Monday, March 31, 2008
(Update: I missed the 'Greater Tuna' review initially and did you all also catch Theatre VCU's David Leong in the article about the New Works at Richmond Ballet? Man, that's a lot of theater-related press!)
Personally, I was staying out of the cold rain yesterday and catching up on gossip. Like, for instance, the story that Katie Holmes (aka Mrs. Tom Cruise) may be headed to Broadway. While the story didn't much surprise me (or even interest me), what caught my attention was the insanely nasty invective leveled against her in the comments section of this story. You'd have thought Katie had gone to these people's homes and strangled their puppies. What is it about some people that makes them want to spew hate at some random starlet? Even in my mid-40s, I cling to this notion that people are basically good at heart. Perusal of the comments on almost any entertainment website (or even worse, political website) takes a devastating toll on that naive idea...
(PS: I just found a story similar to the one I did in Style -- only longer -- about Granville Scott in 'Harvey' on the Collegiate website. Check it out if you want even more Granville!)
Friday, March 28, 2008
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't give at least a passing mention to the Arts and Letters Live event happening this Saturday at the Empire. Check it out (if you can fit it in between all the other openings and such!)
While I’m hyping things, I would encourage those of you who like your live music near as much as your live theater to check out a new bee-you-tee-fully designed online publication called 'Playlist.' It’s a categorically complete compilation of cool musical happenings all around the region -- Virginia, DC and Maryland – all presented in a groovy style. The editors/designers are shooting for a webpage that looks and feels like a real hardcopy magazine, and I think they largely succeed. Turn to page 20 if you want to read my short piece on the band “Over the Rhine,” which will be at the Capital Ale House next month, and then to page 31 if you want to see a pretty goofy picture of yours truly. I couldn’t find the picture I used during my brief stint at 64 magazine – a surprisingly sexy looking pic that had only the vaguest resemblance to me in real life – so I had to rummage through beach shots from last summer for something quick. Oh well.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
But two things above all others have got me jazzed. First, it finally filtered down to me through all of the other media chatter that there’s a Broadway revival of “Godspell” planned for this summer. How did I miss this? I am both excited and wary about it. I figure there will be little hope that I will avoid spending a ridiculous amount of money to get really good seats for this (for my whole tribe of 6) and I just really hope it’s a good production.
Then, I also read preliminary reviews of “Home,” Julie Andrews new autobiography. I’m not usually a big biography fan but this one is supposed to be good. It focuses on her early years in theater, before big screen fame. And I’ve always been infatuated with Ms. Andrews – she being one of the only reasons I could bear watching “Sound of Music” several times a week for a couple of years during my eldest daughter’s infatuation with the movie. So after my school’s out in a month or so, I believe I will find a place for this book on my already overcrowded nightstand.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The AC's are also opening for Slash Coleman's PBS special that is taping this weekend. You can all say you knew me when I couldn't spell on the theatre blog.
I look forward to IDR at Richmond Shakespeare this Thursday- look for a review in STYLE soon.
Monday, March 24, 2008
But I’ve been ruminating on theater marketing in town, specifically some of the images I’ve been seeing in the papers and in local shops and stores to promote recent productions. I first started thinking about this with the noteworthy artwork the Barksdale created for their current Willow Lawn season. For some shows like “Member of the Wedding” and “Doubt,” I think this imagery has been superb – evocative, iconic, a bit edgy, certainly memorable, etc., -- and has added real pizzazz to the marketing. For others – “Moonlight and Magnolias” and the upcoming “The Little Dog Laughed” – I’ve been less enchanted with and, with “Little Dog” specifically, even a bit confused. The cat with the fiddle is an interesting image, for sure. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to take away from it. Is the whole show supposed to be like a nursery rhyme?
Richmond Shakespeare has also gone with some interesting imagery this year. I can’t find it on their website anymore so I’ll have to work from memory on this. At first, I had a hard time with the groovy font and banner work they were using for the show titles but this has grown on me over time and now I actually like it quite a lot. The artwork that looked like woodcut prints, however, I’ve had a harder time with. For “A Christmas Carol,” the image was an old four-poster bed with the side covers draped over and some commotion going on behind them. This image didn’t do anything for me and in fact, you can call me slow but it took me a while to even remember what this had to do with the show. For one of the shows, the image was someone peaking through a keyhole, I believe. This is a great image but I think its indicative of its effectiveness that I can’t even remember what show the image was supposed to be referring to.
What prompted me to go ahead and write a whole post about this is the new “Once Upon A Mattress” ads that I first started noticing this past weekend. It seems with these ads and with the “Little Women” ones before them, the Mill has taken a definitive step forward in their advertising, using pictures of actors from the shows and trying to get something iconic and memorable going. With “Little Women,” it seemed like they were shooting for something reminiscent of the picture from the movie (below). But in my opinion, instead of being warm and cozy like the movie image, the image the Mill used was a little stilted and prosaic. With the image for “Mattress,” I think they’re about 85% there. I like the idea of it – the princess on a tremendous pile of mattresses. But for some reason I don’t like the expression on Audra’s face. I think they were shooting for a funny-grumpy look but (just my opinion) I think the result is just kind of grumpy. Which I think is too bad because Audra is beautiful and the play is a hoot. I wish some more of the magic and fun of the show could have been captured.
I understand that it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to evoke an entire play in one image and I really applaud the efforts theater companies are making to do it. RTP has had some real winners over the past couple of years and even newcomers like Henley Street – with their nifty “love hurts” poster for “Much Ado About Nothing” – have succeeded in occasionally making a great impression. Still, it’s a tricky business. I don’t think a great or lousy poster will make or break a play, but I do think that marketing imagery has an effect, even if it’s only subliminal. What do you think?
Sunday, March 23, 2008
The concept of the show is to bring Shakespeare to the audiences level by having the players in modern dress, keeping the house lights on, arranging the seats so that much of the action is at audience floor level and have the players intermingle with the audience a great deal. This concept is not new as we experience this presentation style often at Richmond Shakespeare's productions. But Henley Streets version was a little over directed and often seemed to -at times- involve the audience just to involve the audience. There was a little too much touchy feely with front row audience members and some overdone crawling around on the floor between the first and second rows during scenes in which Benedick then Beatrice are being fooled to believe that the one loves the other and vice verse. But maybe I was just jealous because I was sitting in the back row and nobody paid any attention to me or crawled under my chair.
Other than that, I found this to be the best Henley Street production so far. There was lots of energy- and I mean energy like cut-these-people-off-the-Starbucks energy. But it was fun and it worked becuase Jackie Jones grounded the show with her fabulous version of the evil Don Jon offering the cortrect contrast to everyone else's Tom Foolery. She was a hundred times better than Keanu Reeves who played Don Jon in the Kenneth Branaugh film version.
The cast seemed truly comfortable this performance and confident. It was a pleasure to watch some HS regulars like Michael Sater relax and have some fun on stage for a change. Sater is quite funny as the drunk Borachio. I have to say this though - Michael, did anyone ever tell you that with hair cut you look a lot like a brown eyed James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus in "Narnia"? It's a complement- he is totally hot right now.
Dean Knight is gifted as Dogberry, Master Constable of Messina. He is blessed with a dynamic voice and shares his gift graciously with the audience. He has a great feel for comedy and I look forward to seeing him in future productions.
There is good chemistry between Billy Finn's Benedick and Suzanne Ankrum's Beatrice- a must to pull of this show. Kerry McGee does a good job as Hero but her performance did not offer any understanding as to why Hero accepts Claudio after he disses her so badly in front of everyone at their wedding - what a royal jerk! But that is most likely my own issue and not a fault with her performance.
It is really a joy to watch this company grow. This production is well worth the ticket price but you only have one more weekend to catch it. But for the best experience sit in the front two rows.
Note to families: There were kids in the audience that were about fifth grade age and they were having a blast. This could be a good occaision to expose your kids to Shakespeare and to local theatre outside of Theatre IV.
For more info go to: www.henleystreettheatre.org.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Last week’s issue had a review of the all-black cast for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” To be honest, I can’t get really excited about it being an all-black cast – after all, TheatreVirginia did that years ago. I can, however, get excited about it being a cast with James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, and Phylicia Rashad. The TVA production had Tamara Tunie as Maggie and she was awesome. But I can’t for the life of me remember who played Brick. There’s no question that Tennessee Williams wrote something transcendent with “Cat” but in my opinion this is a play singular in its dependency on the lead actors’ charisma. Brick in particular can have as little personality as his name if played by the wrong actor.
I hope everyone saw the picture of Robyn O’Neill and read her quotes in yesterday’s Weekend section. I can’t believe the Miles hat was from 15 years ago!
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I especially like Brandon Fox’s “Whose Umami?” side article in this issue. I relate to the jaded feeling she describes; I get it sometimes regarding theater (though not right now given that the last few productions I’ve seen have been pretty energizing). Unlike Brandon, when I get that feeling, I can’t narrow it down to a specific taste. But next time I DO feel it, I’ll challenge myself to figure out what it is I’m looking for.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
It is short, 40 minutes long, and is designed as a finished product but also as a tool to help train acting students to create their own solo performance shows. The cool thing about seeing it now is that the audience gets to give their opinion of the production after the show in order to help Jase and Lauren perfect the show for its presentation to their thesis committee.
So go get your theatrical critic on and help Jase and Lauren out while being intellectually stimulated by the thought provoking work they have created.
Firehouse Theatre tonight (3/18) at 8:00pm, tickets $10.00 for most people $5.00 for students.
Monday, March 17, 2008
It might surprise even some people who know me that in high school I was mostly a jock. I’d been playing football, basketball, and tennis since I was a kid and I was a three-season sports guy at school. My high school was too small to have a football team but we had an awesome soccer team. Two of my best friends and I made the varsity squad our freshmen year and in our sophomore year, we made the regional tournament. We traveled around quite a lot and, for an underclassman, hanging out with the seniors was a particular thrill. Our center midfielder, a senior named Fred Plecha, could do it all. He was fast and tough and clever. His most impressive feat was the way he could take any punt an opposing goalie launched, trap it and get on the ground back in play again in an instant.
Shortly after the soccer season wrapped up that year, my friends said they were going to check out the winter musical that the school was putting on. I had no specific interest in going but my friends were going so I tagged along. I had never heard of “Godspell” and had no idea what to expect. The lights went down and from the back of the gymnasium from an unseen performer came the first line in the show, sung a capella, clear and strong, in an unwavering tenor: “Pre, ee, ee, pare ye the way of the lord…” It was a transcendent line, crystal clear as if delivered from heaven, and it echoed majestically for several moments – maybe an eternity. The singer emerged and, if you haven’t guessed by now, it was Fred Plecha. He continued the song as he strode up to the stage and the band broke out into the rollicking music and I sat there with my jaw in my lap.
There would be further shocks in the show – Jesus was played by our goalie, Chris Toth, but he was a pretty flamboyant personality so that didn’t come as quite a surprise. But Fred Plecha?!? And he was so damn good! I never really thought about theater in the same way after that.
Upon reflection, I realize this is a scenario right out of ‘High School Musical,’ but as cliché as it may seem, it certainly had an impact at the time. Soon enough I would discover how many good-looking girls were involved in theater. I’d be surprised and delighted at the talent exhibited by people I’d only known as a cheerleader or a lab partner in science class or the treasurer of the National Honor Society. I would find out that there were plenty of jobs a stage-frightened wannabe like me could do to be involved in the process. I’d be lucky enough to see one Nora Gillis, an incredible actress with whom I was a wretched boyfriend, deliver the line “I have tasted my menstrual blood!” with unwavering conviction in about a dozen performances. I’d luck into a 5th-row center seat for “Me and My Girl” on Broadway starring the incomparable Robert Lindsay, a show-stopping performer if ever there was one.
I’d luck into the menial job of carrying around a bulky hammered dulcimer, a job that would result into a life-fulfilling relationship. And I’d eventually see more than 50 productions a year several years running, never getting tired of the myriad variations on theatrical conventions that make it on stage month after month.
And I have Fred Plecha and that resounding first line from “Godspell” to thank for it. I’ve never had a chance to thank Fred – now Dr. Plecha if I remember correctly – directly for that life-changing moment. Someday soon, I’ll have to look him up and do so.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
In other great casting news, I’m very excited about the folks who’ll be appearing in “Peter Pan.” After an exceptional Peter (which Ford Flanagan will certainly be), I think the most important thing in “Pan” is a great Hook. And Theatre IV’s production will feature Robert Throckmorton in the role – someone who has delivered dozens of truly memorable performances during his long local tenure. Theatre IV is preparing some great scenery that I’m sure he will be chewing all to pieces once the show opens! His right hand man, Smee, will be played by Richard Koch who had a small feast of his own in the recently closed “Rumplestiltskin’s Daughter.”
The production will also feature a relative newcomer, Christine Schneider, as Wendy and, though I’ve only spoken to her briefly, she seems adorable. And of course, there’ll be that cute little Timberline punk hanging out on stage again. I believe he’ll have fewer lines involving “wee wee” this time.
I’ll also be looking forward to hearing who’s going to be in the Mill’s “Once Upon a Mattress.” The only play I’ve actually appeared onstage for in my entire life was my high school production of “Mattress.” I had one line (something like “get a rope!” – I can’t really remember) and the director wisely placed me next to the best and loudest singer in the cast so you couldn’t hear any of my “singing.” If I happen to review the show and make a special mention of “second knight from the left,” now you’ll know why…
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
In perhaps more refreshing news, India.Arie is going to be one of the stars of the Broadway revival of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Do you think they were maybe inspired by the good reception of VCU's recent version?
Closer to home, I'm not completely sure but I think Ms. Lewis might not have totally been comfortable with some of the aspects of Henley Street's Much Ado About Nothing. It sounds pretty great to me. Back in the early days, Richmond Shakespeare did more interactive kinds of productions and I loved them. I'm really starting to regret not being able to get to this show...
Monday, March 10, 2008
So sorry Sheckies (I love the name, BTW). I'll do better next time, I promise. In the meantime, please check out the Cousin Sheckie website and watch the myriad YouTube videos they've done. It's not quite like seeing them live, but it's the next best thing.
Friday, March 07, 2008
So if you are experiencing some Shakespeare withdrawal now that “Measure for Measure” has closed at Richmond Shakespeare, Henley Street just opened “Much Ado About Nothing” out at Pine Camp. As many times as I’ve seen the play, I never get sick of the Benedick / Beatrice interplay – it’s always worth taking in a new production just to see those two characters.
A while back, my blogmate MaryB posed a challenging question to me about the influence of crushes on the critical assessment of a play (“Is it possible to weigh the amount of personal emotional reaction to an actor vs. objective criticism?”). While I wasn’t sitting with Mary while she drooled over Justin Dray in “The Late Henry Moss,” I expect this is an issue she also has to grapple with at times. Perhaps she will chime in with her thoughts somewhere down the line.
In the meantime, I’ll respond along three lines of thought: professionalism, self-awareness, and examples.
First off, in many ways, being a theater critic is a job just like any other job. I do a task, I get paid money. In every job I’ve ever had (and probably every job you’ve ever had), there have been opportunities for emotional or interpersonal factors to influence how I did that job. Part of being a professional is managing those opportunities and making the right choices. As a manager, I never gave a project to one employee rather than another because I liked him or her more; I assigned responsibilities based on a person’s skills. As a school board member, I never engineered a situation to benefit a teacher or administrator because I had a crush on them. It’s not only wrong to do so, but from what I’ve seen, it’s also generally ineffective. Think of a director who casts someone in the wrong part because of a crush. Isn’t that usually painfully obvious and doesn’t the whole production suffer as a result? So one response to the “is it possible” question is, "why is it any less possible to do as a theater critic what people have to do on a daily basis in other jobs?”
One of the particular job skills of being a critic, I think, is a level of self-awareness. We critics all talked about this at the Barksdale discussion a few weeks back. I know that I’m not a big fan of farces, for instance, so I bring that knowledge with me when I go to review a farce. And while I may not be a big fan of the genre, I know what constitutes a good one and I’ve been pretty darn entertained by many.
This relates to crushes in that part of my job as a critic is to figure out where any crush feeling I might be having comes from and whether it is pertinent to my analysis of the play. Because of the nature of their jobs, actors and actresses tend to be physically attractive people. For the most part, physical beauty is generally not that impressive to me (I'm in my 40s, people -- the raging hormones have calmed quite a bit over the years...). I am also aided in this respect by being married to one of the most beautiful women in the world (in my humble opinion).
Also, as we all know, a crush is generally more than just physical. So if I’m feeling a crush toward someone on stage, I try to evaluate what in the performance is engendering that response and whether whatever that is serves the play. As an example, the first time I remember seeing Jen Meharg on stage was in Triangle Players’ “The Secretaries” and I remember feeling a tremendous crush on her. Which made her role – that of a domineering, ultimately murderous boss – that much more delicious, her seductive attractiveness contrasting fabulously with her vile actions.
On the other side of the coin, Stephanie Kelly Dray made quite an impression on me in another RTP show, “The Judas Kiss,” mostly due to a scene of full-frontal nudity (I was younger, more hormones...). But that scene was incredibly jarring in the context of the play and Ms. Dray – such an incredible actress in many other roles – was not even directly mentioned in my review.
So in the recent production of “Measure for Measure” that prompted this line of inquiry, I thought the crush feelings I had toward Ms. Blake were largely because she was effective in her role. Isabella impresses Angelo with her intelligence, the persuasiveness of her argument, her passion and her beauty. The crush feelings I had toward Ms. Blake reflected her effectiveness in impressing me in the same way she impresses Angelo. People watching that play are supposed to believe that a here-to-fore straight-arrow is inspired to do bad things at least in part because of his reaction to Isabella. Given Blake’s performance, I was willing to buy into that. I’ve seen Blake in other shows (The Tempest, for instance) where I did not “drool” over her, so to speak. That’s not because she wasn’t good in her role, but probably more because I don’t think I was supposed to.
One final example to illustrate this topic: I had a huge crush on Jill Bari Steinberg after seeing “The Syringa Tree.” Her awesomeness was pretty overwhelming in that production. When I was lucky enough to find myself sitting next to her in a Fan-area bar some time after that production, I was as nervous as a middle school boy. But just a few months later, I saw her in "The Fifth of July" and she honestly did not make much of an impression on me at all, and not because she was any less lovely. The instructive irony of it all is that only since getting over my crush on Ms. Steinberg (well, still working on it…) and getting to know her as the great and generous person she is has my job of reviewing her performances become any harder than it was after that initial surge of attraction. Go figure.
OK, so I’ve go on for much too long here, bored many of you, and probably said more than I should. But Mary gave me a great topic to go on about – me! – and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to ramble. Any comments, questions, yawns of disinterest or cries of outrage?
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
I am heartened by Bruce Miller's assertion in a blog post of his from a month or so back that just because people move away, doesn't mean they can't be brought back to star in a show if the role is right. So perhaps we'll see Justin (or perhaps another relatively recent Richmond fave who fled westward) in a local show soon...? We can only hope.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Last night, as I was trying to make some semblence of sense out of the 52 different strands of ideas related to my mid-term paper for grad school, my lovely and talented wife gave me a wonderfully entertaining gift. It's a book called "Not Quite What I Was Planning" and it assembles the 6-word memoirs of people both famous and not so famous. That's right -- entire lives summed up in 6 words. It's awesome. My mid-term paper became a distant memory as I instantly began devouring this book. Some of the submissions were deep: "Born in the desert, still thirsty." says one. Some are simply profound: "When she proposed, I said yes." Others are both hilarious and poignant at the same time: "Macular degeneration: didn't see that coming."
If you see the book, I'd heartily recommend picking it up. I of course have been ruminating over an appropriate 6-word autobiography. And lo and behold it came to me while shaving this morning:
To make this post vaguely theater-related, I've added a link over to the left there to the website of a great actress who also happens to be a great writer, Irene Ziegler.
"Never reached potential, settled for happiness."
Sunday, March 02, 2008
And an interesting piece on "Crimes of the Heart" with some intriguing backstage bits.
And a great remembrance on "Rent." I saw probably my two most favorite musicals -- "Rent" and "Les Miz" -- over the same weekend several years ago. Great show with an amazing backstory.
Finally, please don't forget the Liz Marks Campaign. Your help is needed and appreciated.