Thursday, January 28, 2010

FELA! The Musical

Performance Date: 01.13.10
Eugene O'Neill Theatre

In the lobby, I hear music coming from the theater and I think maybe I’m in the wrong place.  Did I perhaps wander into a concert venue?  I check the sign next to Will Call – FELA! – nope this is the right place.  Did I get here late?  Has it started?  1:45pm.  Fifteen minutes early for the Wednesday matinee.  Hmm, okay.

I walk into the theater and now I understand.  It’s a party as soon as you enter.  Live music is coming from a band on stage – African drums, jazz horns, and something electric rolling together in a forward-moving syncopation.  Women in short, ornamented skirts stand near the wings, rolling their hips and popping their behinds to the beat.  Men in leisure suits and fedoras saunter about, take a stroll down the catwalk that extends from the stage along one wall of the theater.  The house itself is decked out too.  Projections of newspaper headlines mix with murals and masks on every wall.  Strings of lights are hung from the ceiling all the way into the balcony.

I have entered The Shrine, the program tells me.  Fela Kuti’s Nigerian hot spot of the late 1970’s.  The bar is open, I’m further informed, and I am welcome to drink in my seat.  Okay, I see.  We’re trying to create something a little different here on the B-way today.  Alright, I’m feeling it.

The show begins and the actor playing Fela addresses us exuberantly as patrons of his nightclub.  I enjoy his tight-voweled West-African speech.  It’s as staccato and musical as Fela’s songs.  And I’m enjoying him, our Fela.  I’m way up in the balcony but his charisma is reaching me.  I’m guessing this is how the real Fela became such a legend and political icon.  He had things to say, and talent, but he must also have had charm.

The lights are still on in the house and I suppose I should have taken this as a clue.  Because before I know it we have arrived at audience participation time.  Everybody on their feet.  Everyone get up.  We’re going to learn how to move our hips.  Yep, that’s right.  This Wednesday matinee audience of blue hairs and tourists is about to learn how to pop a booty. 

The reluctance is palpable.  Especially up in the thin air of the balcony.  We’re a little more exposed up here.  Not as many people.  The dancers and musicians aren’t so close.  It’s a little harder to argue that we’ve been taken over by the rhythm or the moment.   I’m torn.  I really want to get down with this.  If I were down in the orchestra among the masses I’m pretty sure I’d be full-on rump-shaking, even though I’m here alone.  I mean, I could use a good rump-shaking.  Up here in the balcony, though, I’m in the first row.  Everyone behind can see me.  I’m not sure I want to give them all a show.  Which is strange because I rock out on the cardio machines on the gym all the time.  Full on dork disco moves on the arc trainer and everything.  Don’t seem to care there.  For some reason I’m caring here.

Thankfully, two lovely women behind me are extremely ready to make this happen.  They are on their feet and whooping, hips rocking around the faces of their clocks, I’m sure, though I don’t turn around to look.  I use their enthusiasm as cover and try to get a little groove on.  All I can help thinking though is how I wish I’d come here on a Saturday night.  When the audience might be a little more tipsy and, well, younger.  Maybe a little less white.  No offense to my father’s people, but I’m pretty sure I’m looking at a couple busloads of shocked Oregonians down there.  No, wait, look.  There are a couple of them doing it up.  Okay cool, it actually looks like people are trying to give it a little something here.  Doing their best.

Which is good because the performers in the show are definitely giving it up.  I’m really enjoying it.  The guy playing Fela is hypnotic.  So are all those ornamentally-skirted backsides up there.  And I think I'm getting a sense, maybe, of what it might have been like in 1970’s in Nigeria.  What the import of these songs are.  I’m getting a sense.   I'm feeling I can guess at how the defiance, pride, and subversion of the lyrics might have fed people.  How Fela’s lyrics – coupled with this driving mix of funk and jazz and African chants, coupled with Fela himself – might have provoked a release in people.  Caused in them a need to act.  An explosive need.  Yeah I’m getting a bit of a sense of that.  I’m feeling I can guess at that right now.  Yeah, I’m feeling it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Duke of MIlan

Performance Date: 01.11.10
Red Bull Theater

I went to see a staged reading of The Duke of Milan at Red Bull Theater on Monday night.  Even with the talented cast, a staged reading (which, per union rules, has limited rehearsal and requires actors to hold scripts in hand) of this lesser known Jacobean play didn’t really provide me with enough art/craft/process meat to chew on as I usually do in this blog.  Fortunately, there’s still plenty to write about.  Because how many of you did I lose with the word Jacobean?  

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Unless you are a specific type of theater, literature, or history nerd, the word Jacobean probably induces a near total shut down of sensory perception.  I say “lesser known Jacobean play,” you fall asleep with your eyes open.  I, however, like to pose as this type of theatrical and literary nerd.  I’m weird like that.  But the truth is that aside from the later Shakespeare plays, I don’t know very much this period in English theater.

Let’s play a game.  I’m going to write down everything I think I know about Jacobean tragedy and then I’m going to Google it and see if I was right.  I promise not to cheat.  Jacobean tragedy is dark, bloody, and gory, with lots of killing.  There is a great deal of betrayal, revenge, madness, and even incest.  Other words that come to mind are ornate and twisty, and it makes me think of the colors black, gold, and red.  I see lots of tall sharp collars behind women’s heads, and men who could probably be teleported to the low, gritty, crime-infested underbelly of Guy Ritchie’s modern day London and no one would notice.  People would just think they were violent blokes who liked to wear tights.

Now to Google.

Okay, not bad.  Although I can’t find any scholars who describe Jacobean drama as “ornate and twisty with lots of black and gold,” my impressions don’t seem to be far off.  So my next question is – why aren’t we all getting down with our Jacobean selves?   Doesn’t bloody revenge, madness, and betrayal seem like a rollicking good way to pass the time?  We like it in our cinema, so why don’t we see more of it on the stage?

But maybe this line of questioning is off base.  After all, Red Bull Theater has shot to prominence in NYC over the past five years as a theater company specifically focused on presenting Jacobean plays.  Their productions of The Revenger’s Tragedy and Edward the Second both enjoyed successful extended runs in Off-Broadway houses.  Clearly they must be doing something right.  They must be serving an unmet, bloodthirsty need in the theater-going public.

Still, there’s something fusty in me that suspects – and then resents – a general lack of appreciation for Jacobean drama.  I think it’s because of my love for Shakespeare.  I don’t really associate Shakespeare with all that dark, gory, thugliness, but he did write in that era and my resentful suspicions must really be in defense of him.  I love Shakespeare’s plays because when I speak the words of his characters, they trigger in me feelings that are very human and have clear emotional logic.  His characters make sense to me on an empathic, human level, which I believe is entirely due to the words and rhythms Shakespeare gives them.   I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think depicting empathetic humanness through language was the concern of many other Jacobean playwrights.  They seem to be focused elsewhere.  Perhaps on depicting a type of despair in the human condition, on depicting the bloody unfairness of it all.

Maybe that’s the disconnect – if there is one.  Maybe it’s easier for folks to connect with four hundred year old plays – with the “old timey” language and costumes and customs – when that human empathy is front and center.  Maybe it’s harder to stomach the old timey-ness when it’s all serpentine plot and bloody dark revenge.  Perhaps audiences prefer their revenge straightforward -- not so ornate and twisty (ha-HA!).  But as I say, I’m talking out of turn here.   I don’t have a lot of Jacobean play-going experience to draw on.  Looks like I’ll have to check out Red Bull’s Duchess of Malfi in February to see what I can learn.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last Cargo Cult

Performance Date: 12.13.09
The Public Theater

Oftentimes you hear a director or filmmaker say, “Well, what I really am is a storyteller.”  And to that I say, “No you’re not.”  I get what they mean, and they’re not wrong per se.  But to me, a storyteller is a person sitting in a chair telling you a story.  And that’s it.  No other actors, no jump cuts or soundtracks.  Just the person, the chair, and what they say.

By this definition, Mike Daisey is a storyteller par excellence.  His recent work, The Last Cargo Cult, features Daisey seated behind a desk, on which are a few sheets of yellow paper and a bottle of water, and that’s it.  For the whole show.  All two and a half hours.  And from this comfortable perch, Daisey tells us a rather uncomfortable story about our culture’s relationship to money.  It’s thoroughly engaging, funny, and significant, and I encourage everyone to go see it.  He’s going on tour.  Check your local listings.

It takes a certain talent to reel an audience in with just your words.  My boyfriend and I took note of this after attending a Moth-inspired birthday party a few months back.  All the guests were asked to bring a story to share, and the best one belonged to a friend named Brian.  His was a long and outrageous tale about exploring Disneyland in an altered state of consciousness while on a high school field trip.  It would have been a good story coming out of anyone’s lips, but Brian made it a work of art.  Rather than go the obvious route and deliver his nefarious account with bombastic showmanship, Brian spoke quietly at first.  He sat there with a soft look in his eye, as he conjured the images from his memory and set about describing them to us.  He took his time, but not unduly.  He offered detail upon detail, and in so doing captured nuance and tone.  But most of all, he allowed the memory of the event to affect him in the retelling of it.  So that as the story progressed, we too felt the exhilaration, the wildness, and the fractured absurdity of his journey, as if it were in fact happening to us.

That’s not easy.  It takes confidence.  How many times have you tried to convey a story that you know is hilarious or otherwise incredible, and yet you find yourself skipping over things, rushing it along?  You get skittish when your audience doesn’t immediately respond the way you want them to, and you give the story short shrift.  Your fear gets the better of you and disappointment wins the day.  Not so with Brian.  He took the risk to soften up and take his time, confident it would pay off.  Of course, he had told his tale before and knew what parts to enhance or leave out, an advantage over us skittish story-rushers.  But that is part of the art as well.  Trying again after you flop the first time.  Honing the story over time.

Mike Daisey, of course, enjoys all the same advantages as Brian in The Last Cargo Cult, and more so.  He’s a storyteller by profession and crafts his monologues for performance over long periods of time.   While maybe a little less thrilling than the high-wire act of informal storytelling, the overall effect of Daisey’s expertise is one of relaxation.  He sits in his chair behind the desk, flips over a yellow sheet of paper (serving more as theatrical convention than crib notes), opens his mouth, and you immediately know you’re in good hands.  Which is helpful when you’re simultaneously getting the rug pulled out from under you regarding our collective faith in the abstraction we call money.

I guess what really fascinates me most about storytelling, though, is that it’s an act of mutual creation.  I’ve written about this idea before, in my posts for Our Town and Los Elementos, so it’s clearly an important concept for me.  In storytelling, there are two imaginations at play, the teller’s and our own.  And there’s this double-translation that happens – sounds a little far out, but follow me.  An event happens to the storyteller, which logs in her mind as images.  She then translates these images – her imagination – into words.  We hear the words, and our brains translate them back into images – our own images this time, our own imagination at work.  And it is actually the experience of our own imagination that is so exhilarating when we hear a story.  But it’s an experience we could not have had without the storyteller.

This is exactly what happens when we read a book.  Or see a painting.  Or engage with any art.  The artists help us experience our own imaginations in ways we would not be able to without them.   And yes, this includes directors and filmmakers.  So I guess they are storytellers after all.  Go figure.