Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Theater Review: BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON at ART of WNY in Buffalo

Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
American Repertory Theater of Western New York
Written by Alex Timbers
Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Directed by Jeffrey Coyle

 

 

A couple years ago, the original production of this show was taking downtown NYC by storm. While I missed it there, the production currently taking place on Linwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo was an opportunity to see a skilled, professional and hilarious regional premiere. Told with enthusiasm and precision, this is a production worth buying tickets to immediately.

Like now.

While the idea of America’s seventh president as an “Emo Rock God” might seem incongruous at first, with cast members entering the performance space in ripped tights, black netted shirts and enough eyeliner to kill an elephant (if elephants ate eyeliner and eyeliner was poisonous, that is), the rockstar nature of Jackson’s DGAF frontiersman ‘tude and the often tongue-in-cheek style of delivery bring this story screeching into the 21st century. In a skillfully-observed marriage of styles, the style of Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics compliment the rage and emotion of American politics.

The talented cast delivers on all scores – even when technical malfunctions took a headset mic out of play, Steve Copps (as the titular Jackson) didn’t miss a beat. Between asking whether audiences wanted to see his “stimulus package” and taking part in bleeding rituals (“it’s a real 19th century medical practice!”), it’s easy to see Jackson in the role of band frontman a la Panic at the Disco and other emo trendsetters of the early 2000s.

The show says a lot about how America has changed, and how it hasn’t. Jackson’s determination to rid the country of the native population and the wink-wink comparisons to modern-day populist movements are disconcerting. There’s one line in particular where he points out that he’s making the changes the American people want to see made which is disturbing in that it grasps the precise conflict between majority rule and the protection of minorities: where is the protection for disadvantaged, harassed and discriminated-against groups when leaders serve the general will of the people?

Not that Jackson’s predecessors are portrayed as having made much of a contribution in this area. The menacingly hilarious quintet of elder statesmen: Van Buren (Steven Brachmann), Monroe (Matt Kindley), John Quincy Adams (Matthew Mooney), Calhoun (Christopher Parada) and Clay (Rowlins) and the rest of the founding fathers mentioned in the book are portrayed as wig-and-lace wearing toffs, right down to the hilarious New England accents they wear. The show portrays the quintessential American dilemma of civilization vs. frontier by following Jackson as he takes Florida from the Spanish, Georgia from the Native Americans and more: to Jackson’s friends, family and neighbors, the threat from these groups is immediate and deadly. To the federal government, however, the logistical and legal issues at stake leave no room for understanding the actual plight of those on the ground. The resentment this breeds is unsettling in that audiences will immediately be able to track the political commentary to today’s world, quickly realizing that while the names of the “enemies” have changed, American tactics for dealing with those who encroach on this great land of ours (emphasis mine) have not.

This Buffalo production is rife with talent, from the specificity of Coyle’s direction to the management of a stage ensemble nearly 20-strong to the obvious control and focus of each performer. Some specific delights: Priscilla Young-Anker does much to set the tone as the Storyteller, who emerges in a motorized scooter to fawn lasciviously over Jackson in his early days and winds up taking one in the neck when her interjections become too intrusive. The angry, disaffected attitude thrown up by so many of the shows movers and shakers – particularly the dead, passionless tone taken by Jackson’s mother in her early scenes (the actress, a member of the ensemble, is sadly not noted for this role in the program, though if anyone from the company would like to provide her name I’ll add it here later) – set a tone for the mix of hilarity, resentment and angst that pursue Jackson throughout the show.

For audiences concerned about the production’s edginess, the play is so skillfully executed and so fast-paced that the bawdy humor avoids becoming awkward for, say, an audience member who brings her parents along. All three members of my party were laughing hard throughout the production; most of the time, I was laughing so hard I had to wipe tears from my eyes to be able to watch the show.

With tickets at $25 for regular audience members and $15 for students, this fast-paced, intermission-less production leaves nothing to be desired; it’s a thrilling professional production of a meaningful and politically-charged play.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs select evenings through October 12, 2013 at ART IN THE BOX, 16 Linwood Avenue, Buffalo. The Broadway cast recording is available on Spotify. Tickets for this production were purchased by the reviewer.

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Ticket to LARP – The Brick Theater, The Dance & The Dawn

Capture

I got a notice in my email about “The Dance and the Dawn” this morning, taking place at The Brick theater in Williamsburg. Playing from September 7-14th, the performance takes the shape of “live action theater-style gaming.”

You sign up for a ticket, attend the evening in question as your assigned character, and bring along your own costume. While much of the evening is spent waltzing, the show’s page over at the theater’s website says there will be a brief lesson beforehand, so non-dancers shouldn’t worry.


If anyone goes to check out this production, let me know what you think of it – scheduling means I won’t be able to go take a look myself.
From the summary, the play sounds like a free-form, stylistic piece rather than a tight narrative, which makes sense given the performance style.

Ultimately, the production’s success will depend heavily on the preparation and enthusiasm of its audiences. After completing a questionnaire and being assigned a character, a little homework is required – as the site says, “If you show up having read those materials…” you’ll have a good time. One hopes all the audience members arrive prepared for their roles, and wonders what happens in the event of someone not turning up to use their ticket.

With the ending left to the participants, and for a ticket price of $20, this sounds like it could be an intriguing evening of high-involvement theater.

 

Related reading:

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NYC Theater Review: GORILLA by Rhea Leman (Scandanavian American Theater Company)

In the Scandanavian American Theater Company’s production of Rhea Leman’s Gorilla, five businessmen and their HR director navigate a weekend seminar on expression and trust. In what is revealed to be an evaluation that could cost them their jobs (and in some cases, far more), the characters’ relationships, personalities, histories and sex lives are laid bare, pride is chucked out the window, more than a few punches are thrown and questions are asked about the role of masculinity in the modern professional world.

We never get a solid sense of what Owen (Albert Bendix), Stephen (Oliver Burns), Robert (L.J. Ganser), Ernest (Alfred Gingold) and Lawrence (Khris Lewin) do for a living, only that for the past year they’ve been doing it rather badly. Their team has had the poorest performance in the company in a year of economic distress (the play is set in 2009), and now they’re at the last of a series of teamwork workshops designed to help them work with more trust and intimacy.

Dragging them down this path of corporate and personal enlightenment is Lillian (Jennifer Dorr White), from the company’s HR department; midway through the play, they are joined by their boss, Thrasher (Tullan Holmqvist), who makes it clear their suspicions of future firings are well-founded. Some murmurs of the role played by sexuality and gender make their way through the blend of analyses and posturing, and it’s in her sexual and animal metaphors that Leman’s play shows both strength and depth.

Gorilla never breaks the fourth wall, maintaining a setting within the walls of a single conference room in sanitized, businesslike shades (to call the pale tones “colors” seems over-ambitious). There are moments, such as one where Owen and Stephen negotiate a possible transaction, where the characters show how deeply imperfect they are – in one particularly insightful speech, Stephen describes his wife and her lack of confidence and her need for affection in a way that makes one wonder if he isn’t, in fact, projecting his issues onto her.

One nitpicky point regarding the translation: midway through Gorilla, Owen explains the meaning of the word to Stephen. Something – I’m not sure what – is missing in the exchange that takes place around the translation of “Gorilla” itself; maybe translation from Danish to English has dulled the comparison’s point? It’s frustrating that it isn’t clearer, since Leman can be assumed to have been making the connection to her play’s title in that moment. Addressing this point more clearly could have heightened the title’s impact for English-speaking audiences.

The individual characters are as specifically drawn as their roles require; while Ernest and Thrasher seem to have limited arcs, the others are more active. One feels as if there should be more weight to Lillian’s inability to make a tough choice, near the end of the play, particularly given the knowledge we’ve already attained via audience privilege.

This is a satisfying eighty minutes of theater, a naturalistic play with a story that gets you somewhere – even if, as the lights fade to black, you’re not exactly sure where you’ve ended up.

 

Rhea Leman’s Gorilla is playing at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, www.theatrerow.org. For the curious, here’s the production company’s page on IndieGoGo: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gorilla.

THEATER REVIEW: “The Play About The Coach” by Paden Fallis

Watching Paden Fallis (writer and director) perform this one-man show about a basketball coach whose team is moments from either victory or defeat is a staggering experience in the tension felt on the sidelines of a major game, even though we already know that the big question post-game is whether the Coach’s decisive call was the right one.

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With this central tension already in place, then, we are waiting to see which call it is that’s wrong – what’s the losing move – rather than being held in a state of suspense over the outcome of the game. That the play still contains tension and movement is a credit both to Fallis and his subject matter. Not being a basketball fan, I have to rely on my plus-one’s assessment of the accuracy of the game’s portrayal. The show passed this test without reservation.

It’s the small details that make The Play About The Coach such an authentic experience: the set, papered with templates depicting possible plays, the way Fallis contorts himself around his character’s experience and the specifics about his players – each of whom grows a personality and temperament before our eyes. Clearly a skilled performer, Fallis takes a one-man show about a single character and stretches its reality to encompass the personalities of everyone in that character’s life at the moment being portrayed.

There are elements of The Play About The Coach that indicate a longer version might be in the works: small plot spurs like the increasingly-frantic phone calls the Coach receives throughout this major game in his career, which present then fade away without real impact. The calls, as well as the Coach’s conflicts with his assistant could benefit from further elaboration, and in the play’s present form are something of a red herring, given their lack of resolution

Of particular interest is the fact that this production raised its funding through Kickstarter, perhaps offering a template for other plays needing to raise money for runs in NYC.

Playing at the 4th street theater until March 17, 2013.

THEATER REVIEW: Midsummer [a play with songs] by David Greig at the Clurman Theater, NYC

David Greig’s protagonists sit on a park bench in his play Midsummer [a play with words], drinking and aligning themselves with a ragtag group of teenage Goths. It’s an example of how this play captures the strange, free-forming social constellations I will always associate with Edinburgh in the summer.

Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), who started their association as participants in a raucous one-night stand, are now spending a wad of cash that’s fallen into their laps – a recurring theme, in Scottish drama, now that I think of it (Danny Boyle’s Millions and Trainspotting come immediately to mind). As their bender progresses, the audience is brought into the experience of the festival city’s summertime discombobulation, always maintaining sight of the wider beauty and spirit Edinburgh offers both residents and visitors when the weather is warm.

Midsummer premiered in 2007 – coincidentally, my last summer in the city where it takes place – and is therefore dislocated from its context in three ways during its current NYC run: in time, in distance and in theatrical context. To see a breathtaking production during the Edinburgh Fringe’s unceasing barrage of plays is a singular experience, particularly if one has already seen dozens of shows. Measures of quality warp over the course of three weeks spent viewing productions back-to-back, and to see a show that found success there performed outside of the Fringe is more like tasting whisky after cleansing your palate than not.

Midsummer is an example of modern Scottish theater in many ways. In its opening, Greig’s language is rich and rhythmic, poetic and intense. This eases somewhat as the production continues, and it’s missed, but perhaps appropriate that as we learn the characters of Helena and Bob, they and Greig rely less on words and more on the knowledge we’ve gained throughout the production.

Under Greig’s direction, Bissett and Pidgeon’s depiction of the physical nature of the production and the visceral emotion of connecting with someone else blend into one. The set – resembling a bed, though at times Georgia McGuiness’ design seems more of a jungle gym (Japanese rope bondage!) – features panels and flip-out sections that enrich the specifics of each of the play’s settings; since the set itself is featured throughout the production it’s no small feat to transport the audience with each of its iterations.

As a “play with songs,” Midsummer features interwoven verses and small choruses that lift the audience from the immediate action and into a space that contemplates the individual experiences of the two characters, as well as the nostalgia it brings to anybody who’s resided there through an Edinburgh summer. While the play may not offer deep social commentary or revolutionize theater, it’s a fair representation of professional Scottish theatre – and a high-quality one, to boot. It may not be Black Watch, but Midsummer highlights a far less flashy tradition of Scottish storytelling in a way that’s accessible to audiences in both Scotland and abroad.

“Midsummer [a play with songs]” can be seen at the Clurman Theatre, New York, NY, from January 9-26, 2013.

An Interview with Kevin Kerr: TEAR THE CURTAIN in Toronto

Jonathan Young and Dawn Petten in Tear the Curtain. Photo by David Cooper.

If you’re interested in boundary-pushing multi-media theater, Toronto is the place to be this October. Why? Because Vancouver’s Electric Company has pitched up to open Canadian Stage’s 2012-2013 season with their multi-media extravaganza, Tear the Curtain.

I’m looking forward to seeing the production later this month, and was able to interview Artistic Director and co-creator Kevin Kerr in advance of their opening.

From the show’s press release:

“…the production follows Alex Braithwaite (played by [Jonathon] Young), a jaded theatre critic in a gritty film noir rendition of Vancouver in the 1930s, as the advent and popularity of the “Talkies” threatens the existence of theatre. When Alex falls for the screen siren Mila, he’s caught dangerously between two warring mob families: one controlling the city’s playhouses, the other, its cinemas. Alex tries to tear through the artifice and war between these art forms without selling his soul – or losing his mind. Devised as a detective story, the plot unravels on stage in a seamless blend of filmed and live performance, leaving the audience to decipher which medium they are seeing.”

Below, Kevin Kerr discusses the changes the show will undergo as it moves to Toronto, how social media has affected the marketing of productions like Tear the Curtain, the play as a site-specific piece, and more.

RLBrody.com: How is the show changing as it moves to Toronto?

Kerr: We love the opportunity to revisit, tune, and improve upon a work when we have a chance like this, so started by going back to the script and revised, tweak, found cuts, and in some cases entirely re-wrote scenes we weren’t satisfied with. There were then some adjustments to the film with some new edits and trimming. And that meant some changes in sound and the score. The new venue also required some adjustments in the set design to deal with different dimensions. And because the precision required in the relationship between the film projection and the set there was some strategizing around the technical aspects of the projection in the Bluma. The result, we feel is a tighter, stronger piece overall.

RLB:  How well do you feel the video trailers communicate the feelings, moods and experiences your audiences undergo during a performance of Tear the Curtain? Do you feel there’s a risk in trying to communicate the feeling of a live performance through the 2D medium of a computer monitor?

Kerr: I think the trailer communicates fairly well the tone and style of the piece. Of course the filmic component of the piece is particularly well represented and the trailer feels a lot like a contemporary feature film trailer and it showcases nicely the quality and success of the film-making and Brian Johnson’s beautiful cinematography and Kim’s brilliant direction.

But it’s really impossible to authentically capture the effect of the show in performance — video is never satisfying in the its representation of theatre, and in this case I feel it’s even harder to understand the exact nature of what you’ll see and its effect on you. But I think because the trailer draws exclusively from the film, but watching it you know it’s for a piece of theatre, I hope that it teases at least with a promise of something really exciting and perhaps prompts the viewer to question, “how exactly are they going to do this? What will it look like in performance?”

RLB: Can you talk a little about the social media outreach that’s gone into producing and then touring Tear the Curtain? How did the rise of social media (Twitter, Vimeo, etc) change the process of marketing the play from what it might have been if the production was taking place ten years ago?

Kerr: For starters, it allows a more active dialogue between audience and the company, with our audience being able to follow and share and inject their enthusiasm into our process. It makes promoting or marketing a show much more personal, even with something as simple as the act of commenting on our facebook wall, or twitter account, not to mention the capacity for audience members to engage each other in a dialogue around the work this way.

And visually oriented platforms like vimeo, youtube, flickr, etc. are ideal arenas to share this project (and our other works) as the play is so visually spectacular. The film component of the piece makes for great footage to share on video hosting sites (as seen with the trailer) and production stills are easy to share this way as well on our website and via facebook and twitter, etc. And we’ve worked hard collaborating with our partners at Actors Equity to rethink some of the old models and restrictions around use of imagery or video footage from a work, as the developments in social media have really provided a great way to promote not only the show, but the artists who are literally irreplaceable in the piece.

RLB: From what I’ve read, there’s an interesting relationship about duality between the space and the content of Tear The Curtain in Vancouver. GayVancouver.net talks about how “Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre was transformed into its dual historical personality, as both a venue for film and theatre.” Can you talk about the piece as a site-specific production?

Kerr: The play began with a commission from the Arts Club Theatre, which has a few venues including the Stanley. When we were imagining what we might pitch as a project, we started talking about the Stanley as favourite venue of ours and as we chatted about its interesting dual identity in the city as a once grand old cinema from the golden age of movies, and now this beautifully restored live theatre, with all of that vintage charm, the spark ignited. It felt like a perfect opportunity to take our ongoing exploration of a tension between mediated and immediate performance to a new level with a pitch to create a true film/theatre hybrid where both mediums shared equally the weight of telling the story.

So the Stanley became a sort of character in its own right as we started with the space in our early explorations of possible content. And research into its history and certain specific details (like that it was supposedly originally envisaged as a vaudeville theatre, but quickly rethought as a movie theatre before construction began; or that its first movie was Lillian Gish’s first “talkie” called “One Romantic Night” adapted from a stage play called The Swan; etc.) began to give us clues or touchstones as we started to develop the story.

So the dual identity of the building was a departure point to the dual identity of the form of the piece (film/theatre), which itself reflects the content: a character who is faced with a crisis of a fractured sense of self and caught between the forces of the avant garde and the mainstream — each one dangerously seductive in their own way.

RLB: When someone talks about “pushing the boundaries of conventional theatre”, what do you think those boundaries are? In what ways is pushing those boundaries a conscious choice, and in what ways is it something that happens because of the subject matter? (Particularly in relation to immersive theater experiences, such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.)

Kerr: I suppose conventional theatre (as we understand it in Canada) assumes such things as the primacy of the text (or the spoken word or the playwright); the separation of the audience from the aesthetic of the production; the narrative neutrality of the venue; the adherence to a unified genre, form, or style; the notion of a packaged “season of plays”; the actor as some sort of shape shifter, channeler, or avatar that becomes the character; the design as embellishment or illustration; the director as interpreter (over creator) among other conventions.

 

None of these conventions is inherently wrong, and we’ve exemplified them all at various times in our works. But I think we’ve also deliberately challenged them all regularly. Often it is primarily because the piece demands a break from convention, but it also conscious choice — a recognition that theatre is a living changing organism that suffers when stuck looking back; that many of those conventions can exclude the audience, or maybe worse pacify, and they can also oppress the creative process and limit the artistic conversation which wants to keep up with an accelerating world. Most importantly, we want theatre to be something that celebrates and manifests our connection between each other, that excites and provokes our active imagination, that recognizes our the beauty of our living and temporary physical forms, and that acknowledges us all as the constant inventors of the world we live in, moment to moment.

 

Thank you to Kevin Kerr for an interview that sheds a lot of light on the process and product associated with Tear the Curtain’s Toronto production. The show runs from October 7-20th, opening the 2012-2013 season at Canadian Stage; the production will take place at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E). Tickets range from $24 to $99 and are available by phone at 416.368.3110, online at www.canadianstage.com, or in person at the box office.

Look forward to my review of Tear the Curtain, coming later this month. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you don’t miss it, and check out the show’s video trailer on Vimeo.

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Plays of Place: Edinburgh Fringe Plays

While living in Edinburgh, Scotland, my favorite month of the year was August. Why? Because of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (currently running in Scotland’s capitol city).

At my first Fringe, I saw at least a hundred plays. Then I lost count.

Three of the plays I saw over the years – Playing it Cool, Stuck Up A Tree and Mousewings – remain especially important to me, because they were mine. They were markers of what I accomplished each year I was in Edinburgh, and now when I look at them there are so many memories crushed up between their lines it’s like opening a photo album.

Playing it Cool, a romantic dramedy that takes place in my home town of Buffalo, New York, had its world premiere at the Pend Theatre at the now-defunct Gateway Campus of Queen Margaret University. It’s the earliest of the three plays, and I was astonished to see, while watching videos of the production, how much stronger it played on film than in the tiny pend theater. It taught me the necessity of using space well in theater, and of making physicality a necessary part of your script. This would come in handy on my next Fringe play – which you’ll hear more about in the future – Stuck Up A Tree.

But back to PiC. Through the Buffalo theater community, including playwriting professors, local directors and adjunct faculty, and the support of the head of the University at Buffalo’s theater department, we received funding for two actors and the local director to travel to Scotland and perform Playing It Cool  for a week’s run.

Other than a few attempts at getting the shows picked up, I haven’t done much with these play scripts, and it occurred to me the other day that this is one of the problems with playwrights: our work may be staged, but what happens once the curtains fall down?

Over the next few months, I plan to release the scripts for my three Edinburgh Fringe plays on Amazon; likely through KDP. This will require formatting and artwork, as well as some thought about how I want to package each piece. So it’s going to take me some time. Ultimately, it’s likely a hard copy version containing all three plays may be available. I’m trying not to think about the details too much just yet, and come up with a good over-arcing strategy – advice welcomed.

The three plays are very different – romance, a children’s show, and a post-apocalyptic tale of class conflict & survival – and form an interesting snapshot of my early playwriting career. I’m excited (and a little terrified!) to be sharing them with you – part of why I’m writing this blog, because it makes this more of a promise. Now you can bug me about this, if I drag my feet.

Gulp.