Monday, June 29, 2009

New Review Posted: 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal

Centerstage just posted my review of 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal here. It's a very impressive show--these people do absolutely amazing stuff with circus arts, improvisation, music, and so much more. I'm not sure what, if anything, it all meant, but I was, as the Brits might say, gobsmacked by the whole experience. Not to mention this is one of the only audiences I've ever been in where I felt comparatively old and un-hip. 500 Clown is apparently what all the cool kids are doing. Also, Molly Brennan sent me a thank-you note for my review, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Here's the text of the review:

If there is a more seductive theatrical creation onstage in Chicago right now than Molly Brennan's Madame Barker, I don't want to know. The ringmistress of the action-packed and sensation-filled "500 Clown and the Elephant Deal," Madame Barker is riveting from the tips of her deep purple hair to the soles of her calf-high leather boots. I think I'm in love.

500 Clown is a group that uses circus techniques to create risky physical theater, incorporating the influence of Bertolt Brecht's "Man Is Man," improvisation and John Fournier's songs. Brennan and the rest of the fearless cast (Adrian Danzig, Paul Kalina, Matt Hawkins, and Jessica Hudson) are Madame Barker and her helpers. At first it seems it will be an evening of songs, but things get stranger and stranger as the night goes on, as people find themselves taking on many identities, battles rage and the entire affair devolves into chaos.

It is, to be sure, chaotic. Clarity and coherence of theme and plot are hard to find, and by the last 25 minutes or so, the show began to feel a little drawn out; director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig may need to shape the onstage work a little more aggressively. Still, the caveats pale beside the staggering work done by the ensemble. All five cast members have impressive circus skills — they climb scaffolding, vault around on ropes, and tumble all over — but the show is the opposite of the slick spectacle usually implied by the word "circus." It's proudly messy, defiantly focused on what these extraordinary bodies can do, and who they are. The cast, aided by the band and the wonder-filled design, has created an experience that left me dazed, shaken up and exhilarated. It's all too rare that theater accomplishes what this show does: bypassing the mind and going straight for the guts.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being LuPone

Oh Patti. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Patti LuPone interrupted her show in Las Vegas on Sunday because an audience member was using an electronic device. (What the device was is not known.) She asked what the audience member was doing, threatened to have them ejected if they didn't stop, and only then returned to singing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." This comes after her memorable freakout at the second to last performance of Gypsy earlier this year, due to someone taking pictures. (Though that person was apparently a paid, professional photographer who she'd been warned about beforehand.) LuPone read the story and sent a response to the reporter, which can be seen here, along with its 437 (!!!) comments.

My basic response to this can be seen in the comments to the first article--I am number 22. (Does that mean I can say I was published by the New York Times?) It is absolutely true that audience behavior today has serious problems--talking, crinkling, cellphones (both getting calls and texting) and recording are a plague. Also, it really should be the job of the house staff to stop this--they should be telling people to stop, confiscating devices, etc. I've seen it happen at least once in my own theatregoing.

However, isn't there a better way to do it? Is stopping the show and yelling at the audience (especially in the middle of a signature number) really the only effective way to take care of it? It seems like a bigger distraction than the device use is. It's one thing to briefly pause to make a comment, or to confiscate it yourself (like a Hair castmember apparently did), if the show's flow isn't stopped completely. It's another to go off on someone and completely break the illusion.

Of course, I'm not totally impartial, as I said. I'm not a fan of either LuPone's onstage persona (mushy diction, wobbly pitch, histrionics and all) or her offstage theatrics (anyone remember when she had a shit fit because the cast of Noises Off was collecting for BC/EFA?) so I may be judging her more harshly than I otherwise would. If Audra McDonald did this, I might be a little more lenient. (Then again, I can't imagine Audra getting quite that angry.)

So what's your opinion? Is theatrical behavior that bad these days? Was Patti justified? Am I too hard on her?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

August Ends In June

As has been reported elsewhere, the Broadway production on August: Osage County will be closing on June 28th. The grosses have been anemic for quite a while--especially since it's not a cheap show to run--and apparently Phylicia Rashad's stepping into the role of Violet a few weeks back wasn't enough to push them into sellout status.

Still, it's a very impressive run--648 performances. The only nonmusical play to run longer in recent years was Proof (900-some), and that had a cast of four and a runtime of 90 minutes--as opposed to August's 13, all of whom had to be paid overtime because the show is over 3 hours in length. The show is leaving on tour next month, which was mentioned as one reason for its closing--now the touring production will be able to use elements of the designs from the Broadway version. Very clever.

So it looks like the local boy made pretty damn good. I wonder if the Broadway run of Superior Donuts, his followup, will manage similar success? The tour of August is heading back to Chicago in February of 2010--I'm very excited to see it again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Geeky Excitement

Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic for the New York Times, has returned to London for his annual month of constant theatregoing, with reviews blogged to us stateside. I can't wait. It won't be as fun as it was in 2007, when I was also in London and saw many shows in common with him, but it's still gonna be great fun to read. And make me severely wish I were back in London, seeing many shows for little cost. Anyone wanna get me a ticket?

Monday, June 15, 2009

But what do I know?

So Ellen Fairey's Graceland, to which I had a positive but not overwhelmed reaction has turned into a runaway hit. So much so that Profiles Theatre has extended its run by an amazing seven weeks. (Cheryl Graeff will be filling in for original star Brenda Barrie during the extension.)

Fairey is clearly a playwright to watch, and even though this show didn't excite me as much as it did some other critics and audience members, I'm excited to see her next show--and any original play doing this well is always great news!

On a completely different note: has anyone noticed that a huge number of "turn off your cell phone" curtain speeches these days include some variation on the "turn off your pager if you're stuck in 1995" joke? Pagers haven't been current for years, yet it's just in the past season or so that that joke has been everywhere. Hey, theatres? It was funny the first time around, but maybe a new attempt to liven up that speech would be in order? Thanks.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Review Posted: Hope VI

I have a new review up on Centerstage--Hope VI, the world premiere by Nambi E. Kelley at Chicago Dramatists. There were some great ideas here, but the show just didn't work. It was depressing really, but I still want to check out her next play. The review can be read here and the text is below.

"Hope VI" has a premise with real potential. The Robert Taylor Homes, public housing on the South Side of Chicago, are being demolished. A little girl named Hope, living with her family in a tiny motel room while awaiting permanent housing, tries to escape a hellish home life by fantasizing about her idol, Whoopi Goldberg.

Unfortunately, playwright Nambi E. Kelley and director Ilesa Duncan have failed to capitalize on the fascinating ideas at the center of the play. The production currently onstage at Chicago Dramatists plays as half-made in every way. Kelley's script feels half-written and unshaped. The domestic tragedy is uninvolving, as the characters don't quite add up to convincing wholes, the social background is never convincingly connected to the family's story, and the fantasy sequences, though showing flashes of excitement, are never quite creative enough to bring the production to life.

Duncan and her cast have not managed to create successful drama where the script could not. If anything, the production compounds the script's problems. Scenes rarely build to dramatic peaks—the intended high points come off as a bunch of shouting, without much emotional impact. The actors seem to still be finding their characters, and in some cases are even shaky on their lines.

What makes this production so unfortunate are the moments that show what could have been, such as when Najwa Brown and Sandra Watson, as Hope and her imaginary Whoopi, try to escape the world, and Du Shon Monique Brown, as Hope's abusive mother, gives distressing insight into her pain. The phrases and exchanges that capture real poetry onstage make the surrounding mess even sadder.

There may be a worthwhile play in here. Hopefully this production will succeed as a learning experience for Kelley—because it's decidedly lacking as a theatrical experience for the audience.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tony Tony Tony Tony.....

So the annual commercial for Broadway was broadcast last night. This was reportedly one of the best seasons in years, but the real brilliance was in the new plays and, especially, the revivals. As for the musicals, only Billy Elliott and Next To Normal on the new side and Hair and West Side Story on the revival end caused much excitement. However, scenes from plays are not popular at CBS, who broadcasts the awards--apparently they aren't exciting enough, and the people demand more glitz. As a result, the plays were only presented through brief descriptions and maybe 15 seconds from a pre-taped scenes. In fact Best Revival of a Play was going to be presented before the televised ceremony until Kevin Spacey and others raised a stink. Therefore, the season looked less exciting than it actually was. Ah well.

While many of the awards were seen as tossups this year, they tended to go to the front-runner in most categories. The big winner, of course, was Billly Elliott, with 10 awards. After that, the wealth was spread around quite evenly--God of Carnage and Next To Normal got three awards each, Joe Turner's Come and Gone got two, and another ten shows got one a piece.

I didn't do great on my predictions--I missed nearly all of the design categories, and thought Next to Normal would take the award for Best Book while Billy Elliott would take score, when they were in fact switched. However, I got 3/4 of the production categories and 6/8 of the acting categories, so I made out alright.

The first show to close after winning no Tonys has been announced (more are doubtless to come). Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty will shut down on Sunday. Still, it can doubtless look forward to a long and productive life in storefront and college theatres in the years to come, so I won't cry for Neil LaBute.

Herewith, a few more thoughts on the show:

--That opening number was the singing, dancing definition of a clusterfuck. Who thought that putting numbers from nine or ten shows on simultaneously was anything like a good idea? It was confusing and ugly, and sounded terrible. Also, apparently Brett Michaels of the band Poison got hit in the face with a backdrop. He's alright now, but eep.

--It started in the opening number and continued throughout, but the miking was terrible. Balances were off, we couldn't hear things, and Titus Burgess' mic in "Sit Down Your Rocking The Boat" died entirely, so we got to hear a stagehand panting out "I'm going, I'm going" while running him a hand mic. To his immense credit, he didn't skip a beat.

--The song itself, though, was pretty pedestrian. There just wasn't much passion (and the background projections were awful) until Burgess and the invaluable Mary Testa started riffing at the end. They were very impressive, but how can the production mess up a number that foolproof?

--Also on the debit side for performances Shrek (a few laughs, but pretty dumb), and the three touring shows (unnecessary and not very good).

--I have no idea what I saw in the Rock of Ages number, but it sure was...something. I think I was getting high from the hairspray fumes, and I know the cast and creators were.

--I enjoyed the "Dance at the Gym" from West Side Story--a little short of amazing, but it's always a stirring number. The piece from Next To Normal was intriguing--I'm not sold, but I'd like to see it. Billy Elliott actually gave me chills. Even if the description--of Billy doing an angry dance while riot police dance around him with truncheons and shields--sounds silly, the number still worked. I now understand why the Billys won for Best Actor. And I thought that the cast of Hair doing the title number were pretty fantastic, but my love for that production is well established.

--There was a tie this year for Best Orchestrations, with Normal and Billy both getting the nod--the first in 15+ years! It's a less heralded award, but it's still pretty cool.

--My favorite acceptance speeches included the very classy Roger Robinson, Karen Olivo crying, Gregory Jbara bringing his wife (and her boobs) onstage to thank her, Geoffrey Rush talking about how French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks, Matthew Warchus thanking the casts of both shows that he was nominated for directing, though he only won for God of Carnage, and the Billy boys, adorable in their adolescent awkwardness. Alice Ripley's shouting quotes from JFK was clearly passionate and well-intentioned, but came off as downright unhinged. Then again, I imagine that playing the bipolar lead in Next to Normal would make someone a little highly strung.

--And finally, high marks for Neil Patrick Harris as host. Though I'm not sure what his suit was made of (Leather? Shiny velvet?) he looked damn good in it. He wasn't given much stage time but he had some very clever jokes--his bit about Jeremy Piven and sushi was priceless--and his closing number was absolutely fantastic. I hope he hosts the Tonys again--and does another Broadway show soon.

And now I'm off to an event more suited to this blog--the Non-Equity Jeff Awards are tonight, and I'll be there cheering on Brian Plocharczyk of Stage Left's After Ashley and everyone else responsible for this fantastic season in Chicago. I'll report back tomorrow!

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Review Posted: Graceland

I have a new review up on Centerstage: Graceland, a premiere by Ellen Fairey at Profiles. I was decidedly mixed--I thought it was well-done, but pretty formulaic. Other reviews were total raves, though, which surprises me--but I guess I'm bucking the consensus on this one. Ah well.

A small detail I didn't mention in my review--I'm not sure what they used, but the fake pot smoked onstage smelled remarkably realistic.

You know, based on what other people did in college.

A review with ticket info and pictures can be found here, and the text is below. Enjoy!

A pair of troubled siblings with a turbulent past and present, their just-dead father, an aging ladies man and his teenaged son.

A tone that balances quirky humor and emotional outbursts, a plot that includes wild coincidence and honest revelations.

Funny lines, excellent acting and a nifty use of a tiny space.

Ellen Fairey's "Graceland" at Profiles Theatre is a world premiere, but it follows the stylistic formula of many contemporary plays. It's a very funny and extremely well-acted variation on the tragicomic contemporary character study, but it gets few points for originality.

Sara (Brenda Barrie) and Sam (Eric Burgher), have just lost their alcoholic father, and buried him in the title cemetery. Both are stuck in dead-end jobs and unsatisfying love lives. Encounters with Miles (Jackson Challinor) and his father Joe (Darrell W. Cox) complicate the plot and the emotional situation even more.

Fairey has created interesting characters, though they don't always behave in believable or consistent ways. She has an exceptional ear for the way people talk, and her dialogue is often hilarious. It's just that the plot and emotional arc are often predictable—shortly after a scene begins, it's pretty clear how it will end.

Still, there are many pleasures along the way. Director Matthew Miller has a sure way with Fairey's writing, and has guided the cast to strong work. They make the characters believable and engaging even when they are behaving in ways that make little sense. Challinor is particularly wonderful—he brings the melodrama and bizarre charm of adolescence to life in an utterly winning way. The fact that he is actually near Miles's age, rather than a young-looking twenty-something, is a major help.

Fairey has real playwriting talent, and has crafted a satisfying show. Let's just hope that next time she takes herself, and the audience, a little further outside the comfort zone.