Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Behanding in Spokane

Performance Date: 03.03.10
Schoenfeld Theatre

Speed-blogging (also not-really) Post #6: A Behanding in Spokane

As you know, one of my aims here is to see if I can write about plays without reviewing them.  And by reviewing, I mostly mean criticizing.  I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna – on the contrary, I believe healthy criticism is essential to art.  It’s just that it’s so easy.  It’s so easy to talk about what you don’t like, and feel smart and funny doing it.  And because it’s so easy, I have often neglected to spend time exploring the other aspects of art that perhaps I did like, or was interested by, or that reminded me of something.  So the non-review bent of this blog is an attempt to correct that knee-jerk response in me, and perhaps encourage other knee-jerks like me to do the same.

And I think that’s a good thing.  Because if it weren’t for my commitment to non-review plays, I might have stopped thinking about A Behanding in Spokane weeks ago, and missed an important insight I finally had that kinda makes me want to see it again.

So I’ll say it plainly – I was not initially a fan of this play.  In truth, it kind of dumbfounded me.  And the rest of the audience seemed to adore it, which just dumbfounded me further.  And honestly, since seeing the play two weeks ago until about 20 minutes ago, I could not get any further than that.

But 20 minutes ago, I sat to write this post and thought about two images from the play that stuck with me.  One was a detail in the set, which depicts an old, run-down hotel room.  I noticed, and admired, while watching the play that the scenic designer had chosen to present the room as though it had been sawn in half.  The playing space was entirely realistic, but along the proscenium and downstage edge of the stage, you could see a crumbly cross-section of the hotel room’s walls, ceiling, and floor – the wooden studs and joists within the plaster.  And around that cross-section was empty space, so that this broken-off piece of hotel room seemed to float within the confines of the actual stage.

The second detail was also design-related.  After the first act, a ratty red velvet curtain comes down in front of the set.  Sam Rockwell’s character walks out, wearing his beat-up bellman/night reception uniform, and delivers a monologue to the audience, in front of the curtain, lit by a follow spot.

In contemplating these two images, the word vaudeville finally popped into my head.  The crumbly set that emphasized the proscenium, the ratty red curtain, the beat-up bellman’s vest, the follow spot, the monologue to the audience.  It was all vaudevillian, in a faded sort of way.  

And that’s the lightbulb.  Vaudeville.  All the stuff I didn’t get, all the stuff that dumbfounded me about this play – I now believe it was doing it on purpose and it was doing it with vaudeville in mind.  I would need to go back to see if that lens truly changes my perception (and reception) of the play, but considering I completely missed that element the first time around, at least consciously, I can’t with good conscious conscience say I remain “not a fan.”  

And that never would have happened if I hadn’t forced myself to think my beyond my first knee-jerk response.  Pollyanna or not, it does feel good to not be such a knee-jerk sometimes.

Venus in Fur

Performance Date: 03.02.10
Classic Stage Company

Speed-blogging (not really) Post #5: Venus in Fur

So remember how I wrote that Arthur Miller plays are like Fibonacci spirals, with the protagonists marching inward and inward towards definite ends that feel impossibly small?  Well David Ives’s new play Venus in Fur also reminds me of a Fibonacci spiral, but one that moves the opposite way.  It begins with a premise that is small and limited, but then it proceeds to open, over and over again, towards limitless possibility, ratcheting itself up and up with every turn until you are towering with it on the precipice of your own suspended disbelief.  Sounds pretty dramatic, huh?  Well dramatic is Venus in Fur in a nutshell.

Let me first get something very important out of the way.  The lead actress in this play, Nina Arianda, is absolutely phenomenal.  Fuh-nomenal.  She blows the lid off the place.  I haven’t seen an actress this committed, this compelling, this willing to leap into the abyss since…since…nope, I can’t even think of another performance to compare it to.   She’s wiped my memory clean.  I know I get easily excited about things, but really.  This girl ain’t no joke.   

For starters – and to fully digress from Mr. Fibonacci and his spiral for a moment – it’s a monster of a role.  She plays a seemingly hare-brained actress who arrives late to audition for a fed-up, intellectual playwright; and yet, as alluded to earlier, all is not as it seems and the hare-brained actress reveals herself to be much, much more.  It’s a frighteningly intelligent script and the role demands nothing less than the complete suite of actress ability – clownish comedic talent, animal sex appeal, terrifying dominance, genuine vulnerability, and girl-next-door charm.  At first I considered it a winning lottery ticket – how lucky is this girl getting to show herself in so many lights? – but I quickly realized how unfair that is.  Any lesser actress would have crumbled under this role’s burden. 

But you know what?  Why put her on a pedestal?  She’s a young actress, just like me, not far out of grad school, just like me.  Maybe Ms. Arianda did crumble at first – because what actress wouldn’t?  But if she did, she clearly overcame it, dusted herself off and tried again.  Or maybe she didn’t crumble.  Maybe she approached the role methodically, attacking it one aspect at a time, deciphering it moment by moment, bird by bird (see writer Anne Lamott).  Or maybe she just played.  Maybe she just made a big ole make-believe mess, crayons and finger-paint flying everywhere, until finally she and her director brought out the 409 and edited it into shape.  Any or all of these are possibilities.  And it doesn’t help me any to believe I couldn’t do what she did, now does it? 

Okay, now I really didn’t intend for Fibonacci to be a false start to this post, but in returning to the idea, I see that a Fibonacci spiral isn’t really the right metaphor.  A cyclone is more apt.  The play pulls you in at ground level to a playing field with limited scope – airhead actress meets frustrated playwright – and while you think oh I know where this is going, you don’t mind because the dialogue is good and the performances solid.  The first turn of the cyclone is predictable – he lets her audition and surprise! she is remarkably good – but again the dialogue is engaging and the performances believable, so you’re still along for the ride.  And now there’s this tension between the characters that seems to have lifted the play off the ground a little. 

The play continues this way, making one turn and then another. And each time three things happen:

1) The scope of the playing field widens – oh my god we’re going to go there?
2) The commitment of the actors digs in even deeper – we’re going there, but I totally believe it.
3) The tension ratchets up – I’m totally believing this and man I feel dizzy!

And so it goes.  Round and round the widening gyre, the play flings you up and out with every turn.  But the center maintains its hold – that is, the writing and the performances are so strong they keep you from flying off into outer space.  It’s one hell of a ride.  And what’s more, the ride ends before things fall apart, leaving you feeling like you’d stand in line again just to go another time around.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Lie of the Mind

Performance Date: 02.27.10
Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row

Speed-blogging Post #4: A Lie of the Mind

A pawn shop rabbit warren of wooden furniture.

Ghostly lit figures performing eerily beautiful Americana music and live sound cues.

A suite of memorable performances, both varied and uniformly strong.

Another way of saying that: each actor brought his or her uniqueness to the plate, and swung hard.

Painful and uncomfortable, as all Shepard plays are, and performed by feeling actors – yet not a tear in my eye.  Makes me think that when I cry at movies, theater, or TV, it has less to do with substance and more to do with form.  The right chord progression in a bad musical will choke me up, but excellent performances of Shepard’s strangely detached characters bring no tears, though they may move me more.

Makes me appreciate director Ethan Hawke.

Next to Normal

Performance Date: 02.27.10
Booth Theatre

Speed-blogging Post #3: Next to Normal

I was genuinely engaged by the narrative of this pop-rock musical about a family affected by one character’s battle with bipolar depression.  Which is such a pleasure because can you imagine how much of a train wreck it might have been to explore a potentially psychotic mood disorder with the same instrumentation used on American Idol?  But the show manages the juxtaposition well, maintaining complexity in its narrative while benefitting from the accessibility of its score.  Some particular highlights for me:

-        The seductive and mysterious presence of the actor who plays the son, hanging from the pipe framework set, belting it out with a perfect pop-musical voice.

-        The success of the understudy who went on as the father after brushing past some initial nerves (belied by quietly delivered solos in first number).

-        The palpable sense at intermission that there were not a few folks in the audience who were finding it easy to relate.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Next Fall

Performance Date: 02.24.10
Helen Hayes Theatre

Speed-blogging Post #2:  Next Fall

Oh my god oh my god oh my god.  The flood of tears.  The continuous, streaming, river of tears.  But also the laughter.  Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion, says Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, and I can relate.

As I've said before, it’s not hard to make me cry and that the presence of tears on my face does not always indicate that I am watching something of quality.  However, I’m pretty sure that Next Fall was amazing.  I say “pretty sure” because I became so emotionally involved in this play, I don’t think I can be a good judge of its merit.  I just sat there in the third row, staring up at Patrick Breen’s loveable, laughable, scraggly little face, and his skinny legs and knobby knees, and thinking things like: god isn't it so wonderfully awful being human?...oh why do we have to lose people we love?... we're all gonna die someday and it's so painful and so funny at the same time.  Yeah I was pretty far gone.  But I loved it, and particularly loved Patrick Breen.  I couldn't clap hard enough or high enough at the end and I really wanted to catch his eye and non-verbally thank him for his performance.  So funny and heartbreaking and honest.  So human.

I should also say that the play is largely about faith -- as in Christian, as well as "leap of" -- and it handles this very complex, personal, and often opaque subject with incredible insight, compassion, and wit.

Now go see it and tell me if I'm just a sucker or something.

The Tempermentals

Performance Date: 02.22.10
New World Stages

I think I’ve gone a little nutso.  Ever since January I’ve been about three plays behind in my Year of Plays, and it’s been making me anxious.  Now no one besides myself is holding me accountable to any sort of schedule with these plays.  But I’m a Virgo and an ENFJ (as is Barack Obama, aren't I swell) which means I can create sizeable anxieties over small commitments and I can do it all on my own, thank you very much.  So I was anxious, and to quell my anxiety I stacked up on theater tickets.  And, well, I went a little overboard.  The result is that I’m seeing six plays in nine days time.  Nutso.

So to make my life a little easier, beginning with this post we shall commence a brief period of speed-blogging.  Six brief jottings – two a week for three weeks.  You’ll be happier, I’ll be happier, it will be great.

Speed-blogging Post #1:
The Tempermentals.

I had no idea what I was going to see, but it was theater on a Monday night which is rare.  I thought perhaps it was a cabaret actually – something Michael Urie (of "Ugly Betty" fame) threw together for fun with some friends.  Instead I was very pleased to encounter this great little play about the formation of the Mattachine Society (one of the earliest gay activist organizations) in 1950’s Los Angeles.

I don’t watch "Ugly Betty" so I wasn’t familiar with Michael Urie and was a little cynical in my expectations for the night.  But he was fantastic.  Charming, present, real, funny, talented.  And all this while employing an Austrian accent.  Not bad.  What he made realize is this -- people are people, and have been so throughout all time.  Just because something is a “period piece” doesn’t mean that people didn’t slouch or sigh or slump or roll their eyes.  These were the details that made Michael Urie’s character so real to me, even in the supposedly more composed, suit-wearing era of the 1950's.

Now this goes contrary to what a lot of actor training programs teach.  These days a lot of us are taught to rid ourselves of “fidgety” habits in favor of a more “grounded” and neutral physicality.  There’s good reason behind it – actors usually fidget because we're uncomfortable on stage and don’t know what else to do.  When we remove those gestural crutches, however, we're forced to connect more deeply to the material and can make cleaner choices about how to pursue what our character wants.  But removing the “fidgeting” can be a bit of a baby and the bathwater situation, where actors end up stripping themselves of the ability to make characters seem like real people.  I've definitely been guilty of it, and it's nice to be reminded that it doesn't have to be that way.  Now, let me be clear (Obama reference - my we're just so alike!), I’m not recommending that we return to the post-Brando phase of acting where mumbling and picking one’s nails passed for technique, nor am I eager to embrace Tudor queens who sink into their hips like valley girls.  But Michael Urie’s performance reminded me that as long as you do know what you’re doing on stage, there’s no need to throw the baby out of that tub.