Friday, May 27, 2011

Fourth Wall

A month or so ago I stated in a review that “silence is one of the scariest things in live theater.” At the other end of the spectrum, one of the most fun aspects of live theater – and sometimes the trickiest – is the fourth wall. Just to heap a little more praise on “[title of show]”, I think the way the show doesn’t break the fourth wall outright, choosing instead to have the actors often give knowing looks or skittish glances that telegraph their awareness of the audience, is another one of its many charms.

From what I hear/read, CAT’s latest production, “Bloody Murder,” does break the fourth wall and, like “[tos],” has characters that know they are characters in a play. But while the musical’s characters were mostly happy to be there, the characters in “Bloody” are understandably none too thrilled about the plotline of their little drama and rebel against it. It’s a fabulous premise for a show and I really hope CAT can bring it off well. With a cast that includes talented vets like Emma Mason and Bob Murphy, the production certainly has good raw material to work with.

I hope everyone has a great holiday weekend. It won’t be long before Richmond’s stages are replete with scoundrels, Peanuts, epic battles and tragic kings, so brace yourself for the eminent onslaught of new productions.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


What might not have been obvious about my review of Triangle Players’ “[title of show]” that I linked to yesterday is that it’s a bit more than just another rave about a cleverly directed, enthusiastically acted, and well-designed production. For one thing, it’s a review that I suggested be titled “Rave About Musical” to keep with the spirit of the show but my own little meta-effort apparently did not make the cut.

The review was also a bit of writing exercise for me. For much of the performance, when I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was smiling broadly or giggling softly. A show as consistently funny as that begs to be called “hilarious.” But ‘hilarious’ is one of those words that is notoriously overused in reviews. Sure, there are plenty of other options: ‘funny,’ ‘amusing,’ even ‘gut-busting,’ ‘side-splitting’ or ‘uproarious.’ But few words fit the bill as consistently as ‘hilarious.’ I thought a show as good as this one deserved a little extra effort on my part so I consciously avoided that one adjective. I was helped, so to speak, by a somewhat reduced word count on the review assignment but still, even with less space to fill, it was a challenge.

And that’s largely because this production is truly hilarious. It contains many clever little bits (the texting of potential stripper names), a few wonderfully ribald touches (I love the term ‘procrastibater’), some Richmond-specific shout-outs (yay, RTCC!), and even a crass prurient moment of semi-nakedness (Ms. Farmer’s scene may not have been this straight guy’s favorite moment but it was close!) The real genius of the piece, however, is how it maintains a logical narrative flow while also expertly walking the weird tightrope of meta-comedy. From small things like the impossible movement of chairs between apartments to the big concepts like the take-over of the show by secondary characters, “[tos]” does indeed push “meta to the max” and has a great time doing so.

So I succeeded in my little writing experiment but that was not nearly as impressive as this production. Each performer is spot-on – as my wife said to me, it’s now a show that’s hard to imagine with any other actor playing each part. But this is also one of those productions where I am more aware of the director’s skill than many others. Part of it is just a pacing thing – the show moves along at a great clip – but there is also a vision clearly guiding the production, an encouragement not to overplay certain parts while staging other scenes to maximize comic potential. So many kudos to Mr. Amellio for his accomplishment.

Finally, if you read this blog, then you ARE a theater geek and, while my review specifically said the show’s appeal transcends theater geekiness, it is a particular pleasure for the stage aficionado. Passing mentions of Dinah Manoff and shows like “Ruthless!” may be beyond the knowledge of even the most fervent geek, but the alternating excitement and drudgery of the perennial understudy or chorus filler will be familiar to many.

I really enjoy smart shows but, unlike intellectually overstuffed pieces like “Arcadia” (which I also loved, BTW), “[title of show]” has such a playful accessible intelligence that everyone can love it. It inspired me to try to write smarter; maybe it’ll inspire others to stretch new intellectual or theatrical muscles. Or, at the very least, to go see more shows.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I think the day after my review of “[title of show]” appeared in Style is a good time to give an overdue shout out to Theatre VCU. If there was any doubt as to the importance of this local university’s program to the local theater scene, a scan of the recent graduates should alleviate that. Looking just through the list of MFA recipients, I see at least two RTCC award winners and perhaps two other RTCC award nominees. And, thinking back on this past season, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least two more of the listed MFAs don’t snag a nomination before the year is over.

Not that the RTCC awards are the be-all-and-end-all but they are one convenient measure of the impact of these individuals specifically and the Theatre VCU program generally. It’s also worth mentioning that the folks who taught these graduates also participate regularly in the local professional scene, perhaps none more prolifically than Patti D’Beck (featured in this graduation ceremony picture).

I’ll admit to being too blasé about Theatre VCU in the past. I don’t make going to its productions a priority, though my colleague, John Porter, has encouraged me to do so several times in the past. This in the face of the fact that some of my favorite theatrical experiences over the past couple of years (“Chicago,” “Tommy,” etc.) have been at their productions. I don’t always scrutinize the school’s upcoming season when all of the other local companies are announcing theirs, even though this September they’ll produce the intriguing “Shakespeare R&J” directed by Keri Wormald, a fabulous director who’s been at the helm of some of the best pro productions in Richmond history (IMHO). And to complete the litany of inadequacy, I didn’t make it out to “The Bluest Eye,” the VCU co-pro with Barksdale, which I heard very good things about second-hand.

So I am going to do better in the future. For a start, I’ll add the fun and informative Theatre VCU BackStage Pass blog to the roll on the right. This should keep me (and any of you that care) apprised of some of the VCU goings on. And come next season, I’ll carve out the space required to see the VCU shows, something that won’t be chore by any means given shows like “Grease!” and “Arabian Nights” on their docket.

For those of you who pay attention, the Drama Desk awards were announced over the weekend and seem to give a good indication of how the Tonys might go, that is, lots of recognition for “The Book of Mormon.”

A few people have asked me about the NEA fellowship thing and I realized that I’ve probably confused some folks. I went to LA a few weeks ago as part of my 9-5 job, not for the fellowship. The NEA Institute begins two weeks from this Sunday and I’m alternately excited and terrified. Since I’m going to have to act like a real journalist while I’m there, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to how theater is covered. There’s no better place than the NYTimes to go for that and I was particularly impressed a couple of weeks ago at this little slideshow about “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s a great deconstruction of the choreography of a scene. I’ve always been a fan of journalism that’s instructive as well as informative and this piece definitely fits the bill. Now, if I could only make my blog posts just as good...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

30, 31, 32

Reviews of “[title of show]” came out over the weekend, both Ms. Haubenstock at the T-D and Mr. Miller at GayRVA seeming to like it quite a bit. I finished up my review yesterday and it should be in next week’s Style. The best capsule review I can offer is also the simplest: don’t miss this show or you’ll be sorry you did.

This past weekend was a little weird in that seemingly all of a sudden, a big slew of shows were all closing. “Art,” “Honk!” and “Quilters” all wrapped up and, to complete the slew of one-word titles, “Shorts” opened and closed. (For those of you who might have missed it, Ms. Lewis in the Times-Dispatch wrote up “Shorts” and Mr. Miller weighed in on “Honk!” last week). I’m always more aware of openings and those occasional weekends when several shows arrive at the same time and there’s a buzz of new possibilities in the air. Now it’s like a big deflation as I look around and rue the shows I didn’t get a chance to see.

My recent out-of-town adventures allowed me to take in my 30th and 31st shows of the season. Several years ago I started keeping track of the local shows I’d seen during a season and this year I expanded my little spreadsheet tally to include any production whatsoever, including staged readings and out-of-town shows (I only counted the Radio City Xmas Spectacular once, even though I saw most or all of it at least 4 times). So “[title of show]” became the 32nd production I’ve seen this season, the 23rd local professional production.

Twenty-three was the total number of local pro productions I saw last season so I’m certainly going to beat that number this year. I’m looking ahead and thinking I could possibly make it to 30, particularly given that the Firehouse will have two shows in rep that I haven’t seen (thanks, Firehouse!). Even if I make it to 30, that’ll mean 39 productions overall for the year which will fall short of the 2008-2009 season when I saw 35 local pro productions and 5 non-pro ones.

Forty productions. That means that, on average, three weekends out of the four in the typical month I went to see a show. I’m not tooting my horn here or anything. It’s just a little staggering when I look at the numbers. Even more staggering to me is that I know people whose theater consumption dwarfs mine (looking at you, Ms. Haubenstock!) How do they find the time?

Friday, May 13, 2011


Sorry, blog-land. This week has been a killer for me in many ways and anything I would have written about would have been of the personal rant variety. Many companies are coming out with their 2011-12 seasons with some very interesting productions planned. I’ll try to get it together enough to write about that soon but, in the meantime, feel free to leave your comments.

If you have been paying attention, “Spiderman” turned off the dark recently (having been dark for three weeks). I’ve only read one recap of the differences in the newly imagined production. I’m somewhat amazed to read how much they’ve changed, particularly re-engineering the entire second act. It’s definitely a wise move based on what I saw but it also makes me glad that I saw the show before it was revamped. Perhaps what producers are counting on is people who will come back to see it again every time it goes through a facelift.

I’m looking forward to seeing “[title of show]” this weekend. Any of y’all seen it? Ms. Haubenstock at the T-D liked it. What did you think?

Monday, May 09, 2011


Our stories define us: tales from childhood retold at family reunions, nights of reverie recalled at high school reunions, the stories of courtship and marriage that parents tell their children. But at what point do these stories enslave us – trap us in roles from years past, encapsulating what is complicated and mutable into something pat and repeatable?

These is one of the meta-questions that lie behind “The Walworth Farce,” a production at the Studio Theatre in DC that my lovely wife and I took in a while back. But it won’t occur to you until at least midway through this disturbing slice of Irish darkness that is also fast-paced and intermittently funny. You’re likely to spend much of the first act just wondering what the heck is going on.

An old man sits in a beat-up armchair in the middle of a crumbling apartment, one younger man is in the next room ironing a dress, another nervously unpacks groceries in the kitchen. The old man, Dinny (Ted van Griethuysen), starts a tape recorder with peppy music from decades ago and the two younger men, who you soon find out are Dinny’s sons, fly into a bizarre series of interactions. Only a good way into the first act does it become clear that the boys, Sean (Alex Morf) and Blake (Aubrey Deeker), are acting out scenes from the last day Dinny spent in Ireland.

The play-within-a-play is a baroque farce involving two scams, two funerals, and a lot of quick costume changes (Blake plays all of the female parts). The boys’ agitation is palpable, and we discover why when Sean suffers the consequences of messing up some of the key props. He has had a conversation with a clerk, Hayley (Azania Dungee), at the grocery store and this contact with anyone outside the isolated apartment has totally unnerved him. When Hayley ultimately insinuates herself into this weird world, the results are disastrous.

Within its limited, strange little structure, “Walworth” is quite brilliant and presents prime opportunities for every actor involved to chew a healthy amount of scenery. As Sean, Morf has to surf between the three levels of reality in the play: Dinny’s fantastical story, the real-life relationship between a father and his sons, and the bigworld outside beyond their apartment door. Van Griethuysen’ Dinny is imperious and unhinged but also charming in places. Deeker makes Blake physically imposing but emotionally fragile, and the drama eventually turns on a decision his fevered mind must sort out. Dungee is unfortunately forced to sit and watch a lot of the action but she projects a breezy and appealing personality in her first scenes with Morf.

As the tension escalates, “Walworth” gets trapped in some frustrating scene constructions that you might expect in a bad horror movie. By late in the second act, you might find yourself asking, “Why doesn’t Hayley just use the knife prominently at hand in the kitchen?” Or “Why does Hayley’s cell phone ring for SO long?” For a show that teeters on the edge of plausibility as it is, these moments threaten to push it over the edge.

But even with its structural faults and overall weirdness, “Walworth” is fascinating in its exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and how they can ultimately determine our fate. A one-set show with only four actors, it’d be a prime candidate for production by the Firehouse or one of the fringier companies in town. The playwright is the recently celebrated Enda Walsh, a challenger to Martin McDonagh’s realm of idiosyncratic but amazing plays and a name I’ll be watching for in years to come.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Puncturing pretense

On the third day I was in Los Angeles, I finally realized that the Fox Studios backlot was only 2 blocks from my hotel. For two days, I had turned left out of my hotel toward Santa Monica Blvd (a street I can't even say in my head without a melody line, thanks to Sheryl Crow) whenever I went walking or jogging. The last day there I turned right and boom, there was the Fox lot. Not that I could just run right in and wander around, but on my jog that day I did circle around the whole compound and took what opportunities I could to peak in. Mostly, it was lots of golf carts puttering around and lots of numbered buildings. However, when I finally got around to the front gate where people who work there were driving in, I saw someone who looked distinctly like Amber Riley (Mercedes from "Glee") drive right in front of me. That's the story I'm sticking with even if it wasn't her.

This happened the morning after I had several bona fide celebrity encounters at the performance of "God of Carnage" with the original Broadway cast. After the show, I was heading down to retrieve the bag I'd checked and nearly ran head first into John Stamos. I said "excuse me" and sidestepped just in time, but not before taking in his very chiseled good looks and the scary fact that he doesn't look a day over 35 in person even though he is exactly 2 days OLDER than me. Oy.

I inadvertently went by the stage door as I was leaving the theater (I was going to find the bus; I guess all the beautiful people went in the opposite direction). Unlike Broadway where stage doors are swamped after a show, there were only 5 other folks hanging out at the Ahmanson waiting for autographs. So I joined them and soon Jeff Daniels (taller than expected and nice but perfunctory to the fans) and Hope Davis (warm and personable and a little weary perhaps) came out. After another 15 minutes, Marcia Gay Harden came out and seemed like she couldn't light up a smoke fast enough. She had a distinct kind of "old broad" attitude that was refreshing and funny and, even though she was carrying two large handbags full of stuff, she wouldn't accept any help.

As for the show, I'm going to go ahead and do something like a full length review of it because I've got to warm up in preparation for my fellowship thingy in June. I've realized that I'm so stuck in a 400 word box that I'm not sure whether I can write anything longer. So what follows is something close to what I'd write if I was writing for the LA Weekly or some such thing. Feel free to skip it if you've got better things to do.

Though I've only seen two of her plays, it seems clear to me that Yasmina Reza is determined to deflate high-minded intellectualism, exposing, as it were, the Bugs Bunny cartoon that lies just beneath the surface of every opera. "Art" is precipitated by the consideration of sophisticated modern art but devolves into various hijinks and pratfalls. Similarly, "God of Carnage" begins with the most civilized of discussions between well-mannered adults but it quickly become clear how close each of the four characters is to the edge of barbarism. The infamous (and impressive, stage magic-wise) hurl at the show's midpoint is just one sign-post leading inexorably from blithe discussions of recipes to childish destruction of ornamental flowers.

You probably know the basic story: two couples have come together to discuss a fight between their children. The 11 year-old son of Alan and Annette (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) has taken a stick to the son of Michael and Veronica (James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden), knocking out a couple of his teeth. There is no denying the entertainment value Reza skillfully draws from the tension that boils intensely beneath this simple set-up. But her brilliance truly becomes evident as allegiances fray and re-form during the course of the evening, demonstrating a remarkable depth of psychological insight into the dynamics between men and other men, women and other women, and married people of varying degrees of mental health.

Though filled with stars familiar from TV and movie screens, the cast of this production brings an intense theatricality to their roles, none more so than Daniels, who I found mesmerizing as the most nakedly assholish member of the quartet. Playing a lawyer trying to guide a pharmaceutical company through a potential lawsuit, Daniels uses the cell phone calls that regularly interrupt the evening to establish his profoundly cynical personality, which sets the stage for him to bond with kindred spirit, Michael. Gandolfini successfully escapes the bonds of his most famous role; when Michael finally untucks his shirt - a move that could be threatening coming from Tony Soprano - it's a signal of his resignation and frustration, not of impending violence.

Davis is slight and brittle on stage (seeing her afterwards in jeans and a loose sweater was like meeting a different person) and she traverses the highest highs and lowest lows here while never losing her bearings. Perhaps it's because her character ends up being the only one who doesn't seem to lose sight of the children that prompted the meeting in the first place. Harden has a somewhat thankless role, her Veronica clearly Reza's stand-in for deluded, righteous, and oversensitive do-gooders everywhere. Honestly, though she was excellent in the role, I'm surprised she was the one that one the Tony.

I laughed often and heartily throughout "Carnage" and not just at the slapsticky moments but also at Reza's unflinching disdain for pretense. However, I also tasted a little bile of bitterness seeping in by the play's conclusion, never a charming sensation. Michael's lament that "children devour your lives, and then they kill you" seems overwrought when he says it. But later you realize it's just a precursor to soften you up for the ugly epithets that will fly before the end. I think I would like Reza's plays better if I felt she left even the residue of sympathy somewhere in her characterizations. That the audience comes to consider Alan the only vestige of restraint is telling.

The production shines from a technical stand-point, with the subtle lighting design a particular stand-out. It was satisfying to me that even a big fancy Los Angeles theater can have trouble with sound design, as I heard a few people complain on the way out about not being able to hear certain lines.

In the end, I feel pretty profoundly lucky to have seen this production. I may not worship at the temple of this particular "God," but I had a fabulous time visiting it just the same

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

I get a-round

My review of "Circle Mirror Transformation" is in this week's Style. Better late than never, right? Mr. Griset's review of "Art" also appears this week, which is a cool coincidence since I just saw another of Yasmina Reza's works last night. More on that tomorrow.

It's always interesting for me to go back and read a review of mine a couple of weeks after I've written it. There's a way that a show settles into my consciousness: my initial impressions age and mature and don't always end up where they started. Sometimes this process results in a bolstering of my opinion of a show. After I saw "Avenue Q" the first time, my feelings about the show just got more and more positive (enhanced by repeated plays of the soundtrack) to the point that I was actually a little disappointed when I went and saw it a second time.

I wouldn't take back anything I said about "CMT" in my review. I enjoyed this show but it hasn't aged as well in my memory as other shows. Trying to think about it analytically, I suspect it's because this is a show of moments, usually small ones, subtle and simple character turns that are intriguing but also fleeting. At the performance I saw, the audience was older and relatively impatient about the pauses and stretches of silence. In the face of that, I felt a sense of defiance on behalf of the actors. I wanted to turn to the talkers in the crowd and say, 'pay attention -- there's good work going on here!' I also wanted to get pedantic and say, 'theater isn't always about rapid-fire dialogue!' So while I highlighted the pauses in my review, the rest reads to me now like a defense of the actors who utilize the open spaces in the script to fully inhabit the characters they play.

As I think back on it, I would put "CMT" in the category of plays that I appreciate more than I love. The lack of an intermission is a problem experientially. Some of the scenes are pretty indulgent (like the one where people portray the items in Schultz's room) and I'm not sure what they added to the play as a whole. As my colleague Mr. Porter suggests, there is also a fair amount of telling not showing going on thanks to the monologues where each character lays out another character's back story. For a show with less dialogue than many, the proportion of telling to showing seems high in retrospect.

There are other smaller issues that have popped up in my reflections about the show. I have ended up feeling frustrated with the Marti character. There is obviously a lot going on with this character but, more so than with any of the others, I think she gets short-changed by the play. I came away feeling like I wanted to empathize with her, particularly as portrayed by the always-winning Kelly Kennedy. But in the end, I don't think she really earns much empathy, seeming kind of rigid all the way to the end.

My appreciation of certain scenes has increased over the weeks, however. The "telling secrets" scene in particular is kind of stunning. I can pretty clearly remember each character's reaction as each secret was read. This is not a testament to my memory but to each actor's clarity in their almost entirely non-verbal response. Beyond being specifically impressed with Mr. Flannagan's performance, I thought he and Erin Thomas-Foley had a very compelling, very authentic chemistry, both as their relationship was heating up and as it frayed. In fact, every interaction between Theresa and another character had an energy a notch above the others, a reflection of Thomas-Foley's unique skills as an actress.

As I think back now, the scenes that most succinctly reflect how I ended up feeling about the show are the "lying in a circle, counting" scenes. I appreciate their purpose in the context of the play and there were some funny and/or interesting moments in them. But they also tended to go on too long and the pay-offs we're sometimes minimal. I can see how people with an abiding interest in theater and who happen to be fascinated by actors might be particularly enamored with "CMT." However, I can also see why some patrons, like the one who I overheard as I filed down the stairs at the Barksdale, might wonder, "...but what was it about?"

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Out of town adventures

I haven’t really known what to post today, my mind still reeling a bit from the momentous news of last night. I’m also hanging out on the left coast this week so am fairly discombobulated thanks to that. After things settle a bit in my head, I’ll be able to regroup and post something more interesting. I have lots to talk about; Saturday I saw a weird and wonderful piece of work at The Studio Theatre in Washington called “The Walworth Farce” and on Tuesday, I’ll see “God of Carnage” with the original Broadway cast out here in L.A.

In the meantime, Ms. Lewis’s review of “Honk!” came out on Sunday and looks like another winner for Theatre IV. The Broadway in Richmond series for 2011-12 was announced and honestly, I'm not too impressed (I saw "South Pacific" on Broadway and, while wonderful, I don't think I need to see it again. Perhaps I'll take the opportunity to finally see Blue Man Group...) Also, the Tony nominations will be announced in about 7 hours as I write this. Since they’ll more than likely be out by the time you read this, who do you think is likely to collect a trophy? Were you shocked or disappointed by any of the noms?

UPDATE: The nominees are...