Saturday, October 31, 2009

The magical "Mystery Plays" are waiting to take you away ...

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Mystery Plays is really two plays. Both are genuinely disturbing. Greg Leaming directed the recent FSU/Asolo Conservatory performance. Great theater -- but I didn't expect it to get under my skin the way it did. If spoilers disturb you, read no more.

In The Filmmaker's Mystery, a gay filmmaker (Dane Dandridge Clark) survives a train wreck and discovers, hello, he's really a sin eater. This is sort of like a Jr. Jesus Christ, without the job perks. He gets to take the sin and guilt of various victims of various calamities. On himself. To allow the victims to go on to heaven. He gets to go blind and become an outcast from society. But one dead guy (Kenneth Stellingwerf) proves to be indigestible.

Ghost Children reveals a young lawyer (Kim Hausler) who confronts the man (Ron Kagan) who brutally murdered her parents and younger sister 15 years ago. Along with being the killer, he's also her brother. The supernatural doesn't enter into it. The horror here is Sacasa's precise imagination -- what would go through the killer's mind; why he would do it; how his sister would react; the shadow it would cast on her mind; the cost of forgiveness.

Reviewers like to compare Sacasa to Rod Serling. He reminds me more of Neil Gaiman (who wrote the Sandman graphic novel series) and Guillermo del Toro (the director of The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth). The connection is more than the mix of reality and fantasy. It's more a genuine sense that an Other World really does exist -- and it's not a fantasy. And not always friendly.

Horror comes in two flavors: It's either absolutely irrational or it's a bloody application of divine law. Sacasa suggests a third possibility: horror is a reflection of divine law -- which makes no sense to human reason.

That really scares me.

'The Mystery Plays!'
Short version: Gets under your skin.

Through Nov. 15
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, October 23, 2009


First, let's get one thing straight. "Contact" is not an adaptation of the tedious Jodie Foster SF flick. It's Susan Stroman and John Weidman's Tony Award-winning "dance play" from Y2K. As the clunky phrase implies, there's much dance and little dialogue and zero lyrics to the music. Evidently, NYC theater people had an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about whether or not it really was a musical, so they decided to call it a "dance play."

Folks, they should've called it a sex play. It's "Contact" in the sense of sexual contact. That's fine by me, but I don't want to dance around it. The show is dripping with sex. It's the kind of thing that made Oliver Cromwell close down the theaters.

The first number is "Swinging." It's a riff on Fragonard's 1767 painting, "The Swing." The scene: Once upon a time in France, there's a lady on a swing and two upper class dudes hanging out with her having a picnic. How arty. My friend the Internet says the painting is loaded with sexual symbolism. "Contact" unpacks that symbolism, and if I make it any clearer I'll have to talk dirty. In terms of staging, there's an actual giggling lady on an actual swing. When the one dude goes to get wine, she has acrobatic sexual dalliances with the other dude. It's sorta like a circus act with implied bumps and grinds. The original swingers. It's as deep as a Pepe LePew cartoon. And as much fun.

The second bit is another Silly Symphony. The scene: NYC in the 1950s. A low-level gangster (James Clarke) takes his wife (Nadine Isenegger) out to a buffet-style Italian restaurant for a night of dining and verbal abuse. He tells her, "Just sit there. Don't talk to the waiter; don't flirt with the busboy; don't you fucking move." He makes periodic feeding trips to the serving line. Whenever he's offstage, his wife launches into increasingly steamy dance sequences. In the final Fellini-esque number, she jumps in the head waiter's convertible and zooms down the road to do the deed. She returns in time to get slapped by her husband and -- after a hilarious bit where the waiters play three card monte with his 45 automatic -- she shoots him. But it was all in her head: a pathetic, Lucille Ball fantasy of freedom. She offers him a rose; he throws it on the floor. She accepts more verbal abuse and goes on with her lousy real life.

The final vignette: NYC in Y2K. Various locations. Michael (Fletcher McTaggart), a lone wolf filmmaker, drunkenly accepts a Clio award for yet another sell-out commercial. He returns to his Manhattan flat to do himself in. The answering machine keeps interrupting him. He winds up at a swing dancing club (a big fad back in Y2K) where he starts chasing The Girl in the Yellow Dress (Shannon Lewis). House rules: getting the girl means dancing with her. Sadly, the dude can't dance. To make it worse, the Swing Dancers intimidate him like rejects from the Jets and Sharks. But you know how it works in these things: Michael magically turns into a great dancer as a pure act of will. (Hey, who needs lessons?) He gets the girl! Then it all melts away. Turns out, the night of swinging was all in Michael's head. In reality, he's hanging by a rope -- but miraculously manages to save himself. In the end, he makes a human connection with the woman in the floor below who's always bitching about his loud noise.

Tomé Cousin is the director and choreographer. A high level of difficulty, but he made it look easy. As the piece is a hybrid "dance play," the Asolo Rep teamed up with Sarasota Ballet to pull if off. Along with the Asolo actors, the production featured full-time ballet dancers Rania Charalmbidou, Rita Duclos, Kate Honea, Logan Learned, Octavio Martin, Ricardo Rhodes and Tracey Tucci. They also make it look easy. And all look like they're having a great time.

I did too. I have a few minor beefs, mostly on the level of bits of business. Did we need the dude with his apron around his ankles in the second bit? Would a busboy bust a gangster's balls -- even a minor gangster? My only major criticism: using the "It was all in your mind" gag twice. But on the whole, I loved it.

To me, Contact functioned as a live action, flesh-and blood cartoon. Since I am a cartoonist, that's no insult. Cartoons and dance have a lot in common. You don't need a lot of yatta-yatta-yatta. The best cartoons are about the movement of bodies in space.

More importantly, motion is mind made physical. Cartoonist know that too. The rage of the Bull in Bully for Bugs. The Wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood turning straight as an arrow at the sight of his desire. Stimpy's psychotic insanity in"Sven Hoek."

Movement is an expression of desire -- and its frustration and fulfillment. Movement is character, in other words. As every cartoonist knows, how you move is who you are.
If you can create character with as few words as possible, so much the better.

Contact does just that. It's filled with dance, but no dance for dance's sake. All the motion on stage serves the creation of character. A play of few words.

That's all it needed.

Through Nov.
An Asolo Rep production
in collaboration with Sarasota Ballet
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Cat's Meow

Hey. I never realized Alex from A Clockwork Orange had a sister. Who knew?

Actually, that's "Meow Meow," the multi-talented Australian vamp -- and one of the star attractions at the Ringling International Arts Festival. She bills herself as a post modern cabaret singer. This basically means her act is inside quotation marks. It's funnier than it sounds.

Anyway, Meow Meow arrives late, dragging her baggage. (Get it?) She can't get her act together. (Get it?) She's fragile, coming apart at the seams. She starts apologizing to the audience. Repeatedly. "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen. I can't do this anymore. I just can't." Her act continues under threat: She could split at any moment. It's sorta like that scene in Blazing Saddles where Sheriff Bart puts a gun to his own head. "One false move and the singer gets it."

The comic flywheel inside the show: Meow Meow is a stage persona. A cabaret singer, one part Marlena Deitrich, two parts Liza Minelli. A diva doll. Hypersexual, cold, decadent, inaccessible, mad, bad and dangerous to know. But the human being inside that persona is having a hard time crawling inside her Meow Meow suit night after night. The theatrical clockwork is hard to wind up. The hyperfeminine machinery is a pain in the ass.

The actress inside Meow Meow is sorta like a female female impersonator. She keeps calling attention to the sheer energy effort and athleticism (the spike heels, corsets and the costume changes) required to create her uber-diva character. It's hard work. It's also a trick on the audience. Like Penn and Teller, she shows you how the magic works. Even then, the trick is still amazing.

To spell it out: The performer is a singer/actress pretending to be the singer/actress pretending to be Meow Meow. Ta-da!

Hey, besides which, the lady can really sing.

Apart from the post-modern huggery-muggery, Meow Meow's act boils down to repeated public humiliations of the audience, usually men. One of those audience participation things where she drags victims on stage and makes them jump through hoops. (Gotta tell you, gang. Sarasota did not shine. The guys came off like the stuffed shirts in a Marx Brothers movie. They didn't want to play.)

Funny stuff, though towards the end, it got to be a little too much of the same stuff. I wanted the act to end with the same narrative energy it started with. Meow Meow quits show biz. Or the audience applauds and, like Tinkerbell, she shines on and her stage career continues. Didn't happen. No matter.

She pushed performance to a space it doesn't usually go.

She took the audience with her whether they liked it or not.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

--Wallace Stevens, Bantams in Pine Woods

As Percy Sledge reminds us, "When a man loves a woman, he can't keep his mind on nothing else." Well, according to Neil LaBute, that ain't exactly true. If the woman is too much woman.

We learn this lesson in Fat Pig, the Banyan Theater's final summer offering for 2009.

The plot: boy meets fat girl.

Specifically, Tom (Sam Osheroff) meets and falls in love with Helen (Margot Moreland), who happens to be sparkling, witty and a fan of old war movies. She also happens to be plus-sized, hefty, Rubenesque, insert fat-euphemism here.

Tom's friends at the office find out and don't dig the fat chick. Evil fratboy Carter (Dane Dandridge Clark) steals her picture and email blasts it to the rest of the office. His ex-girlfriend, thin chick Jeannie (Bethany Weise), is one of those hell-hath-no-fury-as-a-woman-scorned types. The fact that her replacement is a big lady just makes her fury all the more furious. Tom can't handle the social pressure. In a universe of two, he'd stay with Helen forever. In a universe full of people who don't dig fat chicks, Tom dumps her. True love does not conquer all. Get the message? Curtain.

I half expected the lobby to be filled with glossy brochures for stomach-stapling treatments.

But let's rewind to the performance itself. No complaints here.

The Banyan troupe was hitting on all cylinders.

Osheroff's Tom repeatedly reminded me of Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate. Moreland neatly danced along the cliff edge of turning Helen into the jolly fat girl -- and did not fall in. She remained believable and sympathetic. Clark's character was a true shit -- but got most of the funniest lines in the play. Clark got a lot of comic mileage out of this bastard, which I mean as a compliment. Weise's Jeannie was a great comic characterization; a crackling thunderhead of hurt and sexual rejection -- an empowered modern woman ready to zap her ex-boyfriend at any time.

Kirk Hughes's set design (mix-and-match sliding panels) was downright groovy.

Director Greg Leaming got into a sit-com groove in the first act -- which I think followed LaBute's intention in the text. The couple meets cute; you expect When-Harry-Met-Sally rom-com payoff to follow. Like Lucy with the football, LaBute is suckering the Charlie Brown audience for the harsh truth of the second act. ("You expected a happy ending? Ha!" "Auuggggh!") Needless to say, the play switches gears, and the second act isn't so funny. The director switched gears, and suitably slapped our hearts around with the poignant -- if ultimately unbelievable -- material.

Yeah, unbelievable.

Once again, I'm forced to peel away a great performance from a script with bad (or dishonest) logic. That's always worse in a message play.

And that's exactly what this is.

Like a South Park episode, you always learn something after a LaBute play. In contrast to South Park, it's always bad news. I half expect Kyle to come out and say "I've learned something today. We'd like to think we accept fat people. We don't. We treat them like shit. If you like fat people, your friends reject you. That's just the way it is."

LaBute specializes in Satanic after school specials. His movies and plays usually revolve around some trendy issue. (Sexism, attitudes about fat people, etc.) He stakes out the politically correct attitude, and takes a contrary position. This makes his work "edgy."

With Fat Pig, once again, LaBute shoves our face in Harsh Reality and rubs our noses in it. But logic rears its ugly head ...

Bad logic:

* An up-and-coming corporate alpha male wouldn't take shit from his friends.
* A wimpy beta male who would take shit wouldn't have this successful position.
* Friends who trash your girlfriend and publicly humiliate you ain't friends.
* In the age of Sensitivity Training and lawsuits, this wouldn't happen so openly.

Yet again, logic be damned, LaBute has his message to make. But the theory of human character and behavior behind it doesn't add up. People aren't as rotten as LaBute makes them out to be. They aren't that righteous, either. People are rotten and righteous. It's a choice. That free-will thing.

I got the message.

I just don't buy it for a second.

Fat Pig
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 23
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, July 31, 2009

Willy the Shakes

Shakespeare was a bloody genius, no bloody question. But here's the awful truth, folks. He wasn't writing for us. Us sophisticated, 21st century, postmodern pinheads, that is. He was writing for 15th century Elizabethan pinheads. They were his audience.

Just to make things nice and sparkling clear. Shakespeare, whatever high-flown artistic motives he had, was writing to entertain that audience. And, in the process, make money.

As a result, here in the 21st century ...

Shakespeare's serious stuff doesn't translate. And his jokes don't fly.

To make matters worse, most of us first encountered WS as an assignment. Or, even worse. As a self-imposed exercise in intellectual snobbery.

Which makes attending a Shakespeare play sorta like going to church. Not the fun kinda church where they shake tambourines and hoot and holler. No. The dull variety of church. Where you sing every tedious verse of every tedious hymn in a slow, measured pace while the organ thunders. Where you perform elaborate rituals without context. Where you listen to a long, long, long, long sermon in an archaic dialect that makes you feel good about yourself by, perversely, showing how rotten you are.*

Such is the Church of Shakespeare. It's only natural that a pack of clowns would make us laugh by farting in it.

I refer, of course, to the Florida Studio Theatre's Reduced Shakespeare Company production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). All 37 plays in two hours or your pizza is free. No kidding.

It's funny stuff, folks.

* Titus Andronicus as a cannibalistic cooking show.

* All of Shakespeare's comedies mashed up together. Only one plot for the lot, after all. It's only fair.

* Shakespeare's history plays as a football game.

* Hamlet as reimagined by the Monty Python troupe holding a seance with the spirit of Groucho Marx.

Michael Daly, Brad DePlanche and Christopher Patrick Mullen act and Jim Helsinger directs. The comedy, in case you asked, which you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway, is character based, which is a fancy way of saying you're supposed to believe three theatrical nuts really think they can distill Shakespeare in two hours or less, including one reluctant maniac who starts equivocating when it's Hamlet time. Is that coincidence or what?

It's hilarious, but it's only hilarious because the sacredness of Shakespeare is indestructible.

At one point, one of the characters jumps into Hamlet's What a piece of work is man speech. The point being, essentially: What a piece of shit is man. It's depressing, if you think about it. But who cares? The language is so damn beautiful.

This feels like a hilarious mockery of Shakespeare. Hilarious it is, but it's no mockery.

It's really a love letter.

The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)
Through Aug. 23
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

*Hey, that's obviously the off-putting Hallmark Productions surface level of the Bard. Suffice to say, as much as Shakespeare was feeding the spirit of his time, he was speaking beyond his time. There's an ocean of meaning below the crowd-pleasing stuff. And all the centuries to the last measure of recorded time really are his audience. I could go on about this, but this byte-sized review is not the time or place.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Once upon a time in Vienna

Plays about the artistic process have the same problem as sports movies. You watch Barton Fink struggle to write or Muhammad Ali sharpen his skills in beating the crap out of people. If you’re a professional, you think “That’s not the way it works.” If you’re not, you probably don’t relate to the material.

Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs has a strikingly original take. Whether you're an artist or not, the playwright grabs you.

His play's central character, Stephen Hoffman (Ken Ferrigni), is an aging child prodigy with pianist performance problems. He goes to Europe get his groove back. The master piano teacher commands him to study with a voice coach first — Prof. Josef Mashkan (Kenneth Tigar). The deal: for three months, Stephen doesn’t get to play the piano. He sings while Josef plays. Which is sort of like sending Dale Earnhardt for three months of track and field lessons, but there’s a method to this madness. It’s all about using music to create an emotional connection, and not go through the motions in a dead formal exercise.

The lessons revolve around Schumann's Dichterliebe, a heartstring-tugging cycle of unrequited love songs set to 16 poems by Heinrich Heine. Like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Josef gets into a battle of wits with Stephen and it’s no contest. It’s Old World vs. New World, American impatience vs. European romantic brooding; Philip Glass’ one-note, android music and Phillip Johnson’s glass houses vs. loop-the-loop 19th-century compositions and Vienna’s bric-a-brac encrusted architecture. Stephen might seem like a strawman set up to be knocked down except for one thing ...

For all his weepy, music-must-touch-the-heart romanticism, Josef is a right bastard.

More specifically, Josef seems to be an unrepentant Nazi bastard, constantly dropping little bon mots like, “The Jews weren’t the only ones who suffered.” The play is set in 1986, when Kurt “What, Me Nazi?” Waldheim is running for Austrian president. For Josef and Stephen both, that particular nerve has been rubbed very raw. Where their pain comes from, we find out later.

I expected the play to end on a Stephen-learns-from-Josef-but-the-teacher-learns-from-his-student note. Followed by one big hug. That’s not what happens — but I can’t tell you what happens without spoiling it.

Enough to say, it’s a great play with great direction by Maran — who obviously had great insight into the playwright’s intentions, since he happened to be the playwright. As to the actors, Ferrigni and Tigar put all their hearts, minds and souls into the performance.

Josef would have been proud.

Old Wicked Songs
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 2
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My funny valentine

When you're talking to the walls, it's time to take a vacation. The title character (and only character) in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine winds up doing just that. The 42-year-old London housewife is stuck in her dingy flat, stuck with her lump of a husband, stuck in a rut. Then — by sheer dumb luck — she wins two tickets to a vacation in Greece. She goes — and eventually stays until she's good and ready to come home. The fact that she goes at all is an accomplishment. People are stuck for a good reason. She's not used to making decisions — she's used to asking permission. She has to work up her courage. When she finds it, she keeps it. Of course, to a sexually frustrated British housewife, Greece means more than statues and scenery. Shirley finds romance, too. Not the permanent kind. Just the validation that she's still got it.

It's a one-woman play and very well written. The art of story-telling means more than having a story — it's figuring out how to tell it. This is structured like a first-person novelette. You could take away the stage and have Shirley telling you her story on a bare stage with a microphone like a stand-up comedian. It would still be interesting. The words on the page, alone, are interesting. The playwright tells a truthful, warmhearted story without being sentimental or manipulative. It's a crowd pleaser, but never cheats. It earns every ounce of laughter and applause. And, on the opening night performance, there was a lot of it.

Kate Alexander directs and Shirley Bradshaw stars. Brilliant direction, acting and material. Dead brill' as the Brits like to say. See it if you can.

It's the next best thing to a vacation in Greece.

Shirley Valentine
Extended through Aug. 8
FST Gompertz Theatre

The other 40-year-old virgin

Playwright Martin McDonagh pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience in his The Beauty Queen of Leenane — the Banyan Theater’s season opener. Bait-and-switch as in he promises one thing, then sells you another. The damn thing is, it works.

In the first act, you think you’re watching one of those repressed-woman-finally-blossoms plays. Sure and it’s set in a crappy town in Ireland in the 1990s. The central character, Maureen Folan, is a 40-year-old spinster who’s been trapped in a miserable, sexless existence taking care of her poisonous mother. Then, an old love interest shows up. They connect, and it’s very touching. He wants to take her to America with him. You figure, after a complication or two, he finally will.

It doesn’t work out that way. In the second act — let’s just say Maureen has something in common with Norman Bates. And I don’t mean a deep love for mother. The playwright’s dropped hints. But he tricked me into liking his character, so I ignored the hints. When Maureen does a bad, bad thing, I didn’t see it coming — and I usually expect bad things. Maybe the rest of the audience did, but I doubt it.

It's a shocker, but the playwright (who was 26 when he wrote this) pulls it off. Presto-chango! Frustrated-but-Goodhearted Maureen turns into Murderous Maniac Maureen. The trick works, but he should have ended it there. He pulls a dead rabbit out of the hat. The more the dead rabbit hangs around, the more it feels like a trick. Maniac Maureen just isn't believable.

OK, so I didn't like the ending — a minor point. Everything else, I liked. It's good writing and good theater, brilliantly directed by Gil Lazier. He has a crisp sense of pace and back-and-forth actions and reactions. He doesn't let you get a fix on the play — is it comedy? Tragedy? When the play hits you between the eyes, there's no time to get your guard up.

Great acting, too. Kim Crow plays the mom-from-hell, Jessica K. Peterson her demonic daughter. Derry Woodhouse and Gordon Myles Woods are the Dooley brothers. Derry's the shy, smart one; Gordon's the mean, loud stupid one. Each character comes across as a complex person with an inner life and a history.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 12
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Still just a rat in a cage

We live in a web of lies. Jason Wells' Perfect Mendacity tries to untangle that web. The web turns out to be complicated.

But here goes ...

Once upon a time there was an evil corporation. A scientist who works there, Walter Kreutzer (David Breitbarth), grows a conscience. A memo about one of the company's dirty deeds falls into his lap. He wants to blow the whistle, but he also wants to keep his job, so he passes the memo on to his wife (Diana Simonzadeh), a Moroccan expatriate who's had a conscience for quite some time. Predictably, she leaks the memo. Predictably, the company tries to track down the source of the leak — and Walter is one of the prime suspects. Slated to take a lie-detector test, Walter takes a course in beating them. (D’Avore Peoples plays the slick, smiling test-buster.) Along the way, his so-called friend at the company (Doug Jones) tries to entrap him. His wife decides he's a neo-colonialist weasel and leaves him. For good measure, she stabs him on the way out. In the end, Walter takes the test and passes it. The company surprises him with a second, unbeatable lie detector test. He's screwed.

Great directing by Michael Donald Edwards. Great acting by the Asolo Rep troupe. As to the script itself, Wells' play is stuffed with brilliance on many levels: great dialogue, great scene construction, great characterizations, a timely grasp of world issues. With all that going for it, the play didn't work for me. It took me a long time to figure out why. Then it hit me ...

The lead character is a rat. Truly evil characters (Alex from A Clockwork Orange or Richard III) can be fascinating. Walter, as Dr. Evil once put it, is semi-evil. He's just not interesting.

Wells -- who's pretty damn smart -- wrote himself in a corner. Heroically, he tackled two heavy subjects: (A) Evil, Blackwater-type corporations that get away with murder and (B) The technological assault on the sanctity of the human mind. Unfortunately, those two subjects cancel each other out. To make sure we're clear about the evilness of the corporation, the playwright's lead character isn't a Jimmy Stewart-type who has a crisis of conscience and finally does the right thing. Wells made Walter a rat trying to evade a rat trap. Will they catch him -- or not? Who cares?

Not me, folks.

He's a rat. I don't give a rat's ass if a character's mind is violated if he's just a rat who's trying to cover his ass to save his career. (For the only semi-good deed he's ever done in his life.)

There's no character arc. The character begins as a rat. He ends as a rat. His mind is pried open like a cheap bicycle lock. He's a ratfink, so I don't care.

Wire me up, folks. But that's the truth.

Perfect Mendacity
Through June 14
An Asolo Repertory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, April 24, 2009


David Harrower’s “Blackbird” is, well, harrowing.

The tale is strong medicine. Somewhere in England, Ray (at age 40) has a sexual affair with Una (at age 12). Ray goes to prison, gets out, gets a new name, a new family, a new life. 15 years later, she tracks him down.

Ray (in a grim echo of Ricky Gervais' The Office) has a crappy mid-level management job in a crappy warehouse. Una meets him there — and basically peels off the defensive layers of his soul (and hers) in the dingy break room.

There's none of the solipsistic romanticism of Nabokov's Lolita. There's none of the easy justice of daytime TV, either. Una confronts Ray. He's ruined her life. She makes him face it. But, uncomfortably, she still has feelings for him. The playwright makes the audience face that.

Harrower's script offers machine-gun fire dialogue, laid out like poetry. I've read it. His words look good on the page — but, then, so did the words in David Mamet's Oleanna, which this very much resembles. Mamet directed the movie adaptation of his own play — and it sucked. I was afraid this would suffer a similar fate — that it wouldn't make the transition from page to stage. Director Beth Duda did a damn good job. She found the music inside the script — the emotional beats — and they feel exactly right. The characters feel like people talking. The actors, of course, had something to do with it.

Una is a wounded bird. Ray is a shit. Not an easy assignment, either one of them.

As Una, Sarah Stockton successfully combined a sense of vulnerability with a core of white-hot rage. You figure she's been rehearsing this confrontation in her mind for years. Of course her words would be boiled down. She'd know exactly what to say, have an answer for everything Ray could possibly say. Her words would be a perfect acid — and she'd throw it in his face and destroy him. But — when Una actually faces the real human being — it's not so easy. Stockton nailed her character's contradictions perfectly.

Dan Patrick Brady could easily have played Ray as a pure creep. But even creeps don't think they're creeps. From Ray's point of view, he feels entitled to a new life. He did a bad thing, was disgraced and sent to prison. (All this happened before lists of sex offenders became public record in the UK.) He's been punished, OK? That was then, this is now. (And after all, what he did wasn't really all that bad. It's understandable. He's not one of those child molesters.) All that was in the past. But Una's now haunting him in the present. He wants her safely back in the past. Like it or not, Brady snags you into seeing Ray's point of view.

There's no easy point of view to consider this material.

Blackbird is a story of abuse. It's a story of hate. God help us, it's also a sick love story. Strong medicine, as I said. There's no spoonful of sugar to help it go down.

It's not a feel-good play. It's a play that makes you feel truth.

Kudos to FST for presenting it — and for making it come alive.

Through May 7
FST Gompertz Theatre

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Winter's Tale

Winter, yeah. Discontent, no.

"A Winter's Tale" is a magical play, if not one of Shakespeare's A-list plays. The first act has the darkness of Othello and King Lear. The second act is light-hearted and goofy, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It feels like two different plays.

Director Michael Edwards staged it that way, and it works brilliantly. The first act is an ice pick to the brain exploring jealousy, paranoia and angry gods. At the act's end, Shakespeare pulls his royal-baby-washed-up-on-a-beach trick and kills the witnesses. We get the famous stage direction:

Exit, pursued by bear.

The second act exchanges cruel Sicilia for hippy-dippy Bohemia, where bucolic shepherds wear flowers in their hair and dance to the tune of "Good Morning Starshine." The tone totally changes — and by now, we need it. Shakespeare seems to realize his big climax is a cliche — and instead of showing you, has the servants relate it in the hall. Brilliant, but I guess I'm not the first one to say it. As long as he's giving you a happy ending, he brings the dead queen from the first act back from the dead, disguised as a painted statue.

I loved it, even if I didn't quite buy it. (My guess is this is early, experimental Shakespeare, though the scholars aren't sure.) Call it Bollywood Shakespeare — something for everybody, tragedy, comedy, dancing, singing, hungry bears, you name it. This production adds Einstein in the Lunar Excursion Module, explaining what happened in the 16-year intermission. I assume, he wasn't in the original draft, but I loved that, too.

The actors had fun, and the audience did too. Brent Bateman is a hoot as the con-artist Autolycus -- kind of a cross between the Skipper on Gilligan's Island and the fat Elvis. Dan Donohue's mentally unhinged Leontes proves once again he's a talent to watch. Kris Danford is touching as Leontes' resurrected wife. David Breitbarth has a lot of range as Leontes estranged brother, Polixenes. Mercedes Herrero is riveting as a self-appointed conscience to Leontes. Heather Kelley and Kevin O'Callaghan are comically clueless as two royal lovebirds. (If a prince falls for a princess who doesn't know she's a princess, that makes it OK.)

It's a long play — one that goes all over the map. When it's over, you don't want it to be. In the right hands, Shakespeare's magic still works.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Death becomes her, the dead person being Louise Nevelson, (played by Kate Alexander) the heroine of Edward Albee's Occupant. Nevelson, for the record, was an avant-garde sculptor, Jewish, a Russian native, equally famous for her seemingly primitive constructions of wood and splashy fashion choices. She's been dead for two decades or so. The first thing she does when she comes back? Agree to an ArtNews style interview. You gotta admire her.

Dead or not, she doesn't take any crap. This is the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, after all? Albee's Nevelson isn't afraid of anybody. In the first act, the interviewer (Patrick Noonan) can barely get a question out. She questions his questions — their assumptions, presumptions, and implied lack of knowledge. She reminds me of every cantankerous interview subject I've ever had.

Albee, of course, is the cantankerous playwright behind it all. He could easily have made this a one-woman play with a Louise Nevelson character supplying biographical nuggests in a narrative thread. The interview format questions biography itself: especially artists' biographies and our urge to nail down living and dead creators into the coffin of a consistent storyline based on unambiguous motivations. Instead, Albee's Nevelson character zips and darts away from the questions like a fox evading the hounds. We see bright flashes of her, but nothing definitive. That's the point.

In the second act, Nevelson seems to calm down and let the interviewer get a word or two in edgewise. Once we know that the facts of her biography are conditional and contradictory, Albee allows the facts emerge. The basic fact: Nevelson achieves success, but late in life. It's a bittersweet victory. In the end, dying of cancer, she has them take down the sign in her hospital room announcing "LOUISE NEVELSON" and replaces it with "OCCUPANT." She returns to the shadows. It's a poignant moment.

Director Susan Greenhill achieves a nice pacing with Albee's lines — which are constantly creating a rhythm, then interrupting it with other rhythms, like waves cancelling each other out in a coffee cup. She pulls it off and makes it sound natural.

Alexander puts in an amazing performance in a very demanding role — I'd say once in a lifetime, but I've seen her do it before. Noonan, as her interviewer, is great too. He's the straight man and the punching bag. Albee's play is not without humor. The joke is on all of us who, like the interviewer, want hard and fast answers. The joke is on him, and he takes it like a man.

The play is a must-see. Along with everything else, it's a fine argument for appreciating the work of great artists while they're still alive.

Through Jan. 31
FST Gompertz Theatre

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I could have told you, Vincent ...

Vincent Van Gogh was out of his mind. He suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia — or something. He had a nutty artistic theory equating light and the color yellow with God, and spirals with the life force. Maniac that he was, he painted like a maniac. His paintings didn’t sell and he never understood why. No woman ever loved him; he never started a family. Van Gogh failed in his transcendent goals; he failed in his mundane pleasures. Ultimately, he shot himself, and failed at that too. It took him six hours to die.

Whatever the reality of Van Gogh’s life, he turned into a saint in the popular mind. A kind of artistic Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself and died for his art. Starry, starry night … and all that crap.

Steven Dietz' Inventing Van Gogh takes on the myth — and chickens out.

To boil down the main plot, Rene Bouchard (David Briethbarth), some contemporary, art world bigwig (a forgery detector in the forgery business) hires a young painter, Patrick Stone, (Jason Peck) to fake Van Gogh’s lost self-portrait — the one Van Gogh supposedly painted the day before he shot himself. The painter has at it — and Van Gogh appears to him like the Ghost of Christmas Past. The play bounces back and forth between Van Gogh’s life in the 1870s and Stone’s life in the 1990s as he struggles to complete his forgery. Back in the past, Van Gogh seems to see the contemporary painter in his visions. It’s a nice conceit: If I can be in your hallucinations, you can be in mine.

Initially, the painter attacks the myth of Van Gogh. But he falls for the myth. He seems to be possessed by the spirit of Van Gogh. He paints the forgery, and the art world buys it. Sad to say, the same thing seems to happen to the playwright. Dietz starts out attacking the hagiography of Van Gogh. Then he falls for it. He expects the audience to buy it.

Problems with the material aside, the Asolo production is stellar. Dan Donohue, as Van Gogh, is worth the price of admission. David Breitbarth shows brio in a dual role as the art world grifter and Gauguin. The other actors are good, but stiffed by the script. The female lead has lines that sounded like rocks in her mouth. (“Hi. I’m the fragile, female, art-whore neurotic who craves attention. Why won’t you speak to me?”) John Windsor-Cunningham gets spongy lines. Peck, as the young artist, hardly gets any lines — his character barely speaks. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem of dialog and characterization: a character who keeps his mouth shut.

I like Brad Dalton’s direction — stately, weird magical realism, brilliantly staged — but that’s sort of like saying I loved the parade float that The Emperor With No Clothes was standing on. I never quite buy the material being directed. Dietz is brilliant, in terms of structure, but he doesn’t follow through with the implications of his premise. And he can’t write female dialog to save his life.

I kept thinking WWSKD?

What Would Stephen King Do?

I.e.: Van Gogh’s nutty ideas drive him crazy. He goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself — but he passes the infection on. 100 years later, the art history teacher gets it — and goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself. His student fights the infection, then comes down with it too. He “becomes” Van Gogh and paints a forgery. The world applauds, but you know he’s destined to go out to a wheat field and shoot himself.

But no. That's not what happens.

Dietz’ play doesn’t go there. Stone completes his forgery — and that's a good thing. The spirit of Van Gogh is painting through him. Stone starts out as a skeptic — then falls down on his knees and says "Yes, Lord" to the cult of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh is a popular saint. Dietz' play invents him (or reinvents him) and makes no attempt to deconstruct him. It starts out by taking on the myth — and then has second thoughts. Dietz gives the audience what he thinks it wants.

At the end, Van Gogh walks into a painted sunset, like Uncle Remus at the end of The Song of the South.

And I could’ve told you Vincent
The world was never meant.
For one as beautiful.
As you.

Imagine, say, a play called Inventing Jesus Christ. The play you'd expect would rudely take apart the notion of Jesus — the play would tell us the Jesus we know in our heads is a fraud, an artifice, a fake, our own invention. Blasphemy, sure. You'd expect a similar artistic blasphemy with a play titled Inventing Van Gogh. A deconstruction of Van Gogh's artistic sainthood. Of the cult of Van Gogh.

But this is not that play.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The vision thing

In Melanie Marnich’s Blur, Dot, a 17-year-old girl, starts going blind. Our plucky young hero faces the gathering dark and finds love.

Well, no. No exactly.

She faces the gathering dark, kicking and screaming like an angry baby. She finds love because she’s a teen bubbling with hormones and that’s what they do. Her coming-of-age story just happens to coincide with her gahhhh-I’m going-blind story.
There are touching moments, but no sentimental moments.

Blur could’ve easily turned into Butterflies are Free for the new millennium, but Marnich resisted the temptation. It’s harsh where it could’ve been mushy. It asks hard questions and gives no easy answers.


Marnich writes in poetic language about a realistic situation.(There’s even a realistic explanation for the poetic dialog. Like Gena Rowlands character in A Woman Under the Influence, Mom is shooting out Shizophrenic word salad. Her daughter inherits her whacky tendencies.)

The playwright sticks to the particular. Isn’t all blind people; this is just Dot's story, not a universal story.

At first, Dot takes it badly. She says hurtful things like "I wish you were blind” to her mother; she rejects her mother for lying about passing on the genetic trait; she assaults her supportive friends.

There’s a philosophical question, but the playwright leaves it on the back burner. You know: WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE?



The playwright refers to the hard questions obliquely. The charming priest (who becomes a charming, defrocked homeless priest) obviously wrestles with the question. He’s the theological elephant in the room.

The play's improbable ending reminds me of Places of the Heart. Everybody comes together. Dot creates a community, comprising herself, her boyfriend, the defrocked priest and the lesbian. This commune of the saints in a New York City walkup isn't exactly realistic, but I think the playwright has earned the ending by digging in her heels and refusing to let her character be universal. Dot isn’t all blind people. We assume others who go blind jump off buildings, or do greater things, or just muddle through. Blur just happens to be Dot's story. She’s blind because she’s blind. It’s bad luck and this is how she deals with it.

The production
As words on a page, the script ain’t exactly a yuck a minute. The tone is up for grabs. Director Barbara Redmond went for a comic tone —a matter of timing, emphasis and staging. The sets are minimal and whacky. The scenes are announced with actors striding across the stage holding signs (like Wile E. Coyote) labeled “THE PIER” or “THE ZOO" and occasionally walkling into walls. Another director could’ve taken the material and done something heavily heavy to it. This is clearly comedy tonight, which is fine by me. The material is hard to take as it is.