Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Arguendo – Bringing the Supreme Court to Life

Just back from NYC where I saw 16 performances in 10 days, the entire Prototype Festival of new opera, co presented by HERE Art Center and Beth Morrison Projects, and large chunks of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater.

That’s a lot of theater. And much of it was fantastic. When asked which productions have left the most pronounced impression, I quickly respond with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Parts 1-4, and Elevator Repair Service‘s Arguendo as a close second. Both works deal with a similar approach to text, taking natural speech and transforming it through a theatrical process.

Elevator Repair Service, best known for their monumental Gatz, which consists of a theatrical reading of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, turns to the Supreme Court. They take the literal transcriptions of the oral arguments of a 1991 case regarding the constitutionality of a state ban on nude dancing and distribute the text between three performers, two of them taking on the roles of each of the justices, and one of them taking the role of both attorneys arguing the case. The delivery is slightly heightened, the “errs”, “aahs”, throat clearings and coughs are slightly more deliberate and exaggerated than they would be in natural speech. The demeanor of the individual judges are clearly delineated, it’s was delightful to watch Susie Sokol switch from the prim Sandra Day O’Conner to the scrappy Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Scalia’s bullying intellect is well rendered, but such details are likely to be noticed only by folks who pay close attention to the supreme court. Similarly, it’s unclear how well most audience members would follow the legal aspects of the arguments, with a fairly complex web of citations to previous cases. In an adapted text, an author would likely streamline and provide expository context for each citation, but no such leeway is given and as a result, large chunks of the text descend into legal babble. This is in no way a criticism, it is simply a byproduct of the process, and part of the charm of the performance.

Countering the babble are the surreal and often very funny scenarios the justices regularly hypothesize to test the extreme boundaries of the arguments, as well as the naughtiness of the subject at hand juxtaposed against the formality of the proceedings. In addition there is a large projection of a microfiche filled with citations and legal text that is manipulated by the participants to highlight the area of the law that they’re currently discussing. The piece works itself into a frenzy of absurdity as papers are strewn over the floor, justices push themselves across the room on their wheeled chairs, and the attorney shouts their final arguments regarding nudity, expression, and the first amendment.

The piece is still considered “in progress”, although it felt in fine shape to me. Granted, as something of a supreme court fan and law junkie, I’ma pretty ideal audience member. The oral arguments of the supreme court are inherently theater, although of a very different sort than what is usually presented at the Public. Arguments are less about a working out of the legal issues at hand and more about justices signaling to the other justices what legal issues are occupying their minds, preparing for the deliberations that will happen behind closed doors. But for the public, the oral arguments and the final decisions are often the only insights into the court’s thinking. In transforming this text into a live performance, Elevator Repair Service has provided a vital and entertaining exploration of the issue of expression and censorship as well as the workings of the supreme court.


Jan 2013

Theater worth fighting for

If you build it, will they come?

In last week’s talk about theater, Tim Crouch lamented what he saw as theater’s betrayal of its own strengths, its own theatricality. Most pieces, as well as most audience’s expectations, rely heavily on naturalism, costumes, sets, and dialogue that create the illusion that some other part of of the world was surgically cut out of the fabric of its own reality and transported to the 30’X15′ footprint of the stage. Couch’s concern was that film and television will always be able to create the more convincing reality, and that theater would do well to focus on the headier, more existential issues that it’s immediacy is suited for.

I’m torn by this assertion. On the one hand, I’m right there with him believing that naturalistic linear narrative ranks pretty high on the ho-humeter. But while a majority of the shows produced follow that aesthetic, there is a wealth of theater made for those of us who want something else, and much of it is quite good. Read the rest of this entry →


Aug 2011

Tim Crouch on “How Not To Act”

You are an actor who has just been told by her director to "stop overacting".

One of the nice perks of working at Pixar (did I mention I work at Pixar? I don’t usually bring it up, since it rarely has anything to do with my blog) is a constant stream of classes, speakers, and first run movies that are available to employees at no cost. Last week, hosted by the Emeryville Center for the Arts, writer/performer Tim Crouch gave an introduction to the driving ideas behind his work, work that I’ve been completely unfamiliar with, but, as it turns out, is very much in line with my own aesthetic.

Crouch takes issue with what is largely accepted as the craft of “acting”. The punching bag he uses for this presentation is Howard Schatz’s twee coffee table tome “In Character: Actors Acting“, or, more accurately, “Actors Mugging”. Despite the largely celebratory reviews, Crouch quite rightly believes that this is only acting in the most impoverished sense of the word. For each photo, the subject is given a brief description of a situation, and then, using only their face, “act” that scenario. Hardly a promising setup, though beautifully photographed, the results are so gratuitously on the nose that the smilie at the end of this sentence feels like a more genuine expression of feeling. 🙂

One by one, Crouch would project these schmacting heads onto the main Pixar screen and read aloud the sentence that informed this particular ‘performance’, each absurdly specific and kinda stupid, possible candidates for this year’s Bulwer-Lytton prize. But Crouch has an insight… if you read a different sentence from the one that triggered the image, boom! All of a sudden, it’s INTERESTING. There’s confusion, ambiguity, and you as an audience member are forced to wonder… why? Read the rest of this entry →


Jul 2011

The real reason I’m in theater…

It’s not the applause. It’s not the artistic satisfaction. And it’s certainly not the payday.

It’s the facial hair.

More importantly, it’s the “get out of shaving that ridiculous beard off despite your wife’s desperate protestations free” card that I get with each show. Honestly, the directors don’t even ask me to grow facial hair. I just try to figure out what I can get away with, grow it, then I walk through the Mission (or Williamsburg, depending on which coast I’m on) and soak in the jealous gazes of the hipsters with their disapproving girlfriends in tow.

So… theater. It’s the key to having both ridiculous facial hair AND a significant other.

And now, for your amusement, a gallery of regrettable facial hair, with no regrets.

John Philip Sousa in "Oh Mr Sousa"

Henry Mosher in "Emmeline"

Carl Magnus in "A Little Night Music" excuse here. It's just me.


Jul 2011

Tweaking a masterpiece: Assassins

Few, if any, musicals mine darker creative ore than Assassins. By humanizing a group of disenfranchised, semi-stable malcontents, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman tell a story of the American Nightmare, a haze of anger, frustration, and humiliation that can, apparently, only be relieved by killing the President of the United States.

It’s long been in the short list of my favorite shows of all time (it shows up twice in my “greatest moments of Sondheim” list). It’s also bear of a show to pull off, requiring a very deft directorial hand to keep the audience in that uncomfortable state where they’re genuinely empathizing with despicable characters. Furthermore, it’s an ensemble show that requires vocal virtuosity throughout. The piece is rangy and demanding. But Ray of Light continues to be a small company that insists on thinking big. With last year’s excellent Jerry Springer: The Opera the company showed their ability to rise to the challenge of a large cast singing tough music. If any non-professional company would be able to put on a convincing production of Assassins, it would be Ray of Light. Read the rest of this entry →


Jun 2011

Kushner, Communism, Serialism, and Obsolescence

Tony Kushner is not and has never been a member of the serialist party.

Tony Kushner’s epic play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (currently playing at the Public Theater) is a hyper intellectualized allegory disguised as a family drama about a clan of hyper-intellectuals. The action centers around the patriarch, Gus, a lifetime communist who has lived long enough to see his very ideology, the key tenets of his existence, the very fiber of his being fall squarely on the wrong side of history. What does one do when the system you’ve dedicated your life’s work to has been utterly repudiated? For Gus, unwilling to concede his beliefs as flawed, and uninterested in continuing a futile struggle, the answer appears to be an honorable suicide.

At first blush, this is a scenario that few audience members are likely to find applicable to their lives. In this post cold war era, the notion of a staunch communist is a quaint anachronism. For the modern audience, it’s just too easy to dismiss Gus’s ideals as wrongheaded. But what if it wasn’t so clear? What if Gus’s passions weren’t for an idea that was unpopular but not (yet) universally disregarded. Something like… contemporary chamber music? Read the rest of this entry →


May 2011

A Tale Of Two Spaces (em and Z) Review: Companion Piece and A Hand in Desire

I’ve been heard to complain about the lack of experimental theater in the Bay Area, but this week has paid off quite nicely with two pieces that make me feel quite a bit more optimistic about San Francisco’s willingness to take chances with non-narrative theater.

Companion Piece

On Tuesday I saw a very early preview of Z Space’s ‘The Companion Piece’. I believe this was the first public performance of the piece still in development, Read the rest of this entry →


Jan 2011

Review: Jerry Springer – The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is the best piece of theater I’ve seen in San Francisco this year. Irreverent, blasphemous, profane, sure. That’s a given. What’s surprising is how effective this immensely challenging work is, how well suited this subject is to a full operatic treatment.

And there should be no doubt about it, this is a full opera. The score is sophisticated and varied, a kaleidoscopic blend of musical theater, baroque oratorio, pop, rock, and occasionally branching into it’s own dissonant vocabulary. And it is fiendishly difficult, not just for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. Ray of Light has assembled an astonishing array of singers for this production, one that has renewed my faith in the depth of talent here in San Francisco.

The first act is simply a rendition of any episode of Jerry Springer, with the slight modification that everyone on stage (with some important exceptions), is singing. All the obligatory Springerisms are on display, Read the rest of this entry →


Sep 2010

Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear

It's cooler with the projections...

Lovesong of the Electric Bear
by Snoo Wilson
dir Cheryl Faraone
July 13-August 1
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W 16th St
Performance reviewed 7/11/2010 (preview)

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a taste for the surreal and irrational in theater.  What they may not know is that I happen to have a degree in computer science.  My wife knowing both those facts (either that or she got REALLY lucky) brought my attention to a show opening in NY this week that was described as the biography/fever-dream of one of the founders of computer science, Alan Turing.

Playwright Snoo Wilson shows excellent choice in subject material. Alan Turing’s life is operatic in its trajectory right out of the box, from the early mathematical successes at King’s College, Cambridge through his heroic breaking of German naval codes during WWII, to the tragic unraveling of his life due to his homosexuality and his ultimate suicide.  Wilson connects the strands of this tragic biography with a host of fanciful theatrical inventions, most predominantly the interjection of Turing’s beloved Porgy Bear into almost every area of his life as confidant, advisor, narrator, protector – a sort of deus ex ursa. Alex Draper as Turing and Tara Giordano as Porgy the Bear are the only actors on stage who maintain their roles throughout the show, the rest of the ensemble playing multiple roles (although in a clever turn, while the other actors play different characters in name, they each play consistant roles in Turing’s life, Alex Cranmer as the Father/Bully/Drill Sergeant, Peter B. Schmitz as the Mentor/Schoolmaster/Colleague, Nina Silver as the Mother/Judge, Cassidy Boyd as the Boyhood Lover/Fantasy Lover).

The challenge in biographical works, Read the rest of this entry →


Jul 2010

Tobias Picker starts foodie trend in New York

June 2010 Playbill

Apparently, when Tobias Picker eats, broadway listens.  Mere weeks after Mr. Picker was spotted at a Petaluma Applebee’s, broadway heart-throb Hunter Ryan Herdlicka told Playbill magazine that Applebee’s was the perfect spot to catch a post-show snack.  He even singled out the spinach and artichoke dip!

Maybe the New York Times will send a critic to Taste of Petaluma this year to spot next year’s trends…


Jun 2010