Tuesday, February 26, 2008

*Miss Saigon* at Lewis and Clark High

Feb. 28-March 1 and March 6-8 at 7 pm
Visit www.tigerdrama.com

It's the Arts Lead in Thursday's *Inlander.* Bobo had a fun time twisting the story's angle from "Look at all these amazing logistics!" to a plea for the value of arts education in general and this area's several big high school musicals in particular.
He also had fun creating a risque lead that will anger Baptists everywhere.

Oops, this new format obliterated some of the sidebar links and self-description. Been waiting FOR MONTHS AND MONTHS to merge this blog into the brand-spankin'-new *Inlander* Website.
The bells and whistles of which will, at this rate, apparently arrive sometime after Bobo starts using a walker.

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reading lists and Pulitzer gossip

Michael Phillips, formerly theater critic for the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune (and a bunch of other papers before that) and presently film critic for the Trib in Chi, told me three weeks ago in Pasadena that *August: Osage County* by Tracy Letts (*Bug*) is "just the sort of play that tends to win the Pulitzer." And the man's words carry some weight: He was on the Pulitzer jury three times, chairing it once.
*Osage* is a three-hour examination of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family whose patriarch has gone missing. Terry Teachout in the WSJ called its entire first act a pretentious piece of exposition that could and should have been cut.

One of Bobo's L.A. writing instructors: Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times, formerly of the Village Voice; really insightful and meticulous; chaired the Pulitzer committee this year (I remember his saying that David Lindsay-Abaire was one of the five). He brushed off my oh-so-clever question about revealing this year's winner, but did say that there was "quite a bit of divergence of opinion" among the five jurors this year. Hmmm ...

Other stuff Bobo wants to read. (Can he borrow your copies?)

Conor MacPherson, The Seafarer -- guys get drunk on Christmas Eve; since it turns into a Faustian bargain, can you guess the identity of the bad guy?

Christopher Shinn, Dying City -- the twin brother of an Iraq war widow's dead husband shows up, unannounced, at her door; two actors play three roles

Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice -- an elevator with rain is the only way to travel to and from the underworld; a retelling of the Orpheus myth, only this time Eurydice isn't so sure she's like to return with him -- she might prefer staying with her dead father instead. Inspired in part by the death of Ruhl's own father from cancer.

David Harrower, Blackbird -- Ray sexually abused Una when he was 40 and she was 12; 15 years later, they meet again (Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 05; London's Albery Theatre, Feb 06; Manhattan Theater Club, April 07)

Charles Busch, Our Leading Lady -- about the actress who was onstage the night JWB assassinated AL at Ford's Theater

John Patrick Shanley, Defiance -- part 2 of the trilogy that began with Doubt: now we're at Camp Lejeune in N.C. in 1971 -- racial tension during the Vietnam War

Caryl Churchill, A Number -- What if you found out you'd been cloned and there were more of you? (opened at the Royal Court in Oct.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Assassins" banned at Arkansas Tech


Administration, citing massacres at Va. Tech and No. Illinois, allowed a final dress rehearsal only -- and only with wooden guns cut in half. Yet violent movies and frat-boy parties continue to be shown/held on campus.

*The Clean House* opens Thursday at Interplayers

by Sarah Ruhl
Feb. 28-March 15, 2008
directed by Karen Kalensky (Glorie in the recent *Grace & Glorie*)

With Silvia Lazo, Spokane's noted Brazilian jazz singer, in the role of Matilde, the housekeeper who tells long jokes in Portuguese and who's in search of the perfect joke. Lane is a doctor who's too busy to clean her own house. Problem is, she hires Matilde, a cleaning woman who doesn't really like to clean. When Matilde meets Lane's sister Virginia (who's depressed, and obsessed with cleanliness), guess who actually does the cleaning of Lane's house.
Meanwhile, Lane's husband Charles is leaving her for a woman named Ana. And literal, physical messiness morphs into emotional messiness. We all carry baggage; sometimes that baggage gets dumped all over our nice, tidy lives.

Ruhl's play was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2005. Ruhl, 33, has written Passion Play and Eurydice since; her little girl Anna Beatrice is almost 2 now.

rest of the cast: Selena Schopfer, Anne Selcoe, Jackie Davis and Gary Pierce
Visit www.interplayers.com or call 455-PLAY.

one pic of *The Night of the Iguana*

at www.flickr.com/photos/45455900@N00
at the Civic through March 8
Melody Deatherage and Ric Benson as Maxine and Shannon
revised review in Thursday's Inlander


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sondheim and Rich in Portland, March 11

Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich are engaging in public chats in five West Coast cities. A week ago, tickets were sold out in L.A. but still available in Santa Barbara.
The former NY Times theater critic is a big fan -- he once characterized *Gypsy* as the American musical theater's version of *King Lear.* For his part, Sondheim says that Rich asks interesting questions.
Details will accumulate as you and I add them.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

opening-night review of *The Night of the Iguana*

Dark Night of the Soul
on Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through March 8

What people do when they're trapped reveals character. In Tennessee Williams' *The Night of the Iguana,* the threats are loneliness, poverty, cynicism and spiritual emptiness -- and a seedy Mexican resort offers no apparent escape other than the pleasures of the flesh.
In a solid, sometimes uneven, production that nonetheless illuminates most of Williams' emotional high points, director Marianne McLaughlin has created a dark night of self-examination for three lonely souls -- earthy widow, generous artist, self-castigating minister -- in the unlikely environs of the Costa Verde Hotel (and at Spokane Civic Theatre through March 8).

Ric Benson has the exasperation and wheedling of Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon down without catching the self-disgust. With suspenders dangling and a plaintive tone, Benson projects the sleaze of the used car salesman or televangelist, but not the corrupted fleshiness of the man who's sought out young girls and booze as a means of escape. His cries of anguish and "Great Caesar's ghost!" were unconvincing; later, angrier outbursts (flinging his clerical collar into the bushes, a re-enactment of the contempt he felt in the pulpit for his well-fed parishioners driving around in their "shiny black cockroach sedans") were more convincing.
Since we discover that Shannon, from an early age has associated sexual pleasure with punishment, it's not surprising that he's tormented, histrionic, torn between the promptings of the flesh and the spirit. But with biceps tensed beside his clerical collar and false black shirtfront -- and with his face frequently turned, full of questions, up into the light -- Benson sometimes embodies the spiritual/sexual divide in Shannon's soul. Of course, it doesn't help that in Williams's overwritten second act, Benson is saddled with speeches spelling out what the iguana symbolizes.

In a promising Civic debut, Manu Peters presents a Hannah Jelkes who's less ethereal, less spinsterish than the norm. There's a kind of moral earnestness and idealism that emanates from her dignified line delivery that anchors this production's stance against despair. It's the evening's best characterization. Often Peters is helped by McLaughlin's direction (a parallel appearance with Shannon -- Hannah in her artist's frock, the reverend re-frocking himself, both of them girding themselves against their fears).
There's pain in her face as she listens to her grandfather recite poetry or to Shannon's complaints against God. Hannah spends much time caring for others; without being fussy about it, Peters uses the stage business to make her character seem filled with empathy. Breathing deeply to calm herself, clutching a beautiful but flimsy robe around her, Peters stands up to Benson's seductions of mind and body, charting her own course in a world that doesn't much care for sketch artists or "a minor-league poet with a major-league spirit." Hannah needs to stand up among the epicures as a pillar of rectitude and self-reliance; Peters has the simple dignity to do just that.

Melody Deatherage is surprisingly sensual and earthy as Maxine the horny widow. She unbuttons her blouse, paws Shannon's chest and -- at first sight of others' misforutnes -- throws her head back with a cackle. Released from a loveless marriage, she's betting that cuddles and rum cocoas will help stave off the gulf in her soul. But she leaves Shannon's rejections -- push-backs and insults, like a warning that she can't afford to be a "sexual snob" anymore -- awkwardly underplayed.
Judi Pratt, meanwhile, has a nice comic turn full of throaty hauteur as the leader of the puritannical pack stuffed into Shannon's tour bus and none too happy about it.

Set designer Peter Hardie spreads cane chairs across the verandah of a flimsy hotel. Jungle sounds emanate from just past the walkway there, and rivulets of water drip from tin roof's grooves during the first-act-ending (and, since this is Williams) symbolic downpour.
The opening guitar-violin-crickets-harmonica sequence is only the first instance of crisp offstage sounds credited to Bryan D. Durbin and Steve Fisher along with Becky Moonitz as music consultant.
Costumers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless do their usual capable job -- with the ornate flimsiness of Hannah Jelkes' last-act Asian robe a real highlight -- though in the early going, there are rather too many men running around in off-white suits.

Chris Carbis' elderly poet chimes in like a chorus, emphasizing how we should strive against the "betrayal of despair," about how so much of life involves "bargaining with mold and mist." Most of us strain to find ways of evading despair and instilling life with significance before the long decline toward death. In the final debate between Hannah and Shannon -- and in the final image of a character thrown back on slender resources -- McLaughlin's production of Williams' final masterpiece depicts our struggles against despair often enough to prompt thought long after the jungle sounds have faded away.

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*Gypsy* (a [trumpet] blow-by-blow review)

through Sunday, Feb. 24, at the INB Center

A solid production of a show that's nearly 50 years old and doesn't feel it -- at least the resolution is mother-daughter and not just another case of happily-ever-after lovers.
Kathy Halenda indulges in some stand-and-belt Miss Merman-style moments, but she lets the creeping sadness of both act-ending numbers gradually accumulate: We're not just hit over the head right away with "she's nutso."
"Let Us/Me Entertain You" is affecting in how it charts the growth of Mama Rose's two little girls — and in how Mama Rose herself, in staging vaudeville shows, stubbornly has no imagination or flexibility at all. One letdown is how much cutesy-widdle-kiddies cuteness you have to suffer through in this show. (I half-agree with the impresario in this show who grumbles, "There's only one thing I like less than kids -- and that's kids onstage.")
Halenda has great energy in "Some People," with the physical frenzy counterweighted against Sondheim's rapid-fire lyrics, so that it was never overwhelmingly frenetic at any one moment. This is an "I want" song with gusto, and I loved the stealing-of-Papa's-gold-plaque moment at the very end: We sympathize with Rose's anti-mediocrity fervor, but we also see that's she's cheap and petty.
Not enough exuberance in the "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" number for my taste. Rose has just found out that they made it (sort of) on the Orpheum circuit, so it's the pinnacle of her dreams — but eight crazy kids doing rapid choreography and door-slamming tricks in the small space of this production's slide-on set piece made everything feel too contrived. It wasn't happy, it was scripted happy, which is different.
I love the "Little Lamb" number — our first insight into Louise/Gypsy's mind. Done while cradling the stuffed sheep, of course. Missy Dowse, with her slumped shoulders and poor posture and glasses and pigtails, really looks the part of the ugly duckling — which of course makes the butterfly's hatching from the chrysalis (forcing a metaphor here) / emergence as Gypsy in a ball gown all the more impressive.
Dowse and Ruby Lewis, as June, delivered "If Momma Was Married" too much to an invisible Mama, at least in my opinion. An opportunity was lost here to suggest a little sisterly closeness.
Director/choreographer Sam Viverito kept Louise seated on a barrel too long during "All I Need Is the Girl." The sequence wasn't as effective as Danae Lowman and Greg Pschirrer more than four years ago at the Civic, when Kathie Doyle-Lipe choreographed a kind of parallel ghost dance to signal just how much Louise wanted to hit the road and join Tulsa's show.
For the Act One closer, Viverito chose a low horizon and huge cloudy sky to universalize Mama's longing. The boys quit, June has run off -- suddenly she turns to Louise as her meal ticket. The moment came too soon to register fully, though Halenda made a wonderful choice of remaining stock-still and slumped for about two minutes straight just after receiving June's goodbye letter. As Herbie, Nicholas Hamel also conveys much in his stillness. He's a calm, patient Herbie who adores Rose despite her many flaws, and he hangs in and hangs in with her until, in that Wichita bump-and-grind joint's dressing room, he just can't take anymore how Rose is pimping out her own daughter — and he explodes, and it's all the more effective because his Herbie has been mild-mannered until now.
"Everything's Coming Up Roses" was good but not great — we got Rose's exaltation, her stubborn refusal to give in, but somehow it lacked any might-go-off-the-deep-end mania and sense of tragedy. It was poignant -- we sensed that things were coming up roses for Rose, but not for Louise or Herbie — but it wasn't gut-wrenching.

The interlaced-arms threesome of Halenda, Dowse and Hamel was irresistible in "Together, Wherever We Go": She's taking them down a hopeless path, and they and we just don't care. It was infectious and buoyant. (Even if the "Toreadorables" number takes the cutesy vaudeville shtick one song too far.)
Three strippers with a "gimmick" -- always hilarious, somehow oddly self-assertive. Compare flaming gay men: Society demeans people like them, so they will respond by flaunting it right in society's collective faces. Straight men lust for what strippers have to display, then dispose of them like used Kleenex — so even strippers in the '40s just put it right out there. Bend over and blow that trumpet, baby, and make it phallic; satisfy and undermine desire at the same time. Rachel Abrams made much of sticking that trumpet right where the sun don't shine just before bending over and mouthing it, then blaring an off-key scream from between her legs. Abrams, with her thick thighs and rounded belly and big bazooms, was all snarling attitude. And she was a great Mazeppa.

The show's resolution came way too quickly; seemed almost like an afterthought.
Halenda made a great choice to start the "Mama's doin' fine ..." sequence from upstage center and stride boom-boom right toward the audience, then totter and weave as she loses grip on reality.
But after Rose's nearly going nuts, it was a quick entrance for Gypsy; "If I coulda, I woulda"; back to sanity, mom and daughter too quickly embrace, walk off arm in arm, with Rose casting a last longing look back at the world of the theater.
Choreographed curtain call ended with Rose in a spot, one arm extended toward the light, in a symbolic but probably too hokey here's-how-we-remember-Rose moment.
But what a show. They'll still be playing it another 50 years from now.

The Color Purple (musical)

There's a short review of the L.A. production in the comments to the Feb. 7 "Drinking out of a fire hose" entry (below).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tom Armitage to receive Arts Educator award from Intiman

One of our own is getting honored in Seattle -- a good excuse to take a trip over, eh?
Tom Armitage, longtime theater instructor at North Central High, will be honored at Seattle's Intiman Theater on Monday, March 17, at 5:30 pm.
Ruben Van Kempen, for whom the award was named, was the first recipient; Armitage is just the second. It's given for using arts ed to make the community a better place -- and in Tom's case, well deserved. Congratulations!
Visit www.intiman.org.

Best of Broadway Spokane 2008-09 season

Well, Hormel Will Be Happy ....

Best of Broadway theatergoers will be eating “ham and jam and Spam a lot” when the Monty Python musical drops into the INB Center for eight performances. You’ll have to wait 15 months, however: King Arthur won’t use the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch against the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog until May 2009.
Just six weeks before the presidential election, the Capitol Steps will spoof D’s and R’s in their annual visit (Sept. 20).
For three weeks this October, chandeliers will rise and crash as a girl in a wedding dress is torn between hunky Raoul and disfigured Erik in The Phantom of the Opera.
When Oprah builds a musical about sisterhood, Africa and abusive husbands, audiences will come. The Color Purple (Dec. 10-14) reunites Nettie and Celie, but only after time and geography intervene.
The sun will come up tomorrow — but for one night only — when Annie returns next Jan. 31.
The joint will be jumpin’ when American Idol‘s Ruben Studdard sings “The Jitterbug Waltz” and other Fats Waller tunes in the 30th anniversary tour of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (March 19-22, 2009).
Defending the Caveman, Rob Becker’s 1991 solo performance about relationships, shows for two nights at the Bing next March, right when Studdard’s in town. While walking around a “faux Flintstone” set, Becker jokes about feminists, erogenous zones and the different ways that men and women use the remote control.
Visit www.bestofbroadwayspokane.com.

The sked:

The Capitol Steps Sat 20 Sept 08
The Phantom of the Opera Oct. 8-25, 2008
The Color Purple Dec. 10-14, 2008

Annie Sat 31 Jan 09, two perfs
Ruben Studdard in Ain't Misbehavin' -- March 19-22, 2009
Defending the Caveman March 20-21, 2009, at the Bing
Spamalot May 5-10, 2009

Obviously, Nov. and Jan.-Feb. and April are all almost entirely open, so more shows are coming, just as High School Musical was added for this season.
Jack Lucas of WestCoast Entertainment announced that "these are all Equity shows." Bobo has confirmation from the Phantom press agent that that show, at least, is Equity. No confirmation yet on the others.

Impressions from the annual announcement luncheon on the INB Center stage:
WestCoast brought in the touring Phantom's press agent and lead singer, Steven Tewkesbury (sp.?) direct from Omaha (where it is for a month now) to hype it and sing "Music of the Night" -- and boy, does that tenor have range. Abbey Crawford pointed out "some pitch problems" but was duly wowed, as was Bobo along with other audience members -- and she added that he has a bit of otherworldliness in his voice that's suited to a character who's, well, more than a little freaky.

On the promo video:
A match strikes. "Feel the glow of desire." Candles. Zoom back for LOTS of candles. "Discover a passion unrivaled, as music and costume and romance combine in a single blaze of glory." Yadda yadda yadda.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh himself in voiceover: The silent film lacked romance (closeup of Lon Chaney's freak-face). Sir Cam yammers on about how it's the same show anywhere as it is on Broadway, "and NOT simply an exploitation of our success."
"Nothing substandard."

Anybody ever wonder why the Michael Crawfords of this world wear a half-revealing half-mask, but the show's logo (and this luncheon's white-chocolate dessert) feature a full mask?

Phantom has made $3.2 billion; by comparison, Jurassic Park, about half that.
This is one of three national touring shows, in addition to the 20-year-old B'way production.
This one's the youngest: opened 15 years ago, Dec. 13, 1992, at the Fifth St. Theater in Seattle.
Omaha now, then San Antonio, then Minneapolis; eight weeks in Wash DC -- they average about 12 cities a year -- then Costa Mesa, Saskatoon (!!), Sacramento, Seattle and Spokane.
Press agent Bill Miller makes the point that early audiences came for the spectacle, but repeat audiences come for the story: a man who's passionately in love and doesn't know quite how to express his emotions. Been there, done that; so it does have its appeal.
Tewkesbury spanned several octaves. I was struck this time by the lyrics' emphasis on coming over to the dark side. Kinky.
The Color Purple video:
A point made by Ben Cameron when I was in L.A. -- and there's much more from him,once I type up my notes, about how to promote theater from the former head of TCG -- is that video of stirring actors and performances only works with frequent theatergoers; the seldom or never types have no frame of reference for that. But if you want to appeal to theater newbies, emphasize in your marketing the emotional impact that shows can have on individual audience members.
And we saw almost none of The Color Purple itself, until a bit of the big self-loving aria for Celie at the end -- instead, about 20 multiethnic people in closeup and in raptures. (Even Gloria Steinem.) Oh, and a bit of Oprah too.

Annie looks not to have the same cast as last visited here. Two performances only.
Ain't Misbehavin' doesn't open until Nov. and we get it in March, so it was all look-at-Ruben-win-on-American-Idol footage.
Best joke from Defending the Caveman (on how women speak 7,000 words a day, but men only 2,000):
"Women will call each other up and make a date to ... talk. (beat) If a guy calls me and says that he 'wants to talk,' that means I owe him money."

The Spamalot video spoofed a nerdy theater historian. Hey, juvenile humor and lots of leggy showgirls -- my kind of show. We actually got a can of "Golden Honey Grail Wicked-Awesome Spamalot Collector's Edition" SPAM in our swag bags. For real.

Each $1 of BoB tickets generates $3 in local economic impact.
In 21 years, 1.7 million people have attended BoB shows. But Lucas also mentioned $7 million in ticket sales, generating roughly $21 million over the years in economic impact. But wait a minute. Did I mishear? 1.7 mill folks spend $7 mill on tix? That's only $4 a head. That's a whole lot of papering the house. What up with that?

Back to Phantom press agent:
Says Tewkesbury is one of the most "vocally strong" Phantoms he's witnessed. Amen to that.
Lots of Raouls work their way up to be Phantoms.
The presently touring Carlotta gets to play that role on B'way for eight weeks, then return to this same tour.
Bill Miller, AWA Touring Services, also handling national tours of My Fair Lady and Chorus Line

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

review of "Dickie & Babe: The TRUTH About Leopold & Loeb"

playing at Hollywood's Blank Theater Company through March 16

Thrill Died

In "Dickie & Babe," too much evidence nearly derails the lurid appeal of a sociopath’s sex life
by Michael Bowen

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Teenagers testify from beyond the grave!

Facts can guide us toward the truth, or they can get in its way. In his new play about the notorious Leopold and Loeb kidnap-murder case in 1924 Chicago, Daniel Henning falls into the trap of documentary drama — piling on the evidence — especially in his 90-minute first act. But Dickie & Babe: The TRUTH About Leopold & Loeb (at Hollywood’s Blank Theater Company through March 16) provides fascinating insights into untrammeled egotism — and into the ways a homophobic society pushes some gay men into self-destruction.
Henning (who wrote and directed this drama, and who also acts as the Blank’s artistic director) has devoted years of research into posing a this question: Why would two superlatively, precociously intelligent young men throw away three lives by murdering a little boy?
Just for kicks. Yet in Henning’s formulation, there’s also a hint of self-punishment. Richard “Dickie” Loeb and Nathan “Babe” Leopold were hot for each other but had to keep it hidden. Since they were “getting away with” their sexual desires, why not get away with the perfect crime too? Except that they didn’t get away with either one and didn’t really want to.
Henning’s main revelations have to do with the degree to which Loeb was a sociopath and about the precise nature of the quasi-sexual relationship between “the Boys.” The sexual tension simmers when the two boys discover their love of power exchange, with Babe as the submissive and Dickie as the dominant. (Considering which was the master and which was the slave, maybe this duo should be billed instead as “Loeb and Leopold.”) As Babe, Aaron Himelstein — dour, self-possessed, yet diminutive and willing to obey — is most effective when displaying calm in the face of Niven’s jangling energy.
Directed to play Dickie as maniacal in his pursuit of pleasure, Nick Niven ratchets his hyperactivity meter up to maximum and then keeps it there for the duration. At first, all his attention-getting is engagingly childlike. But Niven’s frenzies are too big for the Blank’s small space and simply too manic for the role. As director, Henning maintains a hectic pace. Niven and Himelstein spin their chairs, veer close to each other’s desire, exchange longing glances with their backs literally up against a wall. Projected slides label the many scene shifts. And Henning knows some tricks of theatrical economy: He overlaps interrogations and lands zingers at the end of his play’s many blackout scenes. He also splits up the defense’s summation by Clarence Darrow (Weston Blakesley) — yes, there were celebrity lawyers and “Trials of the Century” even back in 1924 — with four flashbacks, each one humanizing the Boys and making the case for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Besides the two principals, six actors play 27 roles, taking breaks while seated in the rear-stage darkness like some kind of jury.
In interviews, press releases — and even in his play’s title (“The TRUTH”) — Henning stretches his claims of accuracy too far: Even a two-and-a-half-hour play necessarily compresses events and refashions imagined conversations. He’d do better to claim that he’s approximating what happened 84 years ago. But Henning and his cast are still asserting that a one cost of a repressive society is the self-hatred instilled in its most reviled, rebellious individuals.

Monday, February 11, 2008

review of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"

Sanguine Outlook

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson lures us in with dumbed-down history and then delivers a satirical sucker punch

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson upends American history texts, casting our seventh president as a rock star and pointing a middle finger of blame directly at the doofus readers of those textbooks: us.
Even at first glance, it’s an anachronistic play. Robert Brill’s set combines rough-timbered Western saloon with museum of natural history and the steel light trusses of arena rock. Groupies wear coonskin caps; TV talk show interrogators are dressed like riverboat gamblers.
Alex Timbers, directing this world premiere (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 17) from his own script, couples revisionist American history with apolitical emo, attempting to herd both the politically astute and the politically unwashed into the same satirical corral.
It’s misleading to call Bloody Bloody a musical; instead, in scenes ranging from Second City silliness to Swiftian rage, it’s a political satire peppered with songs.
In a series of comic skit-scenes with the lurid quality of a graphic novel, the satire of Timbers and of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman grows along with Jackson’s emergence from backwoodsman to populist president, slowly gathering allusions to our current pro-war president along the way,
As young Jackson, Benjamin Walker bestrides the stage like Ashton Kutcher, a self-confident airhead ready to proclaim empty ideas and not at all surprised to find others agreeing with him. He’s, like, you know, just totally pissed off at the British and the Spanish and those damn Injuns.
But it doesn’t work to treat Jackson as sometimes like George W. Bush and sometimes not. Like 43, 7 suspended liberties and fought a war against a terrorizing enemy. But unlike our current president, Jackson aligned himself with the common people (not just the wealthy) and evidently grew capable of self-analysis and remorse. (Jackson adopted an orphaned Indian child; faced with an Iraqi child in tatters, GWB would avert his eyes and walk away.)
Like Jackson himself, Bloody Bloody grows up over its duration. The first few times that Jackson (Benjamin Walker) tells the Spanish and his political enemies to fuck off, it’s refreshing: There’ll be no politicians’ bullshit from Old Hickory, nosiree. But after half an hour of it, it seems juvenile.
One risk of this show’s arena-rock and emo trappings (loud chords, blinding lights and the slitting of self-pitying wrists) is that some audience members will respond with whoo-hoohs of laughter at this bewigged fellow here and that atrocity over there until the sarcasm is spread scattershot over anyone and everything. The groupies who just want to have Jackson’s baby and the citizens in the street who couldn’t formulate an informed political opinion if it was handed to them — these mindless members of the American dumbocracy are mirrors of us, of the American public today. Timbers and Friedman want to plunge a knife of vicious satire straight into our hearts, but they sheathe it in deliberately hokey musical numbers (“Populism!” early on) and head-banging escapism.
The contrast seems likely to leave good-times theatergoers too far behind to grasp the show’s political anger.
Seldom have I gone from disliking a show so much in its first half-hour to admiring the political insights of its conclusion. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, like the man himself, grows up, leaving juvenile over-simplifications behind in favor of a willingness to accept self-blame. The whoo-hooh rock fans are missing half the point: BBAJ is bloody good and bloody sad.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ghost-Written — a review of the Wooster Group's *Hamlet* in L.A.

review of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet
by Michael Bowen, 8 Feb 08


PLAY REVIEW With an audio-video onslaught, the Wooster Group defamiliarizes Hamlet and dethrones its text, revealing the limits of what any of us can do MICHAEL BOWEN

A silver and black techno-set with video screens flickering with static. Live performers gyrate in sync with grainy, 40-years-ago actors emoting on the giant video wall behind them. The Wooster Group’s Hamlet (at Redcat through Feb. 10) conjures ghosts and dismembers our familiarity with Shakespeare’s tragedy, and it isn’t for beginners.
The Richard Burton-John Gielgud television-film of 1964 is this production’s master image. Actors scuttle forwards and backwards across the stage like stop-action crabs, approximating the film’s close-ups and wide shots. Director Elizabeth LeCompte’s blaring-music, stuttering-video direction humbles viewers into realizing the many, many ways in which wrongs may be almost, not quite, set right.
From tinkling jokes to frightening thunder, Wooster’s sextet of sound and video engineers sample other screen versions of Hamlet (Bill Murray and Charlton Heston are summoned to this production’s seance, as is Gielgud himself) as well as any DJ aiming at an immersive experience.
Wooster’s rendition is electrifying, compelling us to see how acting and technology mediate our responses to Hamlet’s conundrum about the impossibility of just revenge. Yet tying this production so exactly to the blocking, gestures and histrionics of the Burton-Gielgud version risks making irony a dead end. On the one hand, it’s haunting to see Scott Shepherd mimic Burton’s gesticulations, as if all the other ghostly Hamlets were standing behind the screen and sawing the air in a line extending all the way back to Richard Burbage. On the other hand, continual irony — look at the actors mirroring their forebears — runs the risk of weariness.

The Wooster Hamlet has its flaws — a baby doll Ophelia, an effeminate Laertes, emotional high points like the Hamlet-Horatio friendship underplayed with world-weary resignation. But LeCompte directs with insight. She prunes the text and lays bare her devices by having Hamlet direct the omissions (“skip this next bit”) as the video wall flutters in fast-forward. During the play within a play, Hamlet himself speaks the victim’s and revenger’s lines, doubling the vengeful intent. After overhearing Claudius’ confession, Hamlet removes his sword, with Claudius reacting as if he’d seen a ghost; at the end of the closet scene, Gertrude’s kiss doesn’t seem like incestuous desire for her son so much as a desperate plea for affection. Laertes’ lament for his dead sister, all screamo into a microphone, overlaps with Hamlet’s in the graveyard ruminating on death: Yorick’s and his own.
Defamiliarizing a play so obsessively sometimes affects the head without hitting the gut — and the Wooster approach is so intent on distancing us from naturalistic acting that sometimes it distances us from natural emotion.
Shepherd’s Hamlet, under LeCompte’s direction, doesn’t seem bent on discovering the right way to gain revenge, or on how to do a good thing in a world gone wrong. Instead, he’s a prowling, weary, robotic man, all brittle intellect, trying to solve a puzzle for which he’s not sure he has any passion left. It’s a Hamlet for our age, unlike its stage forebears, predestined to be smeared away by time.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

later, Day 3, NEA in L.A. Wooster Group's Hamlet

midnight, Feb. 7, Bonaventure Hotel, downtown L.A.
Just back from the mind-blowing Wooster Hamlet, in Redcat, right next to Disney Hall. Have to write a review by noon tomorow so can't stay here long.
Silver-black industrial set with several video monitors, static-y. Cast of nine.
Hamlet in black Ren. costume, slouches on a wheelchair, stares into video monitor. Entire production more or less performed in sync with back-projected 1964 Gielgud-Richard Burton "rehearsal" Hamlet in New York; In effect, that production became the ghost of that one. Samples of video from Branagh, Zeffirelli and some Russian Hamlet also projected.
Scott Shepherd, red haired and scraggly, understates and growls the title role. Actors move robotically backwards and to and fro, to imitate the closeups and long shots of the 17 cameras (themselves fragmenting the action) of the '64 original broadcast.
In postmodernist fashion, all the artifice laid bare: costumes changed in full view, parts of furniture draped around heads; much good pruning of text (2:45 in all) with, Hamlet often pausing to nod to the sound booth (very elaborate, four guys at about eight light boards, best environmental sound I have ever heard in any theater anywhere) to say something like, "Skip this bit." Not a beginner's Hamlet: meant to be caviar. Very fast paced, creepy in spots, swordfight amazing; Ophelia too doll-like in early going. Laertes effeminate. Much insightful direction by Wooster's Elizabeth LeCompte.
I have a writng group tomorrow led by Misha Berson of the Seattle Times: 500-word review on an issue raised by this show. In my group: asst ed from Mass.; freelancer from Nashville; freelancers from Dallas; Web reviewer from St. Louis.
Most of today spent on USC campus: acting class; sessions on the new digital media (not that much diff. between mainstream and niche media; newspapers have long been just niche aggregators; newspapers using WAY old business models; much pushing of artsjournal.com); how to write criticism for middle America; three critics (Seattle, Chi, L.A.) on pet peeves like how to writer about shows you hate, how to respond to hate mail, etc.)
Dinner at the oldest Greek restaurant in L.A., on Pico Blvd in the "Byzantine-Latino" district. The baklava, I swear to God, was like an orgasm in the mouth. I had two such orgasms. Bliss. Peace out.
The rest is silence.


Drinking out of a firehose

Drinking out of a firehose: Bobo's first three days at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in L.A.
Getting exposed to a lot of new ideas here, and, hate to say it, but I'm doing it while it's 65 degrees and sunny. My hotel room has a view of the Disney concert hall by Frank Gehry, the Mark Taper (being refurbished) and the Ahmanson and Dorothy Chandler. From the 24th floor, I can all the way to the Griffith Park Observatory thru the L.A. smog.
Day 3 of the Institute. Saw The Color Purple musical, as produced by Oprah herself. Maybe I'll append the (short) review we did as a first writing-group exercise. Visually interesting, esp. in the Celie goes back to Africa dream sequences, but mostly unmemoralbe score, some good perofrmances, but matters of life and death (incest, rape, abuse, separation, cruelty oddly downplayed). Audiences in the big city just want to be happy too.
Orson's Shadow at the Pasadena Playhouse for a Wed. matinee. They're getting a new Gehry building too. I'd seen the Artists Rep produciton in Portland in May. This was in a larger house, less intimate. The Orson Welles, a recognizable TV face (as were two others in the cast), not as good as the impersonation or threat and intimidation in the Portlnad actor's renditon. Wonderful Olivier. Felt, on second viewing, like a good play with a limited shelf life: too insidery (though I LOVE the script,a nd 5e0 years from now, they'll forgotten. Sharon Lawrence from NYPD Blue as Vivien Leigh -- incredible job of shwoing how VL bcame subtly like Blanche Dubois lateer in life; good insanity bipolar scene.
This is a place where you get into film vs. theater criticism chats with the likes of Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chi Tribune, one of the inssdtructors here; I worked with him at hte O'Neill back in July '04.
Great talk with one of hte instructors here, arts reporter at the Missoulian, about music criticism, being an advocate for the arts, etc.
They keep us going here. I snuck in a swim yest. morning, but every wwakin moment takne up.
Took mamy notes during Carey Perloff's keynote address -- she's AD at ACT in SF, wanted to ask about her working with Stoppard but no chance. Boring formal dinner at Cal Tech's fancy faculty club last night, but talked to some theater marketing types and LA Arts Commission's exec director; hilariious story about the Christma Eve perf. of the "Dulcimer Ladies."
ACting classes-- lots of movement work, felt a bit silly; about to enact other people's first memories, or first memories; they wrote it, we have to memorize it and enact it.
Today on digitial media, lots of good ideas, newspapers working on an outdated biz model, n time to type up all my notes just now.
Tonight: 3 hrs of Wooster Group's Hamlet; write about it all Fri. morning. Seeing Athol Fugard's latest, Victory the next night. I dont even have time to look ahead on the sked. Some great folks int he group-- invigorating to see so many worried about the same things,

February 07, 2008 1:39 PM

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