Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lear

My enjoyment of Richmond Shakespeare's King Lear started the moment I sat down. I was soon approached by Thomas Cunningham in his guise as The Fool and was chatted up nicely. I think I was a boring subject but he soon moved on to other much more entertaining victims and provided a personalized and charming introduction to the play for many patrons. As per usual, RichShakes makes even waiting for their shows to start something interesting.

The production itself was fabulous with a boldness and sense of gravitas that begins and ends with Alan Sader's performance as the title character. His voice, his composure, even his regally shaggy mane of gray hair made his royal stature unmistakeable and his eventual descent into madness palpable. I loved the way director James Alexander Bond staged the first scene with the king and his daughters, Lear's directive for flattery seeming almost off-hand and casual. Oh, but what a tragic series of events springs from this simple command. Jai Goodman is quietly heart-breaking as Cordelia and her performance provides a tender frame to this otherwise dastardly mean-spirited play (and I mean that as praise), her scenes at the beginning and the end providing a window into a more sedate and loving time in Lear's reign.

Adrian Rieder was impressive as Edmund but there was also a bit more swagger in his performance where I might have wanted more anger or even hurt (at being so unfairly diminished by his father). Still, there's no denying the agility with which he navigates the moments he bounces between Goneril and Regan -- simply delicious. A still greater challenge falls to Charley Raintree whose Edgar starts noble and clueless, falls into pantomiming madness with incredible zeal, and then emerges noble once more but with a worldliness and an anger that gives his character even more depth than Lear. Raintree's performance really captivated me.

Rounding out a truly outstanding trio of dark, passionate, and handsome types was Ryan Bechard as Cornwall. Could this really be the same actor who played the washed-up alcoholic from RTP’s “Devil Boys?” I never would have believed it, his smoldering power-lust was like a physical force at times, propelling the emotion of many scenes and apparently inspiring near-constant passion from Regan.

In the midst of so much excellent stuff going on, it is easy to pass over other great performances, which would include Cunningham as The Fool (that he can be so hammy and erudite at the same time is really a gift) and Foster Solomon as Kent. It's true that in a few years, Solomon himself could be a darn good Lear (he's already been a damn good Hamlet) but he does fine work as Lear's most loyal and therefore most crestfallen acolyte. Agustin Correro projected just the right level of disdain and sometimes comic bitchiness as Oswald; I wonder when we’ll see Mr. Correro in a lead role that will display the full range of his gifts.

I found myself liking the mean daughters somewhat less than I expected to, particularly since I’m a fan of both Kerry McGee and Sarah Jamillah Johnson. Certainly, they both were satisfactorily callous to their father, oftentimes getting downright nasty. But I found Regan’s pawing of her husband, sometimes in the middle of his lines, distracting. Perhaps this was Mr. Bond’s choice and maybe it’s more evident in the text then a realize but it was a bit odd on stage. I also found myself confused at times whether their rebuke of their father was out of political gamesmanship, familial hurt (for being overlooked for the favorite Cordelia, in parallel to the Edgar story), or just ingrained badness. It could have been all three but their motivations at specific points as the drama unfolded were sometimes obscure to me.

I found myself noticing the lights at Agecroft (lighting design was by Maja White) more than I had in the past, which is mostly a good thing. The actors were all illuminated well without distracting shadows (a relief after some recent frustration at the Firehouse) and the light-play that enlivened the storm was first-rate. There was at least one time when I was confused about a reference in the play to it being night, however, because it seemed awfully bright. That’s probably a tough balance in an outdoor venue.

The Cairns / Hoskins teamwork on the costumes resulted in some exceptional outfits. The king and the members of his court were finely decked out, of course, but I found myself noticing small things, too, like how Poor Tom’s rags were barely there and yet securely covered everything needed to keep the show family friendly. Also, the garb Jai Goodman wore as a peasant helping Gloucester along the path was nicely simple.

I’m sure there’s plenty else I could say but this is a production that is rich with gifts and I can’t really enumerate them effectively. So I’ll end where I began, with Mr. Sader and Mr. Bond. As a director, Bond has once again shown he has a firm grasp of the oeuvre and can make Shakespeare vital and entertaining. And, if for no other reason, this is a show that’s worth seeing for Sader.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Required Viewing

A review of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” by Mr. Miller is up at the GayRVA site, a review that may incite some conversation.

I’m adding another little feature to my navigation over there on the right. One thing that my eyes were opened to when I was in Los Angeles was the number of people out there in cyberland who are covering theater. So I am adding a little sidebar with links to other websites that I have – or will start to – access for the latest “News and Reviews” on Broadway and theater around the country (or the world).

The first link is to an online publication called Arts Journal. One of the highlights of my L.A. experience was the opportunity to work with Doug McClennan who is a true visionary when it comes to the effect of the internet and new media on the arts. He did a talk at the TCG conference called “The Community Formerly Known as the Audience: Who They Are, What They Want, and What to do About It” (you can – and should! – pull up the livestream of the talk. Doug actually starts talking at about 6:11 so go to that point for the beginning and skip all of the milling around. And if you watch, yes, that’s me up there on the dais providing what tech support I could during the talk).

While the talk was going on, Doug was also taking questions from the audience in the form of texts and there was a Twitter feed with responses to the talk being broadcast live on the screen behind him. It was a truly brilliant conflagration of interaction and response that characterizes the inter-connected world of today.

This talk should be REQUIRED viewing for artistic and managing directors at theater companies across the country. If you want to understand how to align yourself with the audiences of the future, listen closely to what Doug says.

One of the most telling moments of the talk was when someone Tweeted that they didn’t like how people were laughing at anecdotes and stats related to how often people text or tweet or use Facebook or are involved in other new media. This comment was re-tweeted about a dozen times and Doug finally addressed it in his talk. Texting and Facebook and everything are not “cute.” As someone with two teenagers, I can tell you from first-hand experience that these are all integral aspects of life for a new generation of young people, AKA a generation of potential audience members. Tittering about this behavior is akin to scoffing at the appeal of that wacky new box called the television back in 1940s.

If you have suggestions for more websites for me to list as theater-specific news sources, please include them in a comment. Thanks!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Of Kings and Kids

Reviews of Barksdale’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and Sycamore Rouge’s “The Odyssey” have appeared in the T-D already. I expect other outlets to have their takes in print or online soon, so stay tuned.

I knew this past weekend was going to be a busy one, but I had no idea just how crazy it was going to be for some of the theater folks in town. The Cultural Xpo at the Science Museum had people from multiple companies readying displays and performances and even flash mobs. The production to benefit the Massey Cancer Center, “The Pirates of the Chemotherapy,” a show that got edged over to the periphery of my radar screen, came back front-n-center as I started to hear good words from people who attended.

My focus for the weekend was on the SPARC 30th anniversary gala, in part because of my close personal connection to one of the performers, but also because of the incredible display of local talent I knew was going to be on-hand. The crew of rising teen actors that SPARC has groomed never fails to delight and the reprise of songs like “Money” that they had performed as part of “The World Goes Round” back in January looked great on the big Carpenter Center stage.

But though I knew a bit of what I was going to see beforehand, I was surprised (always pleasantly) by many of the performances, including Chase Kniffen doing a bit from “Oliver!” Jason Marks commanding the stage with his powerful “Memory,” and a charming collection of SPARC parents rolling out a rag-tag version of “Kids.”

There was even a moment early on that gave a glimpse into the versatile talent that SPARC employs. During a rendition of “Hard Knock Life” by SPARC’s “rising star” students, the performers started to waver from the tempo the onstage band was setting. With a skill that only years of handling similar situations can hone, music director and pianist Paul Deiss eased the band into matching tempo in time for the song to end perfectly. That kind of in-the-moment flexibility exemplifies not just Mr. Deiss’s talent but the quality of most all of SPARC’s teachers.

I didn’t know until Saturday that there were a whole slew of follow-up activities that SPARC was hosting on Sunday, so I missed all of that. But I hear that they were lots of fun and included a bunch of fine performances as well. Me, I went to see “King Lear” at Agecroft Hall and, while I might contest those that say it’s the best thing Richmond Shakespeare’s ever done, it certainly is a rousing production with a wide array of exceptional performances. In fact, there’s so much to say about it that I’m going to have to collect my thoughts over the next couple of days and get back to you with a more complete assessment later in the week. I will say that the Sunday performance was a near-sell-out so I would not procrastinate if you want to see it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Underwriting on the Wall

To address yesterday’s teaser: I found out earlier this week that the generous folks at the Carpenter Foundation have granted the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle the necessary funds to underwrite this year’s “Artsies” event. When I found out, I let loose with an enthusiastic (though quiet – I was in a room full of people) whoop of excitement. It’s a major burden off us organizers of the awards not to have to worry about money. But it’s also a good thing for the local theater community as a whole.

Hm. You look skeptical so let me explain. With all costs covered, every cent of the admission you pay to attend the event will go to the Theatre Artists Fund, which in turn benefits all local theater artists. Even if you don’t attend, more of the proceeds from the event will end up going to the Fund, which will in turn benefit the community as a whole.

Also, built into the budget that is now being underwritten is a smallish chunk of money for advertising. If we are able to advertise a little more broadly, we might reach more people who will come to the event, get a glimpse of how good the local shows are and will consequently be more motivated to see more shows in the future. We also set aside some money (again, a smallish amount) to cover expenses for any “big name” presenters who we might invite in from out of town. The hope would be that the big names would likewise build excitement for the event, incite more people to attend, they get a glimpse of how good…, etc. etc.

These last two bits might be a little pipe-dream-ish, I know, but still, they fit in with the general mission of the event: to build interest in and excitement for the local theater scene. To the extent that the event does that, everybody wins.

With that in mind, there are a couple shows opening this weekend -- “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Barksdale and Sycamore Rouge’s “The Odyssey” down at Battersea Park -- not to mention "Wait Until Dark" at the Mill, the Charlie Brown duo wrapping up at the Firehouse, and of course "Lear." Sounds like a winning weekend all around!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Leftovers

Don’t let this blog post’s title put you off; after all, leftovers are sometimes the tastiest dish of the week, right?

Here’s an overdue link to the T-D review of “Wait Until Dark,” a qualified recommendation, I’d say. There’s also a little preview of “Wait” in this week’s Style which seemed to celebrate my absence by printing a virtual cavalcade of theater-related stories: you have Mr. Griset’s review of “Lear,” Ms. Burruss’s preview of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” focusing on Mr. McCarthy, and a spot by Ms. Lehman-Rios about SPARC’s 30th Anniversary Gala (big question: will Jason Mraz show? My bet: no).

As you undoubtedly know, “Scoundrels” is in previews until this weekend, a fact that dusted up a little bit of a brouhaha over at the Barksdale Blog. My question: is a small brouhaha just a brouha? Or is that just the sound I make on Friday after my visit to the local Beer & Wine shop: “Brew! Ah….”

Also in the category of leftovers, I forgot to mention one other story I wrote while out on the left coast. I saw a staging of the straight play of “Spring Awakening” and wrote this piece comparing it to the musical, using Jonathan Franzen’s criticism of the musical as my hook. While it’s another story spurred by the Fringe festival, it has some nominal interest to those who might be “Spring Awakening” fans (I know y’all are out there!)

I met a big “Spring Awakening” fan as part of the NEA fellowship, an enthusiastic and smart young guy named Jesse North. He did this webshow during the program, notable mostly for its fun tone and great production values, but also for subsuming the little snippet I did on “what is devised theater?” In his regular life, Jesse runs the website StageRush.com which has become one of my regular stops in my perusal of Broadway-related news and that I would recommend to you as well.

Speaking of Broadway, didja hear about the folks at “How to Succeed in Business…” cancelling their performance yesterday because of a stagehand’s overdose? The event seems to beg for snarkiness in the face of tragedy but as a former backstage-r myself, all I can say is “Yikes” and my thoughts go out to the poor guy’s family.

Teaser: Check this space tomorrow for some great news, not just for me but for the whole local theater community. Really!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Processing

The main computer system I use at work occasionally gets bogged down, the little chipmunks that make it run taking a lunch break or something, and when it does the system displays a message that says "Processing," and continues to flash that message over and over until Alvin and the gang get back to work.

I'm on a flight back from Los Angeles and I feel like that's what's happening in my head right now. I can't quite articulate anything about the experience of the last 10 days, the system is just processing...processing...processing...

While that's going on, I plan to read up on some of the stuff I've missed over the past week and a half and, if any of it still seems relevant I'll link to it here.

I wrote a fair amount of stuff while in L.A. But the piece I'm most proud of is this 'man on the street' video segment I did. I like it because I feel like you might get the same results if you approached people convening to see a big tour in Richmond and asked them about local shows. I also shot the video, edited it myself, and had it up on the site all within about 4 hours (with just a smidge of Engine28 tech help). So the world of video doesn't seem nearly as intimidating to me as it might have just a week or so ago.

The first bit of content I contributed to the site was this smallish rant in response to a panel the L.A. Times held to discuss "is L.A. a theater town?" featuring big names like Beth Henley and Tim Robbins. As you'll see if you read, I don't have much patience for that kind of navel-gazing.

The story that was the most fun to write - reflecting the enjoyment I had having the experience itself - was this story on seeing 4 shows in one night. It was a wacky night, only a fraction of which I could capture in the piece. Again, I like the aspect of universality in it; I expect many people could write a similar piece about any other kind of intense festival, whether it centered on music, film, theater, or dance.

The most interesting discussion / presentation I attended was the RADAR L.A. symposium that I reported on in this story, consisting of presentations by some of the most fervent, intelligent and articulate arts professionals I've heard speak. Associated with that story, I shot some other "man on the street" footage that became a little piece on people defining "devised theater." I can't find it on the site anymore, unfortunately. It was pretty funny, mostly because of the ingenious way the engine28 video gurus edited it.

I also did a story about L.A. actresses, prompted mostly by sitting next to an incredibly nice and chatty young woman at the L.A. Times panel who has done voice work in the "Land before Time" cartoons for years. It was eye-opening to hear stories from someone who has been on the inside of the movie and TV business for so long and yet didn't really have a clue about how the theater scene worked.

Finally, I did one straight review of a show called "Brewsie and Willie," a production that design-wise was pretty cool but content-wise didn't really deliver. The best part about doing this review was that I got to work one-on-one with Howard Shapiro, an incredibly learned and passionate critic who gave me some great insights into improving my critical writing. Also, I came up with the headline which I was proud of in that geeky self-satisfied way that writers can get when they think they've come up with something clever (that probably annoys the heck out of those around him, particularly spouses...)

So that's a taste of my fellowship experience, or as much as can be gleaned from the writing I did out there. More info and details may (or may not...) be forthcoming...

(UPDATE: Went through and corrected the more obvious grammer/spelling mistakes. Clearly, I've got some settling in to do before the blog flows as freely...and correctly...as before.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Good, with some Grief

I'm out of town but the Style machine keeps rolling along, with my review of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" in this week edition.

It's been a bit of an insane time in LA, attending a panel tonight that included Tim Robbins and Beth Henley. The NEA program's site goes live in about 20 minutes. Check it out here.

Both the T-D and GayRVA love "Lear." Though I'm not exactly looking forward to the heat of home (it was about 73 in LA today), I am excited about seeing this production. Looks like a winner for Richmond Shakespeare!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I'm Off

The NEA Fellowship program starts tomorrow. It's been a frantic week thanks to an astounding convergence of events and situations but here it is and I'll be on a plane heading west in a few hours. I'll be sorry to miss all of the goings on here over the next 10 days or so -- the big Tonys party at RTP, Richmond Shakespeare's first Agecroft show of the summer, a staged-reading at the Firehouse narrated by my pesky, constantly-involved son, etc. etc. I'll read what I can from a distance and hope people will fill me in on things when I get back.

I doubt I'll be posting much in the next couple of weeks but, if you are at all interested in goings-on at the TCG Conference and other things LA-theater related, you can follow the work of my fellow fellows and I here. Cheers!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Dog Sees God

The extremes of "Dog Sees God" can be off-putting. The early scenes practically pummel the audience with surrogates for the beloved Peanuts characters getting drunk, smoking dope, and snorting coke. It's not long before the crudest sexual innuendoes are pantomimed and unexpected sexual impulses acted on. I had very adventurous high school years but even at their most free-wheeling they weren't as debaucherous (sp?) as this. Charlie Brown seems to have matriculated into Sodom and Gomorrah High School.

But I think Bert Royal does this for more than shock value. In a clever way, I think he's honoring the perspective of the original Peanuts cartoons. As in those more innocent depictions of childhood, a world swirls around "CB" that he only sporadically engages in and seems relatively clueless about. As with the kids in the cartoons, the teens of "DSG" are precocious, but when you're in high school precociousness isn't just restricted to deep thoughts about Buddhism but can also devolve into manipulating people's emotions in order to get laid.

And in the midst of the carnal and chemical pleasures of "DSG," the sweet and simple relationships between CB and Beethoven, and more poignantly, CB and his little sister, are strikingly honest and clear. Oh, they're messy, with none of the people involved quite understanding what's going on, but isn't that how life is? Full of confusion and missteps and messy misunderstandings?

There are many specific pleasures in the Firehouse's production, most of them having to do with the exceptional performances. Kyle Cornell makes a great CB, not the full-blown blockhead he might have been as a kid, but still a little adrift. Ben Hill fully embraces the aggressively sexual teen role; he reminded me of a couple guys I knew in high school who acted in nearly the exact same overboard way. The "mean girls" were an entertaining sidelight and, while I continue to love Liz Blake White in just about everything I've seen her in (including her underwear!), I'll also be adding Maggie McGrann to the list of actresses I'll be looking forward to seeing on stage again.

In the end, the chemistry between Cornell and Audra Honaker as CB's sister sold me on this production. In the last several scenes, Honaker strips away the affectations that have characterized some of her more extreme roles in the past and plays it straight, to great effect. These are siblings that don't always click but, in their own way, they still love each other, and Honaker and Cornell make you feel that.

The technical elements of this production are all solid, with Adam Dorland's scenic design a nice departure from anything cartoon-y you might expected. The technical wizardry that enhances the final scene is impressive and surprising.

"DSG" is certainly very funny, a fact that the shout-laugher who was sitting behind me last weekend would certainly attest to. But what may be most surprising about the show is that on one level, it's a tale of empowerment. There is tragedy involved but instead of maximizing the melodrama that the final events could present, the show focuses on CB's ongoing journey toward self-awareness. Some folks could quibble that Beethoven (an intense and effective performance by Lucian Restivo) is given short shrift by the plot and that homosexuality is not embraced as triumphantly as you might expect. The orientation of several characters is not firmly established at the show's close. But CB has taken a devastating but significant step towards a sort of redemption. Linus, er, I mean Van the Buddhist would be happy.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

As If

I have a Twitter account but still hardly ever use it. Due to time constraints, however, I’m thinking of this post as if it were a series of tweets. So here’s several 140 character or less slices of theater:

Nice piece in Style this week about the Tony Awards viewing party. Good times, good deed, doesn’t get any better right?

Review of “Charlie Brown” in the T-D and reviews of both the Peanuts-inspired rep shows in GayRVA. Both pluses and minuses highlighted (highlit?).

I saw the same shows as Mssrs. Miller and Lewis. My take: Liked “DSG” a lot, details to come. “Charlie Brown:” good, not great but Shofner’s awesome!

Last chances to see [title of show] this weekend. Don't miss out!

The cool and crazy Saines in Petersburg have started blogging! Keep up with them here.

A “Rocky” musical. Really? I’d be more skeptical if the creative team wasn’t so impressive. But then again, so was “Spiderman’s.”

Friday, June 03, 2011

1-2 Punch

I seldom have a clue what is going to get people talking. Apparently my “Casting Games” post on Wednesday struck a nerve of some kind because more than a dozen folks have chimed in with their thoughts. I love it when people are talking/writing because that means they care and/or think about theater and that’s the whole point of this thing here. (Update: you might want to check out Mr. Miller's recently-posted discussion about casting on the Barksdale blog.)

Style had two stories this week tangentially related to theater that you might have skipped over if you were only looking for theater reviews. One is this week’s cover story on the VCU library’s comic book collection – one of the largest in the country – that was written by the other Style theater reviewer, Rich Griset. The other is Ed Slipek’s architectural review of the still-relatively-new theater space that the Richmond Triangle Players has developed in Scott’s Addition. It’s an interesting piece, and not only because it’s twice as long as the typical Style theater review these days (no, I’m not bitter). This gives me the opportunity to point out that “[title of show]” has been extended until next weekend so hustle up and make reservations if you haven’t seen it yet.

(PS: Style also snuck in a quick story on the Conciliation Project’s latest production yesterday. Check out a preview of “Stolen Land” here.)

In other news, an eclectic group of theater folk has organized a Tonys Awards viewing party at the RTP theater as a benefit for the Theatre Artists Fund. This is a great idea and one that I would be totally there for if I wasn’t headed out of town. Still, you lucky folks who are here should waste no time making your reservations because I wouldn’t be surprised if this shindig sells out.

Finally, the Charlie Brown double-play has opened at the Firehouse. In an effort to take full advantage of the “rep” situation, I’m going to try and see both shows this weekend, perhaps to see if either production somehow informs the other. I’m also curious to see how a troupe of actors cast for a straight play has adapted to a musical. A few folks from the cast were on Virginia This Morning earlier this week. I can’t figure out how to link to the specific videos but both an interview and a performance from the appearance are available here. Judging from just this brief sneak preview, it seems they have adapted fine.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Casting Games

I haven’t linked to them explicitly before now but John Porter’s reviews of “[title of show]” and “Bloody Murder” were both posted relatively recently. For that matter, I didn’t link to the T-D review of “Murder” either – click here for Ms. Lewis’s take.

When the Barksdale “Signature Season” announcement came out a couple of weeks ago, one of the entries was listed as “rights pending.” Apparently, the rights for “God of Carnage” have come through and so now it’s their official “Acts of Faith” entry for next year, definitely an exciting development.

One of the fun things about season announcements has always been playing the casting guessing game. I know when word first started circulating that Barksdale was doing “Spring Awakening,” the speculation among “SA” devotees (e.g., my lovely wife) about who in town could / should play each part began in earnest. Now the same thing can happen with “God of Carnage.” The stars who originated the lead roles on Broadway definitely put distinctive stamps on them, making it hard for me to immediately plug local actors into each slot. It’s also interesting that the roles in this show have sometimes been swapped by the leads in each gender before so perhaps the specific person is not as important as someone who is just a damn good actor. Hmm.

The Barksdale shows aren’t the only ones that lend themselves to this game (“My Fair Lady” being precast took that one out of the running). Firehouse’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” certainly was rife for speculation (though not anymore since casting has been finalized). I’m still fascinated by thoughts of who among the extremely talented local youngsters will be tapped for Triangle Players’ “Stupid Kids.” Certainly, someone of substantial skill will need to play Shylock in Henley Street’s “Merchant of Venice.” Sycamore Rouge’s “Topdog / Underdog” should spark some intense competition for the two leads. And even Theatre IV’s season generates conjecture: who, for instance, would be appropriate to step into the shoes – or webbed feet, as it were – of either Frog or Toad?

This kind of casting conjecture happens all the time for movies: anyone remember the strum and drang over the casting of the "Twilight" leads? Similar anticipation followed the announcement of an American adaptation of the "Dragon Tattoo" series. More recently, the producers of "The Hunger Games" got a lot of press for their decision to make Jennifer Lawrence their Catniss (an excellent choice, IMHO). The final decisions are always the director’s, of course. But even so, it’s fun to imagine who might be perfect for a specific role. Anyone out there want to offer up your thoughts for upcoming Richmond shows? You'll probably have a better chance guessing who'll be Richmond's Stinky Cheese Man than Hollywood's Lisbeth Salander.