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.