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.