Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Raving out the year

Well, though it has been sitting on the shelf for weeks, perhaps it's appropriate that my review of "A Year with Frog and Toad" comes out this week. This way, I end the year with a rave about one of the most engaging productions I've taken in so far this year. Hope everyone out there in the blogosphere has a happy and healthy holiday season!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beauty and Wrap-ups

If you missed it, a review of “Xmas Carol for Two Actors” was in Sunday’s paper.

It’s always interesting during the holiday season when the overviews about the year that was come out. We are reminded of gaffes and scandals that now seem like ancient history (Anthony Weiner!) and we are very nearly forced to reflect on the good and the bad of the previous 12 months. I appreciate that Entertainment Weekly chose to recognize a challenging work like “Sleep No More” while also joining the chorus of praise for “Book of Mormon.” The NY Times had two wrap-ups, Brantley’s including several shows you’d expect. I like Isherwood’s largely because of the core message of his piece, summed up as “…while most of the media attention and dollars continue go to the overhyped fare that is more branded entertainment than art, American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths is in surprisingly strong shape.”

In the past, I’ve been chided when I comment on the physical beauty of someone in a show. Apparently, this somehow treads into the subjective/objective territory – opening up a critic to the criticism that “he/she only likes shows with pretty girls/boys in it…” Or maybe a critic is only supposed to notice acting ability without any attention given to the actual physicality of the actor. Given that an actor’s body and all of its components are the primary tools he/she has to do their job, this seems a little disingenuous.

There is no escaping the fact that acting is a profession where the way someone looks is one of the most – oftentimes THE most – reason that person is cast (contrary opinions? Let me hear ‘em!) So the question arises, does an actor’s looks become a valid talking point in a review? Personally, I know there are times I have to reflect on whether I liked an actor’s performance because of what they did or how they looked or the magic alchemy between form and function. How much of that should I put in my review?

For Sycamore Rouge’s “Picasso in the Lapin Agile,” I thought the two female leads were/are stunning. I mentioned this in my blog post, but I don’t know if I would have included those kinds of comments in a published review. Somehow I don’t want any actress to be discounted as “just a pretty face,” particularly when her acting is as compelling as Mrs. White’s or Ms. Kuykendall’s was.

I think the attractiveness of the “Picasso” cast made more impact on me than it might have otherwise because of it being a bar show where I could see the actors very up close. Part of the magic of theater is that, sometimes, people who are reasonably attractive in person seem absolutely stunning on stage. Does that somehow mean these people are better actors because the force of their performance is so strong you think they are better looking than they really are?

Beyond “Picasso,” I’m also thinking about this issue because I think the whole beauty thing can cut both ways. My industrious son has been up for parts where we have gotten the impression that what the casting director was looking for was someone a little quirky or distinctive looking, a boy who wasn’t quite so ‘pretty.’ I remember hearing that one of the reasons people like Julia Roberts is that she isn’t a perfect beauty and so therefore more relatable. And that actresses like Charlize Theron haven’t always been taken seriously because they are too beautiful.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate that physical beauty plays such a big part in the acting world. But this is also a good time of year to remember that, while what you look like on the outside may play a part in your success, what you are like on the inside will be what determines whether you are happy or not. Perhaps a little trite but not any less true for being so.

Speaking of the season, this will be my second-to-last post of the year. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and tomorrow I will plunge headfirst into the joy and fervent family time of the holidays. But I will take time out enough to post a link to my rave review of “Frog and Toad” which damn well better run in Style this week. Happy holidays, y’all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Go See These Shows!

A week ago I was without power, which was annoying enough, but now I’m further annoyed in retrospect because it robbed me of a whole week that I could rave about Sycamore Rouge’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” I saw the bar performance of the production last night and it was a singular experience, unlike anything I’ve been a part of before. If you have any doubts about making the trek down to Petersburg to see this show, get over it and check out this production. If you go this weekend, you’ll have the extra bonus of seeing how the “Lincoln” movie people have totally revamped the streets of Olde Town Petersburg – it’s pretty impressive (if a little annoying from a parking perspective).

Certainly part of my delight with this experience was the environmental theater aspect of it. “Picasso” is set in a bar, Sycamore Rouge has a lovely in-the-round kind of bar area, making it perfect to host this show. I was lucky enough to grab a seat at the bar (ok, I kind of stole it from director Jeffrey Cole, but hey, it was a really good seat!) and so I got to see a lot of the action very up-close-and-personal. Einstein (Adam Mincks) asked me to hand him a napkin; Germaine (Liz Blake) rolled her eyes at me conspiratorially after a particularly grandiose statement by Picasso (Ryan Bechard). It was a little intimidating at times but I definitely felt like a part of the action, and not just a spectator.

Even more exciting was being a few feet away from the actors as they launched into their intense tete-a-tetes. There were moments exchanged between Picasso and Suzanne (Irene Kuykendall) and then Picasso and Germaine that literally gave me goose bumps. I can’t guarantee that these translate as well from the stage as they did in the bar, but if even half the heat that is generated between these actors makes it into the house, that’ll certainly be fiery enough to warm your hot toddies.

Cole has brought together a great cast for this production, and one of the most striking aspects of it as a whole is frankly how striking they all are. Kuykendall and Blake are just knock-out gorgeous, Bechard has that dark smoldering artist thing down perfectly, and David Janosik (as barkeep Freddy), Phil Vollmer (as comic interlude Schmendiman), Larry Akin Smith (as fading lothario Gaston) and Mincks all have the off-hand good looks of great comic actors: affably handsome blokes whose good looks don’t get in the way of them making a good joke.

But more important than just a bunch of pretty faces, this is a collection of great actors. All the principals have monologue moments that they absolutely kill, none more stirring than Blake’s challenging comeback to Picasso about his relationships with women. If there was a highlight reel for this year’s theater season, that moment would have to be on it. What you tend to notice in an environmental performance is how well actors are staying in character and maintaining relationships when they are not in the spotlight. Mincks (who was sitting next to me during much of the show) was regularly reacting to the action going on among other characters; Blake and Bechard exchanged several inconspicuous but significant glances. Also, these actors had the added challenge of a cast of unpredictable extras to play off of and they did so impeccably.

Last night, Elise Boyd was subbing in for Kellita Wooten as Sagot and I felt lucky to catch her in this role because, in my experience, Ms. Boyd is always entertaining. She did not disappoint here. And though I was certainly entranced by the beauty of this cast, that didn’t totally distract me from noticing the fine costume work by Kate Prothemos. Boyd’s period get-up was notable as was the lovely bustier/skirt combination Kuykendall rocks throughout the show.

I have seen “Picasso” at least once before – the production I remember is the one TheatreVirginia did many years ago. I had issues with the script then and I still do. In a show where even the minor characters (i.e., Gaston) are given interesting back stories to play with, the character of the Countess is particularly random (even though Claire Biggers is great in the role – and also very easy on the eyes). “The Visitor” bit seems almost lazy on Martin’s part, a device to wrap the show up, not necessarily to add anything to the proceedings (Kent Holden does fine here, though it’s hard to match the electric charge you expect from who his character is supposed to be).

The challenge for anybody putting on this show is to make the most of the script’s many delights and to obscure the weaknesses and this production certainly does that exponentially better than I remember the TVa production doing. Though I wish hundreds of people could get the benefit of seeing it in its environmental setting, I’m sure the staged version is just as much rollicking good fun. Bravo to Mr. Cole and his creative and comely cast!

And while I’m raving, I have to put in a further endorsement for Theatre IV’s “A Year with Frog and Toad.” I wrote a glowing review of this production a month or so ago and Style still hasn’t run it. This is as charming and engaging a production as you are likely to see, with performances and technical elements that haven’t been pro-rated in any way just because it’s a kid’s show in a modest-sized house. I still remember my amazement at how rich the musical arrangements by Paul Deiss are and that was just the first of many pleasures I found in this production. If you don’t have a kid, borrow one and bring him or her to this show. You’ll be glad you did.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Putting it out there

One of the great benefits of the new social media is the way it opens up windows into other people's worlds. Two examples:

1) Henley Street Theatre Company re-started their blog a month or so ago and I had occasion recently to go back to it and read about the audience's relationship with actors on stage. If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend it. I also look forward to reading about some of the thought and insight that is going into the staging of "Lord of the Flies," one of the productions opening up early next year that I am eagerly awaiting.

2) Ms. Saine down at Sycamore Rouge recently posted a Facebook note describing an intense real-life situation involving the balance of art and commerce, leadership and management. It's very interesting and I imagine it as a kind of case study that could be posed as part of theater management classes.

"South Pacific" is very nearly upon us. I believe this is a touring version of a production I saw in NYC a few years ago that had Richmond expat Jerold Solomon in the ensemble. Too many other things going on in town for me to make to this, however. Speaking of which, there will soon be a "Xmas Carol for 2 Actors" slideshow available online that I think should be pretty entertaining. Watch for it!

Friday, December 09, 2011


I had hoped to see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” last night but I ended up staying home to manage my powerless home as best as possible. The lights came on in my neighborhood this morning after a cold night for me but a hot night for the folks at Sycamore Rouge from what I heard. Here’s hoping no freak storm derails my plans to go next week.

For those looking for something different for a Friday night, Stage B is hosting a holiday celebration tonight at Gallery 5, with music, comedy and dancing. Sounds like a good time.

A review of “Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas” finally showed up, this one in the Herald-Progress. Don’t expect one from Style, still waiting on the T-D. I forgot to mention on Wednesday that Style also ran a review of “The Holiday Stops” this week, the show still running through next weekend. Mr. Porter gave his impressions of “My Fair Lady” on the radio recently, you can hear it here but the text hasn’t shown up on his blog yet.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the stage adaptation of the movie “Once” lately. I heard an NPR piece about it yesterday and then saw reviews in EW and the NYTimes. I had significant reservations about this kind of thing working – taking a quirky, some delicate screen story and putting it up on a big stage – but it sounds like the results may not be horrible. I’m curious about this production in particular after seeing Enda Walsh’s “Walworth Farce” in DC earlier this year. He’s a playwright that can certainly do quirky.

Next week, two dramatically different productions open: the tour of “South Pacific” and Richmond Shakespeare’s “Christmas Carol for 2 Actors.” Think it’s curious that a show set in the tropics shows up just as winter’s settling in here. Perhaps folks who were thinking of taking a sunny Caribbean vacation will just go to the show instead?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


On the occasion of the recently published review in Style, I’ve tried to write an expanded consideration of “My Fair Lady” about a half-dozen times and, every time I try to organize my opinions and reasoning into something straightforward, it boils down to this: I didn’t buy it. By the end of the show, I didn’t believe that Henry had fallen for Eliza, and I certainly didn’t believe Eliza had fallen for Henry.

What I might believe is that Henry has started – and just started – to stop thinking of Eliza as a “thing” or a “project” and begun to think of her as an individual. I wouldn’t even necessarily go as far as saying he thinks of her as a person because, since she’s a woman, she’s not quite a true person in Henry’s antiquated vision. There are lyrics in his big breakthrough song that reinforce this: “I’m so grateful she’s a woman and so easy to forget / Rather like a habit one can always break…” I know the lyrics speak to the tension Henry is feeling about this but still, the words reflect only the spark of recognition of Eliza’s personhood, certainly not a complete embracing of it.

And Eliza, well, it seems to me she makes a calculation based on her various options, ultimately leaving the potential for “true love” with Freddy behind. There is something fundamentally frustrating to me about celebrating a woman who chooses a man that has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain and disrespect for her, versus choosing someone who – while ineffectual and also swimming in misguided notions – at least seems devoted to her.

Thinking of the show as having these conclusions – a man get an inkling of a clue that lower-class women are people and a woman makes a better-of-two-evils decision – hardly makes it an endearing musical for me. I’m sure people can provide all sorts of alternate analyses of this, but that’s how it came across to me.

The show has some extraordinary songs and, while others have commented on the lack of a full orchestra, I actually enjoyed the more spare orchestration because it let me luxuriate in voices like those of Stacey Cabaj, Jason Marks, and Ben Houghton. The compelling delivery of these great songs certainly makes the production worth seeing…but they still didn’t diminish my discomfort with the show.

Besides the relationship issues, there were niggling class issues that I was annoyed with. I guess there’s something further discomfiting about watching “happy street people” dancing around the gutters of London while Occupy protesters are still in the street protesting income disparity. Also, the endowment being granted Alfred out of the blue made for a fun turn-about at the end but also kind of defies logic. I know, I know: it’s just a show and you are supposed to suspend that whole real world thing while in the theater. Sometimes I am better able to do that than other times.

Side note: I had a similar reaction while watching “Guys and Dolls” recently. It’s also a Broadway classic and tends to sweep the viewer up in its wonderful musical world. But never before had the song “Marry the Man Today” bothered me as much as it did this last time. The fact that the show’s two key romances pivot based on that song doesn’t really fit. Adelaide has wanted to marry Nathan all along, it’s been Nathan who’s been resisting, right? So how does her deciding she can accept him as he is (for now) change that?

Anyway, I’m aware I’m over-thinking things and taking pot-shots at classics while I’m at it. I guess I’m just in a mood.

But, to end on a positive note, there were several moments from this production of My Fair Lady that I will remember very fondly…in addition to just about everything Stacey did. Lauren Leinhaas-Cook’s slow burn during “Why Isn’t a Woman More Like a Man” was a perfect piece of non-verbal acting that totally made that scene for me. Also, the harmonizing among the male ensemble members was really great. To paraphrase Eliza, I could have listened all night.

And just to acknowledge that the “tweeting in theaters” conversation was picked up by yet another national media outlet, you can check out the Washington Post blog post on the issue, written by the lovely and very talented journalist, Maura Judkis (a fellow USC Institute fellow). She’s included some interesting quotes from theater folks. I also enjoyed the comments that the theater professionals on the 2AMt blog have to offer on the subject. Of course, you can check out Andrew Hamm’s post on his blog if you want to read even more thoughts, linked to over there on the right.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

...and on...

I was embroiled in a Twitter-fest last night and didn't take the time to actually read the USA Today story that the AV Club piece on texting in theaters referred to until this morning. From that story, I particularly noticed these choice bits:

"Hale says there were "no negative comments" from patrons about the tweet seats, located in the back row of the theater to avoid disrupting other patrons."

"Broadway productions...have not used tweet seats. But...the director of promotions for Godspell on Broadway says the production intends to use them."

"Quote: 'Tweeting the CSO's performance was like attending a members-only social event in the midst of a traditionally formal setting.'"

My only purpose in continuing to talk about this is to reinforce the point that social media has fundamentally transformed the way we interact with the world. Even two years ago, I couldn't watch Survivor while simultaneously trading barbs with the show's host via Twitter. I watch the Oscars or the Tonys these days as eager to read the commentary from my Facebook friends as to see what happens on screen. At my work, I am bombarded daily by information on how social media is transforming marketing, sales, and business development. The "rulebooks" for how certain things happen are getting rewritten every day. I'm not advocating for these changes; they are already here.

So, yes, we can all agree that texting can be rude, disrespectful, and totally inappropriate. But, like it or not, it also may be coming soon to a theater near you.

In the meantime, people involved in theater can spend their time making disparaging remarks or value judgments. Or they can look at the issue dispassionately and with an understanding of their audience and make what they consider appropriate decisions. Whether it's zero tolerance or no holds barred or something in between, that's for each company to decide. But I would suggest they make those decisions without a load of inflexible baggage filled with preconceptions about what theater is "supposed to be" or of what their audience is interested in. For some, theater is the highest form of art. For others, it's just one of a dozen options of what to do on a Saturday night.

Theater people are creative people. Certainly they can be creative about dealing with this issue.

Monday, December 05, 2011

And so on...

Comments on my texting related post just kind of went crazy, though I guess I was responsible for a big percentage of them. As if by some cosmic coincidence, the Onion's AV Club site posted this piece today. I continue to bristle at the overstatement -- apocalyptic, really? -- but now I've been conditioned to know that that's the way the issue is going to be talked about...until it's not.

Many thanks to those who have participated in the conversation. I'm always interested in hearing what people think, even when I don't necessarily agree with them. I know I have a different perspective on this issue than most people and I'm glad everyone refrained from just calling me a babbling idiot. Specifically, I appreciate Jonathan Spivey for offering his lengthy and considerate comments. The "Rocky Horror" production he mentions sounds awesome and I agree that more of those kinds of experiences would be great. Thanks to Augustin for offering a great perspective that seems to overlap with mine to a great extent, i.e., I'm not in support of people texting but, given that they do, it might be worth trying different strategies to deal with it.

It was great to get the input from Lou Harry, too, one of the most knowledgeable theater critics and commentators I've ever met. He organized a theater trivia game as part of the fellowship I did this past summer that was amazing; he has clearly forgotten more about theater than I will ever know. Check out his columns in the Indianapolis Business Journal sometime.

Thanks to kb saine for alerting me to the AV Club article. And, in case you didn't know, Sycamore Rouge just opened "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and it got a nice review from Ms. Lewis in the T-D. I'm definitely taking the trip south for this one.

Speaking of reviews, has anyone seen one of "Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas?" Has anyone seen the show? What did you think?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Why I Like Critics

Sure, since becoming a critic myself, my opinion toward critics is much more empathetic than it might have been a dozen years or so ago. And since becoming friends with several critics who I think are pretty nice (and talented and interesting) people, I have developed an outright affection toward many of them.

But beyond the personal aspects of it, I also like critics for two significant reasons. First, they can be incredibly entertaining and smart writers. Sometimes a critic finds a particularly clever turn of phrase or a distinctly insightful observation that both is fun to read but also enhances my enjoyment or understanding of the piece they are writing about.

Second, often critics put into words certain thoughts or perceptions that were rattling around in my brain but that I couldn’t quite find the right verbiage for. After seeing a play or movie or TV show, I like reading reviews and having those “Yes - exactly!” moments where a phrase I read encapsulates just what I was thinking.

I had that kind of moment re-reading Rich Griset’s review of Firehouse’s “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” this morning. I saw the show last night (and didn’t text even once during the production…) and, while the production had some things I liked, I didn’t come away particularly liking it. In particular, there was something that bugged me about the attitude toward women I sensed in the show (still feeling echoes of dislike for the “My Fair Lady” attitude). The way Mr. Griset put it was “Durang's use of violence against women as a shallow metaphor for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is more offensive than illuminating.” Yes – exactly! Beyond being a little uncomfortable with the aggression and disdain voiced toward women by the father character and Zamir, I don’t feel like it was effective in illustrating anything. How much more interesting and complex would the character of Zamir been if he had been just as shady and unknowable but also had an outright affection toward women?

But that point to another problem with the play IMHO: it isn’t about the interaction of characters but of caricatures. I loved Irene Ziegler’s portrayal of the theater-obsessed mom but even she was trapped in a strictly two-dimensional construct. I think Arash Mokhtar is probably an excellent actor but I didn’t get enough shadings from this play to really know for sure. And I felt the worst for supporting players Lisa Kotula, Steve Organ and Stephan Ryan who are all talented but weren’t even given 2 full dimensions to play in this show. I came away most impressed with Eva DeVirgilis who, as Griset says, is very likeable in her role. That may seem like faint praise but, amidst oddities in this show that tend to push viewers away rather than make them empathize with anyone, it’s actually an exceptional achievement.

Another “yes” moment for me in rereading the Style review was the characterization of the set. The whole turntable design is actually very impressive. But I agree Griset when he says, “While the setup works brilliantly for scenes such as the parent's living room and kitchen, the apartment scenes and the conclusion at Hooters are on the homely side.” I think of the depth that Slipek brought to sets like the one he did for “Something Intangible.” He was able to do great things with some of the turntable thirds, but others were pretty bland.

I most enjoyed the last ¼ of the show, the meta-comic aspects of the story when Felicity starts and stops the action. There was actually some clever stuff in there. Unfortunately, this part came after much that just didn’t work for me (Hildegard’s underwear? Why?).

Of course, Mr. Maupin and the Firehouse deserve kudos for bringing a fairly whacky – and potentially controversial – work to the local stage. I certainly appreciate the effort, just didn’t love the results.