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.