Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Article Posted: The Cubs at Wrigley Field

Last month I went to a Cubs game at Wrigley field for A.V. Chicago. I had never been before, and the article was for their series on Chicagoans doing typically Chicago things for the first time, "The Bucket List." Well, my editors and I have been working for several weeks, and it has finally been published. You can find it here. I think it's a fun article--while I'll never be a sports fan, I had a great time at Wrigley. I'd love to hear what you think.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thoughts on Criticism

I've had a very complex, productive relationship with arts criticism my entire life. I loved reading reviews as a kid, even for plays or movies I'd never see. My parents gave me Frank Rich's Hot Seat, an anthology of his work as chief theatre critic at the New York Times, when I was 13, and I read it cover to cover at least three times. I loved Pauline Kael's film criticism and Kenneth Tynan and Walter Kerr's theatre writing, and still enjoy reading collections of criticism--I recently spent great couple of weeks arguing with Richard Gilman in my head as I read Common and Uncommon Masks. I love the sheer good writing found in much criticism in raves, pans, and even mixed reviews. I love watching a mind grappling with a work of art and struggling to both convey the experience to someone who hasn't seen it and add to the experience of someone who has.

So in other words, I believe in criticism--in its necessity and its art--and I think I would even if I didn't also write it. Which is what makes this so troubling.

In brief, Chris Jones, lead critic at the Tribune (and a man whom I've had differences and agreements in the past) reviewed High Fidelity. It's the musical version of the 2000 movie, set in Chicago, and the earlier British novel. It was a swift failure on Broadway a few years ago (13 performances), and the Chicago staging represents the first production since, as well as a significant rewrite: the setting has been moved back to Chicago and the cast members also play the music. Jones' review was mixed--he enumerated the things he liked and the things he didn't, and did a good job at describing enough of the show's qualities to help the audience figure out if they would like it or not.

But maybe not for everyone. Someone going by "allison," in a blistering comment, included this phrase:

chris, theatre in this country is suffering right now. you are a chicago theatre critic. by your own words "america's hottest theatre city." you are supposed to support and encourage theatre in this town.

Kris Vire, in a very intelligent piece on his blog, responded, in short, "Bullshit." And I couldn't agree more. As he said, it is the job of critics to support good theatre. Being soft on a show that isn't very good does nobody any favors. I've been guilty of that myself. A few shows from the past year that shall remain nameless (unless you ask) had me leaving the theatre fuming--they weren't just bad, they were offensively bad. I gave them negative reviews, yes, but I soft-pedaled it. There's a difference between constructive criticism and lacking the courage of your convictions.

But I think another point has been lost, or mentioned too little: people need to use critical thinking when reading criticism. By this I mean: don't just take what the critic says for granted. Whether or not a critic thinks you should see a show is only one element of the review. Get to know that critic's work, and read several reviews for that production. Think about your own tastes--what things often turn you off? What will make you overlook flaws? If the critic is good and you are aware of your own tastes, you might come to a different conclusion from the critic. And that's a good thing--the writer is only human, their work only a guide, not an edict. I've often read positive reviews and decided to skip a play or movie, or been intrigued by mixed or negative ones. Critics can do their best, but it's the job of the reader to be informed and involved.

Is there something I'm missing? Are there other thoughts here? I always get worried when people seem to have fundamental misconceptions as to the job of the critic, or to see the act of criticism as unnecessary or harmful, critics as people getting off on their power rather than trying to inform. Is this the accepted view? Is there a way to get critics and practitioners on the same page?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What can I even say?

Have any of you seen this?

David Mamet, renowned playwright, screenwriter, and director, famous for his filthy language, twisted syntax, and lack of interest in women and their lives, has been contracted (by Disney!) to make a new film version of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, as I said, Mamet has shown very little interest in the lives of women. (He did write the all-female Boston Marriage, about lesbians in the 19th Century, but that was more of a nasty little game than a serious exploration of anything.) Aren't there women who could write Frank's story? Or people who seem to find women interesting as more than ciphers?

Second, Mamet's language is full of evasions, deceit, circumlocutions, and of course obscenity. Isn't the point of Anne Frank's writing her beautiful simplicity of language and purpose? Where do Mamet's verbal curlicues come in?

And finally...well, I guess I just don't get Mamet. His verbal facility is fascinating. The way he shows the lies people tell, the games they play--lots of fun. But what's underneath? Many people find a deeper meaning there, but I've never seen it. What am I missing here?

So does anyone else agree that this is a colossal mismatch of writer and subject? Does anyone think this could work? Did I just imagine this whole thing?

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Review Posted: The Hecubae

A new review is up on Centerstage: The Hecubae, a new play that combines Euripides' Hecuba with stories of contemporary women who are the victims of war. I feel bad giving shows like this a negative review, because the subject matter is so important, but plays that spell everything out just aren't very dramatic. Subject matter isn't enough. Still, there is some good stuff in the show, and the play did move me to make a donation to a charity helping female war refugees in the lobby, so maybe it did its job. Text of the review is below:

It's easy to understand why Euripides' "Hecuba" is so appealing to adapters, dealing as it does with women rendered powerless by war and destroyed by the men who control their fates. Making the connection with women oppressed by war throughout history is almost too easy.

Unfortunately, despite some powerful moments, Jeffrey Bouthiette and Rebekah Walendzak's "The Hecubae" falls into the trap of making every connection and parallel explicit, robbing the audience members of any chance to make discoveries for themselves.

The script shifts between two parallel stories—that of Euripides' play and a story set in a contemporary Internally Displaced Persons camp, apparently populated with refugees from several recent and current wars. The Greek story focuses on Hecuba, former queen of now-conquered Troy. She has lost almost all of her children, and when she finds that the two she has left have also been taken from her, her revenge is grisly. The scenes in the camp seem more a vehicle for stories taken from actual accounts of refugees. It's hard to find a central plot thread, and aside from the setting, it has little connection to Hecuba's story.

Bouthiette (who also directed) and Walendzak have mixed success in welding the stories together. Some sections have a blunt, harsh power, but more often the intended poetry falls flat. By far the best moments are when the women sing - suddenly, their situation comes to real, complex life, rather than resembling a lecture. The cast give a real sense of life to the characters and have created a powerful sense of ensemble, though none entirely escapes the production's limitations.

It is unquestionable that the plight of women in war zones is a horrible one, and any effort to give attention to that is laudable. Unfortunately, "The Hecubae" is far more successful as lecture than it is as theater.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rocco Landesman is awesome

Just read this fantastic interview in the Times with Rocco Landesman, newly confirmed head of the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm really encouraged by the interview. Unlike some previous heads of the agency, he doesn't seem scared by the early 90's culture wars that eviscerated the agency. He's not interested in apologizing for the place of the arts in America, and hearteningly insists that artists have the same right to eat and send their kids to school as anyone else. It seems like he might really get places, and help the arts to have a more central place in American life. Anyone else pleased by this? Any dissenting views?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Spring Awakening

If I told you that Spring Awakening would bring back the feelings of being 15, you might not think of it as an endorsement. After all what with the raging hormones and general misery, who'd want to be 15 again? Well trust me, you do. Spring Awakening takes one of the worst times of life and transform it into an exciting, frequently thrilling piece of theatre.

Composer Duncan Sheik, bookwriter/lyricist Steven Sater, and director Michael Mayer have adapted Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play about the danger of sexual repression into a rock musical. German Expressionism and rock music (and the real thing, by the way, not the watered-down pop that so often passes for rock on Broadway) might seem like an uneasy mixture, but it works remarkably well. After all, what frustrated teen hasn't wanted to pull out a microphone and sing about their pain?

Melchior (Jake Epstein), Moritz (Blake Bashoff), and Wendla (Christy Altomare) are teens in a provincial German town, stifled by authority at home, at school, and in church. Honest discussion of sexuality is so nonexistent that Wendla still doesn't know how babies are made. But the restless, throbbing energy in their bodies--and their songs--won't be denied, and the consequences are tragic.

Teen angst is a subject well-covered in popular culture, but the brilliance of the play and Mayer's staging is the immediacy with which it is presented. Watching actual ranting teens for over two hours would be torture, but the show takes you inside their minds and bodies in a terrifyingly intimate way.

Which is not to say the play is without flaws. Listening to the album, it's impossible to miss the many tortured rhymes--"Thought is suspect and money is their idol/And nothing is okay unless it's scripted in their bible" is only one of dozens--and many of the characters are underwritten to the point of incoherence. It's easy to find the problems, but in this production, they just don't matter much. The best songs reach right off the stage and shake you up, and all of them are fascinating to watch.

Mayer's dynamic staging benefits immensely from the work of the rest of the creative team. Bill T. Jones' choreography is full of choppy, isolated movements which crystallize how alienated these teens are from their own rapidly changing bodies. Kevin Adams' lighting is simply jaw-dropping--he uses a huge number of instruments to create a dazzling array of looks. The extremes might look overblown in another play, but in this one they are stunning.

The production has inevitably lost some power on tour, but it's the fault of the venue. What was overwhelming in a 1,000 seat theatre in New York sometimes fails to fill the Oriental, at least twice the size. Moments are blunted in their effect, and the emotions sometimes feel remote.

The entire cast gives confident, powerful performances--they sing with great passion and skill and they make the characters believable and sympathetic. I found Bashoff, as the bizarre, tortured Moritz, particularly fascinating. I was also terribly amused by Andy Mientus (looking a bit like Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies) as Hanschen, the magnetically creepy gay seducer--who also has what may be the funniest and creepiest masturbation scene of the contemporary stage.

The play has real flaws and the production may not always live up to its full power, this is true. But Spring Awakening is an extraordinarily exciting show, and you really should go see it before it's too late.

Spring Awakening plays through August 16th at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street in Chicago. Tickets and information by calling (800) 775-2000, clicking www.broadwayinchicago.com, or visiting the box office.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Review Posted: The Adventures of Nervous-Boy (A Penny Dreadful)

New review up on Centerstage of an odd, experimental play running only Monday nights in August at Gorilla Tango. By the way, if you do go to this or anything at Gorilla Tango, leave more time than you think you need.

Link to the review here, full text below:

Nervous-Boy is, well, nervous. But his problem isn't nerves. It's festering rage.

As he tells us in several monologues, delivered in a barely modulated monotone, he works from home, doing art direction for various magazines, just enough work to pay his bills. He rarely sees his friends and seems not to like them very much. And being out in social situations with people he doesn't know is even worse—he's prone to embarrassing outbursts whenever he tries to talk to people—especially since sometimes the people around him can hear his internal monologue.

James Comtois's very weird, very dark play, which premiered in New York three years ago, sends Nervous-Boy (Nicholas Caesar) out into 2005 New York City. It's still reeling from the 2004 election, and everywhere he looks, he sees shallow, contemptible people. Even Emily (Leslie Frame), who he may love, seems awful—constantly prattling about things that are clearly making her miserable. And then the violence starts, and things get really weird.

Comtois's brief script (not even an hour long) is very successful at slowly pulling back Nervous-Boy's seemingly charming disaffection to reveal the frightening anger beneath. (He's definitely helped by Caesar's performance, which manages to make passivity involving.) It's far less successful as social satire—Comtois isn't saying anything new, or that hasn't been said funnier elsewhere. Or perhaps that is intentional—a reflection of Nervous-Boy's own disaffection? Either way, it makes sections of the play more tiresome than fascinating.

Jamie DesRocher's straightforward production wisely lets the script's weirdness speak for itself, and the cast ably captures the misery of liberals in 2005. The show doesn't entirely make sense, and the wobbly tone robs some of its power, but it is a concentrated shot of oddness that might make you look at the bored commuter on the train a little differently.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New Review Posted: The Light in the Piazza

This past Wednesday I turned 24, and Marriott Lincolnshire gave me a great present--opening night of The Light in the Piazza. Adam Guettel's score is one of the best of the past decade, and I had not yet gotten the chance to hear it live. The script has flaws, and the production isn't perfect, but there were moments that were truly thrilling, and the show as a whole had a real emotional pull. If you care about serious musicals, it's definitely worth a trip.

The link is here and the text of the review is below.

That "The Light in the Piazza" was a Broadway success must be one of the miracles of contemporary theater. Adam Guettel's score is absolutely ravishing, but also far more complex than the usual Broadway score. Audiences proved hungry for beautiful music, though, and it ran for over a year.

American Margaret Johnson (Mary Ernster) and her daughter Clara (Summer Smart) are vacationing in Florence, where Margaret once honeymooned with her husband Roy (Michael Accardo). Clara meets, and falls for, the young Florentine Fabrizio (Max Quinlan). But, as one character says, "happiness can also scar," and the play is concerned with both the danger and the beauty of love.

Joe Leonardo's production stumbles in places, but the emotional tug is still there. Since it also has a few excellent performances and some genuinely thrilling musical moments, the show is a must for those who care about musicals. Ernster's Margaret is the center of the production, and she is magnetic. She believably shows both the humor and pain of a woman for whom managing, fixing and avoiding have become a way of life, and the painful process that just might let joy back in. Add in her luscious alto, and her songs become simply heartbreaking.

Smart and Quinlan act the lovers convincingly, but they seem to be trying too hard when they sing; their vocal performances are technically accurate, but far from effortless. The supporting cast is studded with flavorful performances, especially Paula Scrofano, as Fabrizio's mother, and Jennifer T. Grubb as his sister-in-law.

The book has clich├ęd sections, certainly, and the staging and design don't fully capture the beauty of Italy. The nine-piece orchestra, while artful, still lacks the lushness of the original orchestrations. More quibbles could surely be found. But when song after song sends a chill up the spine, who cares?