Tuesday, December 27, 2011

OSS: Nest of Spies.

Attention auteurs! You want to make a spoof? Watch OSS #117. It’s like a film school course in cinematic satire. Watch it, see what it does, and don’t do it. It breaks all the rules of satire. I never knew satire had rules, until I saw this movie. Now I know. Here they are:

Rule #1. Know what you’re making fun of.
If you draw a caricature of Jimmy Durante, it should look like Jimmy Durante. You have to know how his skull works before you distort it and make fun of it. This flick riffs on the surface elements of the Cold War spy genre -- and gets it all wrong.

Rule #2. Love what you’re making fun of. Check out Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder clearly love old horror movies. Michel Hazanavicius, the politically correct director of this flick, clearly hates old spy movies.

Rule #3. An imitation of bad art, if it’s bad, is just bad art.
The stuff you’re making fun of may be bad. Your stuff must be good. You can’t say, “Well, the scenes went on too long and the acting was bad in the original movies. Mine are too. It’s a satire.” No. You're just pretending to be bad. Your scenes have to work; your acting must be good.

Corollary to Rule #3: Art direction isn't comedy. Your sets and lighting may look exactly like what you're mocking. That doesn't make it funny.

Rule #4. Your story – even if it’s making fun of another story or genre – still has to work as a story. Consider Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks is, basically, taking a dump on the Western genre. Even so, his movie has dramatic tension. Joke or not, it grips you. When the Cisco Kid is facing off against six dudes with revolvers trained on him; when Black Bart is about to drown in quicksand or get lynched. You give a shit. OSS #117 is 99.44% suspense-free. You don't give a shit.

Rule #5. For your story to work, we have to understand what’s at stake. I have no !@#$ idea why OSS #117 is in Cairo.

Rule #6. Your characters have to be real. They have to have an inner life. They have to make sense.
The spy in this flick grins like an idiot. (OSS #117--aka Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath--if you want a name.) He does stuff that doesn't make sense. Maxwell Smart really was an idiot. He survived, thanks to the luck of fools. This spy knows too much to be an idiot but he acts like an idiot. He shouldn't survive. I don't want him to. Worse than that, I don't believe in him. There are no point-of-view shots. There's no hint of a reality inside the character's head.

Rule #7. You can’t violate story logic or character logic. A French spy trained in Arabic wouldn’t beat up a muezzin who woke him up at the call to prayer in Cairo. Never happen. No !@#$ way. Yeah, it’s a dig at French colonialism – who cares? It’s contrived. It’s false. It just wouldn’t happen.

Rule #8. Your movie is a joke. The characters within your movie don’t know that. Your characters should take themselves and the reality of the movie absolutely seriously. You should too. Play it straight -- in all your acting, editing and music choices. Never elbow the audience in the ribs. Isn’t this funny? The second you ask, it ain't. This flick is constantly reminding me of how wacky it is.

Rule #9. Make one, big satiric point, then stop. Jimmy Durante’s nose is big. Ha-ha. If you try to make lots of little points, you weaken the comedy. Hey, our spy is an arrogant French colonialist. Oh, he’s also probably a closet homosexual. So, is this gay bashing, or spy bashing, or colonialist bashing, or what? It’s not funny anymore.

Rule #10. Never make us care about characters and then kill them for no good reason.
Never ever have the hero do it, even if he is a shithead. Death can be hilarious – if you set it up right. But throwing characters away is ugly, vicious, heartless and the opposite of comedy. OSS #117 kills Princess Al Tarouk, if you want to know--pointlessly, right in the middle of a girlfight. I liked her character. I hated him. My dislike of the movie turned to hate at that moment.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov

photo by Frank Atura
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ignoring the glorious sun and sand, I spent one family vacation on Saint George Island cooped up inside a beach cottage reading big novels: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, John Barth’s Giles Goat Boy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, etc. Out on the sunny beach, my sister caught a Whiting and hollered with delight; inside the gloomy house, I crammed my head with literature. As to Karamazov, I made it at least as far as the Grand Inquisitor passage, though I don’t remember what happened after that. Fortunately, Roland Reed adapted the novel as a play; FSU/Asolo Conservatory just put it on stage. Finally, I know how the book ends.

Director Andrei Malaev-Babel holds the reins. It's a wild ride -- a disorienting, hallucinatory assault. (I mean that in a good way.) It's also no mean feat. Dostoevsky crammed most of human life in the pages of his original novel. This production crams the bones of his novel in a three-hour performance. Not too shabby.

There are three messed-up brothers and one lousy father. In Russian tradition, they all have several names, depending on context, so you have to pay attention. But family dynamics ain't the point. It's all about ideas. Lots of them. The kind tormented 16-years-olds obsess about.

If you hate ideas, don't see this play. It's a philosophical novel; the play is faithful to it. (I have a few quibbles, but Reed did a damn good job.) In Cliff Notes terms, the story is a study of good and evil. Dostoevsky, it seems to me, draws from the same dark well as Nietzche. Ivan (Jesse Dornan), the disaffected, intellectual Karamazov brother, says something to the effect, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The possibility terrifies him. So, leaving the question of truth on the table, religion is a great form of crowd control. Don’t kill children or practice cannibalism or you’ll burn in hell. Good to know. If not, why not? This slowly drives Ivan mad.

Minus the philosophy, the bare-bones story has a lurid, Jerry Springer quality. It's the study of dysfunctional family. Dirty dad fighting with one of his sons over the same woman.

Fyodor (Francisco Rodriguez) the father, in question, is a corrupt, lusty, son-of-a-bitch. He’s rotten. He’s a blowhard. Like Richard III and Alex in A Clockwork Orange, he’s the most interesting character in the story.

Dirty dad competes for the affections of Grushenka (Kelly Campbell) with his son Dmitri (Brendan Ragan), the ex-military brother. Alyosha, a repressed monk, tries to make peace in the family. But there is no peace.

There's more to it than that. There's a troika of minor characters; the subplots have subplots. I won't attempt a plot summary. It'd be like, well, summarizing a Russian novel. Let's not. I won't spoil the ending, but it all ends badly. Excellent performances. (More to come, as I have time.)

Malaev-Babel's direction is original and gutsy. He feints and throws you off balance like a good prize fighter. Characters bump into furniture and push it back into place -- or wander off the stage entirely. The staging implies the characters aren't at home in this world, don't quite fit in our reality. Beyond that, Malaev-Babel turns the collective consciousness of the village into a Greek chorus, offering commentary and judgement on the main action. Nice touch. There's also a weird, prophetic echo of the Soviet Union in the costume choices. This pays off when Dimitri shares his vision of a line of starving women and a dying child, begging for bread outside their burned-out homes in the snow. It could be a scene from the Nazi invasion of Russia or one of Stalin's purges. In a final vision, Dmitri strives for the light, despite the darkness. (There were tears in my eyes; and in the eyes of the actors at the curtain call.)

Dostoevsky saw the darkness coming. He saw Hitler, Stalin and Charlie Manson coming. But he decided to keep going.

The hint of light beyond the darkness was enough.

The Brothers Karamazov
Through Nov. 20
An FSU / Asolo Conservatory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Quibbles below jump ...

Friday, October 14, 2011


Uh ... line?

Submitted, for your consideration, a production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group—a group famed for experimental theater. This production at the Ringling International Arts Festival was experimental indeed.

Imagine—in some scenario out of Rossum’s Universal Robots or Blade Runner, that scientists succeed in engineering synthetic people—androids, for want of a better term—and that, as predicted in a thousand SF books and movies, these synthetic servants erupt in a revolution and kill all the humans. Hundreds of years later, the androids look back on the creators they murdered with regret. They feel incomplete, you see. They want to be like us, but they’re not quite like us; their emotions don’t have the full range. So, the androids desperately read our literature and watch our movies and try to figure out what it means to be human. In one android project, they stumble on the record of John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton. They analyze the movie frame by frame. They chart its motions on a Cartesian axis. Then they imitate it. Religiously. Trying—through brute force analysis—to make some emotional connection to the world Shakespeare created. A connection to emotions they just don’t feel.

The Wooster Group's production of Hamlet is like that.

Very much like that.

A performance of Hamlet by androids, directed by Max Headroom.

MAX: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trip -- trippingly--
t-t-t-trippingly on the tongue!

Android Shakespeare. That may sound glib, kids. I don't mean to be be glib. That's how it struck me at the time. I honestly felt like I was hundreds of years in the future watching synthetic humans performing Shakespeare.

Hey, that's entertainment, right?

Explaining the logic behind this production in merely human terms ain't easy, but I'll try. As far as I understand it, somebody filmed the original 1964 performance of Hamlet. This film (much like heavyweight boxing championships and opera today) was subsequently screened at theaters around the country. They called it "Theatrofilm" or sumpin. The Wooster Group took the original "Theatrofilm" record of this performance and reverse-engineered it. (This concept was director Elizabeth LeCompte's brainchild.) Somebody in the editing room chopped up the raw original film in Final Cut Pro; if he thought there was a leaden pause, out it went. Then (with Shepherd in Burton's role) the modern-day Wooster Group actors slavishly recreated the 1964 performance. More accurately: they slavishly recreated Shepherd's edited version of the performance. So, if there's a jump in the dialog or the actors fast-forward and backtrack, the real-life actors do exactly that. And that's what you see on stage.

You see the original film, in a big screen behind the performance. The Wooster Group actors perform, with a minimal set on wheels that stagehands roll around to mimic the set in the original film. On top of that, there are two widescreen computer displays revealing either live actors or dead ones. Occasionally, the big screen behind it all turns into a big Cartesian grid. Or a blue screen labelled with the phrase, "Not rendered."

Hamlet said "I know not seems," but this is all about seeming. The film behind the production has been doctored. The characters you see drop out of their scenes like ghosts. The final sword fight shows merely two disembodied swords--and two rectangles in place of the empty actors.

The real life actors on stage heroically imitate the doctored film. It's the dead opposite of method acting. It's acting nailed down to externals. There's not a drop of spontaneity. The real actors are slaves of the body position, timing and intonation of the actors in the doctored film.

This may seem like a gimmick. Nay, it is. It's a gimmick.

The gimmick slaps you in the face and makes you think about things you usually don't think about. The production is a box within a box within a box: The Wooster Group's recreation of Gielgud and Burton's interpretation of Shakespeare's original text of Hamlet. The Wooster Group rubs your face in the artificiality or it all. It literally shows you the Cartesian grid that Shakespeare's words have been graphed on.

The effect this had on me? I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but all this post-modern artificiality made my brain want to grab onto the PLAY. Throughout all the graphs and hip-hop stuttering, I clung to the rock of who the characters were, what happened and why it mattered. Bits of business aside, I came out of this experience with a deeper understanding of Hamlet.

Humans and androids alike will enjoy this play.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Tree of Life

Wow. Amazing film. I'll get back to that. But, first, here's a chunk of film philosophy ...

Film is a visual art, like painting. Film is a narrative art, like novels and short stories. Filmmakers are torn between these impulses. Either paint with light, or tell stories with moving pictures, that is the question.

99.99% of all filmmakers tell stories. That's true, because 99.99% of all moviegoers are bored to tears by collages of imagery with no storyline. Me too. So, Kubrick, in his heart of hearts, wants to do an imagist collage in the tradition of Cocteau. He does "Eyes Wide Shut." I understand the impulse. But I wind up kicking the back of the seat in front of me and, like Ralph Kramden before me, growling WOULD YOU GET ON WITH IT? Call me a plebe, but I love storytelling. And I have a short attention span.

But I surrendered to this movie. And I'm glad for it.

Terrence Malick is one of the .01% of the filmmakers who want to paint with light. The Tree of Life is defiantly non-linear, fiercely imagistic. On one basic level, it functions as a series of wicked cool images on the screen. He's showing you stuff that looks good. He's painting with light.

That said, there really is a story behind it. Telling the story is not his main concern. But it's there.

Basically, a family grows up in Texas. Dad (Brad Pitt) is a frustrated artist (a masterful organist/pianist) who's sick of taking shit from the bastards he works for. He does his best, but he boils with frustration. He pressures his sons -- especially his oldest son, Jack -- to "be your own boss." He teaches Jack to fight, demands a fierce respect. Jack wrestles with hatred towards his father and Oedipal impulses towards his mother (Jessica Chastain). The middle child (and DAMN if I can find the name online) is sensitive and artistic; his father's musical DNA has passed to him. Jack grows into adolescence -- and takes a turn to the dark side, with acts of vandalism, break-ins and animal cruelty. He gets over it, but a certain joy is lost. Dad loses his job and has to move, and there's a long, painful look back at the family home. Years later -- when the sensitive, middle child is 19 -- he puts a shotgun to his head and kills himself. Jack wrestles with survivor's guilt for the rest of his life. Then, amidst the cold, modernist architecture of Dallas, he has an epiphany -- not necessarily standard-issue religious -- but a revelation, nonetheless. A glimpse of the communion of the saints, perhaps. Jack finds acceptance.

A bright first-year film student could cut out all Malick's mystical imagery, put the story in linear order, add a To Kill a Mockingbird first-person voiceover, and make a very conventional story out of it.

But Malick didn't want to do that. He wanted to say, "This is life! Look at it! Look how beautiful it is!"

Malick opens the doors of perception. He fragments the narrative with trippy images -- the scenes that fascinate a child's mind and bore an adult's; the scenes an adult mind edits out, because they're insignificant. Mommy's ankle against a sprinkler; the dance of wind chimes ...

Malick takes this fragmented, trippy collage, and throws it up against the background of a long 2001-style creation narrative. (And hired some top-flight CGI people to do it, I assume.) Basically, he takes you from the beginning of creation, to the origin of life, to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, to the death of life on earth. No lie. The impulse is part artistic, part scientific. He loves life -- but life specifically -- with the eye of a botanist or paleontologist.

On top of THAT, Malick punctuates his interpenetrating collage of evolution and a suffering Texas family with enigmatic images of a light sculpture.

So what's it about?

It's about grace, God and glory. And sunflowers. Malick is shouting, "Wake up. We already live in a world of grace and beauty! See it, or you're going to lose it! You're squandering it!" It's a tone poem and an opera. It has movements and elaborate motifs like a visual symphony. It's seductive and hypnotic. And, as a bonus, if you grew up in the 1950s or 60s, it's an addictive shot of nostalgia. There's a quiet beauty and sorrow to this film. And a deeper joy. (Thanx to my friend Su Byron for various stolen insights.)

Don't believe what people tell you.

See this film. It's a long journey. But it's worth it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Marilyn: Forever Blonde

In Tommy, the ever-naughty director Ken Russell postulated a religion worshiping Marilyn Monroe Eric Clapton (who was God, after all) leading a procession of devotees in pouty Marilyn masks, obligingly wheeling a massive icon of Marilyn from that scene in The Seven Year Itch, her skirt now blown up for all eternity. Over the top, yeah, but not far from the truth. Like Elvis in years to come, Marilyn's death made her larger than life.

Sunny Thompson does her best to make Marilyn life-sized in Marilyn: Forever Blonde, her one-woman show at the Asolo Rep.

The script behind the play was written by her husband, Greg Thompson, who put the words on paper before he knew her and saw Sunny as the perfect Marilyn the second he met her.

All the words in Thompson's script are Marilyn's own, sifted from press releases, interviews, and tapes given to psychiatrists.

What emerges is what we'd expect but might not want to face. Marilyn (aka Norma Jean) invented blonde ambition. An orphan and an outsider, she climbed the Hollywood ladder against the odds. For women in the 50s and 60s, the rungs of that ladder were a series of casting couches. Marilyn obliged, because she knew she was good. She wasn't alone. She made it to the top, because she really was good. Then she fell apart.

And it seems to me, you lived your life like a candle in the wind ...

Ah, shut up, Elton. We all know how Marilyn's story ends dead at age 36 from too many pills. Though the jury's still out on whether her overdose was suicide.

Sunny Thompson makes you want to cry at Marilyn's tragically wasted potential. She gets into Marilyn's sexy, seductive skin and makes the audience itch. From the breathless delivery to the undulating walk, she's got Marilyn's surface mannerisms down and the beating heart behind it all.

It's a fine performance and a performance from the heart.

Still, there’s something missing. The script behind her performance doesn’t capture Marilyn’s mind. Blame her husband for that though I’m sure he had the best intentions. Greg Thompson boiled down his script from the words Marilyn said or printed in public. He didn’t put any words in Marilyn’s mouth or try to read her mind. Oddly, that “honesty” created a subtle dishonesty. Marilyn’s public words were part of her deliberately crafted public face. But the playwright took them at face value.

Bad move. Obviously, there’s a difference between the person and the persona even if it draws on elements of an actor’s real personality. Jackie Gleason was not Ralph Kramden. The real Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the naïve sex bomb we saw on screen.

But Thompson’s play doesn’t separate “Marilyn” the character from the real-world Marilyn who invented her. That breathless, vulnerable, naïve sex bomb was Marilyn’s creation. That character is both drop-dead sexy and a parody of male notions of an all-American sex goddess. It’s a brilliant creation – and a brilliant fiction. Thompson doesn’t look past the fiction to the intelligence behind it.

Marilyn Monroe was a comic genius. That’s what I wanted to see and that's what's missing.

I'm tired of feeling sorry for Marilyn. I want to applaud her for the genius that she was, damn it right up there with Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and all the rest of them.

This is not to trash Sunny Thompson's performance. She channels Marilyn onstage in an uncanny way. But I wanted to see the mask drop if just for a second. It's a lifetime performance. I'm still haunted by it. What I saw was great. But it's what I've seen before in the standard liturgy of the Eternal Church of the Blessed Marilyn. Sunny, with respect, tell the playwright to do a rewrite. Break the idol. Reveal the mind.

Next time, show me something I didn't see.

Marilyn: Forever Blonde
Through July 10
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Friday, June 10, 2011

No blues for these ‘Cowgirls’

Tom Robbins to the contrary, not all "Cowgirls" get the blues. Some get country ...

Case in point, the eponymous Cowgirls of "Cowgirls," now kicking up their heels at Florida Studio Theatre, in a production directed by Mary Murfitt. (Murfitt played in the musical's FST premiere back in 1995. She also wrote the music and lyrics. Betsy Howie wrote the script.)

The story behind the musical is as tangled as the World's Largest Ball of Twine. But I'll try to straighten it out.

After a disastrous summer tour, The Cog Hill Trio, an ensemble of female classical musicians, head off to Hiram Hall for their final concert. They're expecting the Kansas cousin of Carnegie Hall. Thanks to a bad phone connection, the owner, Jo Carlson (Angela C. Howell), is expecting the thoroughly countrified, cornpone Cowgirl Trio. When they finally show up, Jo's shocked to discover that she's booked a snooty classical musical group. They're appalled to find out that Hiram Hall is a redneck roadhouse resembling Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers.

The trio takes the gig anyway, because it's either that or come home broke and disgraced. Their Saturday night concert is a make-or-break night for Jo as well. If it isn't a smash hit, the bank forecloses on her place first thing Monday morning. Against her better judgement, Jo gives the uptight trio a two-day crash course in country music. Comedy ensues. And, just to state the obvious, country music does, too.

Great tunes. But Howie's strong character study is the glue that holds this musical together.

The Cog Hill Trio, for example, is a true band of misfits: Lee (Joanna Parson), a New Age, lesbian cellist; Rita (Franca Vercelloni), a pregnant pianist whose husband wants her to stay home; Mary Lou (Sarah Hund), a high-strung violinist. Jo, the roadhouse owner, is a true force of nature a no-nonsense Alpha Woman dealing with her father's dual inheritance: Hiram Hall and a mountain of debt. Jo's faithful waitresses, big-haired Mickey (Chelsea Costa) and math whiz Mo (Emily Grosland), are also wannabe country singers; they're pissed-off that Jo won't them take the stage for the big concert. By the end of the play, they all have a shootout, everyone dies and Hiram Hall burns down.

Nah. Just kidding, folks. That's not the way these things work and you know it. The concert is a raging success. Everybody takes the stage and Hiram Hall is saved.

While the musical's upbeat conclusion is never in doubt, getting there is all the fun. Cowgirls is a warmhearted, feel-good, tug-on-your-heartstrings experience from start to finish. It’s so much fun, it’s easy to overlook what a tour de force performance the actor/musicians put in. Leaping from genre to genre takes amazing versatility, and they’ve got it.

Behind the performance, Howie's script introduces you to some sharply defined, quirky individuals (who all happen to have XX chromosomes) and makes you care about them. It's easy to be warmhearted, manipulative and fake that's called corn. Being warmhearted and honest is tough, but she pulls it off.

Murfitt's a great director and a great songwriter, to boot. Her original songs are fantastic on many levels. They're a love letter to country music standards but never derivative. They're character-driven and support the story. They're damn good tunes that take you all over the emotional map. They're pure country and ignore the ghettos of musical genre, at the same time. The "country" of country music is the country of the human heart, after all. Murfitt's songs gently make the point that all great music comes from the heart.

Which is another way of saying all great music is a little bit country.

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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein

If a contemporary performer imitates, say, 19th-century composer Franz Liszt, who's to say they got it wrong? Recording technology didn't exist back then. For all we know, Liszt really did sound like Roger Daltry.

That doesn't apply to 20th-century composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The maestro may be gone, but he left behind miles of film, audio recordings and videotapes. We know exactly what Bernstein sounded like -- and we'll know if a living performer portraying him misses the mark.

Hershey Felder is both the star and author of Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, a one-man show depicting Bernstein's life and work, now playing at the Asolo Rep. With a display of chutzpah Bernstein might approve of, Felder plays a clip from one of Bernstein's Young People's Concerts before he takes the stage. He's daring the audience to compare. Well, Felder meets and exceeds his self-made Pepsi challenge. His performance goes beyond great imitation to the realm of Shirley McClaine. He seems to be channeling the man.

Felder's performance takes the form of one of Bernstein's broadcasts -- in this case, presumably his final one. Playing and singing at a grand piano, Felder opens with one of Bernstein's burned-in-your-brain compositions from West Side Story -- namely, "Somewhere." From there, Felder's performance continues, alternating between snippets of Barnstein's compositions and his first-person autobiographical narrative -- lifted, I assume, from journal entries, magazine and TV interviews and stitched together with inference.

We learn that Bernstein came from an immigrant family of deeply religious Jews. That he was a musical prodigy. That his father didn't want his son to grow up to be a professional musician. That he did anyway. That Bernstein's protegés included Aaron Copland, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner. That some of his protegés were also lovers. That his nearly overnight success was basically good luck. (And sounds like a Broadway musical premise -- he got his big break at a major concert because the other conductor was sick.) That Bernstein deeply resented a "two-bit reporter's hatchet job" about a benefit party he threw for the Black Panthers. (Referring to Tom Wolfe, actually.) That he admired Wagner's music, hated his anti-Semitic philosophy, but admired his honesty. That -- in defiance of the atonal fad of most serious composers and music critics of the time -- he loved melody. That he loved his wife Felicia. That -- in his own act of honesty -- Bernstein walked away from his wife and family to pursue openly gay relationships. That, tireless music educator and beloved conductor that he was, Bernstein wanted to be remembered as a composer -- and felt like a failure because the only Bernstein tunes anyone could remember were from West Side Story.

"Lives of the artists" dramas tend to take the same form. Basically, the artist is on a mission from God to create -- and they do. Felder's drama is more unconventional -- and mostly takes place in the brilliant, self-contradictory mind of the composer. Bernstein may be on a mission from God -- or actually be the God of modern music, as he claims at one point. But when the last note sounds, he's not sure if his mission succeeded.

The jury is still out. (I plan to listen to Bernstein's compositions the next chance I get.)

But Felder's mission clearly did.

It's a brilliant, unforgettable performance.

Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
June 8-12
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Just for laughs, here's a link to Tom Wolfe's piece:

Radical Chic

Friday, April 29, 2011

Two Jews Walk Into a War: Preview

Here's a link to my preview of Two Jews Walk into a War in this week's Ticket in the Sarasota Herald Tribune: Two Jews Walk into a War. Text posted below:

Two Jews take a leap of faith in Kabul in new play
The title of Seth Rozin’s play sounds like the set-up for a joke – “Two Jews Walk Into a War …”
It really is a joke, Rozin says, an existential one.

The play, which opens May 5 at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, is about the only two surviving Jews in Kabul, Afghanistan, who are hiding in a bombed-out synagogue at the end of the Taliban’s regime.

“Ishaq and Zeblyan should support each other,” Rozin says. “They’re the last Jews left, and they hate each other! It’s one of history’s grim jokes — and the joke is on them.”

Not all the play’s jokes are grim. Rozin uses his unlikely duo to create a kind of vaudeville of the absurd. Bickering, mismatched characters are a comic staple, after all. But expect more than “The Odd Couple” in Kabul.

“Although they despise each other, they force themselves to work together,” he says. “Ishaq and Zeblyan plan to rebuild the Jewish community by re-creating a Torah scroll to attract a rabbi.” Rozin explains that the Taliban burned the synagogue’s original scroll. “Fortunately, Ishaq knows the Torah by heart. He speaks and Zeblyan writes.”

But would a new Torah scroll actually attract a rabbi?

“Probably not,” he says. “Their project may seem foolish, even crazy. But they feel compelled. You can call it a leap of faith.”

Their faith compels them to write, he says. But writing a new Torah makes them question their faith. Zeblyan asks most of the questions. Ishaq hates the constant interruptions and sees it as a lack of faith.

“Zeblyan starts by questioning religious minutia,” Rozin explains. “‘Why can we eat elephants but not rock badgers?’ He winds up asking bigger questions that anyone can relate to, whatever their faith.”
Rozin didn’t plan to write a parable of faith.

“I’m an atheist from a long line of non-observing Jews,” he says. “The seed was a news item that struck me as existentially funny. As I got to know my characters, they started telling me what they wanted, and the story veered off from the facts. Rewriting the Torah was their idea, and it surprised me.”

Rozin adds that his play is not a theology lesson, or any kind of lesson.

“The questions are more important than the answers,” he says. “It’s mostly a comic journey, but I’m not locked into that. I don’t impose a tone or a message. I want a sense of life as it happens — what emerges from these two characters in this place and time.”

Director Kate Alexander loves that raw spontaneity.

“Rozin’s comedy flows out of his flesh-and-blood characters,” she says. “We’ve got two great comic actors: Warren Kelley as Zeblyan and George Crowley as Ishaq. They’re brilliant improvisers and wonderful physical comedians, and they really sink their teeth into his visceral, gutsy dialogue. As a director, my job is to create a playground and say, ‘Go to town, guys.’ They did! They made me laugh so hard I was forced to leave the rehearsal many times.”

Both actors have appeared at FST before. Kelly played the husband in “Sylvia” last summer, and Crowley has been seen in “Dinner With Friends,” “Gross Indecency,” “Ten Unknowns” and “Proof.”
Rozin is the author of several plays that have been presented in regional theaters across the country. He also is the founder and producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

Alexander notes that scenic and costume designer Marcella Beckwith and lighting designer Robert Perry spent weeks to get a “very specific look and feel” for Afghanistan. “Our set is evocative, but there’s a lot of research behind it.”

She adds that the bombed-out synagogue suggests the relentless history outside.

“It’s a place of ancient stones, except for one electric blue plastic chair,” she says. “Western civilization is encroaching and you know it.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Before Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, there was Tartuffe -- the title character of Moliere's play, and the latest FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.

Le plot summary ...

Tartuffe (Geoff Knox) is an itinerant street preacher in 17th-century France. Like Bakker and Swaggart in centuries to come, Tartuffe is saintly on the outside and oversexed within. Beneath Tartuffe's hard candy shell of religiosity, there lurks a soft, gooey core of lust. Slick, manipulative bastard that he is, Tartuffe keeps it well-hidden.

In the course of Moliere's play, Tartuffe latches onto Orgon (Tony Stopperan), a dull man of means in 17th-century France who seems to think that Tartuffe is Jesus' kid brother. After insinuating himself as Orgon's perpetual house guest, Tartuffe gets Orgon to promise him his daughter's hand in marriage (Ashley Scallon), thus voiding Orgon's original consent to her true love (Benjamin Boucvalt); Orgon also gives Tartuffe a claim to his estate. Creep that he is, Tartuffe remains dissatisfied. He still wants to get into the pants (or patalons) of Orgon's wife (Summer Dawn Wallace). After Orgon hides under a table, Tartuffe's scheme is exposed. Happily, Orgon's wife isn't screwed. Sadly, Tartuffe has the deed to Orgon's estate. Orgon is screwed -- along with everyone else. Mais bien sur, Louis XIV appears like a deus ex machina from above and sets things straight. Moral order is restored and the charlatan punished. The music of Lady Gaga's Poker Face plays.

It's a fun ride. Beneath the pomp and ceremony, Richard Wilbur's rhymed couplet translation is smart -- though it can't disguise the artificiality of Moliere's original. (Basically, the characters make speeches, one at a time.) But that's OK. Director Wes Grantom's production zips along with the speed of a screwball comedy. (In a recent radio interview, Grantom said this pace is true to the productions of the time. Audiences were sharp back then.) The performances are great -- especially Megan DeLay as Dorine, the family maid, who functions as a human reality principle. She stands for common sense. Not heresy. The same can be said of the playwright, Moliere. His play makes that clear. Very clear.

Moliere seems to spend half his time saying, "My target is religious hypocrisy. Not religion. I love religion, especially Catholic religion. Let's be very clear on that point." The playwright spends the rest of his time kissing King Louis XIV's ass. It didn't help. Moliere got in trouble anyway. I can't help but think Moliere saw it coming -- but he wrote the play anyway. Why?

Because it mattered to him.

Moliere stuck his neck out to write this play. He took the risk of pissing the king off -- a king with absolute power. He knew the risks.

But he wrote it anyway.

I can't help but think that it was personal to Moliere. That he'd seen people burned by pseudo-saintly charlatans speaking in the name of God. His friends, people he cared about. Beneath Moliere's fine language, there's a white-hot anger. And a truth.

Tartuffe may be a fictional character. But Tartuffery is very real.

And bullshit is eternal.

In 1664, 1912 or 2011, the principle holds true: If someone tells you, "God commands you to give me money," that's the time to run for the hills.

Or hit them.

Through May 1
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Historic Asolo Theatre
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota

Friday, April 8, 2011

I ain't afraid of no 'Ghost-Writer'

Once upon a time in the early 20th century, Franklin Woolsey (Colin Lane), a celebrated writer in the prolix Henry James mode, started dictating his novels to a typist. As in: a cute, young, female typist named Myra (Amy Tribbey). Franklin's pushy wife Vivian (Hollis McCarthy) wasn’t thrilled, but his literary output exploded. Over time, Myra became more of a collaborator than a passive secretary. Then, one day, Woolsey had a fatal heart attack in mid-sentence. Eventually, Myra heard his voice again and resumed typing, determined to finish his last novel.

OK. Such are the bare facts of Michael Hollinger's play, now hitting the stage at Florida Studio Theatre. Beyond these facts, the play poses a multiple choice question: Is Myra (A) nuts (B) committing a conscious fraud (C) continuing her collaboration (D) actually hearing his voice or (E) all of the above …?

For most of the play, an unseen investigator challenges Myra with these questions. That investigator (who represents Woolsey’s unhappy widow who’s trying to quash Myra's posthumous collaboration) seems to lean toward either the nuts or fraud theories. I have my own theory — but damned if Hollinger's play spells it out.

Whose authorial voice is it anyway?

That isn't the point — or the point that Hollinger cares about. Ghost-Writer isn’t a ghost story — or an anti-ghost story. It’s a love story — and an obvious metaphor for the writing process. Myra and Franklin romance the blank page. Their collaboration is better than sex. Granted the reticence of these Ragtime-era characters, it's a slow burn. That smoldering sensibility is what he cares about.

Like James Joyce, Hollinger loves the music of writing — not the words on the page, but the physical act of writing. Ghost-Writer jumps into that music with both feet: the back-and-forth rhythm of dictation and typing; the counterpoint of voice and typewriter. It's a love affair. Maybe with words, maybe between two people, alive or dead, creating words together. The boundary remains fuzzy, but the music is compelling.

Director Kate Alexander gets the music right — the slow, hypnotic, seductive pace Hollinger was going for. Tribbey is fine as the emotional center of the whirlwind: a woman desperately in love with a man who isn't there; the voice of sanity who knows her words sound crazy. Fine performances also from Lane and McCarthy. His dead author character is more like an open question: Is he there or not? Her wounded widow character is an accusation: Are you for real?

A thousand puns rise up like shades. A haunting production. A spirited performance. But let's run like hell past the graveyard and speak plainly ...

Great theater.

See it.

Through June 4
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ride the "Death Trap"!!!!

OK, a few words about the Asolo Rep production of Death Trap. But first, a few words about the thriller genre ...

As a dramatic genre, thrillers have the staying power of, say, Jacobean revenge tragedy. Which is to say, the genre isn't dead, but it's been eaten by other genres. A contemporary play may have thriller elements, but we want more psychological depth. A contemporary movie may have thriller elements, but we want more stuff blowing up. There are very few pure thrillers anymore.

Which is another way of saying: Ira Lavin's Death Trap is of its time. Lavin was a brilliant novelist and screenwriter -- at his best, on a par with William Goldman. Lavin wrote "Rosemary's Baby," "The Boys from Brazil" and a few other things. He knew what he was doing.

So, on the subject of thrillers, Lavin saw the bloody handwriting on the wall. He knew the thriller genre was dying. "Death Trap" is as much an epitaph as a love letter as a parody. I could tell you the plot, but thrillers don't work if you know what happens. So let's put it this way.

Lavin made a great roller coaster ride, full of exciting twists and turns. It's a fun ride. For contemporary writers, that ride is pretty much closed -- except as a technical exercise. For contemporary audiences, the ride is still a hoot.

Death Trap
Through May 14
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Medea, I just met a girl named Medea

King Creon asked me a question tonight. He looks me in the eye and says, “Maybe I’m not being tyrannical enough.” I hold his glance, nod and shrug my shoulders as if to say maybe not. This lady is bad news.

King Creon’s referring to Medea of course — the title character in director Stinespring’s current production at Home Resource  — a hip furniture showroom that turned into the setting of a stomach-churning tragedy.

Once again, Stinespring changed the code. Instead of being part of an audience watching the action through the proscenium frame, you're in the action. No division between spectator and spectacle: you're there. Call it unmediated theater. Stinespring didn't invent it. But it's a nice trick.

For the script, I assumed Stinespring found some public domain translation of Euripides' tragedy and cut it to the bone. Basically, Jason rejects Medea for a new wife. She kills their two sons and Jason's entire family as an act of revenge. The Styrofoam packing peanuts are gone; what's left is just the action line a clean electric circuit sparking from decision to deed. The actors are in modern dress, which removes another barrier. Or tricks you into removing your barriers. Modern dress works like a boxer's feint. You think: "Ah, these characters are wearing suits and ties and evening dresses. They're just like us" and you drop your guard.

But the ancients are not like us. This isn't my area of literary expertise but I agree with Gregory Bateson on this score. The inhabitants of this particular Greek tragedy (and most of them) are more like a brood of Charlie Mansons. Their minds are wired differently. 

The horror of the play isn't simply Medea's deed. It's Medea's world and the people who live here. Infanticide happens every day, but not for these cold reasons. (We have more in common with Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth may be a monster, but he's a human monster. His motives and self-consciousness about those motives aren't that far from Tony Soprano.) Medea's not exactly human. But none of the characters are. Biologically, they're like us. But in their minds and souls, they're not. Medea and the rest are something Other. 

Kudos to the actors for some excellent performances. Kudos to Stinespring for excellent scene blocking and pace. The action flows naturally and draws you in to the play's unnatural, disturbing conclusion.

March 31
Home Resources
741 Central Ave # A, Sarasota,

Monday, March 28, 2011

Laughing Matters Interview

"Monkeys is the craziest people” was the famous catch phrase of 1940s comedian Lew Lehr. Eventually, he turned that around to, “People is the craziest monkeys.” This nugget of comedy trivia has more than a grain of truth—as the daily news cycle proves. Us naked apes are the craziest monkeys of the whole bunch. Florida Studio Theatre’s Laughing Matters: Unconditional Surrender shamelessly turns humanity's craziness into comedy. This year’s production marks the fourth installment of the popular comedic review at the Goldstein Cabaret. The current cast includes past performers Jamie Day, and Stephen Hope and Richie McCall and newcomer Gavin Esham. Langford wrote the sketches and song parodies, along with Stephen deGhelder, W. Joseph Matheson, Jim “the Piano Man” Prosser and Adam Ratner. Richard Hopkins, FST’s artistic director, will direct the monkey business. In the following interview, Langford and Hopkins share some thoughts about the production:

How would you describe Laughing Matters to a Man from Mars who’s never heard of it?
Hopkins: I’d say that it’s like Saturday Night Live put to music. Assuming the Man from Mars had heard of Saturday Night Live
Langford: You could also compare it to The Capitol Steps. It’s satire to the tune of Broadway melodies in that tradition. The difference is, we tackle both social and political subjects on a local and national level. It’s all up for grabs.

Do you have to be up on the news to get the jokes?
Langford: If you get the jokes on The Daily Show, you’ll get the jokes in Laughing Matters. You don’t have to be a news junkie to have a good time. And it’s not just news. It’s the whole human comedy.
Hopkins: Exactly. Humor is our starting point. It’s not a political science class, it’s a comedy, and we play it pretty broad. As a director, I send the actors in different directions. A Man from Mars might miss the political references. But there’s plenty of physical comedy and universal human comedy to laugh at.
Langford: And we’re laughing with people more than we’re laughing at them. It’s satire without a mean streak. We don’t want to lay into anyone.
Hopkins: It’s never been mean-spirited.

Who are the targets?
Langford: Everybody and everything. Health care. President Obama …
Hopkins: Local issues like high speed rail and roundabouts.
Charlie Sheen?
Langford: He might make an appearance.

Is there a political slant? A theory?
Langford: No. Just the theory that people are essentially crazy. We try to stay evenhanded. We have no political axe to grind.

OK, but just to clarify—people are crazy?
Langford: Yeah. But that’s great! We’re not attacking the crazy side of human nature. We love it—because we know we’ll never run out of material. That’s what keeps us in the comedy business. 

And that’s not a left wing or right wing business?
Hopkins: No. Comedy’s comedy.

You don’t want to preach to the choir?
Langford: Preaching to the choir is pretty much impossible at FST. Our audience is 50% Republican, 50% Democrat. We wind up making fun of everybody.

How would you describe the creative process?
Hopkins: It’s no laughing matter.

That’s funny.
Langford: Seriously, comedy isn’t a cakewalk. I write a lot of the sketches, but I can’t do it alone. The great thing about this show is it’s very collaborative. I’m blessed to be working with a team of good writers, but it’s still hard work.

How does the collaboration work?
Langford: We start with a ton of song parody ideas and winnow it down. The material is always topical and we’re constantly changing it right up to the last minute. We all push each other to make the show better. And that makes us better. We all grow creatively—and it all pours into the show. 

I assume the writers’ words aren’t written in stone?
Hopkins: No. The actors are free to change their lines. They can shape the speech to their own tongue and make the words their own. We encourage them to come up with their own material, to bring things to the table. They have to be on their A-game. That can be very liberating. And a little intimidating, if the actor isn’t used to it.

And the writers don’t object? No bruised egos?
Hopkins: No. Comedy comes first, and ego comes last. Our prime directive is: “Let’s make it funny.” As Rebecca said, it’s a team effort.
Langford: Yeah. And I really want to say, I love the team approach. That’s the fun part, and that’s what I love about this show. We’re all on the same page. We just want to make it funnier and funnier. If somebody has a better idea, we go for it. That’s what makes it one of the more fun shows to work on.
Hopkins: And the hardest. We’re constantly refining, right up to the last minute.

So you’re adjusting the timing, seeing what works on stage?
Hopkins: We’re shaping as we go, you bet. Rebecca will look over my shoulder and say, ‘Hey you missed that laugh,’ and I’ll go back and pick it up. Every good musical revue, comedic or not, has a structure, a shape and its own emotional intelligence. As a director, my job is akin to sculpting an image out a block of material. I carve away until I’m left with the essence. 

So, some comedy gets left on the cutting room floor?
Langford: Yeah. Some of my favorite pieces didn’t make it. They’re too extreme; they’re duplicates; they’re not timely anymore. That always happens. We really have to boil it down.

Are the actors free to improvise?
Langford: Absolutely. Every performance is different. The actors stick to the script on the song parodies. They’re free to get creative with their spoken dialogue. It’s not a canned thing. We want it fresh every night—and I can promise you it will be.
Hopkins: It’s never the same show twice. That’s why our audience looks forward to it.

Do people collar you in supermarkets and say, “When’s the next Laughing Matters coming out?”
Hopkins: Yeah. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is there’s a dedicated fan base. That bad thing is we always have to be better than last time.
Langford: And it always is.
Hopkins: But that puts us under a unique pressure. The energy and effort that goes into it is amazing.

Now the pressure’s off?
Langford: We’re already working on the next show. 

Well, hopefully you’ll have some fresh craziness to work with.
Langford: I don’t think I’m worried about it.
Hopkins: Yeah. That’s never been a problem.

Laughing Matters: Unconditional Surrender
April 1 through June 19
Florida Studio Theatre
Goldstein Cabaret
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota