Monday, January 30, 2012

Quibbles

I’m hearing many good things – with some quibbles – about Henley Street’s “Lord of the Flies” which opened this weekend. I was busy taking in “The 39 Steps” down at the Mill, which I enjoyed, but perhaps not as much as Ms. Haubenstock whose review is in the T-D today. I had some quibbles that you hopefully will read about in this week’s Style as the folks at the weekly have admirably taken the initiative to see that theater reviews show up a little earlier these days. That’s a good thing for everyone, I think.

While people may have quibbles about the various productions in town currently, it seems to me that opinion about one thing is unanimous: “what’s with the anonymous gripe about James Ricks posted in comments on the Style site and here?” Many have wondered what got that particular person’s panties tied in such a bunch; others have questioned why I would allow such a comment on my site.

I admit it was a bit of a harsh comment, it may not have been the best decision for me to allow it to go through in the first place, and I have considered removing it since. However, I try to allow opinions to flow fairly freely around here – and the rebuttals to anon have been eloquent and distinct. In general, I let comments go through as long as the criticisms aren’t crude, laced with profanity or if they don’t veer too far afield into personal realms and stick to a person’s professional life. (I have bent this a bit I think when I’ve allowed criticism of a critic’s weird stance -- particularly my own personal stance – that sometimes straddles aspects of his or her personal and professional lives.)

I’ll be clear: I don’t at all believe Mr. Ricks’ comments came from a “superior outsider” perspective. I think they came from a fairly commonly held perspective that audiences in general – Richmond audiences specifically – do not embrace challenging new material as readily and enthusiastically as many in the performing arts community would like. I certainly hold this perspective and was glad to have the chance to see it echoed by someone in the community and broadcast in print.

I don’t read condescension or anything “patronizing” in this perspective but rather frustration. I might not use the word “retrained” but I do believe that potential patrons need to be educated on the interesting new material that is being written and produced in the theater world. I think Henley Street has been able to strike a great balance between putting innovative spins on old material (“Merchant of Venice,” “Richard III,” etc.) and introducing new and challenging productions to the local scene (the Bootlegs, “Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” the upcoming “Yellowman,” etc.)

People can argue about Mr. Ricks’ talents as a director all day if they want (I think his accomplishments kind of speak for themselves) but in terms of his leadership (with all his compatriots) at Henley Street, I don’t think there is any doubt about his value to the community. Personally, I can’t wait to see “Lord of the Flies” and look forward to whatever Henley Street decides to do in this and future seasons.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What's Missing

If you are one of those people that only checks out Style Weekly online, then the beginning of my preview on Henley Street’s “Lord of the Flies” may have you a little confused. That’s because the first couple of sentences of the piece did not get posted online for some reason. Here they are:


Many of the things that make William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” compelling on
the page make it a potential nightmare when bringing it to the stage. “You’ve
got murders, a dead parachutist, people falling off mountains,” explains
director Josh Chenard.

And if you’d like something light-hearted to get yourself through “hump day,” here’s a link to a just-posted collection of Shakespearean Light Bulb jokes, particularly suited to you theater geeks out there. I expect there are plenty out there in the Richmond blogosphere that could post their own worthy additions to this list.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chautauquan

We’ve reached that point in the theater season where I am falling behind the curve. That’s not surprising given that I barely keep up with the curve even on a good week. Reviews keep popping up all over the place now. There were two in the T-D this past weekend: one for “Always, Patsy Cline” at Hanover Tavern and the other for CAT’s “Almighty Bob.” GayRVA had a “Two Boys” review on plus some pix from the “Ghost Light After Party” and Mr. Porter’s “Two Boys” review aired just the other day (link over to the right there). Add in two nice T-D articles lately – one on “Lord of the Flies” and another on the Minds Wide Open celebration that kicks off (officially) in March – and you can count me officially overwhelmed.

But, in the midst of it all, one more thing that I’d like to throw out there: this weekend, Clay Jenkinson – the man behind “The Thomas Jefferson Hour” – will be in the Virginia Beach area. I’m somewhat heartbroken that the opening of the Mill’s “39 Steps” and a family commitment will keep me from heading down there to see him. Why does Mr. Jenkinson deserve a mention on this site? Well, besides the fact that my admiration for Thomas Jefferson and my overall history-geekiness make me a devoted fan of the podcast, Mr. Jenkinson is also a Chautaquan, that is an educator who is also a performer, often taking on the guise of an historical figure (at least that’s my understanding of what one is; feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

Richmond’s place as an important historical locale has allowed many local performers to find work doing re-enactments, perhaps the most enduring situation being Kevin McGranahan’s take on Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech that has been performed at St. John’s Church for decades. In Mr. Jenkinson’s work, there is a great synergy (if I can use such a clich├ęd word) between education and performance that results in a more complete understanding and appreciation of history and the unique forces that coalesced to form this great country of ours. As the road to the next presidential election becomes littered with debates and speeches and billions of dollars of advertising that is sure to become (more) tiresome, I think it’s worth recognizing the work of under-appreciated actor/educators who really make history come alive again.

And, if you'd like a dose of this kind of refreshing and edifying history on a weekly basis, I highly recommend taking a listen to the Thomas Jefferson hour (it's on iTunes and also runs on WRIR locally on Tuesday mornings). It's a welcome uplift amidst the disheartening barrage of today's politics.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Always Almighty Concern

This weekend is the first weekend of the year where 3 productions will open, but certainly not the last. In fact, by my figuring, at least 5 productions will raise their curtains the weekend of Feb. 17th if you include the ‘Lion King’ tour. It’s all a little daunting, so much so that I’m preparing for the weeks ahead by heading out to ComedySportz tonight. I need to get a dose of improv before we knuckle down to all of the scripted stuff.

So “Always, Patsy Cline” will be at Hanover Tavern, “Almighty Bob” opens at CAT, and “To Whom It May Concern” graces the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church out in the West End. This last production snuck up on me kind of out of the blue but it’s got some great people in it and it only runs this weekend, which is too bad. A perfect capper to the weekend would be attending the The Ghost Light After Party at Triangle Players, which sounds like a blast.

You’ve probably already seen the reviews of “Two Boys in Bed…” in the T-D but there’s one in Style this week as well (quick turnaround for once!). Also, you can read a GayRVA feature on the production and while at that site, peruse its picks for the best of the Acts of Faith festival.

And for some online theater-related fun, chime in with your thoughts on possible theater sequels. The Spider-Man riffs are particularly amusing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

So Many Questions

There is never a lack of questions to ask about theater. Among the ones I’ve heard pondered over the past couple of days:

Is it OK to leave a show after intermission? (Aside: I heard that one popular Richmond holiday-time production had many intermission defections.)

Why don’t public intellectuals weigh in on theater these days? (Auxiliary question: are there even any public intellectuals anymore?)

Forget about cell phones, is it OK to eat distracting food like popcorn in a theater?
(OK, I can’t really forget about cell phones: here’s a short compilation of infamous cell phone interruptions.)

Should future arts buildings be engineered differently?

Does video work on stage?


Of course, my reading has prompted some questions of my own:

Did Seattle critics take their inspiration from Richmond in creating a theater critics’ circle? They certainly did a better job in taking the bull by the horns by naming the awards themselves instead of allowing an insidious alternative name take hold…

Why don’t more companies produce this show? With the right person, I expect it could be endlessly fascinating.

Can a graphic novel really be effectively staged?

Would someone (hm, like maybe Style?) do a graphic like this one about Richmond-area theaters?

Finally, if you’d like to offer your own answers to the question: “Is plot or language the soul of Shakespeare?” you may want to check out the planned online conversation between Howard Sherman and Peter Marks. I don’t expect definitive answers but I expect the conversation will be fascinating.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Novembers in January

If I was being dramatic, I’d say I haven’t had the will to blog since it was announced that Taylor Swift would be Eponine in the screen version of “Les Miz.” It is kind of a recurring punch to the stomach every time I am reminded of this. Don’t get me wrong: Ms. Swift has a fine track record of writing and performing catchy little ditties for the radio. But Eponine…Really? I had such high hopes for the movie but it’s hard to keep the faith in the face of that kind of casting.

There is much more cheerful news closer to home. The T-D rolled out some unusually comprehensive coverage of the Acts of Faith festival yesterday, including not just a feature story and a schedule, but a nice joint editorial from Mr. Crosby and Mr. Ricks. The festival kicks off with a preview tonight at the November Theater. These preview things are usually pretty cool, like a selection of really tasty appetizers, instead of a potentially overfilling meal.

And yes, I said the November Theatre because I guess officially after last night that is what the Empire has become. I happened to be hanging around for the rededication – wing man and entourage for my more-in-demand son – and was exceptionally glad to have witnessed the event. Sure, the drinks and snacks were swell and it’s always kinda cool to rub elbows with happy theater lovers like former Gov. Baliles and Susan Greenbaum (have you heard her new album? Very nice!).

But the real fun was in the performances. Just about everyone who took the stage has had, could have, or should have their own concert performance someday. Dazzling women with big voices dominated the slate – Kathy Halenda, Robyn O’Neill, Debra Wagoner, Stacey Cabaj and the exceptional Kara Harmon. I kept imaging sound guy extraordinaire Derek Dumais having to lower the volume levels with these high-powered folks in the spotlight. They had some awe-inspiring performances and one exceptionally sweet one – Debra’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It wasn’t just girls though, with Jason Marks giving a stirring reprisal of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin the Boat” and Russell Rowland joining Robyn on “The Girl That I Marry.” Matt Shofner joined Debra and Aly Wepplo on “The I Love You Song” and their pitch-perfect, emotional rendition had me tearing up even totally removed from the context of the show. What can I say, I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Along the way, Bruce Miller remarked that Neil November had a particular affection for Ali Thibodeau and all I can say is that, besides being a successful businessman and an extremely generous philanthropist, the guy has good taste in performers because Ali and Jody Ashworth delivered my favorite song of the night, a sweet, clear and soaring “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls.

Paul Deiss provided impeccable accompaniment for the whole event, something he apparently stepped in at the last minute to do, a testament to his talent as well as his generosity. I ended up getting home much later than I should have for a school night, but it was a great time that was well worth it.

I saw Mr. Crosby from RTP for a brief moment at the gathering but I know he had to bolt before the night really got grooving for the opening of “Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night,” the first pro show of the New Year. Going first in anything can be nerve-wracking but I expect great things from this show. Though it’s blatant sexual nature complete with nudity and profanity may shock and dismay RTP’s fans, it should warm things up nicely around here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

...but some sun will shine too...

After looking through the gloomy forecast for January yesterday, I went back and looked up this item on the booming box office that closed out the year on Broadway. While this looks like good news, there is a definite cloud associated with this silver lining: a 10% rise in the average ticket price.

I've heard from some artistic directors that a good or bad review can swing total box office for a show by several thousand dollars. I've always been skeptical about this and haven't seen much data that proves or disproves this kind of assertion. So I was very interested to hear about this experiment that will try to track this kind of impact. I expect the results will fuel the debate rather than settle it but still, actual cause/effect numbers to look at will be a good change of pace.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Into every new year, a little rain must fall

The iconic image of a new year pictured as a baby makes more sense to me than ever this year. My feeling of the past couple of days has been of a year still waking up, struggling a little to find its feet, doing a bit of hesitant crawling before even trying to stand up and a little petulant crying out of frustration for even having to try. Much of this may have to do with shaking off the pleasant malaise of the holidays, emerging from a ridiculously temperate December into a suddenly chilly January. Or maybe it’s all in my head.

Regardless, I was greeted this morning with this not-so-cheerful little summary of the current Broadway scene. The January lull is inevitable but this year’s seems a little bit more dreary than usual. Specifically, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get a chance to see “Chinglish” which I’ve read great things about and is one of the few mainstream entertainments that dip a toe into Asia-related issues. There is a clear silver lining on this report though: there is apparently a backlog of new shows waiting to hit the boards, which is kind of exciting and personally, I can’t wait to see how “Magic/Bird” turns out.

If you’re “in the biz,” you probably know that Scott Wichmann ships out very soon on deployment to Afghanistan. Please join me in wishing him safe travels, safe service and a safe return.

Echoes of last year linger into this year. Specifically, the issue of “tweet seats” got coverage in this Boston Globe article last week (thanks for the head’s up, Annie!). I’ve spilled way too much digital ink on this already and I’m sure many folks out there are convinced I’ve morphed into a militant tweet seat advocate. Actually, my two main points related to the texting-in-theaters issue have been these: 1) it’s not going to go away so arts folks would do better to give it some conscious thought before simply dismissing it and 2) taking a categorically negative view of the phenomena overlooks the potential positives that other businesses have seen from the explosion in social media. Feel free to re-dismiss these points in the comments if you feel you must.

If you are a Twitter aficionado, I would highly recommend following Howard Sherman on Twitter, an astute theater world watcher and prolific tweeter whose missives have already pointed me to a number of very interesting news stories and blog posts (and thanks, kb, for pointing me in his direction). Sherman's compendium of Best of 2011 columns is definitely worth a perusal. Also, for a great and sometimes weird debate about theater, check out the conversation between Sherman and Washington Post critic Peter Marks from back in November.

A lot of productions wrapped up recently but starting soon there will be another seasonal explosion of new shows. Triangle Players gets a jump on things with “2 Boys In A Bed On A Cold Winter’s Night” next weekend. I’d suggest making reservations now before you get hit by the tsunami of openings: 12 shows (yes, a full dozen) that will open in the less-than-a-month from Jan. 26 to Feb. 23, not to mention several cool one-night events at RTP, an intriguing RichShakes staged reading and the “Lion King” tour. Yikes!