Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wilder! Wilder! Wilder!

For your consideration, the FSU/Asolo Conservatory offers five instructive tales by Thornton Wilder, the American playwright made famous by ten million high school productions of "Our Town."

The actors are all student-actors. In alphabetical order: Ghafir Akbar, John Cabrera, Kirstin Franklin, Sarah Gavitt, Hannah Goalstone, Alexandra Guyker, Peter Mendez, Nissa Perrott, Kevin Stanfar and Bethany Weise. Together with director Matthew Arbour, they did an excellent job with Wilder's dead-pan, low-key, dryly hilarious material.

As to the material itself ...

Infancy depicts talking babies who complain about life and their position in the scheme of things. Childhood shows a brood of morbid kids who temporarily escape from their families in a round-trip bus trip in their brains. The Wreck on the 525 is a bizarre allegory about a man on the outside of society (and his own family) looking in. The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is a tale of a strong woman who comforts her eldest daughter after a miscarriage without making a big deal out of it. The Rivers Under the Earth is a parable of multilayered time.

I loved it, though a third of the audience must have been taking dumbass pills. Overheard at intermission:

—Babies don't talk.
—I don't get it. What's with the bus?
—Why was he out there looking at 'em? It's his house. He can see them any time he wants.

OK, I'll grant you, Wilder's oddly warm brand of all-American surrealism isn't exciting as, say, a helicopter on stage or a singing circus tycoon. I'm as big a fan of fire, explosions and death as anybody. When Transporter 2 opens, I'm there.

But it's good to have a brain with different input settings. Wilder speaks in a quiet voice. His voice is worth listening to. A scattering of American writers from Ann Beattie to Nancy Oliver to the four guys in the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe clearly did.

'Wilder! Wilder! Wilder!'
Short version: Melancholy babies.

Through Nov. 23
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Doppplr Effect

Sarasota International Design Summit Day #2

Matt Jones from Dopplr was refreshingly non evangelistic.

Defined purpose of org as "engineered serendipity." Then a flurry of quotes ...

"Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter."
--Peter McWilliams

Jolly good. I link therefore I am.

The now is described as the hypersurface of the present.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Do you believe in magic?

The Banyan Theater Company closes out its season with more sorcery. Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is magic. Not the rough magic of True West: two bloody halves of the masculine soul having a shoot-out in the cowpie-kicking western town of the American mind. Nah. The Clean House is lighter stuff. Basically, it's part fairy tale, part cartoon.

Think magical realism. Think Ionesco. Think Jules Ffeiffer.

Lane, a successful woman doctor (Seva Anthony), wants cleanliness and order in her universe, but life's messiness intrudes. Lane hires Mathilde (Karina Barros) to clean house — a Brazilian expatriate who wants to be a comic like her parents before her. (Telling the perfect joke is her life's dream.) Mathilde tells a good joke, all right — but she stinks at cleaning house. Mathilde doesn't see the existential point. If the floor's dirty, look at the ceiling. She gets away with this attitude, because Virginia (Geraldine Librandi), Lane's obsessive-compulsive sister, secretly cleans the house for her. Lane's husband, Charles (who's also a doctor — played by Robert Herrle) secretly falls in love with Ana (also a Brazilian — played by Annie Morrison), and dances away with her in a surreal scene immediately after a mastectomy operation. Lane doesn't notice any of this. The secrets stay under the rug — until things get very messy.

Without spoiling the ending, Lane learns to open up to the sloppy, human universe. Taken literally, the play is a machine designed to teach her that lesson. It's stacked against her. She has about as much chance as Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

But cartoons are first cousins to archetypes. The Clean House is not a literal play with literal characters. "Let your husband fool around and throw dirt on the living room floor" isn't the lesson. "Open your heart" is.

Ruhl's writing fizzes like a mad scientist's cocktail, 2 parts black comedy, 8 parts surrealist I Love Lucy episode and funny as hell. She deals with dark issues with a sweet, light touch.

A heavy hand would shatter this stuff. But director Doug Jones handles with care. Ruhl’s script probably wasn’t easy to work with — a pack of loopy characters speaking slantwise, Ionesco-style dialogue. Jones must have been tempted to elbow us in the ribs and force the comic pace. He doesn’t. Some jokes work best when they build slowly.

The actors are free to draw us into the magic. Librandi and Herrle are fine as the cartoony supporting characters. Anthony's great as Lane, not so much a cartoon as a blank slate for us to draw our own faces on. Like Scrooge, she's defined by what she's not: She Who Cuts Herself Off From Other People. She's the straight man, always a thankless task, but she's hilarious at it. Barros' character Mathilde is the Amelie-like muse of the play — the comedian angel who brings the message which saves us all. It's a tour de force performance; Barros' comic timing is brilliantly hilarious. Morrison's Ana is brilliantly heart-breaking. To be fair, Morrison and Barros' characters get most of the script's blood, sweat and tears. To be accurate, Ruhl's characters bleed into each other. Personal boundaries are fictions, at least in her play.

James A. Florek's clever staging reflects the boundary breaking. He bends the rules of physics like some show on the SciFi channel. Lane and Charles' upscale livingroom takes up most of the set; the second-tier platform at the back can be any point in the space-time continuum. In one scene, it becomes a balcony in Ana's beach apartment. The two Brazilian ladies throw apples; they comes thumping down in Lane's house. Nicely done.

Add it all up, and it's the stuff of magic. It's why we come to the theater.

At the end of the play, Mathilde tells her perfect joke — and one character dies laughing. We never know what the joke is, though of course we do. Life is the joke: death is the punchline. Duh.

In the end, the joke's on us.

We might as well be nice to each other.

The Clean House
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 24
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zen and the art of improv

Alan Watts poses a problem: A man has a fight with a bear. The bear is a mind reader. The man can only win if he does something absolutely spontaneous. It's the same thing with a zen master. He can see through anything phony. He sees through you. The more you try to be natural and spontaneous, the phonier you get. The game is rigged; you can't win. When you finally get it, the mind gives up. Badabing. You're enlightened. Then the zen master hits you with a stick and makes you sweep up.

Improv uses the same trick. It's engineered spontaneity designed to trick the bear of self-consciousness.

The cats and kittens of Lazy Fairy — Sarasota's latest upstart improv troupe — know this trick very well. (Christine Alexander, Tim Beasley, Catey Brannan, Chris Friday, Angel Parker and Zan with no last name.) Faster than you can say "Grizzly Man," they've got you laughing your ass off — as happened to me at their debut peformance at the Players. Describing what they do would be about as funny as dissecting Tinkerbell, so I threw some zen philosophy at you instead. Trust me: they're funny, even enlightening.

Christ. Here comes the bear again.

Lazy Fairy
July 24
Players Theatre
838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, July 25, 2008

Love and tombstones

Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts is one of those odd couple romances. Gus Klingman is a stone mason with a New Jersey accent that could cut granite. Amanda Cross is a Southern belle with a honeyed twang that could drown bees. She's talky; he's taciturn; she's a people person; he likes his own company. Differences aside, they've got one big thing in common. They're both old.

Funny thing. It's not a big point. This is a comedy. Love makes people do silly things. The gag is as old as Shakespeare.

It's a two-part joke, as the Bard knew.

The basic set-up: Lovers act silly because they're pretending to be somebody else. They fall in love, wearing masks.

The punch line: Lovers get together and the masks come off. Then the baggage comes in. Comedy ensues.

The gag is the same for couples of all ages.

--Do you love me?
--Then, love my stuff. Love me; love my cat. Love me; love my books. Love me; love my family. Love me; love my history. Or tip-toe around my history: the elephantine ex-wife in the living room. Just pretend she isn’t there.

Director Robert J. Farley and actors Susan Greenhill and Richard Bourg do an excellent job without falling into cliche. There are plenty of tender moments. But plenty of bickering, too.

Ah, well. Mergers are never easy.

In this case, one of the points of negotiation is who gets the nice grave. I guess that is pretty much an old person thing.

Aside from that, Gus and Amanda could be any couple.

The clock is ticking for lovers everywhere.

‘Southern Comforts'
Through Aug. 17
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Runner-up stupid award goes to ...

The idjit head readers who didn't grasp that the July 21 New Yorker cover was satire. Various clowns have said: Oh my God, they put him in a turban, he's burning the American flag, his wife is an urban guerilla, oh how awful. Or words to that effect.

Listen up, clowns. Put down the pie, step away from the seltzer, get out of the clown car and listen:

It's satire.

The cartoonist swept all the right wing slurs about Obama into one image to show how ridiculous they are. The equivalent cartoon bashing far left assumptions would show Bush, Cheney and friends sitting around a table while Osama bin Laden flew a tiny model plane at a tiny model of the World Trade Center to work out the details of the evil conspiracy. Get it?

Humor lives on the edge. Every cartoonist who pitches an edgy idea has to deal with some editor saying "People are stupid, they won't get it."

The fact that so many people don't get it makes me want to find the nearest edge and leap off.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight kicks ass

The Dark Knight sticks a bat hook in the problem of evil. Then it pulls. Meaty question rip out: What is the nature of evil? To fight evil, do you have to become evil? Not bad for a comic book movie. I guess that makes it a philosophical comic book movie.

It gets off to a slow start. Act I has some clunky dialog and force-fed exposition. Or maybe it just seemed that way. The trailer may have distorted my perception. The good guys are winning — then the Joker shows up. Surprise! But I knew the little creep was coming.

Not to spoil the surprise, but the movie kicks into overdrive and takes you on a hellish ride into dark psychological territory. The Joker’s territory. Then it keeps getting darker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like Mr. Rogers. He is one mean mofo, the king of cinema's insane clown posse and very, very smart.

As are the co-screenwriters: Christopher Nolan (also the director) and Joseph Nolan, his brother.

The character details are spot-on. This Joker doesn’t have bleached skin. He wears pancake makeup over his scarred face. The Nolans dispensed with the vat of acid backstory. The Joker's mouth has been knifed wider into a permanent smile, like that poor bastard in The Crays. Why? The Joker’s story keeps changing. His father did it. He did it to himself. Exactly what a crazy clown would say.

The Joker starts out wanting to get rid of Batman. Then he changes his mind.
He takes a ton of money, makes a pyramid of it, puts a witness on top of it, and
sets it on fire. He’s a nihilist. He's not in it for the money. Like Alex before him, he hurts people because he likes it.

Clowns just want to have fun.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The wild, wild west

Sam Shephard is the playwright. True West is the play. The Banyan Theater Company recently staged it, but let's get back to that.

As to the playwright ...

Sam Shephard is a madman.True West violates every basic understanding I have regarding structure, character, dialog and premise. The damn thing shouldn't work. But it works. No, Albert. Gravity can't bend light, you silly man. Take the rest of the day off. The patent office can live without you. But there it is.

Starlight curves around the sun. True West works.

To summarize the damn thing?

There's these two brothers, see. Austin is a bigtime Hollywood screenwriter. Lee is a burglar and a bum. Austin has just nailed down a major script deal when Lee shows up and impresses Austin's producer with his Wild West authenticity. The shady brother plays golf with Austin's producer, and comes back from the country club with a deal of his own for a movie based on a bullshit story about two dudes racing horses across the Texas panhandle on account of they's in love with the same woman. Austin's former producer sidelines Austin's project and gives Lee a bigass advance for this glorious tale. Well, sir. Lee discovers that writing a script is freaking hard. Austin gloats. Lee begs for help. Austin refuses to adapt his illiterate brother's story. After stealing a buncha toasters to prove his manhood, Austin changes his mind. Austin'll write the script, if'n Lee will teach him to live like a bum in the desert so's he can escape the Hollywood bullshit. Lee agrees, but has second thoughts. At the end of the play, Austin tries to strangle his brother with a telephone cord. But Lee survives. They square off for a shoot-out or some such.

The plot is preposterous. It shouldn't work, damn it.

The play doesn't start off that crazy. Shephard opens with a bizarre but realistic premise: Two brothers pitch their movie ideas. One's a bum, the other's a screenwriter. The bum wins. Hey, it could happen.

Shephard procedes to paint himself into a corner. Then he blows up the corner. Then he sets the house on fire. The Three Stooges has more logic. But it works.

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

I don't know how Shephard does it, folks. Mr. Knowitall is beyond his paygrade.

It's a dream of freedom, nailed to the cross of everyday bullshit.

It's an elegy for the brothers' missing, absent, toothless father.

It's a turd on Hollywood Boulevard.

Something like that. True West shouldn't work, but it does and I really don't know why. Seriously. I don't know this particular magic trick, the card up Shephard's sleeve. But I want to.

Magic aside, you're probably wondering about the Banyan production itself. Yeah, well. Since you ask: It's one of the best plays I've seen in the last ten years. Hey, I'm as shocked as you are. R. Ward Duffy (Lee) and Eric Hissom (Austin) hit it out of the park as the borderline psychotic Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Props also to J. Bloomrosen (the brothers' clueless producer) and Nina Hughes (their poor mom) and director Chris Dolman for poking Shepard's needles in my brain.

True West
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 3
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Wall-E and the babies in space

Welcome to the future: the earth is a big pile of garbage. If Al Gore makes this dire warning, whining like Mr. Timbertoes turned into a real boy, your eyes glaze over with boredom. This film doesn't tell you. It shows you. No preaching, no elbowing you in the ribs with a message. Just visuals. Here's the earth, folks, 700 years in the future. We've consumed ourselves to death. Your eyes, whether you like it or not, fill with tears.

The hot bot plot: an evil corporation called Buy N Large (as opposed to say, Engulf and Devour) has filled the earth with the crap that comes out of the sphincter end of the production cycle. Mankind leaves the planet on a giant starliner for a five-year cruise. Trash-compactor bots ("WALL-E" units, natch) stay behind to clean up the planet. Humanity doesn't return. 700 years later, one Wall-E unit remains, still cleaning up. He's been doing the job so long that he's developed self-consciousness and a sense of artistry — making giant arcology sculpture out of his trash-compacted cubes.

Humanity periodically sends probes to earth to see if anything’s growing, in which case, us naked apes return. In 2710, a probe arrives, an EVE unit, pregnant with symbolism. She’s all curvy and white like an iPod. Wall-E is boxy. Fembot and guybot find each other. Then Eve finds something growing in Wall-E’s refrigerator. And, faster than you can say "break into ACT II," the excitement begins.

Back up in space, humanity (its every need met by bots) has turned into big babies floating on anti-gravity barcaloungers. Eve and Wall-E return to the mamma ship. They immediately smash a hole in the starliner and watch as the helpless screaming blobs of protoplasm are sucked into …

Well, no. Even a toaster can guess where the story goes, but that’s not the point. Ulysses goes home. Papillion escapes from jail. Romeo and Juliet kiss and die. That’s not the damn point.

Director Andrew Staunton tells the story with silent movie rhythms, riffs ripped off from Keaton, Chaplin and the rest. The first third has no dialogue, the rest has little. Chuck Jones used to bitch that most animation was “illustrated radio” — nothing but talk, talk, talk accompanied by redundant visuals. Close your eyes and you still get everything — but not with WALL-E. Illustrated radio it ain’t.

The pictures tell the story. Who needs words?

The section on the ruined earth is haunting and poignant. Not a Blade Runner vibe—more like the awesome banality of Idiocracy, minus the idiots.

The sections in the starship kick into start-and-stop action comedy.

The starliner has the look-and-feel of Star Trek and 2001 filtered through a PlaySkool toymaker’s sensibility and the design vocabulary of McDonald’s and Kwik-E-Mart. Curvy, sterile white walls accented by screaming primary colors; hologram signs full of happy faces and blobby letters, endlessly selling you shit.
The banality of evil? That’s been done.

The evil of banality?

“Wall-E” nails it.

Beautifully and hilariously.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Watching this play is like having a bout of insomnia during the Mystery Horror Howler Chiller Theater marathon while clicking the tube between commercials to Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Playwright Ludlam starts with the Rebecca story of a living replacement wife haunted by the presence of her hubby's dead first wife—then tacks on snippets of The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Curse, and a pre-Dracula silent flick called Irma Vep (an anagram for "Vampire," madam). Ludlam's characters also spout random snippets of Shakespeare—but highbrow entertainment it ain’t. The gimmick is: the play’s umpteen characters are played by two male actors, so there’s much cross-dressing and running in and out of doors. It’s as much circus act as theater: The peg-legged servant leaves the door—tada!—the bosomy replacement wife enters the other door. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty freaking funny.

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep'
Short version: Vampires and werewolves in drag, oh my.

Through July 13
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, May 30, 2008

Always ... Patsy Cline

With a title like Always ... Patsy Cline, you figure Ted Swindley's play will be about Patsy Cline. Well, it is. But his play is as much about a fan as it is about the star. And now's the time to get my prejudices right out front ...

Fans. Dyed-in-the-wool, Hosanna-in-the-Highest fans laying down palm fronds in the path of Bob Dylan, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones or, hell, Obama, give me the creeps.

I guess the collateral damage of the deaths of John Lennon, the cute chick on Miami Vice, and numerous others at the hands of their admirers have had that effect on me. Not to mention David Letterman's accelerated hair loss at the hands of his stalker. Or Stephen King's unmentionable Misery. Egghhh. But we won't mention that.

OK. So, there's my bias, right in the police line-up window, folks.

I hate fans, fanatics and fandom. I hate electric fans. I even cut my finger in one once. Another one shocked me.

I hate fans, OK?

That said, this play takes place in a more innocent time. A different country, if you like. A kinder gentler country that didn't quite so much resemble a Stephen King novel. Or the ending of Nashville.

Now, here's the play's kinder, gentler plot ...

Louise Seger was Patsy's greatest fan—not in an I-want-a-piece-of-you way, but in a sister-she-never-had way. Louise (after having her heartstrings plucked by Patsy on the radio) ran into Patsy one night at a performance. For the rest of the night, Louise volunteered herself as a pushy stage manager and, the hell of it is, it all went well. From there on out, Patsy started writing Louise as if she were an old friend, in letters signed "Always ... Patsy Cline." The letters kept up until Cline's death in 1963.

It's touching. A story of a life as seen through reflected eyes. Louise, her eyes pressed up against the candy store window of stardom, looking at Patsy on the other side.

Yeah, it's touching, all right. But it's also really clever.

Swindley, cunningly, put the audience inside the play. Louise, sitting in star-struck wonderment in the presence of her idol is a stand-in for the audience, natch. Being part of the play is the dream that every fan dreams of. Intimacy with the star. Being part of the star's world. Being the star's friend. The dream you want is the dream you get. Clever.

The play's clever structure turns it into something more than a music revue. Of course, it is a music revue—complete with a well-oiled country band serving up kick-ass renditions of "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy," and other fan faves. The musicians in question are: Skip Ellis on lead guitar; Chad Dance on bass guitar; Peter Leon on drums; and Jim Prosser on piano. Their sound is more honky-tonk than countrypolitan, which is just fine by this alt.countryboy.

Christine Mild, the lead singer/actress playing Patsy, has star charisma in her own right, and puts in an eerie, spot-on approximation of you-know-who. Joy Hawkins (who also directs the play) reminds me of Lucille Ball in her quirky comic take on Louise. Hers is a gentle embodiment of a lovable character—a great human being. Annie Wilkes she ain't.

It is, of course, entirely human to want to be friends with Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Branjelina or the latest crooning bobblehead on American Idol.

Human beings, as opposed to, say, cold-hearted critics, usually want to have that sort of relationship with their favorite actors and artists. We're tribal beings after all. In our DNA, we're hard-wired for villages of 20 or 30 people. In our hearts, we feel the singers and actors and artists giving us our sacred songs images and stories are very close to us. So close that they should be our friends. Once upon a time, it was possible. But that was a different country.

I'm not that big a fan of the way things are now.

‘Always ... Patsy Cline'
Short version: Songs from a lost country

Through June 22
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, April 4, 2008

Once upon a time in Miami

America’s “melting pot” experiment is the Babel effect in reverse. Instead of shattering one people into thousands of different tribes, America joins thousands of tribes together—melting them like tin soldiers on a hot plate, then fusing them into a single alloy of sterner stuff. Well, that’s the theory. The experiment is still in progress.

21st century Miami puts the melting pot theory to the acid test. Michael McKeever’s The Miamians (originally titled The Melt) explores the experiment. It isn’t always pretty. His play paints a portrait of a schizoid city—a city of memory that's also a city of amnesia.

On the one hand, Miami is a subtropical paradise of deeply held cultures and traditions. It’s simultaneously a subtropical Etch-a-Sketch which casually erases its rich history—paradise lost to the wrecking ball. Vast neighborhoods become blank slates for new development, high rises very much like Tower of Babel. The people who once lived in these neighborhoods don’t melt together; the ex-neighbors melt away, taking their histories with them. According to McKeever, Miami doesn’t suffer from a clash of cultures. It suffers from a clash of culture and the forces of cultural amnesia.

In The Miamians, that clash resonates in the stories of intertwining families from widely (wildly) different backgrounds—and surprisingly similar values. There’s a gay couple, a black family, a Jewish family, a Cuban family. They’re a rainbow of humanity, worthy of a Benetton ad. And they’re all such nice people. In an alternate selection of characters, McKeever could’ve given us Tony Montana from Scarface or the serial killer from Dexter. Or, say, Crockett and Tubbs from Miami Vice. He could’ve given us almost anybody. And that’s the point. Miami isn’t just a city; it’s a world. Any cross-section of Miamians is, by definition, arbitrary. Narrowing it down to six characters is like walking into a vast library and pulling out six books. In a city like Miami, chances are, the books will be wildly different and vastly interesting. McKeever’s big point?

Burning down the library is a bad idea.

McKeever opens with a story from the lost-and-found department. A character named Isaac remembers his maternal grandfather—Israel Zangwill, a playwright. Except for a few English majors, nobody else remembers his name or his play: The Melting Pot. But all America remembers the central image of Zangwill’s play: a multitude of tribes, melting and fusing together. Isaac wonders how hot the pot has to get for all those tribes to melt together. But that’s misdirection on the part of the playwright. The melting pot? Please.

McKeever thinks it’s a lousy idea. He doesn’t want to melt the tribes together. He’s in love with the tribes’ differences—in their disparate recollections. Sacred stories. Cultural memory. Whatever you call it, he wants us to love it too. He reminds us how fragile such memories can be. He shakes us up with a powerful image of memory deletion—and file recovery.

Remember Isaac? The character who told the story about the playwright at the beginning of the play?

By play’s end, Isaac doesn’t remember Isaac. His mind is a blank slate, thanks to Alzheimer’s. His stories are gone, at least from his own memory. But his family promises to remember Isaac’s stories for him. And pass them down. Isaac doesn’t understand their promise. But they do; and they mean it. Isaac’s story is worth saving. They all are.

McKeever thinks so. Clearly.

That’s the point of his play. It’s not a subtle point. He’d rather be clear.

To paraphrase an old TV show: There are 5.5 million stories in the city of Miami. “The Miamians” tells you six of them. There’s more where that came from. But if you tear down the old neighborhoods and kick the people out, the stories will be gone.

Don’t burn down the library. Even if a developer hands you a big check to put up some shiny new buildings. Don’t. Miami isn’t the buildings.

It’s the people, stupid.

‘The Miamians’
Short version: Miami: you can’t go home again.

Through May 24
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, March 28, 2008

A horse is a horse

Peter Shaffer's Equus is a tough play to summarize. So I'll just do it badly. Once upon a time in England a stable boy went nuts and blinded some horses. The cause is a crackpot, post-Christian pagan religion in his own mind. Or maybe an unhappy childhood. A shrink examines the kid. Instead of healing him, he starts to question his own religion of psychiatry. So it goes.

This Asolo production presents the play’s twisted, emerging narrative as a counterpoint of bewildered sanity (the shrink’s point of view) and divine madness (Alan’s point of view, sometime ecstatic, sometimes hopeless.) The director frames the action in psychological space. Physical space? Well, there isn't much. You don’t get a sense of specific people interacting in a specific place and time. The inventive set is as spare and minimalist as an anal-retentive’s desk. The world on stage is a world of words; the world beyond the words is only hinted at. In this production, the gritty, physical Brittan of 1973 is less real than Alan’s mad dream of his horse god.

Technically, the production is first rate. The starts and stops of the conversational rhythms: the dance of action inside the minimal set: a lighted Cartesian grid below an arch—suggesting, as needed, a stable, sanitarium, or a home.

Emotionally, it’s as good as it gets. Michael Donald Edwards’ direction gets under your skin. The actors inhabit their characters. Cardenas is damn good as the mad Alan, a lunatic John Boy embodying the viciousness of innocence; Mum and Dad could easily come off as jerks, but Millman and Jones both manage to create unique individuals you care about; Gormezano is fine as a normal teenage lass attracted to a lad who isn’t so normal; Randy Danson creates a person out of her role as the Nurse, otherwise known as Ms. Draw-Out-the-Protagonist; Whitworth, finally, is brilliant as the shrink, eating his heart out, trying to do his job when he’s not so sure it should be done. Both direction and performance are masterful.
And it's great subject matter.

The text they're performing is brilliant, with language approaching the heights of Shakespeare at times. That said, the text has flaws. And deliberate deceptions. (There's an extended analysis at the end for those who actually care.) But it boils down to beautiful language covers up bad logic.

Shaffer’s brilliant play feels like a brilliant cheat—a series of allegorical chess moves in which the playwright’s unbelievable, impossible opponent is engineered to lose. Rational Psychiatry vs. Pagan Splendor. Checkmate in 16 moves . The playwright wins! Brilliant Mr. Shaffer. Simply brilliant!

Well, not that brilliant. Real loonies aren’t like Alan. Real psychiatrists aren’t like Dysart — a Freudian who talks like a Jungian and makes the fundamental assumption that psychiatric treatment destroys the soul.

Shaffer offers a believable portrait of madness. His portrait of sanity is unbelievable. It isn’t even a strawman.

It isn’t even there.

Short version: Brilliant answers. Stupid questions.

Through May 4
An Asolo Repertory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Nitpicky analysis below ...

Friday, February 29, 2008

'The Duchess of Malfi' at FSU/Asolo Conservatory

The hit man’s tragedy

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614) makes Macbeth seem like a feel-good romp. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Everybody dies. (Everybody you care about.) The moral of the play: Life sucks.

The plot is convoluted and dependent on cultural codes that don’t run on our current mental software. Essentially, the recently widowed (and still young) Duchess of Malfi (Elisabeth Ahrens) secretly marries Antonio Bologna (a man below her station played by Dolph Paulsen). The happy couple has kids and keep that a secret too. The Duchess’ unhappy brothers (David Yearta as the Machiavellian Cardinal and DeMario McGrew as the incestuously inclined Ferdinand) find out about the kids but not the marriage. At first, they think the Duchess has just been screwing around. When they do find out about the secret marriage, they decide to kill her anyway because hubby is low-class. But they torture her first—psychologically. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Hostel, but it’s pretty bad. After that, the play takes a surprising turn—but more on that later.

All of this is presented in dense, deeply-deep Elizabethan language—self-consciously derivative of Shakespeare, but not quite as good. The effect is like Nabokov going back in time and doing a Bard impersonation. (Except he’d probably do a better job than Webster.) It’s as mannered and artificial as a Japanese “Noh” drama.

Anybody staging this stuff in the present is left with two choices:

A) Do an archaeological recreation of the text-as-artifact. Present this stuff exactly as they’d do it back in the day with no apologies or explanations.
B) Frame the artificiality in a larger artificiality. Say, an assortment of post-modern foofaraw.

As you’ve probably guessed, option (B) is what the Asolo Conservatory did in their recent production directed by Susannah Gellert. The actors are in modern dress. The action takes place in what looks like a crappy motel room with a pull out bed, a church-lady-type electric organ, two video monitors and a microphone on a stand. Actors interview each other with a vidcam and you see it on the monitors. Others take turns banging the organ and doing karaoke on the mike. Above it all, a sign proclaims: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EVIL. I’ll take the Conservatory’s word for it, though Webster’s play seems to offer evidence to the contrary.

During intermission, I heard a few audience members whining, “I couldn’t understand what was happening with the actors in modern dress in that crappy motel room.” Bull. I found that the lack of a literal set forced me to pay more attention to the words. Hey, we’re in a castle now. If you say so, I’ll imagine it. But first, I have to hear you. The lack of costumes and scenery cues forced me to really listen—so I listened and I figured most of it out. Even so, there were lots of times I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

My problem with the production isn’t its lack of period cues or the post-modern gimcrackery as such. (I usually like gimcrackery.) But the structure built around the play’s original structure doesn’t add up to anything – CSI: Malfi, a video blog, a murderous game show, whatever. It isn’t a structure. The bits of business are random. (Some are rip-offs, including one dead steal from Kill Bill and another bit swiped from Blue Velvet.) What should be a frame to see through often turns into an opaque window. That’s my problem. But so what?

I figure the logic behind it all is more pedagogical than dramaturgical. If this had been a typical Asolo mainstage production intended to keep an audience happy, some contemporary playwright would’ve whacked about a third of Webster’s copyright-free original material and made the crooked roads run straight. As this was a Conservatory production intended for teaching purposes, you get all of it—clocking in at 80 minutes in the first act and an hour in the second. Needless to say the students get a workout. And some audience members got worn out.

If you’ve got the stamina to hang in there, it really picks up in the second act. (Trust me.) The Duchess is killed very quickly. (That “I was five and he was six” riff lifted from Kill Bill had me expecting her to take revenge with a samurai sword, but it was not to be.) Bosola (Jason Peck) the killer-for-hire in the red bandana and Def Leppard t-shirt, suddenly gets second thoughts—and it’s like Iago going “What was I thinking?” (At this point, I literally stop slouching, sit up and take notice.) The stone killer becomes a human being—and, effectively, the hero of the play.

Without warning, The Duchess of Malfi turns into The Hit Man’s Tragedy—and from here on it gets interesting, if damn depressing. (Maybe it’s my imagination, but Webster’s writing seems to really get better—as if he got his hands on some really good coffee.) Bosola concludes the play by killing the two swinish brothers who paid him to set their sister up. Bosola dies too, of course. Before the curtain comes down, Antonio dies, the Duchess dies, the kids, the rotten, scheming brothers and various pretty women who get in their way. It all ends badly. But it’s great theater.

Inside the post-modern frame, the acting is consistently good and true to the original characters. The direction veers from dead brilliant to why-the-hell-did-she-do-that? The ride ain’t always smooth. But it’s definitely worth the ride.

Does everything work? No. This is an experimental production and I wouldn’t expect it too. Not all the experiments work, but I applaud the mad scientist gutsiness behind it all. A standard-issue costume drama would have been the easy choice. Gellert’s post-mod production of Malfi is the road less taken. She takes risks; she forces you to be involved; she makes you question the assumptions you carry inside your skull when you enter the theater.

It’s thought provoking theater at its best.

'The Duchess of Malfi'
Short version: What’s it all about, Malfi?

Through March 16
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

'Jewtopia' at Florida Studio Theatre

Oy to the World
Jewishness is a groove. The Jewish dating scene isn’t.

“Utopia,” according to philosopher Sir Thomas More is an ideal civilization without any lawyers. “Jewtopia,” according to playwrights Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, is an enchanted kingdom containing 500,000 unattached Jewish women. (i.e., JDate, a website for Jewish singles.) Chris O’Connell (Patrick Noonan) leads his friend, Adam Lipschitz (Brandon Beilis), into that realm on a quest for the ideal Jewish Princess Bride. It’s Chris’ quest too. Adam, a non-observant Jew, wants to find a nice Jewish girl to please his family. Chris is a gentile of Irish-Catholic extraction who has converted to Judaism. He wants to find a nice Jewish girl who will relieve him of the burden of decision-making. Forever.

Adam’s Jewtopian journey becomes a series of bad dates. There’s the Hassidic lovely who sprays a can of Mace in his face; a high-energy, non-stop talker who dances him off his feet; and a sports maniac—155 dates in all, all hilariously played by Jessica Smolins. To further complicate matters, Chris-the-convert thinks that Adam isn’t Jewish enough—and pressures his friend to dress up as four different Jewish personas: a “Fiddler on the Roof” refugee; a manly Jew who likes football, sweating and beer; an art school Jew with an Edwards Scissorhands haircut; and a hyper Jew who dances like a loon. Adam’s romantic quest fails.

Then Adam emerges from Jewtopia, winds up in the hospital and finds the right girl, Rachel (Leanne Cabrera). OK, she’s a Buddhist from Mongolia, but she’s a doctor! Chris has already found his girl, Allison Cohen (Smolins again). Along with Jewish soul mates, the Gen-X guys find every possible Jewish stereotype—including Jewish stereotypes of gentiles. (Such as, “Top Ten Traits that Identify You as a Goy,” which include taking less than an hour to say goodbye and NASCAR fandom.) All seems well, until Adam and Chris and their fiancĂ©es celebrate Passover Seder with Adam’s family. Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it’s the Seder from hell. Adam’s mother isn’t happy that his bride is a member of a different tribe (although Rachel brightly points out the many cultural parallels). Pre-bris Chris exposes his Irish identity. Through it all, Adam’s sister (Smolins in hilarious redux) boils with bratty adolescent angst at the children’s table, dropping f-bombs and rude gestures whenever it’s her turn to speak. (Why do we dip the bitter herbs? Why can’t you stop controlling my life?) Everything that can go wrong does, and then gets worse. In the end, the kids get married and everybody’s happy.

Jay Berkow directs with the verve and rhythms of stand-up comedy. (Fittingly, as Fogel and Wolfson’s play was born as sketch material.) Beilis and Noonan click nicely together as the two male leads. As supporting players, Smolins (as bratty sister, the J-Date babes and Adam’s bride) always steals the show; Bonnie Black puts a woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown spin on two different Jewish mothers; Jon Kohler keeps his head down as Adam’s Jewish dad; Peter Levine makes for a slightly off-center rabbi; Cabrera plays her character totally straight with loads of gravitas—and it’s a stitch. Nayna Ramey's clever set (which resembles the JDate website) is a comedy-creating character in its own right. Did I mention this play is funny?
It’s funny. There, I mentioned it.

Is it culturally sensitive?

Nah. This play has a few stereotypes. I’m lying. It’s stuffed with stereotypes. It’s like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers where every conceivable stereotype has been packed into a tiny room. Some reviewers have referred to this as Borsht Belt comedy. Or broad comedy. They don’t get it. It’s broad comedy, but smart broad comedy, in the tradition of Mel Brooks, the early Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. The play isn’t cramming people into narrow definitions of identity to make fun of them. The narrow definitions of identity are the joke. Is Jewishness a religion, an ethnicity, a culture? All of the above and none of the above.

In the end, the characters burst out of the tiny room. Chris reveals the epiphany that drew him to Judaism—a Hasidic wedding where everyone knew the words to a song and joined in, one at a time, like characters in a musical. Fulfilling his dream, one by one, the characters on stage start singing (with Adam on guitar) in a loopy, Adam Sandlereseque groove. Chris joins in and gets his definition of Judaism.

It’s a groove.

Short version:
A Jew and a Gentile walk into the Internet

Through March 28
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The artist who stole Christmas

Kevin Dean is (in theory) a conceptual artist and (in fact) the director of Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design. He’s a very cool guy. But I have to tell you …

Kevin Dean hates Santa Claus. And, while we’re on the subject, Christmas.

This exhibit of his bizarre installations proves it beyond doubt. Brutal imagery—well, OK, sickeningly cute imagery with brutal implications—predominates in this surreal mindwalk. Cutesy-pie snowmen, 3D Last Suppers, and jars full of indefinable somethings out of The Other or Frank Zappa’s Kenny’s Little Creatures.

Dean, as post-modernist, conceptual artists do, has raised the level of difficulty for himself. It’s not enough to paint a painting. No. Hell no. Much of his work is in the form of maddeningly specific installations: arrangements of art objects and an insane collector’s dream junkyard of kitsch religious and Christmassy crap. The stuff is cool to look at. But you figure it’s a pain in the ass to set up exactly so.

Dean's art speaks in two different voices, like an overdubbed recording. One voice speaks with the highfalutin dialect of artistic symbolism from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Mary’s blue robe=purity, etc. Don’t forget your artistic decoder ring! That high, deep symbolic language resonates against styrene snowmen and rotating Christmas color wheels. But even that isn’t tough enough.

Dean not only speaks in two voices. He puts his quotes inside quotes. Yep.

Dean’s created the art in character: the work you see is the creation of Dean’s altered ego–a Midwestern, hippy artist named Brandon Whitcomb who, in the implied backstory, followed the Via Dolorosa of the American suffering artist. Whitcomb suffered and died for his art, yep. But, in the spirit of John Wayne, he killed himself by eating, smoking and drinking to death. It’s an all-American martyrdom. A secret mourning for a love lost in a Kent State-style massacre.

This soft, sweet drama lurks inside the hard candy shell of Dean's harsh satire. He takes it seriously; at the same time, he doesn't. It's hard to get a fix on the man. Dean's art reminds me of those 3D icons of Jesus. The image changes, depending on how you look at it. It's hard to nail him down. No evil pun intended ...

But what's he really saying? Is Dean mocking the artist-martyr archetype or the harsh system that screws artists over? What's he really think?

Don't ask me.

It’s up to you to figure it out. He isn’t trying to ruin Christmas. But Dean isn’t doing your job either.

What he’s doing, it seems to me, is building a world. He’s been working at it for 23 years. Hell, I can’t claim objectivity. I remember Dean, back in the early 1990s back when I tried to start an arts paper in the beautiful arts town by the sea, you know, Sarasota. Dean. Putting the bits and pieces of this stuff together. Lecturing students (in character as some academic shmuck) about the life and death of Whitcomb.

I love this stuff. I can’t claim to define what he’s up to.

Like God’s world, the world Dean made is damaged. As are the people in it.

Beneath all the kitsch and crap, the sense of the sacred fights to come out.

It haunts me.

Like those stories they used to tell in church when I was a kid.

Or Santa.

‘Brandon Whitcomb: A Retrospective After Life’
Short version: If you meet Santa on the road, kill him.

When: Through March 8
What: Kevin Dean's mind-blowing art installation.
Where: Mack B. Projects, 500 Tallevast Rd.
Phone: 359-0654