You, no doubt, hold some similarly dogmatic view regarding your area of expertise, be it language poetry, Fantasy Football, neural pathways, or Season 4 of So You Think You Can Dance.  We know how deeply in contempt we hold the fools who don’t know what they’re talking about on our own turf, so perhaps we can be forgiven for not wanting to be a sucker on someone else’s.

And just for the record, I did like the show.  And yeah none of the songs grabbed me, but I liked them when I heard them.  And I still think that one actor has a knockout voice.  Muscley trumpets are where it’s at.  Mark my words.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Top of the Heap

Performance Date: 11.08.09
The Gallery Players

These posts get harder to write each week.  Not because the shows I see lack anything to write about, but because my writings all start to sound the same to me.  For example, here’s the opening bit I just prepared about seeing Top of the Heap at Gallery Players:
“I love musicals.  Not everyone does.  Some can’t get over the and now I break into song aspect.  Me?  I break into song every day of my life so musicals don’t seem so far-fetched.”
Not bad, right?  It’s clever and charming and a nice set up to delve deeper into the show, which I enjoyed.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that.  But for some reason it feels stale, this week, to continue on in this way.  Maybe it won’t next time, but right now it does.  Which makes now a good opportunity to reflect a little bit on what am I doing here?

My secondary mission for this blog is “to discover if it’s possible to write about art without reviewing it.” I suppose it’s debatable how well I’ve kept to this mission so far, but I feel good about how it’s going.  I’ve steered clear of feasting on clever barbs when I’ve encountered something I don’t like, and I’ve mostly kept to my personal experience of a show, rather than to sustain some illusion that what I’m doing is objective reporting.  Good job, Anna, in my view.  But now the question becomes – so what else is there to write about?  When it comes to this Year of Plays, what else can I explore next to positive commentary, benign criticism, and personal experience?

I’m not sure, and I won’t be turning the ship sharply in this post.  But it’s a bee in my bonnet as I move forward.

Now, back to Top of the Heap.  It’s a new musical set in 1955 Brooklyn about an aspiring comedian and his partner who scheme for their big break on a popular, Ed Sullivan-esque variety show.  With that bee still in my bonnet, though perhaps not buzzing too loudly yet, here’s a download from my brain:

  • Cream-puff pastel dresses on cooing backup singer spokesladies.

  • Takes place just as live television is turning to video tape, and makes me think of The Farnsworth Invention (about the previous transition from radio to live TV), even though innovation isn't the focus in Heap.  It has that end-of-an-era feel.

  • Enjoyed sitting next to an old cast mate from one of the Gallery shows I’ve done.  Hadn’t seen him in long time and we talked about Italy.

  • Also hadn’t seen the director in a while, a friend and long-time colleague.  Felt good to tell him I liked the show.

  • Back to innovations – what is it about these seeming miracles of technology that make for such great storytelling?

  • Fantastic lead with a voice that seemed amplified beyond nature’s reason, even though he had no microphone.

  • Blowsy broad of a supporting actress, a little reminiscent of Allison Janney.  Wonder if blowsy broad could be one place I’m headed?
Hm, alright.  End of download.  Me and the bee are gonna discuss it now for a while.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Delirio Habanero

Performance Date: 11.02.09

Teatro de la Luna, at Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

Turns out that this year’s festival coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, and many of the Cuban selections were remounts of successful productions from the past.  All the better for me.  Because the Cuban theater I saw in Havana was slammin’.  (That’s right, I said slammin’.  I’m allowed to use that word.)  Case in point?  Delirio Habanero, a Beckett-inspired fever dream of heartbreak and hope with the city of Havana as its object of obsession. 

Three denizens of a broken and crumbling Havana – a legendary barman of a famed Havana nightclub, and the ghosts of Cuban musical giants Celia Cruz and Benny MorĂ© – careen between yearning for the glorious Havana of old and dreaming of the possibility of a brand new future.  When I watched the show, I was only slightly aware of the political statement it was making.  Instead, I was captivated only by the larger-than-life performances which I found truly superb.  Bold, precise, expressive physicality.  Giant emotional size followed by moments of smooth restraint – like an expert driver screaming past at 200 mph then deftly braking to swing perfectly into a parallel parking spot.  Superb comic timing.  Deeply felt passion.  This show made me wonder if an entirely Spanish language production could make it on Broadway, because that’s where the play belonged.

Each time I think back on this play, however, its political significance holds more and more of my interest.  Especially because I’m still not sure I grasp exactly what that significance is.  It’s sort of emblematic of my entire trip to Cuba.  When the possibility of traveling to Cuba first presented itself to me, it didn’t immediately capture my heart.  I was interested in going – in the adventure and the uniqueness of the opportunity – but Cuba wasn’t a country that held much fascination for me.  And now that I’ve been there, the complete opposite is true.  I now have an endless curiosity about this country – its history, its politics, its culture, its people.  What is it to be Cuban today?  To have the pride of the Revolution at your back and the hard reality of today at your feet?  How do these conflicting narratives play out?  I have a glimmer of an understanding now, but only that.  And there must have been so many answers to these questions in Delirio Habanero, as that is the very friction the play explores.  I wish I could see it again with two years of Spanish under my belt.  Maybe next time, when it comes to Broadway.

Escandalo en la Trapa

Performance Date: 10.31.09
Mefisto Teatro, at Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

Next stop Havana.  The theater festival was amazing.  Just like any other festival only Cuban, which means they didn’t have a program printed until after the festival had begun (bad) and every show I attended and performed in was sold out and given a standing ovation (good).

Escandalo en la trapa by the Cuban theater company Mefisto Teatro was first up.  The story follows a young doctor in 19th century Cuba who becomes the object of affection for all the town’s ladies and one of the young men.  It was performed in a highly physical style reminiscent of commedia or farce.  Lemme break down the awesomeness:

  • The costumes!!  Made of paper, or seemingly so.  Stiff, brown paper, the kind they used to wrap packages in.  Imagine it rolled up into giant cylinders like the big ice cream tubs they use at Baskin & Robbins, or like oversized lampshades, and then imagine them tiered one top of the other to make a corseted dress that telescopes into itself when the actress kneels down.  Or imagine the paper pasted together into rigid suits with waistcoats, ties, and tails and giant shoes.  So that the whole cast – each in their own artfully distinguishable creation – looks like a claymation movie brought to life.  Unbelievable.

  • The movement!!  And then you ask, how can anyone move in costumes like that?  The answer was that they moved with huge gestures of great precision.  The actors must have rehearsed in costume because, in every case, the wardrobe and movement worked hand in hand to illustrate the character beautifully.  An ingenue’s dress bobbles and wiggles in an exact reflection of her foolish, bubbly, girlishness.  Another man’s jointless pants inform a stiff-legged walk that underscores his character’s stodgy old ways.  Brilliant!

  • The genre switching!!  The what??  The gender switching!!  The what??  The genre AND the gender switching!!  Ordinarily I might consider an abrupt shift in tone from commedia-type farce to epic melodrama a mark against a production, but in this case it was so unapologetic, so passionate that I was delightfully floored.  See, turns out the young doctor at the heart of the story is … a WOMAN!  Dun-dun-dun!  And the man who’s been portraying the role gets replaced, on stage, by a woman wearing the same stiff papery suit.  And from that point on, the play sheds it’s farcial, physical focus and becomes a chew-up-the-scenery, woman-and-gay-rights-championing, courtroom drama complete with teary testimonials and a nude reveal!  Respect, ladies and gentlemen.  Respect.

Una Historia de Amor

Performance Date:  11.01.09
at Teatro Trianon, Havana, Cuba

The second night of the Festival I saw Una Historia de Amor, a Colombian (or perhaps Cuban -- the festival materials are unclear) production about a man and woman breaking up.  It was hot.  And by hot, I mean there was no air-conditioning in the theater and it was a packed house.  Add patrons seated in chairs in the aisle, and by the end of the show, you’ve got suffocating claustrophobia.  Thank god the festival gave us fans in our goodie bags or I might have had to commit seppuku.

The unfairness of that scenario, from the actor’s perspective, is that no matter what you do on stage, a large portion of your audience is just trying to figure out when the hell they’re gonna get outta there.  And if you also have a non-representational set design featuring many props, then it’s a sure bet they are calculating the minutes until their escape based on the number of props left to use.  They still haven’t opened the second trunk or used the feather boa – oh my god and there’s still that drum kit - somebody give me air!  It’s horribly, horribly unfair.

So it’s a testament to the production that through the heat, not to mention the language barrier, I still will never forget the lead actress’s firecracker performance.  She had a magnetic pull that was undeniable – and it wasn’t just the fishnets and black vinyl bustier.  Playing a woman (a dancer?) confined to a wheelchair by a broken leg, she emanated an animalistic restlessness that I was grateful to grab onto.  An electric fury roiled beneath her cat-who-ate-the-canary grins, and her every desperate gesture of acting out was genuinely felt and filled.  I learned a lot about taking risks from this actress.  Taking risks and taking space.  That in itself made it worth it.


Performance Date: 10.25.09
Teatro Los Elementos, Cumanayagua, Cuba

Cuba seems like a blurry, surreal dream.  A sleepless swirl of hot sun and muddy rain, diesel exhaust and blue ocean, camaraderie, strife, and lots of gutsy, visceral, expressive theater.

Our first stop was the artist compound of Teatro Los Elementos in Cumanayagua, a rural mountain town outside of Cienfuegos in southern Cuba.  There we were welcomed in the most gracious manner by members of the company and workers on the compound, who soon provided us with the most delicious rice and beans, chicken leg, and guava marmalade an exhausted, travel weary actor could ever ask for. 

Later that night, they gave us a preview of Arcoiris, an original play they were preparing for a theater festival in Colombia the following week.  Two actors performed in the compound’s open-air rehearsal space – an enormous palapa structure with a concrete foundation, outfitted with a lightboard, a handful of lighting instruments, and a dozen or so wooden chairs upholstered with animal hides.  A fantastic space where later we danced, and where later still, in the heat of the next day’s afternoon, a local farmer and his oxen watched us rehearse while waiting for his barrel to fill at the nearby water pump.

Now, contrary to popular belief – particularly in Cuba – I am not Latin and do not speak Spanish.  Luckily, language comprehension isn’t always necessary to understand theater and I believe I understood the play well enough that night.  Archetypically, the piece seemed to be about Satan tempting a Good Man to stray.  I learned later that it also spoke to the prospect of the US lifting the embargo against Cuba, and to foreign influences tempting Cubans to stray from their own culture.  A couple impressions from the play:

  • The rictus smile of the Satan character, wielding two gilded hand mirrors like swords.

  • The writhing, twisted physicality of the Man as he conducts rituals of protection within a circle of vessels, sticks, and lit candles.

  • The stylistic friction between these two characters – the outward, presentational expressiveness of the devil, and the inward, experiential privateness of the man.

Looking back, the lasting impression I have of the evening recalls that same sense of community I noted after seeing Our Town.  The actors and audience – in this case a large gathering families and children from the surrounding neighborhood, members of Los Elementos, and our faction of eight Americans – shared the same space as equal partners in storytelling.  If you take away either audience or actors, the story cannot be told.  At the moment I am quite drawn to theater that embraces this fact and reflects it in its aesthetic.  Not just by breaking the fourth wall – a convention that is often an empty gesture – but by, I don’t know, by really sharing the space with the audience.  Really truly being in the same room as them.  Not just physically, but energetically and intentionally.  

I wish I could articulate it better, and without resorting to such hippie speak, but that’s the best I can do at the moment.  I think my brain is still sitting in a Coco Taxi flying down the Malecon.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Performance Date: 10.23.09
The John Golden Theatre

Allow me to make some grandiose statements I probably have no authority to make.  These are thoughts on various aspects of theater that came to mind during a matinee of Oleanna on Broadway this week. 

CASTING:  Every actor has certain qualities, inherent to their natural selves, that are more or less irrepressible and shine through in any role he or she plays.  True, some actors are absolute chameleons, but most actors aren't and I think that's just fine.  These "essential qualities" are kind of like the top notes in perfume or the flavor profile of a wine.  So whereas a Pinot Noir might be "black cherry and tobacco," Julia Stiles might be "cerebral and confident" and Bill Pullman "affable and self-deprecating."  Part of casting is matching an actor's essential qualities to the requirements of a role.

ACTIONS/TACTICS:  Actions and tactics are tools actors sometimes use when figuring out how to play a scene.  An action, usually identified as a verb, describes what a character is doing to another character to get some type of desired result.  Juliet wants Romeo to woo more strongly.  As an actor, an action I might try is to push away.  That is, I use the sense of "pushing away" to influence the way I speak and behave towards my scene partner, in order to challenge his Romeo to try harder.  A tactic is like the adverb.  I can push away playfully, reluctantly, or aggressively.  Each tactic will have a different effect.

TEXT: A playwright's text is sacrosanct.  Most of the time.  If a character describes herself as "stupid" or someone else as "self-aggrandizing," it is important and must be credibly addressed.  You can decide the comment is a lie or an exaggeration, or you can decide that it's true.  Doesn't matter, as long as your choice is supported by the text, or reinforced by your other choices regarding the text.

So here's where I bring it all together with seeing Oleanna.

In the first half of the play, I felt that these three elements I've just described -- casting, actions/tactics, and text -- were working against one another.  It made me feel perplexed and prevented me from really engaging in the play.

In the second half of the play, these elements were working in concert.  I was much more engaged.  And it resulted in an explosive ending that actually made me feel guilty

It made me feel guilty!  How awesome is that?  I think that may be all I want from theater -- that it be affecting.  In whatever way.  It can be imperfect.  It can be difficult.  Or silly.  But I want it to affect me.  And at the end of the day, Oleanna did.


No post next week as I will be in Cuba -- Cuba! -- with Infinite Stage for some cultural exchange with a Cuban theater company and to perform at the International Theater Festival of Havana.  Pin a rose on my nose!  When I'm back, I'll have plenty of shows to blog about and keep me on track in my Year of Plays!  (Sounds like Pigs...in....Space!!!)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Estrogenius Festival - Week 2

Performance Date: 10.08.09

Manhattan Theatre Source

Last Thursday I went in for an evening of five short plays at Manhattan Theatre Source’s Estrogenius Festival, an annual celebration of female voices now in its 10th year.  A couple things immediately come to mind upon writing that sentence:

  1. Hallelujah for a festival that celebrates female artists, particularly female playwrights.  I’m reminded of a study by a Princeton grad which got a lot of press this year (see NY Times, New York Magazine and LA Times) for demonstrating that female playwrights are indeed discriminated against when theaters select scripts for production.  Brava, Estrogenius, for mounting new works by women writers for 10 years strong.

  2. Manhattan Theatre Source, which has been a lovely artistic home for several theater pals of mine, is in danger of losing their lease.  I feel I would be remiss not to mention that they could use your help.  Visit their site to throw a couple bucks their way.

So after this night of new works by women playwrights, I realized I don’t often think about writing when I go see a play – whereas when I read a play, or work on one as an actor, I think about the writing very much.  Is this true for everyone, i.e. that writing goes unnoticed when seeing a work on its feet?  Is it because the elements of sight, sound, and the energetic presence of people are so dominant?  Or is it because I’m an actor and I pay more attention to the performances, just as my brother is more attuned to the nuances of scenic design?  Or is it a false claim?  Is it actually a reflection of the plays I’ve been seeing lately – mostly naturalistic, not much language-driven stuff – and would I not make such a claim if I’d been seeing more Mamet, Stoppard, or Moliere?   Or highly stylized, text-based, avant-garde pieces?  Yes I suppose it’s all about the lenses through which we see.  The lens we use most often, or the one used most recently, filters our experience.  That is, unless we are aware and can choose otherwise.

So let’s see if I can’t choose to unearth a few writing observations from the Estrogenius plays, even though it wasn’t my focus while watching them live:
  • You can pack a lot of information into a few specific details.  In one play, a mother mentions her son only twice – once to say that he spends all his time lining up his dinosaurs in neat rows, and once to say that he doesn’t like to be touched.  From these two nearly off-hand remarks, I understand her son has autism — a particular that lends great depth to the mother’s struggle in the play.

  • Gimme one reason to stay here…and I’ll turn right back around.  I’ve been taking this acting class lately, and one of the lessons that comes up often is you gotta figure out why your character stays in the scene.  What does she want (preferably from the other person) that keeps her from exiting?  Most of the time, your playwright has given you at least one possibility, if not several.  The plays I remember most clearly from the EstroGenius lineup had characters with multiple reasons for staying in the scene.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Performance Date: 10.01.09
The Public and Labyrinth Theater, NYU Skirball Center

“Mercury is in retrograde” is a real thing, people.  Last Thursday morning someone in my acting class cited “Mercury is in retrograde” as a possible explanation for a fellow classmate’s lateness.  I’d never been quite sure what that phrase meant, so I asked for clarification.  Apparently this particular planetary phenomenon is thought to cause mishaps in communication and disruptions of technical gadgetry.  Trains get messed up, I was told, emails go missing, cell phones break.  That sort thing. 

Well, apparently so.  For that evening I attended the Labyrinth production of Othello and there were some major technical difficulties going on.  The actors, poor things, spent half the first act in near complete darkness.  At first I didn’t quite register it as an error, but I soon decided that Peter Sellars could not have intended for this play to be performed under work lights.  Oh it was sad.  Over and over again, specials would go out on actors in mid-soliloquy, leaving them in the pitch black, mustering all their worth for the task of relaying Shakespeare’s story as if it were a radio play.  Then the upstage work lights come on, giving everyone a grayish halo around their darkened faces, but at least allowing us to see their limbs move.  And onward ho the valiant actors go, maintaining their focus admirably, until hallelujah the lights are restored!  Philip Seymour Hoffman is revealed in all his pale Iagoan glory, and we all enjoy some blessedly visible theater – until once again the lights fail.  Darkness overcomes the stage, work lights come up, and so on.  I felt awful for everyone.

I hate to admit it, but I left at intermission.  I know!  I’m sorry!  It’s terrible, but I couldn’t endure Mercury’s influence any longer.  It was too distracting.  And it was a long play – four hours total, and I lasted two.  Even so, I still found myself thinking of this production for days afterward.  Here’s some of what was trolling through my head:
  • Cell phones are alienating.  Not only when they ring unbidden from the audience, but also when they are used as a device in a modern-day Shakespeare production.  I can understand the logic of using them – we don’t use horse-riding messengers anymore, we conference call and text.  It should make things more accessible.  But I found that watching two actors play a scene on opposite sides of stage, facing the audience and speaking into cell phones (rather than engaged with and speaking to one another) distanced me from the action of the play.  Now that may very well have been the intent, as the production does make use of several other alienating technologies – microphones, blinding flood lights (they were among the few instruments that were working), and a giant television-screen bed.  But I experienced the cell phone thing as an obstacle between me and the story.  And that's kind of a big deal when Shakespeare's language is already a major obstacle for many folks. 
  • Speaking of language, it is one of my greatest sorrows as an actor that people find Shakespeare’s language so obfuscating and obscure.  My boyfriend claims to hate Shakespeare and it kills me.  I guess I felt nearly the same way for a while, until I learned how to play it.  How to unlock the language.  To use the meter, the consonants and vowels, and the imagery to inform the character’s actions and motivations.  How to ride the rhythm of the language – allowing it to carry you forward – so that a long, winding, rhetorical text clips along, revealing itself as a cohesive, comprehensible, musical whole.  The language seems so clear when you know how to play it.  So why is it so hard to convey that clarity to an audience?  Sure, you could say that there are too many “bad” productions of Shakespeare, where the text isn’t treated “correctly.”  But Anna the Good Student thinks she knows how to “do it right” and yet when I rehearse Lady Percy for my boyfriend, I still sweat bullets trying to get him to feel the same vitality he feels watching me do a contemporary monologue.  It drives me nuts.  It’s a puzzle.  I’ll keep working at it.  Hopefully everyone will.
  • I find famous people shiny.  Meaning they literally seem (can you literally seem?) to shine out to me more than average people.  My friends know this about me, that I’m completely susceptible to the specious allure of fame.  So whether it was for this reason or some other that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Phil Hoffman I do not know.  Nonetheless, I was drawn to his every move.

Our Town

Performance Date: 09.30.09

Barrow Street Theatre

It should be said that it is not difficult to make me cry.  I mist up easily and often.  I get verklempt during refrigerator commercials.  I brim over watching flash mobs on YouTube.  And if any actual person so much as catches their throat on an emotional word while I am in their presence, I’m done for.  Once, I scared the bejeezus out of my boyfriend in the car because that ukelele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” came on the radio and I promptly and spontaneously burst into tears.  I mean, weeping, sobbing, snotty tears.  (What can I say?  It’s the song Dr. Greene died listening to on E.R.)  So it’s almost not worth noting that Our Town at the Barrow Theatre made me cry.  I say almost, because while it was unsurprising that I cried, I was very surprised by when.

I should first say that the foundation for tears was laid before I even entered the theater.  I felt a very special anticipation for the play that night.  My friend Kevin felt it too.  In fact, we were so excited – oh boy, the Theater! – that we literally hopped up and down in the lobby waiting to go in.  Yes we are drama school nerds, but word on the street was that this production was good.  And something about believing that this play – a simple classic play written for an empty stage – was going to be done well, got me excited in a very innocent and child-like way.  So when we finally settled in our seats and Kevin, who knows my weepy ways, sang to me under his breath, “You’re gonna crryyyy,” I knew he was right. 

But I thought I’d last more than 6 minutes.  SIX MINUTES, PEOPLE.  That’s gotta be a record, even for me.

So this is the moment I started welling up.  The Stage Manager is laying out the town for the audience, gesturing to various parts of the intimate space and telling them where Main Street lies, and where Mrs. Gibbs’ garden full of corn and peas is, and at one point he says, “We’ve got a factory in our town too – hear it?”  And then he listens.  And we listen.  The ambient rustling of the room quiets.  A collective stillness comes over us.  And we are all sitting there, listening for the factory.  For a good ten seconds.  It was the most pristine, beautiful silence I’d ever heard.  Cue watery eyes. 

It happened again later, when the Stage Manager interrupts his narration to listen for the 5:45 for Boston.  And later again when Mrs. Gibbs tells her husband to come out and smell the heliotrope in the moonlight.  Each time a simple moment of a person sensing, in real time, no rushing.  Each time, I tear up.

Why was I so moved by these moments?  In part it was the simplicity of the action.  How beautiful it can be to simply listen, to smell, to see, and how rarely that seems to happen in modern life.  But I was moved even more so by how well those moments were treated.  How they were given proper time and breath.  And how, in so doing, we as an audience were given space to become complicit in the imagination of the play.  And be united in that complicity.  To listen together, smell together.  Conjure the town of Grover’s Corners together.  It’s one of the most beautiful aspects of Thorton Wilder’s play and yet rarely does it get the kind of follow through it gets in this production. 

The whole thing makes me happy.  Happy that there is theater that makes people hop up and down in the lobby and cry over ten seconds of silence.  Even if it’s only the nerds who do.  Oh boy, the Theater!  I wish all plays did that to me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We Interrupt This Programming...

... For a blog treatise.  Of sorts.

It occurred to me recently that what I’m trying to do with this blog – besides record the shows I see in my Year of Plays – is to discover whether it’s possible to talk about art without reviewing it.  I’m not sure yet whether it is.  In my posts thus far, I’ve tried very hard not to engage in the kinds of criticism one typically finds in reviews, but I haven’t succeeded completely.  And yet I find myself still needing to try.

See, I have a compelling desire to talk about art.  To share what I think and hear what other’s think.  I love having conversations with friends about what movies and plays they’ve seen, what books they’ve read, what other art they’ve encountered.  In these conversations, we are replete with colorful opinions and thoughtful critique.  We are not concerned about sounding self-important, or worried about egos, because the conversation is private and we are among people trust.  So honesty and insight abound.

But the game changes once the conversation goes public.  Once you go public, those conversations become reviews, and the knowledge that other people are hearing this alters the very nature of what is said.  The folks who do the talking (reviewers) start trying to sound clever or wise, or they mince words and whitewash their true opinions.  The folks who get talked about (artists) are subjected to public appraisal, which monkeys with the ego and prevents them from hearing any valuable feedback.  The end result, at least for me, is that reviews are untrustworthy, potentially dangerous, and not very useful – except to get butts in seats.

But I want to talk about art!  With a lot of people!  I want to talk about art with everyone, and I want the conversation everywhere, in private and in public!  Art is important.  And it should be talked about.  I want artists to hear all sorts of opinions and thoughts about their work – because then they will make more art in response!  I want non-artists to hear conversations about art – because then they might make some art of their own!  We need more art!

So can we have a public conversation about art without the entanglements of reviews?  Can we have a thoughtful, critical, entertaining, and honest discourse, without stepping on toes or inflating egos?  If we can, what does that conversation look like?  What do we talk about?  Do we speak only positively or neutrally?  Do we avoid offering any opinions at all?  That seems nearly impossible, and the effort seems bound to produce conversation that is hopelessly bland and inert.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Or maybe the point is not to avoid making judgments, but to alter the way we make them.  Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  At least not yet.  But if it’s possible at all to thread this needle – to speak honestly and insightfully about art, while remaining impeccable with one’s word, while generating material that is still entertaining and useful – I’m determined to find out how to do it.  And this blog is where I’m taking my first stab.

(P.S. – Maybe I’m being to hard on reviews and reviewers.  I’m sure there are many dedicated critics out there who contribute positively to the public discourse about art.  Who manage to check their own egos at the door and who have the guts to stand by their opinions, regardless of how their opinions affect others.  I just know I’m not made out of that kind of cloth.  My ego is both too unruly and too sensitive for such affairs!)

The Harvard Project

Performance Date: 9.21.09
Classic Stage Company

Several weeks ago my friend Peter invited me to see him in a workshop of a play-in-development currently being called The Harvard Project.  He described it as the culmination of five and a half weeks of exploration, during which the artists involved focused very much on process, and not on product.  I believe he intended it as a disclaimer, but in fact it made me even more eager to go.

I love process.  I’m a process fiend.  To me, how a play got made – or a painting, or a vaccine, or a business strategy – is often more fascinating than the final product.  When the final product is amazing, my thirst to know how it was made is even greater.  And when the end result isn’t so great, knowing what went into the process, what someone was trying to accomplish and how, makes the whole experience much more satisfying overall.

As it turned out, seeing The Harvard Project was satisfying on both the product and process levels.  For a piece that purportedly had zero script at the beginning of the rehearsal period (save for transcripts from the historical event on which the play was based), the result was remarkably confident and clean.  There were good performances, beautiful images, funny and moving moments, and a set that had intention and character.  In many ways, it hardly seemed like a workshop version at all. 

And yet I felt like I got to see a good amount of process too.  I guess that sounds like a bad thing.  One imagines a well-meaning friend discreetly squeezing one’s hand at a party and whispering, “Your process is showing.”  But that’s not how I mean it at all.  For a play at this stage in development – with a script all of five and a half weeks old and minimal design elements – you expect to see some threads from the canvas peeking through the paint.  Some gears carefully turning behind the illusion.  To me that’s a good thing.  To me that’s the reason you go see a play in development.  Those are the goodies on the plate.

By way of example, there were two or three points in the play where the action broke from straightforward, narrative scenes into more deconstructed sections that included both abstract movement and text.  In one such moment, three men face forward, delivering simultaneous monologues which repeat in bits and snatches, and during which one man repeatedly crashes backward from his chair as if being punched.  In another such moment, the cast performs a wordless choreography of gesture, each at varying times brushing lint from his trousers, or painfully pulling a string from their throats out their mouths.  I found both these moments compelling because they felt very near to the kinds of improvisations I’ve partaken in as an actor during rehearsal, to the improvisations I imagine did take place in this cast’s rehearsals.  Maybe that makes them moments of your process in showing, but I enjoyed them all the same.  It made me feel near to the piece, gave me great affection for it.  Not unlike the way you might feel meeting an infant just days after its birth.  I don’t know if these process-originated moments will find their way into the eventual finished product of The Harvard Project, or even if they deserve to, but in this incarnation of the piece, they provided an immediacy that really stood out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Memory of Water

Performance Date: 9.10.09
Dragon Productions, Palo Alto, CA

It's Week 3 in this Year of Plays and I'm already realizing how easy it would be to just see well-promoted, well-reviewed Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.  There are so many plays that get "buzz," well-deserved or not, and I am very susceptible to this kind of marketing.  Ooooh, shiny!!  So while visiting home in the Bay Area, I decided to mix it up and see some small-budget theater at Dragon Productions in Palo Alto.  The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson was the evening's fare, a very nice family dramedy that won the Olivier award for best comedy in 2000.

First a word about Dragon Productions.  I remember my mom sending me a clipping from the Chronicle a couple years ago about a new theater company opening its doors in Palo Alto.  I'm glad I got the chance to check the operation out.  Apparently, the woman behind it all is an actor who has been directing and producing plays since 1991, has run Dragon for 8 seasons, and has successfully kept their permanent home (a converted storefront space downtown) operational for the past 4 years.   Color me impressed.  (Wow, did I just write that?  Embarrassing.  It sounds like something someone would say on "Golden Girls" or "Designing Women."  On second thought, maybe that makes me ironically cool.)

But really, keeping a small theater company with its own space running for four seasons in this economy?  That is no small feat!   A cursory look at the show's program (above, it doubled as my ticket) gives a clue of how she does it -- grants,  donors, corporate sponsors, advertising, space rental, wish list solicitation, the list goes on.  This woman knows how to hustle.  What's more, the motto at Dragon is, "If you want to do something amazing, do it yourself.  Don't wait for someone else to give you the opportunity."  And indeed, there she is playing the central character in the night's festivities.  Girlfriend wants to act in meaty roles?  She starts an Equity-approved theater company and does it herself.  Yes, yes, color me impressed.  And color me inspired too.

Lessons and observations from The Memory of Water:

  • A good actor does things one at a time.  She listens, she registers the information, she reacts.  Those three things can happen very quickly in succession, but they do happen one at a time.  It's not always as easy as it sounds.  In the HBO promo I'm in this summer, I recently noticed that I'm actually skipping a step.  I listen and then react -- skipping over the part where I let the info land.  The moment still works, but it's a little sloppy.  Oh well, I guess that's what can happen when you're acting with tennis balls instead of Jemaine and Bret themselves.  No, I will never get over the disappointment of that.
  • I so appreciate great comic delivery and dry, sardonic wit, both of which were nicely on display in this play.
  • I can start a theater company, get it funded, give it a permanent home, and produce great plays with good roles for women.  I know this because I saw someone else do it.  The point of apple trees is not to create apples, it's to create more apples trees.  That is not a non-sequitur.

Coming Attractions:

One more thing I've learned at Week 3 of a Year of Plays?  It's really hard to actually see a play a week, especially when you're traveling every weekend of the month.  So I am not seeing a play this week, which means no post next week.  However, I will make up for at the end of the month when I am doubled up with tickets to Our Town and Othello on back to back nights.   Not too shabby, I tell ya.  There are also several tasty Off-off shows running now that various friends and acquaintances are involved in, so I should be able to keep the nice mix of fare.  Haven't figured out which ones I'll get to see, depends mostly on schedule, but you will find out soon enough!

Friday, September 4, 2009


Performance Date: 9.2.09
Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center

All summer long I’d been hearing that Ruined was not to be missed.  So much so that when I finally sat down for the Wednesday matinee this week, I worried it might not stand up to built-up expectation.  I need not have worried.  Ruined did not disappoint.

As I left the theater, I tried to wrap my head around how they were able to pull it off.  The play is set in a brothel in the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, a country brutalized by years of civil war, and where a woman is said to be “ruined” when she is raped with bayonets, leaving her sexual organs mutilated and her ability to control her bowels compromised.  Not exactly light fare.  To put it glibly.  And yet the play still manages to realize the full spectrum of the human condition.  It is unflinching in its portrayal of the cruelty and tragedy these characters endure, and yet in the next breath, gives endless room for love, humor, and joy.  And it is equally unfailing at every subtle point in between.

How did they do it?  My best guess is that the folks behind this play must have been a very committed, supportive, and collaborative bunch.   I don't know how to achieve that kind of richness otherwise.  As an actor, I find it difficult to stay out of my own way.  It’s a challenge to not let myself off the hook, to stay open and courageous, to explore without knowing where I’m going, to reach for some place new rather than run to the familiar.  And while that’s my own particular baggage, if all actors, directors, designers, and dramatists have analogous six-piece luggage sets of their own – and the smart bet is that they do – then how can any of us get anywhere worth going without the help of our peers?  How can we create something sublime, without a fellow artist to lift us out of our usual patterns?   Yup, a true ensemble is the way to go in my book.

I’m thinking now of August: Osage County, which may have been the best example of ensemble theater I have ever seen (in a commercial setting at least).  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both August and Ruined feature artists who worked closely together for long periods of time before their respective plays reached the public eye.

So what did I learn in addition to this reaffirmation of ensemble?  My bullets of the day:
  • There is nothing better than the moment you walk into a space and see a set for the first time.  A nighttime forest of tropical tree trunks, bathed in a warm and threatening red light -- a great first impression which made me eager in my seat.

  • You can slay an audience with a single line: “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore.”

  • A gesture is made powerful when it is married with clear intention and supported by high stakes.  The persistent strength of his hand clasping hers, arms straight above their heads.  The clean and firm beckoning of his other hand as he pulls her into a dancer’s embrace.  The length of time this takes telling the story of a strong and injured woman allowing a man inside.

  • I love me some African dance.  And drumming, yes please!  And a jubilant curtain call, yes!  That's the tops.
I wish all of you could see Ruined, those of you who haven't.  I'm sure there will be plenty of regional productions in the coming years and the strength of the script alone (from current superstar Lynn Nottage) will definitely make it worth your while.  With any luck, it will be built with the same supportive collaboration I suspect this production enjoyed.  Then again, who knows?  Maybe it was a hot, raging mess and it came together anyway.  Who am I to say?  I'm just a blogger.

Until next time.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Harold Pinter Pair

Performance Date: 8.26.09
The Soho Playhouse (FringeNYC)

Last Wednesday I went to see Harold Pinter Pair, two short works by Pinter (The Lover and Ashes to Ashes) directed by fellow A.C.T. alum Patrick McNulty and presented as part of FringeNYC 2009.

It's my first play of the Year -- and my first post on the blog -- so I'm a little unsure how to proceed.  See, this is not a review blog.  I have no interest in playing the critic -- not after The Edinburgh Disaster of 2008 (see the "Instant Karma" and "Unsportsmanlike" posts from my Anna in Edinburgh blog -- yikes).  I simply don't have the stomach to say critical things about other people's art in public.  I don't know how these New York Times people do it.  I just read an old review for The Vertical Hour while prepping for a scene study class and it was just brutal.  If I were Julianne Moore or David Hare I'd be pissed.  So yeah, not gonna go there.

So where to?  Well what if I just restrict myself to saying nice things?  Because I have a lot of nice things to say about Harold Pinter Pair.  That seems fair.  I can't imagine any artists being upset reading nice things about their production.  Alright, Blog Rule #1: Nice things are allowed.

But what if I don't have anything nice to say?  We'll have to wait until I see a play I don't like to figure that out, because Harold Pinter Pair I really enjoyed.  But rather than worry this to death, why don't I just take a hint from my nifty sidebar over there and write some things I learnedHere goes:

  • I learned that I really enjoy extremely short, poofy, red strapless dresses worn by lovely ladies.  Especially when the hem of the dress rests gently atop a red cloth-covered table under which a lusty gentleman has just descended.

  • I learned how I love to watch an actor play.  And by play I mean when an actor has that little gleam in his eye of a character being totally alive and present.  When he is wholly engaged with his imagination, and yet somehow his imagination includes everyone else in the room.  An actor who is playing is utterly compelling, no matter if she is tearing up the scenery or sitting dully in a chair.

  • I learned once again how effective it is when an actor visualizes the story she is telling as if it's happening right in front of her.  How when she struggles to bring the vision into focus, to see a particular detail, it activates her and affects her fellow actor.  (Note to self: remember this next time you reject using an audition piece because it's a 'story monologue'.)

Now I feel I should say something about directing, particularly since if it weren't for this director being an A.C.T. alum, I might never have seen these lovely plays.  But the truth is, I still have trouble making out what parts of a production are directing and what parts are writing, or acting, or something else.  So I'll just say this -- I spent the majority of that hour and 45 minutes totally involved with what I was seeing, feeling as though I was in good hands, that I would never be bored, and curious to find out what would happen next.

A good start to a hopefully great year!