Thursday, November 13, 2008

Humana 2009 Plays Announced

Playbill reports that the Actors Theatre of Louisville has announced the plays for the 2009 Humana Festival, which features 6 full productions of world premiere plays. There are some familiar names--a play by Charles L. Mee and the SITI Company, a new script by Naomi Wallace-- some new ones--Allison Moore, the UNIVERSES collective--and two from names better known in other areas--one from Zoe Kazan, an actress currently playing Masha in Broadway's The Seagull and another by Marc Masterson, ATL Artistic Director, and Adrien-Alice Hansel, ATL Literary Manager, based on the work of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry. 

I got the chance to attend Humana in 2006--where I saw Act A Lady, one of the best plays of the past five years--and 2007. I hope I find a way to return this year. It's the center of new plays for the month it's open, and it makes you feel like the rest of the world cares about them. Who knows what'll break out this year?

Also, make sure to check out the post below on conservative theatre--the conversation in the comments is really fascinating.

Conservative Theatre?

So there has been much ballyhoo recently about the relative lack about conservative voices in theatre. The New York Times had an article about the issue. Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal, published his conservative perspective on his blog, and my good friend Leonard Jacobs wrote a typically spirited response on his blog.

The issue being questioned is why so few contemporary playwrights are conservative, and why so few plays express a conservative point of view. While I agree that it would be good to have a greater ideological diversity on stage, I feel that there may be more variation in the canon that we might recognize. What follows are a few pieces that seem to have a definite conservative ideas--I'm sure more can be found.

The first that came to mind immediately was Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. This is the story, essentially, of a man who tries to create a Utopia, but fatally ignores the inherent violence and lust in people. By refusing to recognize either the evil of Mordred or the affair of Lancelot and Guenevere, the terminally naive Arthur dooms his fool's paradise. Not quite the classical liberal perspective--that humans are essentially perfectible and good.

Mark Ravenhill's wonderfully titled Shopping and Fucking, a British play from the 1990's, might seem liberal in its unflinching portrayal of sex, drugs and hedonism. The bizarre thing, though, is that it uses this setting to make a shrilly conservative point--that a permissive society has divorced people completely from their true values, replacing them with utter emptiness. No paean to open sexual mores to be found here.

Even Lorraine Hansberry's landmark A Raisin in the Sun, though hugely progressive in its portrayal of race, has some elements in the plot that might please conservatives more than liberals. One is its uncompromisingly pro-life characters: the threat of Ruth aborting her pregnancy, due to the family's poverty, is a major plot point, and a decision which is portrayed as a horrible betrayal of her values. Another, trickier, point is the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" element to the Younger's story. These are people who get where they get without government help of any kind. I can imagine contemporary conservatives pointing to the Youngers as models--and perhaps arguments for cutting welfare and affirmative action.

Go further back, and the argument gets even harder--like with the Greeks. Aeschylus' Oresteia ends with the case being made that killing your mother to avenge your father is permissible. After all men are more important than women, because men are the seed and women merely the vessel. (Don't blame me for that ripe bit of misogyny, blame Aeschylus.) 

And what of Sophocles' Antigone? It is frequently held up by liberals as a story of someone whose principles force her to defy a repressive government--many contemporary adaptations stress this. But couldn't it just as easily be seen as a story of a woman whose religious convictions are so strong that they place her beyond the rule of law?

So am I totally off-base on these interpretations? Are there other plays similarly sympathetic to conservative philosophies, if not specific policies? I bet with a little digging we can find a lot more ideological diversity than we thought.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


As seen in Playbill, The Weinstein company has acquired the film rights to Tracy Letts' Pulitzer, Tony, Jeff, Nobel, and American Dental Association winning play August: Osage County. Letts will write the script, no director or casting have been announced, and release is planned for 2011.

So what do we think? Will a movie version work? I hope they will resist the temptation to open it up too much, adding too many extra characters and outside scenes. With 13 characters, the play is already pretty expansive, and there is plenty of room inside the house for it to stay visually varied. We shall see. (I have similar worries about how John Patrick Shanley opened up Doubt for the upcoming movie--we'll see how well it works.)

Any ideas for a director? In terms of familiarity with large casts, complex plots, and fascinating language, my first two thoughts are Jonathan Demme (whose recent Rachel Getting Married is apparently a brilliant ensemble drama) and Stephen Frears, who can do anything, and is usually superb. If she has any interest, it would be great if original stage director Anna D. Shapiro were approached, but I don't know if they'd give such a big movie to someone who hadn't made one before.

What about casting? In an ideal world, of course, I'd love to see the entire original cast reunited (except maybe for the character of Jean, as someone who's 15 in 2008 is 18 in 2011, which is a significant difference). However, I'm not sure that could fly. It might take stars to get this thing made. The only adaptation of a play recently that  kept the original cast was The History Boys, and that was not widely seen in the US. Then again, Proof had Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins and still sank without a trace, so stars are hardly a guarantee.

But if we do need stars, who? I'm often good at fantasy casting, but I have to admit my mental well is dry at the moment. Anyone thinking of actors who would be perfect for these parts? Comment!

Playbill is also reporting that the upcoming Roundabout revival of Hedda Gabler has been cast. In addition to the previously announced Mary-Louise Parker as Hedda, interesting names include Michael Cerveris as Tesman (It's a surprisingly nebbishy role for an actor who's usually so volcanic, and I'm not sure how it will work.) and Peter Stormare as Judge Brack. (An actual Scandinavian in the role, though he's Swedish rather than Norwegian.) Hedda Gabler is one of my favorite plays, but I have to ask if New York really needs another one. Broadway saw a superb production in 2001-02, with Kate Burton in the title role (which I saw) and more recently there was Ivo Van Hove's highly controversial Off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop with Elizabeth Marvel dousing herself in tomato juice. (I told you it was controversial.) So why a new one so soon? I am sure Christopher Shinn's new translation will be strong, and director Ian Rickson is riding high from his acclaimed production of The Seagull. And there is no doubt that Parker, especially with her role on TV's Weeds, is certain to sell tickets. But what's the urgency to do this play again? I think it's great that people are being exposed to it, but couldn't they at least have waited for it to be off Broadway for  10 years?

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Long Overdue Update

First off, I must apologize for the fact that it's been almost two weeks since I wrote here. No excuse is terribly good, but I guess that at least I can offer the turmoil of the election (Ohmygodwediditwedidit!) and some developments in my own life (Short version: things in my theatrical career are looking very promising. Things in my "job to pay the bills" career, rather dire. Anyone have leads for seasonal or long-term employment?) as a partial explanation.

But a wide variety of things have been happening in theatre, here and elsewhere, and I figured it was time to roll up my sleeves and comment away.

First off, I wanted to use this space to thank Deanna Boyd. She plays the title role in Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's Bernarda Alba which I reviewed here. Though my review was mixed, she still complimented me on my analysis--one with which she agreed in many points. She even called it the best-written review that the show had received. I appreciated this greatly, as it is rare for a critic to hear anything positive from an actor in a production--especially in response to a mixed review! Unfortunately, she did not include an email address--otherwise, I would have responded to her directly. Deanna, if you happen to be reading this and want me to respond, please get your email address to me, either on these comments or through my page at Centerstage. I'd love to discuss this more with you!

Did anyone see Charles Isherwood's profile of Chicago director David Cromer in yesterday's Sunday New York Times? I have not gotten the chance to see some of Cromer's productions--either his totally sold out Our Town or his Writers' Theatre Picnic--but I was a big fan of his current production of Itamar Moses' Celebrity Row at American Theatre Company. He certainly seems to have earned his reputation as a director always worth checking out. But did anyone notice the odd tone of this article? The main focus was on the question of why Cromer hasn't yet moved to New York. Why is it so difficult to imagine that someone might choose to live in Chicago? That they might find the New York lifestyle unappealing? Chicago is chosen as a home base by many nationally known directors--Frank Galati, Robert Falls, Mary Zimmerman, and Anna D. Shapiro, to name only a few--and many directors who may not have received national recognition but still produce reliably strong work--such as Jessica Thebus, Charles Newell, and Sean Graney. I'm sure other cities have their own world-class directors in residence. Perhaps it's simply snobbishness from someone used to assuming that he lives at the center of the cultural universe, but its still perplexing.

Last weekend I got to see Forbidden Broadway at the Royal George, just in advance of its closing the following day. At points, the show demonstrated why it is such a treasure, but I wish the entire show had lived up to the best moment. Numbers spoofing Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins and Young Frankenstein, Patti LuPone and Kristen Chenoweth, and of course the evergreen Les Mis and Lion King parodies had me almost crying from laughter. But the Little Mermaid parody was pretty lame. And where were the numbers about August: Osage County and Spring Awakening? It still has more laughs per moment than most shows, but I was left wanting more.

That's all for now, but I hope to be blogging a lot more frequently in the future!