About This Blog

I really like theatre, and I like writing and talking about it.

This blog is mostly about my relationship with theatre, the moments that make me fall in love with this art form, and the times when we don't always get along.

I'll be writing about things that I like, that I think are good and interesting and want to share. I will probably also write about things that I don't quite get, or think are wierd. I may also write about things that aren't theatre, strictly speaking, because it's my blog and I can.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Things to Pay Attention To

I recently had a meeting with a costume design professor, in which she was wondering what groups or artists currently working I was aware of/influenced by. A named a few; like Boston's American Repertory Theatre, Punchdrunk Theater Company, and Robert Wilson, and the professor suggested a few other groups that she thought I should be paying attention to. One of them was The Wooster Group.

So I started looking for them on the internet, and realized I had just missed their production of Tennesee William's Vieux Carré at REDCAT here in Los Angeles, but it's playing in New York now. The Wooster Group is an experimental theatre company known for use of multimedia (like TV screens), sexuality, mashing up classics, and generally bringing the weird in their shows.

I like experimental theatre, even though it's a total crapshoot (And it's certainly not for everyone). That's the way things go with experiments--they don't always work. But I love seeing people do new things and trying something different.

Here's a nice review in the LA Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/12/theater-review-vieux-carre-at-redcat.html
And an article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/theater/21vieux.html?_r=1&ref=theater

Most interesting is this article in the LA Weekly: http://www.laweekly.com/2010-12-09/stage/tennessee-williams-wired/. Stephen Lee Morris responds to the suggestion that works need bold re-interpretations to keep them from becoming irrelevant versus the idea that works should be seen the way they were intended to be performed by the author. Vieux Carré, however, is not a widely-performed play, so how do you re-interpret something that hasn't been interpreted that much to begin with?

Morris conceded that The Wooster Group's production would not cause significant damage to those unfamiliar with the source material. My question is, is it the artist's problem at all whether their audience is familiar with the source material? Should entertainment experiences come with pre-requisites? I don't think so. (Okay, that was two questions) My opinion is, don't worry so much about whether something is a good version of a particular play, just worry about whether it's a good show.

**PS: Scott Shepherd, should get some kind of MVP award. He just finished playing the narrator of Elevator Repair Service's Gatz!--that means he's the guy who has the entire text of "The Great Gatsby" memorized (See #7 in their FAQ), and now he's in this show, too. Actually, he just got nominated for an IRNE Award in Boston, so that's pretty close.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Scott Shepherd, left, and Ari Fliakos

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011-2012 HD Season at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera just announced which shows are going to be included in it's Live in HD screening series next year, so of course I'm already picking out which ones I want to see.

A new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni will star Mariusz Kwiecien, a handsome young baritone who is already well known for the role. I'd love to see Kweicien, but I think I'll wait and see how the production looks before putting this on in my itinerary.

I know nothing about Philip Glass's Satyagraha, but the directors are Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, so that alone makes it worth my while. Those two are best known for directing the critic-proof musical The Addams Family, but more importantly Crouch directed Shockheaded Peter, so you know anything with his name on it will be creative, stylish, innovative and whimsical.

This is a revival, but those two are also directing a new production of The Enchanted Island, so I may have to see that one, too.

(My feelings are more mixed on Philip Glass; he might just not be my cup of tea. My DVD of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast has an optional track he composed for it, and I don't think the two pieces fit together very well. Interestingly, I was in the play Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread a year or two ago, which still causes me to start chanting Glass-style rhythms when opening the bread box.)

I will probably see Manon just because of Paolo Szot. He is just ridiculously charismatic and engaging to watch on stage. I will never forgive my DVR for failing to tape the PBS broadcast of the final performance of South Pacific.

And of course I'll be finishing out the second half of Wagner's Ring cycle.

Here is next year's complete HD screening schedule. Which ones do you want to see?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Quick Fashion History Lesson: Italian Courtesans

I wanted to talk a little bit about historical reference in costuming, because I had some mixed feelings on the designs of the costumes I saw in Dangerous Beauty at the Pasadena Playhouse. There were some things that were really cool about them, but I found some designs to be inconsistent and overdone. 

The funny thing is, there's another representation of Venetian courtesans in current media which is much more period-accurate: the video game Assassin's Creed 2, and it's sequel, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I know that sounds strange, but it's surprisingly well-researched. 

So let's start with the research they're referencing: below is the most famous period rendering of an Italian courtesan:

This is a sixteenth century engraving entitled "Cortigiana Veneza" - Venetian courtesan - by Pierto Bertelli. It is from Diversarum Nationum Habitus , 1591. There is a copy of it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

These are courtesans from the video game "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood". Modernized, but not too far off, right? They even got the horned hairstyle. In the game, they can be seen wearing the breeches you see under the skirt in the historical drawing (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a decent screenshot to post here).

Angel Reda
Angela Reda
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

One of the Ensemble Courtesans from Dangerous Beauty. This is a more modernized, runway-style on the look, with a very contemporary hairdo. These costumes were interesting, because they doubled as general women's ensemble costumes; they had a hood, and the bodice could be zipped for more or less modesty, and the skirts folded and fastened back to reveal the legs--and while the outer fabric was very beautiful, folding the skirt back revealed much fancier material on the inside. In the preview I saw, the bodice didn't have that pink ruffle on it. I think it may be too much.

In the film version of Dangerous Beauty, Veronica Franco has a release party for her first book of poetry, and shows up in a fashionable female twist on contemporary men's fashion:
Catherine McCormack and Oliver Platt

After being taunted by Maffio, Veronica rips the overskirt off and duels him, wearing something similar to the breeches costume shown at the top. However, I wasn't as thrilled with the overstuffed version of this costume in the musical, which involved a bizarre pair of skinny jeans, with rhinestone knee-pad details, a vine of flowers wrapped around one leg, and partial pumpkin breeches on top.

Bryce Ryness and Jenny Powers
Bryce Ryness and Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

They did do a better job with their interpretation of period undergarments (the Italian women were the first to wear underwear)
Jenny Powers
Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

  Caternia Sforza and Ezio getting it on. Are those boy shorts?

Assassin's Creed took some...umm..."creative license" here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It Was A Show

The title of this post was how I answered my roommates when they asked me "How did you like Dangerous Beauty"?

I'm a big fan of the 1998 feature film starring Rufus Sewell and Catherine McCormack; it's a beautiful film about women's right to autonomy set during the Italian Renaissance. It's very sexy and romantic, and has a strong female lead. For those who don't know the story, it's about Veronica Franco, Venice's most famous courtesan. Unable to marry her love due to lack of a dowry and social position, Franco was forced to learn the trade of the courtesan in order to support her family. While wives were possessions, courtesans were respected as equals, and were the only women allowed to be educated. Franco was valued as much for her intelligence skills as a poet as for her romantic companionship, but was eventually charged with witchcraft by the church.

So the film has been turned into a musical, which is now running at the Pasadena Playhouse, and I went to see it last week, while it was in previews. And like I said, it was a show. It had a script, and songs, and actors and sets and costumes and lights. But I never quite felt like everything came together. There were some nice songs, but none particularly memorable. The costumes (by Soyon An, and Emmy winner for "So You Think You Can Dance") are beautiful and creative, will many modern fashion-runway touches. However it's very clear which costumes they spent all their time on, so they look out-of-place next to the ones that were rented or pulled from stock.

I eventually realized that the reason this show didn't charm me as much as the film (despite having the same writer) was that the show's pacing and the director's emphasis. The thing that sets Dangerous Beauty  apart from other love stories is that Franco isn't any weepy heroine--she's in a very unique position, as she can have any man she wants, she just can't marry him. As long as he can afford her. But the show rushes through the complex social issues, and spends too much time dwelling on the "I love you but we can't be together" stuff.

Interestingly, I found myself most drawn to the character of Maffio, played by Bryce Ryness (Broadway's Hair), a man in a position similar to Veronica's--he's low-born, and survives by his art, as long as the nobles continue to find him entertaining. He is charmed by Veronica and asks her out, but she turns him down on the basis of "neither of us can afford to do this for free". He is bitter at the rejection, and turns first to drinking and antagonizing Franco, then joins the church and becomes the villain of the show's climax.

This was the most interesting dramatic arc in the show. I actually have to say the musical handles his transition a little more deftly than the film did. His pain and bitterness is more palpable, so I really felt for Maffio, but also realized he could not be redeemed.

Bryce Ryness, James Snyder and Megan McGinnis
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

Jenny Powers
Photo by Jim Cox, Pasadena Playhouse

Monday, February 14, 2011

London Theatre In Your Hometown

I've talked a lot before about going to the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD screenings, but they're not the only ones doing them. The National Theatre in London is doing broadcasts of their shows as well to movie theaters across the country. Their season thus far has included a production of Hamlet which was well-reviewed, but there's lots of good Hamlets around, so I decided to hold out for some unusual fare.

Luckily, NT will be delivering next month with the debut of a new production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle (best known as a filmmaker, his works include Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours).

If that's not exciting enough, they're doing something really interesting with the casting of the leads. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are starring in the title roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. Yes, both of them. As in they are alternating the roles. Miller is pretty well known to US audiences for his roles in Trainspotting and the TV show Dexter; Cumberbatch is not exactly a household name (yet), so do yourself a favor and track down the BBC miniseries Sherlock he did this past year with future Hobbit Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch played a modern-day version of the detective--I think the show ran on PBS Mystery in the US, and it also has a cool online element which ties into the use of blogging in the show's plot.

Frankenstein opens in London in a few weeks and runs through April. The live screening will be in March, and I was very excited and curious to see how they would handle the issue of which cast to run. Well, prayers answered, they're screening it twice, so you can see either one you prefer, or (if you're a giant nerd like me) both.

The screening schedule is:
17 March: Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Victor)

24 March: Jonny Lee Miller (Creature), Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor)

And full details are available at: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/62808/productions/frankenstein.html

Now, if you'd like to watch some British theatre without even leaving your house, I found this article on Playbill.com today about downloading productions from www.digitaltheatre.com. I unfortunately can't check the link out on this computer, but I'm very keen on seeing their production of Into The Woods, as Playbill.com had posted a gallery of photos when the production was running, and it looked like there was some interesting stuff going on. So I'll see for myself later, and let you know how it works!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Value of Criticism

As predicted, most major news outlets released their reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on Tuesday. I'm not going to re-cap them, you can find them anywhere on the internet.

Of course, the producers decried their actions as "not cool!" As a theatre artist, you would probably expect me to side with the show over the critics; but I'm also a theatre consumer, so I align with the critics based on the value of the service they provide.

The point of theatre criticism is not to record for the annals of history the official word on the quality of a show. Reviews certainly don't decide whether a show will live or die--panned shows will still prove popular with audiences, or fare well in regional and community theatre.

Theatre criticism exists to help the consumer make an informed decision on how to spend their valuable time and money. So I think it's totally valid to release reviews of a show like Spider-Man which, for months, has been charging full price for audiences to come see performances. It's been running since November, for crying out loud, and many people suspect that they'll keep pushing back "opening night" until everyone's forgotten they haven't had one yet.

At my current professional level, I find myself yearning for the validation of criticism. Most Los Angeles critics overlook the technical elements of a show, and focus on the acting and writing (and summarizing, of course). Criticism is difficult to take well, because most people take it to extremes; it's either "eff those guys, I'm awesome, they don't know what they're talking about" or "oh my god, they're right, I suck, I might as well end it all right now." And of course, as Anton Ego so keenly observed, most critics get off one finding the most eloquent ways possible to verbally ream their victims.

The most difficult thing to take away from a well-balanced, at least slightly thought-out review is "does this guy have a point, and if so, what can I learn from it?" I know too many people who react to the slightest bit of criticism with "this guy's a hack, we're awesome, this show is perfect", and I often find myself thinking "well, no, it's not perfect".

If a review's purpose for the audience member is to help them choose what to see, its purpose for the artist is to help them grow and improve. If you don't take an honest look at your flaws, how will you ever improve them?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Supply & Demand

While I'm at it I wanted to jump on this bandwagon: Speaking at a conference about new play development at Arena Stage in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, addressed the problem of struggling theaters. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he said. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

Now, I work for a tiny theatre company trying to establish a foothold in the over-saturated Los Angeles Theatre community. I agree, there's a lot of theater going on around here, and it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Most L.A. theater companies exist for one of two reasons:

a) because someone came up with one good idea, started a company for the purpose of putting up that one show, and then don't do another one for ages
b) as a showcase to get picked up for TV and film work.

Once you weed out those, what you have left is companies like mine that just love putting on good shows. We are also why you'll never be able to decrease supply, even in tough economic times; because people love to create art. No matter if you're living in poverty or the middle of war, humans have always still gotten together and acted out stories, or sang songs, or found one piece of charcoal with which to scratch the contents of their soul down on something. Even when there's no one around to see, artists will keep going.

As I started to get into in my last post, there's a huge disparity between the people who make theatre, and people who go to see it. A friend of mine who's in New York now reported back on his experience seeing American Idiot (he didn't want to miss Billie Joe Armstrong, who had joined the cast for a short stint), and commented how both glorious and bleak it was to see something as angry and rough-edged as Green Day's music put in a format peddled to suburban tourists. I remember that the theater I interned with in college, though popular, struggled with new or edgy material because the audiences wanted to see something comfortable and familiar, like Oklahoma or My Fair Lady.

I'm not sure what it's going to take to get audiences excited about new theater, but even if all audiences ever want to eat is MacDonalds, we're going to keep on making foie gras.

A Peculiar Financial Interest in Being Mocked

"If most theater artists and producers are intensely protective of their shows, those at “Spider-Man” have a peculiar financial interest in being mocked."

The above quote links to an article from today's New York Times. It sounds like while the producers are enjoying the "any publicity is good publicity" philosophy, The artists involved (see Julie Taymor's reaction to the criticism at the end of the article) seem to cringe a bit more.

 The show's notoriety is putting butts in seats, but it's important to care whether your work is good. If you don't, seriously, head home. There's a professional opera singer whose blog I follow who obsesses over each performance; she's constantly concerned with whether she did her best in each performance, and is devastated if she flubs a note. She sees it as a flaw, but I see it as a virtue. The priority needs to be that the audience sees the best possible version of the show for their money every time, which is why it's so disdainful that the Spider-Man producers are charging full-price for tickets to what are essentially dress rehearsals, and sucking up the mockery as good advertising.

You'll actually probably see a fair number of critics releasing reviews after tomorrow, even the show is still technically in previews for another months. The show finally has an ending, and supposedly there will be no further substantial changes to the show. This week was to be the official opening before they pushed back by another month, so while critics are still far from a consensus on what appears to be a finished show that refuses to open, we'll see who continues to hold off until they make things official.

Another quote from today's NYTimes article jumped out at me: "Michael Cohl, the lead producer, said in an interview. “What I know is that people are talking about ‘Spider-Man’ to what seems like an unprecedented degree.”

Isn't that what I said about Elevator Repair Service's Gatz! a few months ago? Yup, I did.  Notice Point C in the linked post. Yes, theater can be critically praised AND polemic AND get people talking. Of course, Spider-Man reached a lower common denominator by appealing to people who have heard U2's music and seen a Spider-Man film (I'm not counting on them having read the comic book), whereas Gatz! appeals to people who read novels.

Ok, maybe I'm getting a little sarcastic about the American arts consumer, but there's a big disparity between people who create theater, and people who go to theater. Maybe I'm just not willing to admit to myself that Spider-Man is what people want to see, but it's current success may change when the reviews finally start coming out. To quote producer Elizabeth I. McCann the NYTimes article for one last time:

 “But at some point, I think, people are going to say that the emperor has no clothes where the so-called musical spectacle of ‘Spider-Man’ is concerned, and the adult audience will start to lose interest.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

La Fanciulla Del West

I know I promised more Dracula, and I'll get back to the vampires soon, but I wanted to talk about this show before it was too long gone from my memory.

Last week my opera-going companion and I went to the re-broadcast of The Metropolitan Opera's La Fanciulla Del West. We missed the live broadcast due, but this ended up being a good choice. It ran in the evening (as opposed to the early mornings of the live broadcasts), and was therefore much less crowded, and we got to sit wherever we wanted (we arrived late-ish to Don Carlo, and got stuck with the chump seats down in front).

I'm not going to comment too much on the show itself, the Met puts on top-notch work with the biggest stars, and they were performing Puccini's favorite of his own operas, so there's certainly nothing to complain about (ok, well some people complained that Deborah Voight was clearly pacing herself, and was therefore off near the start of the show, but my ear is not skilled enough to comment).

What I did find interesting was the way the relationship between the romantic leads, Minnie and Dick Johnson (Marcello Giordani), grew as the show went on. How many operas are there where the lovers merely catch a glimpse of each other, or in some cases only see a picture of each other, and they're suddenly bonded in this deep and unbreakable love.

In Fanciulla, Dick and Minnie met out on the road a couple weeks before the action of the show. They hit it off, but nothing really came of it. Then he turns up in her saloon, and over the course of the first act they slowly flirt and get to know each other better. Minnie admits that she doesn't think much of herself, but Dick reassures her of what he sees in her: a big, warm heart, and the face of an angel. It was really nice to see a show where the leads have a reason to get together, other than that the show says they must.

My companion and I were amused by the between-act interviews with the cast, conducted by Tosca star Sondra Radvanovsky. The most common question was "is it hard to get into character playing a cowboy"? All these men, especially the Italians, came of age in the era of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. Every one of them wanted to be John Wayne as a kid! These guys spend most of their days at work in tight and funny hats--they must be thrilled that their kids finally think they're cool for once!

I also had the very strange experience of getting into an argument about the Transformers movies while at the opera. It started because we were talking about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (and what theater fan/comic book nerd isn't?) One of the main complaints coming from people who have seen the show (and then tweeted or blogged about it or whatever) is that it's hard to tell why the action is playing out in that particular way. It made me think of my reaction to the recent Transformers films: "Why is winning this fight, and why?" Action should be clear, whether on stage or on film. You can't just have a lot of stuff going on.