Friday, June 29, 2007

Petrified by the unknown?

I came home Wednesday night to the latest New Yorker and found a pretty provactive piece on theater. Oh, the reviews aren't particularly controversial (very positive marks for "Eurydice" and "Rabbit"). But critic John Lahr starts out the article with this sweeping statement:

"Producers, who live or die on the accuracy of their reading of the public mood, have registered the current climate of fear and exploited our need for succor. The glut of movies-into-musicals and refurbished revivals is a kind of “Pimp My Mind” of theatre. Audiences are happy to pay top dollar to see what they already know; it’s the unknown that petrifies them."

As both a patron and a critic, I'm a little taken aback by this statement. Maybe I'm not up on the very latest that's playing on Broadway, but I'd say there continues to be a steady stream of challenging shows -- like oh, Tony winning "The Coast of Utopia" and "Spring Awakening" for instance -- getting produced. I don't feel petrified by the unknown -- I relish every foray into new territory that I hear about.

What do you all think?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Into the Woods

“Into the Woods” at the Barksdale has already received all sorts of rave reviews – and I really like how they’ve integrated critical comments and pictures on their web site. Check it out if you haven’t seen it – it’s pretty cool.

But due to the often complicated scheduling of things at Style, my review won’t come out until next week. As you’ll see when you read it, I’ve added my own smatterings of high praise. I love the show and thought it was a fine production. In particular, I loved the nuance and depth I saw in Robyn O’Neill’s performance as the witch. And I could have watched Rita Markova all night; she is just lovely and extremely talented. I guess I have a thing about beautiful brunettes with knock-out voices (are you reading, Mrs. T?) And so you won’t think I am just a leering sexist, I found the princes’ both exceptional. Mr. Resnick and Mr. Rowland doing “Agony” and its reprise were about my favorite parts of the show.

But unlike Ms. Haubenstock and others, I didn’t feel this production deserved an unconditional rave. On opening night, I heard someone miss a note. Not unusual so I didn’t give a second thought. But then someone else missed another note. When it reached 3 or 4 instances, I couldn’t ignore it. I don’t have the best ear in the world but after all of those hours of “American Idol,” I know when something’s “pitchy.” This is also in contrast to “Austin’s Bridge” which I just saw last week – the songs may have been somewhat less complicated in that show but I didn’t hear a bad note all night at that opening. And that was with only piano accompaniment where I believe a vocal clunker would have stuck out more plainly.

There was also at least one song where the tempo seemed odd (OK, it’s Sondheim but even odder than you might expect) and another when the violin seemed to be playing off a different score entirely.

I also was unimpressed with the scenic design, though in fairness this is in comparison to the incredible work the Barksdale has put on before. And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that giant’s arm before; perhaps in something Theatre IV has done in the past?

These are all minor indiscretions, particularly in the face of how good everything else is, and some of the musical mishaps may have been ironed out by this point in the run. Also, in fairness I should say that I still have tucked in my memory banks the Swift Creek Mill production from 15 years ago, which set the bar pretty high in terms of this show. I try to avoid straight comparisons between productions at all costs but I can’t deny that the fond recollection of that production influences how I have seen every production of “Woods” since.

My complete opinion will be available in Style next week but you don’t have to wait until then to weigh in. Am I off my gourd criticizing “Woods?” Let me have it!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Damn, it's hot

I sympathize for those folks who will be putting on "The Tempest" tommorrow night. That's going to be a hot, sweaty performance. Oh, and by the way, my review of "The Tempest" is in this week's Style. It's pretty much exactly the same as what I posted below but still, there's a picture on the Style site, so that's something.

I had lunch today at The Camel on Broad Street, which is on the same block as the Firehouse Theater and just a few block down from Fielden's. I heartily endorse it for any theater person, and anyone else besides. It's a funky space, right below the WRIR studios, the food is good and they make great smoothies. Yum!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Austin's Bridge

I saw Austin's Bridge last Thursday, my third show in two weeks. Reminiscent of when I used to see a show a week; those were the days...

I'll link to my full review as soon as it's posted but as you will find out when you read it, I wasn't totally enthralled with this show (it's posted -- you can read it here). My biggest problem was that I didn't ever care about the main character, Austin, as much as I did about several of the other characters, particularly Ronald, Ruth, and Diane. I didn't find the transition Austin went through in the first act very believable -- his dramatic transition from shallow opportunist to caring guardian just didn't work for me.

I was disappointed because the cast members all had excellent voices and, starting with Robin Harris Jones's first number, I was thinking the songs would carry the show nicely. (Small point, but the program didn't list the name of any of the songs which was a little annoying...) (Other quick aside: I've loved Robin Harris in just about everything I can remember seeing her in. I hope she lands another high profile lead sometime soon.) But somewhere around the end of the first act, they all started running together in my memory. Especially after seeing "Into the Woods" which has so many distinctive songs, I felt more variety in song structure was needed. But that's a hard one to judge after just one listen -- I wish I had a CD of the score to take home to give it another listen.

Just like with "The Tempest," I heard more opinions about this show than I usually do. A couple people absolutely loved it, but I was told second-hand that one person (a retired "critical" person who most local theater vets know...) thought it a bit of a mess. I tried considering the show for a while as a writer's problem: how would I change the structure so that it worked better for me? I guess I would change the focus more to Ronald and Ruth and make Austin a subsidiary character. But that would be hard given that the show of about him. So then I went back to writing my review...

Anyway, feel free to weigh in with your opinion of the show if you saw it. Or even if you didn't. Maybe you like the poster? All opinions accepted.

Monday, June 25, 2007

More and more!

Man, just as soon as I start mentioning blogs, I find out about more!

In addition to the Barksdale Buzz mentioned below, there is also a Theatre IV specific blog. Not as buzzy at this point, but it may grow!

Also, I got a communique from one of Richmond's great expatriates, Rick St. Peter, who tells me that things are hopping out at the Actors Guild of Lexington (Ky). He blogs at length here -- and also regularly borrows Richmond great Scott Wichmann for his productions. I'm looking forward to seeing Scotty work his magic with Felix Unger this weekend out at Hanover Tavern.

Finally, one of Richmond's most talented actresses (yes, I'm spreading the compliments thickly today!) has recently started up a blog as well, that she mentioned in one of the comments below. But I'm waiting on confirmation from her to list it here on the main page. You can go searching or wait until I get the word...

It's clearly getting to the point where I could just do blogstuff 24/7 -- reading, surfing, commenting, etc.. With all this, who has time to see shows?

Link maintenance

Well, I've finally got some of the "Now Showing" links up, but I know this isn't a comprehensive list. I also haven't weighed in on everything that's playing so some links just go to the show's website.

I've also started the process of reviewing some of the other left-side links I've got. Oy, maintenance is a bitch. But I have found some interesting things as part of the web surfing. One is stumbling upon the Barksdale Blog, which also got a shout out in the T-D this past weekend. I wonder if the person monitoring the comments for them (Judi?) is going to be swamped as a result.

I also noticed that Eric Dobbs has a blog, as does ‘Rick Gray. Neither of these guys seems to update their posts that often, though (now I don't feel so bad...) ‘Rick describes himself as moving from conservative Democrat to moderate Republican to liberal Dem. Perhaps we can rope him into the white-hot political debates that rage over on Andrew Hamm’s blog???

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mr. Davis

I've been wanting to mention just as an FYI that Bill C. Davis is a great interview and a very nice guy. I've been doing interviews for years now and, just like Forrest's box of chocolates, you never really know what you're going to get when you actually make contact. One of my worst interviews ever was with the comedian Stephen Wright whose deadpan, affectless delivery works great in his comedy but is just deadly in an interview. I've interviewed a fair amount of writers and some directors who were a bit full of themselves -- leading to very one-sided conversations. Given that Mr. Davis is both a writer and director, I was pleasantly surprised. He was polite and earnest and good-natured and forthcoming and had many wonderful things to say about Richmond.

Somewhat defying the popular stereotype, most of the actors I've interviewed have been delightful -- only one true prima donna that I can think of off-hand (and no, I'm not going to say who that was). And among the most delightful interviews I've ever had have been with hyphenates -- writer/directors, actor/directors, actor/producers, etc. Again, this seems to run against what the preconception would be -- someone good at multiple things must think they're a hotshot, right? Instead, the ones I've talked to seem to be somewhat humbled by the process of moving from one specialty to the other. Where's all that ego that's supposed to fuel you theater types?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Here's a link to my interview of Bill C. Davis, the playwright and director of "Austin's Bridge" set to open at the Firehouse tomorrow.

And the production of "Witches of Eastwick" in DC -- starring former Richmonder Emily Skinner -- has been getting a fair amount of press in the Washington Post. Here's one article and here's another. Logging into the Post's site is now required, in case you haven't registered there.

That should give you enough reading material for a while!


The review of "The Tempest" didn't make it into this week's Style. Not sure why -- e-mail fired off to Arts editor to try to ascertain the situation.

But until it does, here's what I wrote. Not sure how it will appear in print. Enjoy.

Shelters in the Storm
Music, blithe spirit buoy Richmond Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
By David Timberline (357 words)

As befits its title, “The Tempest” is a whirlwind of emotion. Like none other of Shakespeare’s plays, this brilliant mash-up of comedy and tragedy churns with errant themes of love, betrayal, music and magic. It is comparatively thin plotwise, however, as if the immortal Bard decided to give himself over to the passions of the heart without undo concern for the intellect.

In Richmond Shakespeare Theatre’s merry and sometimes manic production of “The Tempest,” currently playing at Agecroft Hall, the calm at the center of this storm is provided by Stephen Lorne Williams as Prospero. Williams has an impressive history with “The Tempest:” thirty years ago, he played Prospero’s trusty fairy assistant, Ariel, in a Royal National Theatre production opposite John Gielgud. But while Williams has the pedigree for the role, I found his Prospero a bit staid. Ironically, it is this production’s Ariel, played by the remarkable Graham Birce, who infuses significant charm and vigor into the proceedings.

It is Ariel who Prospero sends off to implement the many components of his plan. Having been stranded on a lonely island for twelve years, Prospero has become an adept magician and raises a storm that shipwrecks his enemies. Years before, they had stripped him of his title as Duke of Milan, then set him adrift with his infant daughter, Miranda (played with delightful fervor by Liz Blake), who has since has grown into a comely maid. The storm will also bring her a suitor, Prince Ferdinand (Matt Polson). Using his sprightly magic, Ariel brings Miranda and Ferdinand together; undermines Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio (Andy Nagraj); and befuddles a trio of would-be assassins, led by the evil witch-spawn, Caliban (David White).

Amidst all of this, Birce moves about spryly in black Converse sneakers, plays violin beautifully, sings enchanting songs, and even walks on stilts. He is assisted by Andrew Hamm and his Foolhardy Band; their playful array of songs and incidental melodies serve as a perfect compliment to the action. There are other exceptional performances in this production: White’s Caliban, for instance, is memorably earthy and bitter. But ultimately it’s Graham Birce that stands out in the storm.

“The Tempest” plays Thursday – Sunday at Agecroft Hall until July 8th. Tickets are $13-$24. Call 232-4000 for details.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Stormy Conversation

I brought a friend, his wife and their daughter to the first preview of “The Tempest” last Thursday. The audience was made up mostly of senior citizens, whose unfiltered comments throughout the play sometimes amounted to a performance in themselves. My favorite was the guy who grew tired of the “Not too late” chorus of Andrew’s opening song and began intoning it sarcastically halfway through each verse. The most annoying was the guy who loudly explained Prospero’s final speech to his wife as it was going on (“He’s saying that he won’t leave until we clap…”)

Though you will see that my review was positive, I heard a fair amount of negative feedback about that first preview. An old friend I met at “Into the Woods” the next night said she left at intermission because she couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. And below is a back-and-forth between me and my friend about the merits of the production. So, in case you are thinking that the criticisms that get published are the toughest, you can see that there are audience-members who are much tougher than I’ll ever be.

PS: I'll update the "Now Showing" section to the left someday soon....

From my friend:

· I wasn't as impressed with Ariel as you were. He had his moments, but I thought him not quite otherwordly enough
· I thought the production was somewhat marred by the sound considerations. The band drowned out the actors not infrequently but this may have been a hazard of our seating only. I should have beeen surprised if anyone heard the content of either the first scene or Ariel's storm.
· The camp wears a little thin in this production at times. The "wedding" scene is a good example of this.

My response:

While the volume was often a bit intense, I did appreciate the quality of the band -- many productions of "The Tempest" try to get by with a few fairies playing triangles and tambourines. My appreciation of Ariel was largely because he was so earthbound -- big-ticket productions usually have him (or generally her) flying and harboring a secret love for Prospero. I thought the way they played him made him more of a counterpart to Caliban.

I agree about the camp -- a sentiment I tried to capture in the word "manic" in my description -- a lot to encapsulate in one word but that is my frustration with having to write so short. I'm often in this mid-ground of wanting to express something but then realizing to really express it would take up half the review.

Monday, June 18, 2007

No excuses

So I’ve been gone for a while. I expected I might let a week or two slip but I’m shocked that it’s been 5 months. I can’t really come up with a coherent excuse. Life has been busy but it’s always that way, isn’t it? I’ve been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster – my daughter has been applying to high schools and my best friend is leaving town for Atlanta in two weeks, both thing in process since the beginning of the year.

But maybe the most relevant thing to say is that I took a class in Film at U of R this past semester and I have just been more in tune with film for these past several months. As a result, I haven’t seen that many shows, written many pieces for Style, and, worst of all, not kept in touch that well with anyone in the theater world. I’m sorry, folks. Life is like that sometimes; I appreciate your indulgence.

On the flip side, the past couple of weeks have been all about theater for me. I interviewed Bill C. Davis, the playwright of “Austin’s Bridge,” and the director of the production opening at the Firehouse this week. I saw “The Tempest” and “Into the Woods” last week and will be catching “Bridge” this week. I’ll be commenting on all of these separately since I have much to blather on about them all.

But before that, did you happen to catch the Tony Awards recap on the Entertainment Weekly site? I enjoyed it and thought you might too. I really wish I had seen “Spring Awakening” last December though…