Friday, December 10, 2010

In Treatment

What do you mean they canceled my !@# show?
By an improbable sequence of events, I caught the final episode of In Treatment. Now I need treatment. How can I put this ...

In storytelling, there's always a conflict between logic-logic and dramatic logic. In real life, actions have consequences. If A, then B. If B, then C. There are no non sequiturs in reality. Nothing happens that can't happen. That doesn't apply to fiction.

Stories are only as logical as the writer wants them to be.

A writer can ignore a character's history. A writer can make a character do something COMPLETELY out of character. It's easy. Just type ...

Gandhi smiled, then picked up the machine gun. He began to fire, spraying a rain of death on the British troops. "How does it feel you bastards?" he screamed. "I have, most seriously, taken all the shit I can take!"

There's a term for this violation of logic. Bad writing.

But the term doesn't exactly apply to all illogical writing.

Like, say, the kind you see on HBO. The kind of writing that earns big checks.

When creating this kind of drama, a writer is in the position of the dude designing a carnival spook house ride. Every so often, a skeleton pops out with glowing red eyes and a buzzer goes EGNNNNNGHHH! Every so often, the cart suddenly dips down. The ride is punctuated with loud noises, blasts of airs, recorded screams ...

The creator of the ride doesn't ask, "What is the motivation of the skeleton?" He just makes the !!@# skeleton pop out. Writers who are very very good at creating rides like that in fiction get paid a lot money. They look at writers like me and say, "You !@#$$ asshole. @@##E$ logic! How much money did they pay you for your fiction?"

So, OK. I dig. Screw logic. It's all about the ride. Fine.

But I can't stand bad logic. I'm sorry. It's a thing with me.

Carnival house violations of causation and probability are easy to see in thrillers, Sci-fi and horror movies, not so easy to see in weepy, intelligent drama.

Like, say, "In Treatment."

There's a vast intelligence behind the show. And just a hint of dishonesty. As subtle as a fart in church. But you can smell it.

Paul, the tormented but brilliant therapist, says stuff his character just wouldn't say. In their zeal to push him to soap-opera story points, the writers ignore his history.

So, for example, in the first season, Paul ignores the suicidal tendencies of a fighter pilot who may or may not be in deep denial about his repressed homosexuality due to an overbearing father. The pilot crashes his plane in an improbable pilot error. The dead pilot's repressive father blames Paul for ignoring his son's intimations of self-destruction and sues Paul's ass in the second season. Paul escapes by the skin of his teeth.

In the third season, an Indian emigrant named Sunil (who's living in a humiliating situation with his son and daughter-in-law, Julia) tells Paul about his violent fantasies about bashing his Julia's head in with a cricket bat. Paul, taking the advice of his therapist, warns Julia. Sunil gets deported. It turns out, that's what he secretly wanted. He'd been manipulating Paul all the time.

The connection between the pilot (a threat Paul ignored that resulted in a tragic death) and Sunil (a threat he didn't ignore) is never made. Why not?

Because the writers wanted to push Paul to a soap opera-style romantic tease with Adele, his blonde, 30-something therapist. They wanted to end the final episode on a cliffhanger. Is Paul quitting therapy? Will Paul and the cute, blonde therapist get together? Tune in next season and find out!

Bringing up the dead pilot would have muddied that story point. So the writers ignored it.

They took the series to the place they wanted it to go.

And it's about as believable as Gandhi picking up a machine gun.

Monday, December 6, 2010

'The 39 Steps' -- fear, repeated as farce

Some thoughts on The 39 Steps, opening this Friday at Florida Studio Theatre. It's a comedy, based on Hitchcock's recipe of fear. This got me to thinking on the connection between "Ha-ha" and "Ahhhhhhh!" So here goes...

As Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, the second time as farce.” His words apply equally to movies and plays. If you put something weepy, serious or scary on the stage or screen, somebody's going to turn it into a joke. If you create a formula for tears and fears, you can count on it. When you're not supposed to laugh, it's hard not to laugh. Satire depends on taking a serious formula and making a joke out of it.

When it came to creating serious formulas, director Alfred Hitchcock was the master. More precisely: Hitchcock was the master at scaring the daylights out of you. He attained that mastery early in his career.

The 39 Steps
was Hitchcock’s archetypal spy thriller, a 1935 film freely adapted from a 1915 novel by John Buchan. Charles Bennett wrote the screenplay, but it was clearly Hitchcock’s twisted vision. He made it a contemporary tale, set in the days of Britain’s prewar paranoia when Hitler’s agents were hatching their schemes across Europe. (This is one of those cases when the suspicions of paranoiacs were actually true.) In a nutshell, some of those agents frame an innocent British man (Richard Hannay) for murder. He runs, simultaneously chased by the police and a conspiracy of spies (who sometimes dress like police) who want to kill him. Throughout his flight, Hannay is stuck with (and occasionally handcuffed to) Pamela, an icy blonde who thinks he probably is guilty. If you’ve seen any Hitchcock movie, you probably know what he’s in for: a desperate warning from a dying woman, bits of business with maps, cross-country flight by train, public embarrassment at a political rally and a conspiracy unmasked in a music hall. In true Hitchcockian form, the big secret at the heart of it all is a MacGuffin — an excuse to keep the suspense going.

Even as a young director, Hitchcock knew nobody really cared about silent aircraft engines. He knew what audiences really cared about: fear. He’d found the perfect formula for creating it in The 39 Steps.

An innocent man hunted down by both the bad guys and the good guys? An innocent man trying to clear his name while running for his life? The formula worked in The 39 Steps. It worked again in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) To Catch a Thief (1955), and Frenzy (1972).

But calling Hitchcock’s magic a “formula” doesn’t do it justice. Hitchcock tapped into primal paranoia, hard-wired in the human mind. Being wrongfully accused of a crime that you didn’t commit. Running for your life. Not knowing who your friends and enemies are. Fumbling with maps, frantically trying to catch a train. Being exposed in public and explaining it away with a desperate gambit. This is what our nightmares look like. Hitchcock’s brilliance was to put them on celluloid.

Playwright Patrick Barlow’s brilliance was to adapt Hitchcock’s archetypal fear-fest as a comedy. Barlow’s script is somewhere between homage, satire and magic trick. Surprisingly, it doesn’t read like a comedy. Most of the lines from the original 1935 movie survive intact. Barlow doesn’t take the comic strategy of, say, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety — another Hitchcock spoof that mocked the master with broad references and exaggerated situations. Barlow plays the material relatively straight. Aside from having four actors play the roles of scores of characters in a quick-change frenzy, not much has changed. But it’s still laugh-out-loud funny. How does he do it?

Barlow’s comedy is more than Velcro costumes and good timing. His hilarity depends on a simple, brilliant insight: The formula for fear and the formula for laughs are basically the same. (Ahhh! and Haa-haa! aren't that different, after all) As any good comic knows, anxiety is the wellspring of comedy. Public exposure? A conspiracy out to get you? Now that’s comedy. Why reinvent the formula? Why not steal from the master?

In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock created the perfect formula for fear. Repeated as farce, Hitchcock’s formula works just as well.

What exactly is the formula for fear?

Ah. The formula for fear is —

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry. Our writer has been shot. No need for panic. Stay calm. We will bring on the dancing girls, momentarily.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bush Identity

OK, here's my review of Doug Limon's Fair Game.

Before I speak, here's credit where it's due. Limon, among other things, directed The Bourne Identity and produced its two sequels. Those films took the spy movie genre apart and put it back together — gave us cinema spies who were dirtier, grittier and faster, but also more realistic — creatures of flesh and blood with history, psychology, vulnerability and nerve endings. Bourne gave birth to the Daniel Craig Bond. After Bourne, no spy movie will ever be the same. Limon changed an entire category of filmmaking.

His latest effort is Fair Game — a political thriller based on the real life Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson incident.

A different genre. With a different set of rules.

Say you’re a filmmaker. You want to make a political thriller based on real life events. You want it to work? All The President’s Men remains the gold standard.

The recipe? Pretend your film is a fictionalized documentary and you’re totally objective. (Hey, you’re not, or you wouldn’t be making a political film in the first place.) But fake it. Pretend you’ve got nothing to sell and the audience will buy what you’re selling. Keep your political cards close to your chest.

But Limon tips his hand. To start with, casting leftwing poster boy Sean Penn as Ambassador Joe Wilson is a dead giveaway. The opening montage — to the sneering tune of the Gorillaz' Sunshine in a Bag — telegraphs: GEORGE W. BUSH IS A TOOL OF NEO-CON LIARS AND CROOKS. THE IRAQ WAR IS A SCAM. In case you miss the implication, Wilson cusses out a guest at a dinner party who admits to being nervous at the sight of two desperate-looking, praying Arabs in religious grab on a plane flight. This is 18 months or so after 9-11 — but that’s no excuse for racial profiling!

This scene establishes Wilson as a hothead loudmouth. But it also tells us where the movie stands. On the side of the PC angels, natch.

After these initial false moves, Limon's movie picks up. The first act is a detective story — and it's the best part of the movie. Wilson checks out intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein is buying Uranium from Niger; he discovers the reports are not true. Wilson makes his report to the CIA; then the White House strongarms the CIA into reaching a different conclusion. Saddam did buy Uranium from Africa! We know! Bush and friends make public statements to that effect—and we invade Iraq. Enraged, Wilson blows the whistle in the NYT, writing an editorial saying the war’s pretext was a lie. In retaliation, the White House blows the cover of Wilson's wife — CIA agent, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) — implying she's a low-level secretary who sent her loser husband on a fact-finding mission for nepotistic motives. Bush and his cronies destroy Wilson's credibility, Plame's career, and the lives of several of her intelligence assets. The detective story becomes a story of betrayal. And then it becomes a relationship story.

Thanks to the White House disinformation campaign, press and public turn against Plame and Wilson. The stress almost cracks their marriage. It's an interesting, touching exploration of character under fire, but Limon drags it out. It’s the obligatory all-is-lost segment. We know where the film is going — but it takes too long to get there. Eventually, the couple will take a stand and fight. It takes about 45 minutes before they do.

At the end of the flick, Scooter Libby (a low level player in the character assassination campaign) is convicted of perjury, then commuted by George W. Bush. The investigation dead-ends there; nobody else is tried or convicted. Wilson makes an obligatory patriotic speech quoting Ben Franklin. "We’ve got a republic — if we can keep it." The effect is less than rousing.

Here again, All the President's Men show you how it's done.

Fair Game intercuts Wilson and Plame's reaction to the hatchet job against them with shots of the White House plotters responsible. (Who might as well be Darth Vader and the Emperor on the Death Star.) All the President's Men kept Nixon and his crew out of sight — an unknown threat. Like "Jaws," Nixon is scarier when you don't see him. Fair Game shows you the threat. Fat, balding white guys behind desks. Oooh, scary. More importantly ...

When All the President's Men came out in 1975, everybody already knew that Nixon would fall like Humpty Dumpty, taking his cronies with him. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein would emerge as heroes and talk show and lecture circuit darlings and make fat book sales. America knew that, too. But the movie played the events of Watergate as if we didn't know — and anything could happen. It was a suspense flick where the reporters could get shot in a parking garage at any time. The hell of it is, it worked.

In the hindsight of 2010, America also knows that Bush & Co. were wrong. We know that now. But it wasn't so clear in 2002.

Limon's flick would’ve worked better if he had confined itself to the mindset of the post-9-11 era. Anything could happen; nobody knew the score. Maybe Saddam was building a bomb. Nah. We know the score now; Limon’s characters know the score in 2002. There’s no suspense — for them.

Or the audience either.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerd

Director David Fincher’s The Social Network takes a not-so-promising premise — the story of Facebook — and turns it into an amazing movie. Compare it to, say, The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Good movie, but not great. This was great. And I knew it in the first few minutes.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg’s intellect rolls over his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend like a tank. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. He stomps her; she dumps him. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly captures the way nerds talk and think. Nerdspeak. Sorkin speaks it like a native speaker.

Nerds have more short term memory (a larger RAM buffer) and will refer to earlier conversational threads assumed dropped. Nerds are both anti-social and anti-Machiavellian. In the nerd ethos, thought is code; you follow the argument where it leads; you put all your assumptions on the table — including assumptions about social status, motives and intelligence. Sparing people’s feelings doesn’t enter into it. This sounds like insensitivity, but it really isn’t. If you’ve got an IQ of 170 or so, you insult people without even trying. So you stop trying not to.

To write this smart, you've got to be that smart. Props to Mr. Sorkin.

In the opening scene, you see exactly what kind of brain Zuckerberg has — and exactly what kind of character. The scene is the whole movie in embryo, a logic bomb waiting to explode. Everything flows from there ...

As a result of social rejection, Zuckerberg creates the greatest social network in history.

A college prank to get back at his ex-girlfriend evolves, step by step, into Facebook. We trace this evolution looking back in time from the vantage point of depositions and legal hearings. Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend and two twin, upper class jocks are suing him over the intellectual property rights issues. I.e.; the jocks claim Zuckerberg stole their idea; his best friend claims he cheated him out of partnership in the company. From one perspective, Zuckerberg stabbed them all in the back. From another perspective, he didn’t. Facebook evolved, ineluctably, like so many lines of elegant code.

Zuckerberg may be great with computer code — but he's not so great at moral code. The movie doesn’t dismiss him — or excuse him — as a human computer or autistic savant with a low social IQ. Zuckerberg's not socially unaware. He’s socially indifferent. And proud. His giant, pulsating brain remembers every social slight, every patronizing implication, every sneer. He balances the equation. He gets his payback.

Facebook is the revenge of the nerd.

This film has great performances by Jessie Eisenberg (Zuckerberg), Armie Hammer (playing both twins), Andrew Garfield (as Zuckerberg's dumped partner) and — believe it or not — Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker, Napster's crash-and-burn founder). Acting that doesn't feel like acting — no milking the scene, no going for the big moment. Director Fincher makes you feel like a voyeur spying in on real people — pretty rare, for a big budget movie these days.

What this film doesn’t have is any detailed investigation of Facebook itself. There a few throwaway scenes — but nothing like those 1960s movies explaining the growth of rock and roll with a montage of teens listening to portable radios on the beach. Facebook is a phenomenon. The movie assumes you know about it — and gets on with the story.

That story is largely fiction. The filmmakers had access to the broad outlines of the story — and no access to the actual details or characters, wrapped in layers of nondisclosure agreements as they were. The Mark Zuckerberg of this movie has about as much reality as Prince Hamlet or Leopold Bloom, which is just fine with me. That’s probably why this film is so much more than a mere bio-pic. It’s the bio-pic of an idea — an idea that stands for all ideas. It’s a universal story.

Fincher’s movie and Sorkin’s script brilliantly shoehorns two plot threads together: (A) the exciting birth of an idea — as in the discovery of Radium or penicillin (B) the human cost and betrayal associated with the ownership of that idea. Facebook was a brilliant idea. The filmmakers are absolutely clear about that.

Whether the kudzu-like social network Zuckerberg created is such a good idea for society is different question — and a question for a different movie.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Coming on like a "Hurricane"

Nilo Cruz's new play, "Hurricane," premiered at the Ringling International Art Festival. The festival commissioned the work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Michael Donald Edwards directs.

The setting: a Caribbean island in the path of a killer storm. The characters: Forrest (Paul Whitworth), an old-school Christian missionary; Ria (Kim Brockington), his island-born wife; Aparicio (Carlo Albán), their adopted son -- a gift from the sea who magically appeared one day, floating in a basket like baby Moses.

Cruz' play opens in discordant stereo. The storm's a-coming. Forrest declaims from the Bible in Shakespearean tones; Ria makes an incantation to an Afro-Caribbean sea goddess; Aparicio climbs a tree in a rite-of-passage ritual to get a zap of spiritual energy from the Hurricane. (Which seems to reflect Mom's religion more than Dad's.) Dad goes looking for Aparicio. When the storm hits, Dad gets conked on the head. And it's amnesia time for Reverend Forrest. 

Forrest comes back to consciousness but not to himself. He's lost his history, his personality and his religion. He thinks he's possessed by the spirit of a woman: Andrea. Like Goethe's Faust, two souls cohabit within his breast.

Aparicio blames himself for his father's blasted brain. Ria makes agonizing attempts to reconnect with Forrest's lost identity. At the end of it all, there's a redemption -- and happy ending -- of sorts.

Great acting on all counts. Whitworth has a powerful, Shakespearean delivery; Brockington conveys a sweet agony as Ria; Albán is touching as a teenager wrestling with guilt.

Edwards bookends the play with two striking visual images; a frozen tableaux of debris, and Aparicio swimming through the air. (No magic. Just Peter Pan-style wire works.)

Great stuff. But the stuff in-between the two images doesn't quite add up.

Cruz' play is an interesting meditation on the loss of identity -- and the foundational role memory has in creating identity. But a meditation isn't a play. Aside from a concussion and its aftermath, there's no real conflict or tension. Father, Mother and Son are all wonderful people. Dad got bonked on the head. They went through some bad times. But they're OK now.

It's not enough. I get the sense the playwright feels the same way. Cruz' play is a sketch; an hour-long slide show of high points -- which it had to be to fit the festival format. Cruz hints at the tension between Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religion but never explores it. He informs us that Forrest rescued his wife from sexual slavery -- and drops the subject. There's a big story here -- too big to shoehorn into sixty minutes.

My hunch is, Cruz will expand the play and dig into the subtext. Dad's loss of memory will have a larger resonance to -- say -- the white man's willful amnesia to his patronizing exploitation of Afro-Caribbean people. An amnesia which applies, even to "heroic" white missionaries.

That's just a guess. As it stands now, the play is a sketch.

It's fascinating now for the complete image that it promises.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it

"Opera Baroque" -- one of the offerings at this year's Ringling International Art Festival -- is adapted from the 18th-century “Czech Opera About a Comically Small Crooked-Looking Chimney Built by Masons, or the Quarrel Between the Landlords and Its Masons.” It's a puppet show. But that's kinda like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guy who played the guitar.

The Forman brothers are pulling the strings. (Actually only two are brothers: Matej and Petr Forman. Milan Forman, in synchronistic coincidence, has the same last name.) The Formans are determinedly working class. They remind me of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. They come out -- in blue striped shirts and big smiles -- in a parody of desperate audience ingratiation.

Before the show opens, the "brothers" get into some bits of business with the audience. Making a big production out of it, they polish the glasses of the folks in the front row. One brother emerges as the spokesman. He discusses the translation problem. (It's too much of a problem, so they won't translate.) He advises you to lower your expectations. "This is a puppet show. Many people find this boring."

He explains the opera's plot. Two workers put up a chimney. It falls down. The husband yells at them. Then the wife yells at them. That's it. That's the whole opera.

The dude gets apologetic again. "In Czechoslovakia, wives do a lot of yelling. It is only our country. We're not saying anything about American wives."

A dude in a powdered wig (Vitezslav Janda) sits down at the keyboard.(A synthesizer pretending to be a harpsichord.) The audience forgets to applaud, so the spokesbrother reminds them.

And so, the opera begins. As foretold, the two masons screw up the job. Building a chimney. You'd think it'd be simple, but no. The brothers Forman have added a trio of three demonically bratty brothers to the original opera, along with a Mozart-like piano tutor. The kids can't play "Frere Jacques" ...? The tutor solves the problem by hitting them. The brats annoy the masons? The masons hit them with shovels. Along the way, the puppeteers' hands reach down from the sky like the hands of God himself.

Later on, they stop the action. One brother has artistic differences. He's shouting in Czechoslovakian and ready to walk out. The spokesman explains, "My brother's not happy with the way we did that scene. He thinks it's too rushed. We can either start the opera from the beginning or do the scene in slow motion." So they do the scene in slow motion. After they make such a big deal out of it, here's what you get: The bratty little kid dances around. The scowling mason takes the shovel and whacks him into the stratosphere.

The comic timing is nothing less than brilliant. It reminds me of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon greats -- McKimson, Clampett, Avery and Jones. The brothers are constantly interrupting the action and making you think about the elaborate machinery of the show. I'd call it post-modern, but I suspect they're not operating from an academic playbook. It's just funny, that's all.

The slapstick is gut-bustingly funny in its own right. Of course, there's a satiric target, too: Opera. The stage is a dinky little puppet theater stage. It’s not impressive in any way shape or form, but it’s done up like a grandiose opera hall.

This is an opera about two schleps who can't put up a chimney. The stars of the opera are puppets. It's anything but grandiose. But they play it that way.

It's perfectly hilarious.

And the perfect anecdote to artistic pretension.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Positively Bob Dylan

Last time I saw Bob Dylan was back in the 1992 at the Van Wezel. He was too cool for school, ignoring the audience and playing half-heartedly in sloppy, idiosyncratic arrangements that were all over the place. (Think The Imagination Song from South Park's Imaginationland.)

By comparison, Dylan's concert at the USF Sun Dome was a shot of love. Surprise, surprise.

I didn't expect that much. The Sun Dome is a uniquely ugly example of brutalist concrete architecture. Brutal crowd control, too. Security was ridiculously tight; your freaking ticket was basically an internal passport you had to show every time you used the stairs. May I see your papers please? There will be no flashing of the chimes of freedom here!

Before the concert, I noticed that Dylan had branded his current tour with a weird lightning bolt eye under a crown logo. The Zimmermania booth was selling Bob Dylan t-shirts and Bob Dylan Harmonicas. The dude should branch out into Bob Dylan Leopard Skin Pillbox Hats and Bob Dylan Big Brass Beds. But I digress.

After diverting the audience with a clip from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Dylan opened with, well, Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, and right away I knew I was in for a treat.

His latest band ain't The Band, but it's a damn good band. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton cooked on steel guitar. The drummer was a machine. Loved the band. (Though, as noted, they're not The Band.) Now that Dylan sounds like Tom Waits after gargling with rock salt, it's wise to wrap that voice in a powerhouse band with a distinct identity.

The new band's identity is strictly R&B. They'd be right at home in the Blues Fest.

Dylan didn't spend the whole concert noodling the keyboard. At times, he actually sang to the audience. Damned if I understood a word. Dylan of 2010 today makes the Dylan of the 1960s sound like Frank Sinatra. He could be singing in Esperanto for all I know. But he sang from his heart and that's what counts.

The Folk-Rock Poet of the Youth Generation also seemed to click with the band -- as opposed to pissing on their heads, cracking the whip, dominating or ignoring them. Hell, at times, I think they're were jamming, improvising and fooling around like a real cohesive group.

Dylan didn't serve up the half-hearted meanderings I remember from 1992. Or the weird, sprung rhythms of his early electric period, either. The arrangements were stripped-down: roadhouse rhythm and blues with a dash of rockabilly. No frills, no kazoos, just driving rhythm like a runaway train. It's what the people wanted. (And what hardcore Dylanites probably didn't want.) Call it: The Give The People What They Want Tour.

The set list offered a grab-bag of audience faves, Lay Lady Lay, Highway 61 Revisited, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Tangled Up in Blue, etc. He put in a few relatively new pieces -- Tweedleedum and Tweedleedee, It's All Good, etc. But they fit in seamlessly with the hard-charging arrangements of Dylan's mainstream classics.

The Unwashed Phenomenon closed with Just Like a Woman and did All Along the Watchtower as an encore. I jumped to my feet, pumped my fist and shouted "Yes!" like a true fan boy.

The audience loved it, too. Whole lotta shaking going on down in the crowd. College kids getting into it.

It occurred to me both songs are statements of judgment and doom. All the Talmudic scholars who picked Dylan's lyrics apart back in the day figured the spoiled brat of Just Like a Woman stood for narcissistic, power-tripping America and the dues we're going to pay; All Along the Watchtower is clearly pre-Apocalyptic. Two dudes strolling the fortress perimeter and waiting for Sauron's forces to ride in.

These words of warning are lost on anyone who doesn't already know 'em.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Taste of Ibsen

OK, here's my take on A Taste of Ibsen, a series of Ibsen vignettes hosted by Home Resource -- a defiantly modern furniture showroom in downtown Sarasota. Six segments in modern dress. Movable feast theater that shifted from showroom to showroom. Loved it. Before I get into it -- here's a quick disclaimer about Ibsen.

Ibsen was a great playwright, no doubt. But he tends to be didactic. He has points to make. His plays are clockwork machinery designed to make those points. Ibsen's machinery gets on my nerves. Sorry.

But director Dr. Louise Stinespring's production neatly sidesteps the clockwork. Brilliant strategy. By taking key scenes out of context, she makes the scenes stand alone. She rubs out the captions on Ibsen's editorial cartoons. What's left is the art -- and you're free to appreciate it.

Stinespring cuts are prime cuts: two from A Doll House (Amanda Schlacter and Kevin Rose), a slice from An Enemy of the People (Mark Konrad and Jeremy Heideman), two from Hedda Gabler (Jeremy Heideman, Schlachter, Heather O'Dea) and one from The Lady from the Sea (Konrad, O'Dea).

The selections share a theme of transformation.

The soulless little Christmas from A Doll House nicely time-shifted the scene to a modern context. To our eyes, Nora's husband is a passive-aggressive jerk. He drowns his wife in the sugary maple syrup of his sickly sweet, lovey-dovey talk. She's a squirrel, a wren -- but she's also a spendthrift and a mindless fool. Torvald's endearments put Nora in her place; create the walls of her Doll House prison. His love is a power trip in disguise. It's horrifying to watch. We catch on as Nora catches on. And we realize this can't go on. We realize the transformation she's going through.

In the first scene, Nora's waking up to her rotten reality, but still not facing it. In the last scene, she breaks free of that reality. She ain't gonna work on Torvald's Doll House no more. Nora's transformed into a new being -- a new woman -- the progenitor of many New Women to come.

In Hedda Gabler, the writer and the young woman begin an awakening -- a possibility Hedda viciously aborts.

The dude in An Enemy of the People transforms into a whistle-blower. Another new kind of being.

Stinespring's timing is damn near perfect. No dead moments, a smart use of the unconventional space. The performance flowed. The actors moved with streamlined grace. They effortlessly transformed the showrooms into ad hoc sets. (At least they made it seem effortless.) The audience was relaxed too. It's nice to get up in middle of a performance and move around. Really cuts down on leg cramps.

The acting is some of the best I've seen. Schlacter's characterizations were standouts--a heartbreaking Nora and a bone-chilling Hedda. Rose nailed the ick factor as Nora's patronizing husband. As the writer's doomed mistress, O'Dea offered a pitiable naivete. She doesn't know the score, and she's going to pay. Konrad brought a Jonathan Winters vibe to his two blowhard authority figures. He had the audience laughing at several points. I imagine Ibsen up in the clouds somewhere shouting No! Those scenes weren't meant to be funny!) But I like Konrad's choices.

While we're on the subject, I like the director's choices to. Speaking of transformations, she transformed my opinion of Ibsen. There's more to his plays than clockwork, go figure.

These excerpts show what Ibsen's good at. He was brilliant at showing how character transforms. He was also a proto-feminist, and made many strong feminist statements – mostly saying stop treating women like crap. Those statements are clear to modern audiences, though I suspect dudes in the 1880s were egging Torvald on (Yes! Put that spendthrift in her place!). Ibsen clearly took risks.

Aside from the performance itself, I liked the clever, non-traditional setting of the performance. (I wasn't alone. The people who filled the space had a nice camaraderie.) In a weird way, seeing a play in a cool furniture shop changes your appreciation of the material. It ducks the whole sitting-in-church, suffering-for-art thing. You're not sitting in a stiff theater seat. It’s some cutting-edge, ergonomic furniture, man. Couches, settees. Some woman was even lounging on a bed.

When the last scene ended, I didn’t want to leave the theater. I was actually comfy. When does that happen?

A great night of theater -- that wasn't in the theater.

More, please.

‘A Taste of Ibsen
Sept. 30 - Oct. 2
Home Resources
741 Central Ave # A, Sarasota,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Irish Play Reading Series

Here's a coming attraction y'all might be interested in --

Irish Play Reading Series at Sarasota's Irish Rover

Irish Rover Pub, 6518 Gateway Avenue in Sarasota announces a reading series of Irish and Irish-American plays rehearsed and performed by some of the area's leading actors. The initial offering will be Brian Friel's MOLLY SWEENEY on Tuesday, September 28 at 7:30. The actors will be Annette Breazeale as Molly, the woman whose sight is miraculously restored, Marc Konrad as her loving husband and Don Walker as the daring surgeon.

Brain Friel is one of the world's great playwrights, the author of DANCING AT LUGHNASA, PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME, and FREEDOM OF THE CITY. Of MOLLY SWEENEY, the NY Post has said, "What a marvelous play this is! See it -- wander in it and wonder at it." The London Times has cited the play's "...vitality and warmth, such kindly accuracy of observation."

The series -- organized and directed by celebrated area playwright, Jack Gilhooley -- will continue on various Tuesday nights throughout 2010-11. Some of the Irish and Irish-American plays under consideration are Synge's THE TINKER'S WEDDING and IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLEN, Hugh Leonard's DA, Marie Jones' STONES IN HIS POCKET, Friel's LOVERS and THE FAITH HEALER, Tom Murphy's WHISTLE IN THE DARK, Edna O'Brien's TRIPTYCH, Frank Gilroy's THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES and Samuel Beckett's KRAPP'S LAST TAPE and ENDGAME. Gilhooley -- who has dual citizenship and was recently a Fulbright guest artist at National U of Ireland -- states "We have to educate the audience before we present some of the new 'Roaring Boys' like Martin McDonough and Colin McPherson and a 'Roaring Girl' like Marina Carr. They are exciting talents but the language will melt the paint off the walls". His own Joycean dark comedy, EX-ISLES, recently produced in Co. Limerick is also a candidate.

There will be a Tuesday reading in October and about one every month afterwards. Admission is by contribution (suggested $10 each) since royalty and manuscripts must be paid for. Of course, dinner and drinks will be served. The performances will always begin at 7:30 and the Irish Rover phone is 926-1060

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bertha Palmer Then & Now

Here's another cool coming attraction for area history buffs. The talented actress and director Amanda Schlachter is doing a one-woman portrayal of Bertha Palmer presenting a famous speech at the Chicago World's Fair.

Here's the info:

Ahead of her time: Bertha Palmer Then & Now

The Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee presents

Ahead of her time:
Bertha Palmer Then & Now

Thursday, September 23, 2010
7:00 - 8:30pm
Jane B. Cook Theater at the FSU for the Performing Arts
5555 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

About the Event
Please join us as local actress, Amanda Schlachter, delivers Bertha Palmer's groundbreaking speech on the occasion of the opening of the women's Pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Following the speech, we will discuss Bertha Palmer's impact on women in her own era and assess the state of women today. How much have we evolved in more than a century and how many of the issues Mrs. Palmer addressed continue to exist today?

Moderator: Bonnie Beth Greenball, JD, Associate Director, Institute for Public Policy & Leadership, USF Sarasota-Manatee
About the Actress

Amanda Schlachter has directed with multiple companies in the Sarasota area and has performed with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Actor's Workshop, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and numerous others. She is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and holds a BFA from the University of Central Florida.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

S/ART/Q “Print Party” - preview

The S/ART/Q artist’s collective is throwing a party—a “Print Party” that is. Taking place on Sept. 11 at the Hub in Sarasota’s Rosemary District, it’s a chance for area art lovers to walk away with a screen-printing of original art by one of the ten members of the grass roots area art group. What do the artists print on? According to organizer Tim Jaeger, that’s up to you.

“Bring your own clothing and we’ll take it from there,” he says. “T-shirts are always great, but you don’t have to stop there. Anything that can lie flat and accept ink will work. Last year, we printed on skirts, placemats cute dog clothes, baby t-shirts and handbags . Be creative!” He adds that blank t-shirts will be available for purchase. The family event is free and open to everybody; there’s a nominal $5 printing charge. Jaeger adds that, “The artists do the screening live, while you watch,” he says. “It’s instant gratification—no waiting.”

What’s the purpose behind the family friendly event? “The same purpose behind our organization,” says Jaeger. “It’s a way to support the community, and at the same time give the community a chance to support the arts.”

According to Jaeger, it goes back to the reasons that gave birth to the group. In 2008, many area art galleries had closed—collateral damage of the economic downturn. In response, ten visual artists formed SARTQ to create exhibition space and generate community support. Joseph Arnegger, Brian Haverlock, Tim Jaeger, Daniel Miller, Daniel Perales, David Piurek, Jeff Schwartz, Nathan Skiles, Sabrina Small and Tom Stephens are the artists who comprise the group today. Each has created a new design for the event.

Last year’s event drew nearly 1,000 people. Jaeger hopes to beat that record. “The Print Party is the opposite of exclusive,” he says. “This is art for everybody, young and old, whatever your background. We’re going to have a fun evening for art lovers of all ages. If you want to meet some great area artists or build your art collection, this is a great way to do it.”


“S/ART/Q Print Party” happens 5 to 10 p.m. Sept. 11 at the HuB, 1421 Blvd. of the Arts, Sarasota.. (941) 330-4838;

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Requiem for a jazzman

The Banyan Theater's latest summer offering is Warren Leight's "Side Man." Basically, it's a play about a man who makes art and can't make a living at it.

The title character, Gene (Steve DuMouchel), is a very specific kind of artist creating a very specific kind of art -- he's a mid-20th century trumpet player; a pre-Bebop, pre-Rock, American jazzman; a sideman. The guy is a brilliant talent, but he has the practical sense of Rain Man. That hint of autism may be more than just a hint. Gene lives in the now. He writes himself notes to function. (Or his son writes them.) He won't fight to get credit for a solo he did on a critically acclaimed album because that's against the jazzman's code. He doesn't dig that the straight world cashes its checks on Friday. He doesn't dig the signals from his neglected wife, Terry (Roxanne Fay),that she's sliding from hurt to bitterness to suicidal madness. He just wants to play his horn.

Said facts are presented in flashbacks and first-person narrative by Gene's son, Clifford (Juan Javier Cardenas). There's a lot of inside baseball about the jazz scene back in the day. I figured it was either the playwright's direct experience or a ton of research. Turns out, it's experience. A memory dump. "Look Homeward, Jazz Angel" or "My Shitty Childhood and Welcome to It."

In plain English, Leight based his play on the memory of his own father -- trumpeter Donald Leight. If the story seems close to home, it is. Leight lived it.

Basically, the son recounts the slow, inevitable crack-up of his parents' marriage -- a living sacrifice on the holy altar of Jazz. Clifford's one of those good-natured kids who turn into the family psychotherapist, counselor, enabler and referee -- deprived of his own childhood because he's constantly trying to short-circuit the inevitable knock-down, drag-out fights of the two adults called mom and dad. In the end, Clifford can't hold it together. He winds up kicking his dad out of his house -- because it's either that, or send mom to the nuthouse.

All of which sounds like 200-proof misery. Surprisingly, the play keeps you laughing. But don't expect a comedy. The source of the play's music is love, loss and pain: the collateral damage that jazz (or the slow death of a certain kind of jazz) inflicted on the playwright's family. You may laugh. But you know you're laughing at a train wreck.

Leight's a good writer with an excellent ear for dialog. He's structured his play with the associational, contrapuntal rhythms of jazz. Present tense narrative turns into past tense scene; characters in the past interrupt the narrator; characters in different time frames finish each other's sentences. It be-bops along.

Director Jim Wise wisely goes with the flow. The scenes are crisp; the emotional core of each scene comes through loud and clear. He never milks the audience for sympathy. Like Altman, he gives you a sense of being a voyeur looking in on other people's lives.

Great performances from the supporting actors -- playing a pack of junkies, lost souls and freaks losing pieces of themselves in their eternal jazz pilgrimage. Cardenas finds just the right note for Clifford -- who could seem like an self-destructive Shmoo if not played right. Clifford's not Mr. Victim -- he has a good heart, is all -- and Cardenas successfully gets that across. Gene is basically an absent father even when he's there. He lives in the abstract, associational flow of the music in his mind, not the real world. DuMouchel (who occasionally reminded me of DeNiro) got that across as well. Fay had a particularly difficult role -- the mom who's constantly busting dad's balls. The deck of our sympathies is usually stacked in favor of the artist. It'd be easy to see Terry as a shrew -- and easy to hate her. Fay makes you sympathize with her character.

The playwright walks on cracked eggshells to never judge any of the characters -- especially Fay or Gene. He's as even-handed as Clifford; he never takes sides. But he never airbrushes the picture to make it pretty, either.

It's a poignant play with a narrow focus on a particular subculture -- the American jazz scene, 1940-1960 -- its mores, slang, attitudes and code. It's easy to map that culture to other kinds of art and artists. Leight himself never spells out those connections. That's not where his heart is.

His play is a requiem for his father and mother. It's a Proustian trip to a lost scene. Liner notes on a lost species: the post WWII American jazzman.

Like any good tune, the play keeps playing in your head long after the performance is over.

Dig it.

Side Man
A Banyan Theater Company production
Aug. 5-22
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, July 30, 2010

It's a dog's life

A.R. Gurney's Sylvia -- now playing at Florida Studio Theatre -- reminds me of that gimmick in the animated movie Up -- a dog-collar device that instantly translated canine thoughts into speech. "Squirrel. I like you!" The playwright does the same thing with Sylvia's thoughts. Except that Sylvia speaks for herself.

In case you haven't heard, the title character is a dog. Not a talking dog. Sylvia is played by a young woman, (Katharine Abbruzzese). That's the gimmick.

Abbruzzese doesn't actually wearing a dog suit. She just acts like a dog. Instead of barking, her character shouts "Hay hey hey." When something threatens her, Sylvia says, "I might bite." Everything she says is at the level of instinct: "I like you; I'm scared; I'm hungry." On top of that, the playwright puts words in a dog's mouth that obviously wouldn't enter a dog's mind. Strictly for laughs. It's anthropomorphic, what can you do?

The plot: Greg (Warren Kelley) a man (in the middle of a mid-life crisis) picks up a stray dog (AKA Sylvia) at Central Park. He brings Sylvia back home to his empty-nest apartment. His wife, Kate, (Rita Rehn) doesn't want a dog. They fight. Decision: Sylvia gets to stay on a trial basis. Should she stay or should she go? The clock is ticking. Various friends and therapists are dragged into the argument. Then Greg and Kate finally decide.

Needless to say, apart from the few odd dog-haters and rogue vivesectionists in the audience, most people sympathize with the dog, root for the dog, worry about the dog. That's the dramatic tension. The play has a shameless pro-dog bias.

Along the way, the dog gimmick allows Gurney to poke fun at the eternal romantic triangle. Structurally, Sylvia resembles a play about a wife's battle with the other woman -- she just happens to be a pooch. (We're talking competition for affection, folks. This is strictly clean material.) Sylvia also takes a few playful nips at psychobabble and trendy notions about gender. Mostly, it's a play about either keeping or kicking out a cute dog.

It's warm, funny stuff. The audience was laughing its head off much of the time. Abbruzzese is a great physical comedian. Kelley, coincidentally or not, plays his character as a vulnerable puppy dog; Rehn, who's basically the villain in the piece, manages to avoid seeming like Cruella de Ville; the Harvey Korman-esque Jeffrey Plunkett plays a trio characters along a spectrum of genre. Hilarious as well. Director Kate Alexander plays it all for laughs.

As she should. Sylvia is an entertainment. It makes no big statements about man and the universe. It makes a few small statements. Some people like critters, some don't. If you let a dog into your life, your life gets better.

Aside from Cruella de Ville, who's going to argue?

Through Aug. 29
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Drawer Boy

The truth will set you free. Beautiful sentiment, but is it true? Our lives are held together with stories. Some are lies. It that bad?

Michael Healey’s "The Drawer Boy" poses these questions. It's the latest Banyan Theater Company play--basically a comedy with a few weepy, tragic elements. Carole Kleinberg directs.

The time: 1972. The place: a farm. The play's stars are what Garrison Keilor calls "bachelor farmers." They're Canadian, not Minnesotan. It's your basic "Mice and Men" arrangement. Angus (Kenneth Tigar) is brain damaged, thanks to a door that intersected with his skull in the London blitz of World War II. (He's the titular "drawer boy"--a bright architect/artist before the accident.) Now, he has basically no short term memory. Morgan (Don Morgan)takes care of him, and keeps him at peace with a bedtime story explaining the accident. And others. Then Miles(Ken Ferrigni)shows up. He's a young actor taking notes about life on the farm so he can write a play about it. Or at least a scene. Morgan obliges him -- and gigs him with various, stupid, humiliating tasks. (Washing rocks, digging corn out of cow crap, etc.)

Miles overhears Angus' bedtime story and weaves it into his play. Angus overhears, and it triggers a cascade effect in his brain. Good news: he gets a partial recovery of his short term memory. (And the inexplicable ability to quote Shakespeare.) Bad news: the false memory of Morgan's bedtime story starts unraveling. The painful, real truth is bubbling to the surface.

Kleinberg's direction is easygoing and naturalistic. She draws out the comedy without falling into sitcom territory. Ferrigni and Higgs create a nice, comic antagonism. Tigar is great in the thankless task of playing a simpleton -- a role which tends to cloyingly milk the audience for sympathy. (See "Tropic Thunder," Simple Jack.) Tigar underplays it and pulls it off.

Without spoiling the ending, the play offers a powerful look at the two-edged razor of lies, truth and storytelling. Razor image aside, it's a warm-hearted, gentle play. Don't expect a bloody, Flannery O'Conner-style epiphany. Nobody dies. There's no fight. There's no big statement.

The playwright doesn't presume to settle the question of harsh truth vs. necessary fiction. He offers his own truth: an honest, sympathetic look at decent people making hard choices.

The Drawer Boy
A Banyan Theater Company production
July 5-Aug. 1
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, June 25, 2010

Family Secrets Preview

Carolyn Michel takes the stage this week in Florida Studio Theatre’s production of “Family Secrets,” a one-woman show by Sherry Glaser and Gregory Howells. Michel portrays all five members of a Jewish family who have moved from the Bronx to Southern California. It’s a family affair in more ways than one. Michel’s husband, Howard Millman, is directing.

“It’s a relief to know I’m in good hands,” says Michel. “This play is a high-wire act without a net. I transform in plain sight and never leave the stage. I do all my costume and wig changes in front of the audience.”

Michel’s characters include: Bev (“a mom with her own story to tell”); Mort, the father (“a straightforward guy in a complex family”); their rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Fern; their 20-something daughter (“who’s still finding herself”); and Grandma Rose (“an octogenarian who never lost herself”).

According to Millman, the characters are loosely based on Glaser’s own family members. “The play’s family is very specific. At the same time, it’s every family. You’ll laugh, but it’s the laughter of recognition and unflinching honesty.” He adds that the playwright has known her share of personal tragedy, and isn’t interested in saccharine stereotypes. “Glaser is gritty and fearless as a writer,” he says. “She makes us laugh through the pain of real life and real relationships. She never denies the heartbreak.”
Doing justice to Glaser’s edgy material was anything but a heartbreak. “It’s what we live for,” laughs Michel. “This really is as good as it gets.”

Millman’s and Michel’s creative collaboration dates back to their years at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Millman held dual tenures as the Asolo’s former producing artistic director; Michel is a longstanding Asolo Rep actress.

Millman understands Michel’s process. “Before she walks into rehearsal, she has the role down,” he says. “She’s memorized her lines and plotted it all out in her mind.”
Michel says, “Howard is my mirror. I can’t see myself, but I can see myself through his eyes. I may think something works. He can look at me and say, ‘That doesn’t work; try this.’ And I’ll try it.”
“Family Secrets” marks Michel’s fifth one-woman play. It’s a form she is drawn to. “There’s an intimacy in any solo production,” she says. “You’re speaking directly to the audience, drawing them in, getting them on your side.”

She adds that it’s really the play speaking to the audience—and that the play deeply spoke to her. Michel says she was surprised by the play’s warmth and humanity. “Sherry Glaser is a legendary comic talent,” she says. “I expected belly laughs. But I didn’t expect it to touch me the way it did.”

“We can all relate to the Fishers,” says Millman. “They’ve been called a dysfunctional family. I think that’s a mistake. Families function by being dysfunctional! We all have skeletons in our closets.”

“Family Secrets” runs June 30-July 25, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota; Tickets: $19-$34. For information, call (941) 366-9000 or go to

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I ain't afraid of no "Ghosts"

Ibsen had his axes to grind. Religious hypocrisy, the fear of social disapproval and blind conventionality were at the top of his list. What will people think? It's a deadly thought. People ruined their lives to keep up appearances. Evidently Norway in the 1880s was not a swinging place.

In Ghosts -- the Banyan Theater's latest offering -- Ibsen swings all of his axes. Well, let's switch metaphors. The play reminds me of Mousetrap -- that classic Rube Goldberg-esque toy game where boots kick balls, gears turns and ultimately a cage traps a plastic mouse. Here, the wheels turn, and at the end, a charity asylum burns down, rotten secrets emerge, and the machinery crashes down on a young painter. (He's been running with the early free love crowd, but forced to return home to mom.) The family maid he's fallen in love with is his sister. His saintly father was actually a randy bastard. (Mom covered it up and faked dad's sainthood. What will people think?) Dad passed his brain pox on to sonny boy. Now, he's going mad with syphilis. Blind too. OK, that's the bad news. There's no good news. He begs for death. Mom, be my Mother Morphine. Please kill me. It's living damnation; hell on earth. This play is so grim you expect the playwright to add "The dog died" as a postscript.

Letting the horror of the past touch you takes an imaginative leap. If the 1800s was the age of hide-it-all, ours is the age of tell-it-all. The free-to-be-you-and-me crowd won out a long time ago. Lady Gaga and Howard Stern can be a pain in the ass. But a cult of self-immolation at the altar of the ghosts of the mind seems worse.

As someone once said, the past is another country. Based on this play, I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there.

OK, now a quick take on the Banyan performance itself.

Contemporary translators Rick Davis and Brian Johnston put Ibsen through the Pinter blender. Gil Lazier follows their lead and turns the flame down on Ibsen’s histrionics. Peter Thomasson plays Pastor Manders as a prick. Jessica Peterson plays Helene (the mom) as a tower of strength with cracks in it. (There are cracks of self-contradiction in Ibsen’s original characterization. Somebody that strong wouldn’t be a coward. I don’t buy it, but let it pass.) Steven Clark Pachosa plays the smarmy, gimpy con artist and gets most of the laughs in the play. Gretchen Porro plays Regina, the maid who’s really the sister. She plays it straight. Not oversexed—just sexed. A typical teenager in a bad time and place to be a teenager. As the doomed son Osvald, Gordon Myles Woods kicks ass. A damn tough role, but he totally lives it and makes you buy his character.

These characters go through hell. The actors put in a hell of a performance.

A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 11
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Welcome to the Machine

Sophie Treadwell's Machinal is a scary artifact of a lost era. Her play (based on a true story!) is an expressionistic bad trip from the 1920s about a secretary who married her boss and then killed him for true love. I figure the playwright asked herself "Why would somebody do that?" and then answered the question with this play. Her central character is defined as a character without choices. She's trapped in a machine. That machine is society. Patriarchal, oppressive, hierarchial and deadly.

OK. Nightmarish. But that was then and this is now. A director staging this play in 2010 has the choice of serving up a historical artifact or twisting the material around in a new, subversive context. Director Dmitry Troyanovsky took the latter approach. And a gusty approach it is.

Troyanovsky set the play in the present. By doing that, he shifts the spotlight. Instead of looking at the mad world, we're looking at a mad character. The protagonist marries someone she hates, finds someone she loves, won't leave the man she hates -- and then kills him in an act that's inevitably self-destructive.

It's a different nightmare -- and more frightening. The character's not trapped, but she thinks she's trapped. She's a victim of her own choices, not a victim of circumstance. But she doesn't think she has any choice. That's terrifying. You feel echoes of Susan Smith and all the other tabloid prodigies of our brave new world.

The source material sometimes fights with the new spin. In a weird way, that only adds to the nightmare. The character, in her head, is living in the 1920s. It's all the more creepy.

This is a white hot production. The young actors bled their lives, souls and hearts into this thing. It's a nightmare, yeah. But it's a dream of a play.

Short version: We have met the machine and it is us.

Through March 21
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Cook Theatre, FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, February 5, 2010

The good, the bad and the ruined

Just caught the open of Lynn Nottage's Ruined at Florida Studio Theatre. A light-hearted romp it's not. At the same time, it doesn't grab you by the lapels and shout a message in your face. The play inches its way along before announcing its heavy issues. It's more of a slap in the face when the truth finally comes out.

The setting seems offbeat and lighthearted at first -- Mama Nadi's whorehouse, the best little whorehouse in the Congo. Patrons check their guns, bullets and violence at the door. That’s the theory, anyway. Of course it doesn’t work out that way. The violent world outside makes its presence known. Mama's main attraction is a gifted singer. She’s been “ruined.” Readers of Nicholas Kristoff’s gut-wrenching editorials will know what that means. If you skip his editorials, I’ll spell it out.

She’s a woman who’s been raped so repeatedly (and often with foreign objects) that her insides are torn up and festering. Like the Little Mermaid, she walks in perpetual pain. But the pain is not redemptive. It’s just pain. The kind of pain we don’t want to think about.

Without slapping you in the face, this play makes you think about it. It promises you a sweet redemption—then pulls the rug out from under you. The characters in the play remain ruined. We, of course, know they’re not just characters in a play.

Like it or not, the playwright leaves the ball in the audience’s court.

Through April 3
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota