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THEATRE REVIEW: Why Torture Is Wrong and The People Who Love Them

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Thomas LaChiusa
Subversive Theatre Company

Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christoper Durang, has a plot that unfolds – at first – quite neatly. A young woman (Felicity, played by Andrea Andolina) wakes up in bed with a man (Zamir, played by Michael Votta) who she doesn’t know. Who, as far as she can tell, she’s married by accident. As the action develops, it begins to take a strange veer away from reality, heading into an absurd – yet frighteningly possible – world.

Feicity is, throughout the first act, constrained by the barely-restrained violence of combating Alpha males Leonard (her father, played by Victor Morales) and her new husband Zamir. Her mother Luella (Christopher Standart) has disassociated from the world, relying on absent-minded discussion of Broadway hits (Wicked, A Chorus Line) and is at odds with her daughter’s desire to tackle problems in the here and now. Namely, the problem of Zamir. He might be a danger. Or a terrorist. He’s already shown some tendencies toward violence – if not physical, yet, the certainly verbal – and while Felicity wants her parents’ help in getting an annulment, she also doesn’t want Zamir hurt. It’s a pretty morally admirable decision, given Zamir’s actions towards her early on. Still, one cheers a little when he and Leonard stand off. The delicious whiff of mutually-assured destruction is in the air.

The play strikes the same cheery, sick satirical chords as something like Torben Betts’ The Unconquered, or (if I’m giving his an even darker comparison) Sarah Kane’s Blasted (if Blasted were played for laughs without any on-stage violence). Some cultural force has warped our male leads, and one almost hopes the dystopia of the outside world is bad enough to justify the chill that runs through Durang’s script when it comes to his character’s brutality. One suspects that world might be reality, while hoping that isn’t the case.

Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is a funhouse-mirror post-9/11 dark comedy. The metaphors for punishment without trial, racial profiling and next-generation “patriots” (the kind who take selfies flanked by flags and guns and government conspiracy theories) and domestic violence are present. It asks us, as viewers: how does a person cope with all that? Can we, as society, stand our ground and demand the ability to effect change (Felicity’s stance, in the first act), or disassociate into a disengaged enjoyment of our Marxian opiate of choice?

Luella, we see, has chosen the latter. While her husband waxes poetic about “Father Knows Best,” exploring the taste of calling his daughter the pet names from the kids in the classic TV show, Luella wears matching floral house dresses and insists on lighthearted conversation about the Theatre and French Toast. While she develops into an ally for Felicity as the play moves on, one can never be sure of when Luella’s small-chat fog may be sliced open by razor lucidity.

As for Leonard, everything we hear about his contact with the government? We hear it from him, or from one of his co-conspirators. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine that his Shadow world is, just like Luella’s also turtles all the way down. It might as well be self-contained. If Luella has floated away, maybe Leonard and his fellow nutjobs aren’t far behind.

If so, then what can be made of the final movement of the script, where Felicity’s compassion for Zamir – a man who has threatened and intimidated her – allows her to finally wrest away control of the situation’s swiftly deteriorating violence? She takes charge and the axis of Durang’s play starts to twist. A voice that’s been speaking to the audience throughout the play – Becky Globus, who also takes on several other roles – smashes through the 4th wall, and Felicity wills a feat of metatextual narrative timetravel. Her drive to change what’s happened drags the whole cast, including a pornographic priest (James Cichocki) and one of Leonard’s whackadoo comrades (Mike Seitz), back to a point before the play even started: the night Felicity and Zamir meet.

Conjured back to their ground zero, Felicity searches for a way in which the best aspects of herself and Zamir can be together – while also setting clear and entirely reasonable boundaries about what she wants as the end result: a world where things turn out differently. She directs the conversation carefully, laying out boundaries and guidelines, until she’s coached both herself and Zamir to what might be their “best aspect”. Zamir wonders if this even leaves him as the same same person, but Felicity’s insistence carries the day. Have they truly time-traveled, and will they now create a better future? Or has Felicity just experienced just had a disassociative snap, her mind creating a false reality to protect her from the world’s harsh truths? Has Felicity just found her delusional opium?

That I’m left with questions like these (and more) is a testament to the quality of Durang’s script, Thomas LaChiusa’s direction, and the cast’s ability to seamlessly integrate the two. Subversive’s production is tight and focused, an achievement for a show gets farther “out there” than normal. It’s easy for a play that toys so much with fantasy and reality (including metatextually) to drift aimlessly, but Why Torture Is Wrong…keeps its feet on the ground. And that makes a huge amount of difference in its ability to hold the audience over the course of two hours, as well in its ability to spark thought afterwards.

While John Kennedy and Michael Lodick’s set doesn’t quite evoke the luxury the script indicates, it’s unclear if that’s because the wealth isn’t translating physically, or if – like Zamir’s insistence on being somehow Irish – it’s yet another place where character’s perceptions and reality diverge.

Why Torture Is Wrong… is at the Subversive Theatre in Buffalo, New York through April 12, 2015, and I hope you make the time to see it.

Tickets were comped for this production.

Also of interest:

Boeing, Boring: Boeing Boeing at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre, Jamestown, NY

Oh, reviewing pen, it’s been a while. Mostly because I haven’t been able to sit for the length of an entire play for a while, but also because the only play I’ve seen since Cabaret in NYC was a local production of Spamalot. But tonight, I dug my reviewing pen out and headed to Jamestown, NY to see the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown’s presentation of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing.

I’m almost sure I’ve seen this play before, but I’m not sure where – London, Edinburgh, New York, Buffalo – and other than broad strokes (a playboy trying to keep three flight-attendant-fiances in his orbit) I didn’t remember much about the plot. It falls into the strange realm of what I think of as “French living-room plays.” Like Art and Carnage. Which is weird, because neither of those are farces, and they’re both by the same playwright.

Boeing Boeing is a farce, though. It’s a farce set in the 1960s, at the dawn of newer, faster plane technology. One expects the play to have a certain “snap,” so to speak. Noel Coward with more ennui. Then one looks up the play’s running time. Two and a half hours.

Um.

There’s a line in Boeing Boeing that goes, “No panic, no problem.” But this is exactly the problem. While the actresses playing the fiances – Amanda Melquist (Gloria), Carla Kayes (Gabriella) and particularly Holly L.J. Weston (Gretchen, the passionate German) – inject their scene with dimension and energy, both male leads (Vince Liuzzo as the playboy Bernard and his older brother Carl Luizzo as Robert) seem far too comfortable, too lackadaisical. Occasionally, their back-and-forth rises to a fever pitch, but for the most part it’s the women who set the pacing for each scene – which would be fine, if not for the fact that Bernard is the protagonist. There’s a hint of this early on, when Betsy Trusel’s Berthe brings character-acted comic relief as Bernard’s frustrated domestic servant. Slick and charming, Bernard only becomes “real” in contrast to his demanding cook and cooing (but surprisingly steely) fiances. Other than occasional fluster when two of the women might interact, in which cases each Liuzzo takes their character from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye, the characters contribute to the show’s biggest problem: pacing.

Often times, I watch plays and wish the writer’s words had been given more room to breathe. In this production, I spent more time wishing someone would deliver CPR to the script. Weston had a lock on the urgency of her character’s lines, and Kayes hit all the right beats with her domineering and frustrated Italian, but more often than not, Luizzo, Luizz and Trusel seemed to linger over lines that would have benefited from a dash of Basil Fawlty.

Costumes and set, both credited to large teams in the program, were spot-on for this naturalistic play. In a moment that took me by complete surprise, Berthe actually lights a real cigarette on stage. (Some history: while I was reviewing in Edinburgh with The British Theatre Guide, laws were passed to ban smoking from the stage – even herbal cigarettes. Thinking back, I don’t recall a single time when I saw a real cigarette being smoked on stage But Berthe’s ciggy was definitely made of real tobacco.)

I wish the production left a more positive impression on me, but its by-the-book approach to a classic text paired with timing that never quite worked up to the pacing necessary to really give me a good chuckle. While much of the audience seemed entertained, laughing on cue, when the interval finally arrived I had to take the state of my back into account, and leave the second half of the show unwatched. I simply didn’t receive enough meaty enjoyment from act one to make the literal pain in my lower back worth staying for act two.

Note: Tickets were purchased for this performance.

 

Pay-To-Play, Theater Edition: Companies Who Make Playwrights Pay

Imagine you’re a doctor. You’ve put time, money and effort into your training, and have come to be regarded as a professional in your field. Now, there’s a job for a local hospital where you’d like to work. The job carries a $50 “application fee,” and once the hospital in question has decided they want you practicing under their auspices, you’re going to have to pay $5000 in order to see or treat any patients. You can expect about $100 per patient seen as a “kickback” for the chance to treat them, as a way of “honoring” your “investment” with the hospital.

Are you going to take the job? Are you even going to apply?

More importantly, as a patient, are you going to believe that the hospital involved is really interested in providing you with the best medical care available?

Now imagine the hospital is a theater company, and you’re a playwright.

The number of theater companies who think it’s okay to charge both reading and acceptance fees to playwrights seems to be on the rise. And that’s not okay. Playwrights aren’t going to cut into your body (not physically, at least) and they’re not going to save you from an acute life-or-death situation (though they might write something that sticks with you for years to come), but they’re still artists(often trained and practiced) who have put time, effort and ability into their work. And they have no business subsidizing theater companies.

The other day on Facebook, a friend pointed out an “opportunity” for writers who wanted to work with one of NYC’s downtown theater company. After paying a $15 application/reading fee, anyone who was accepted could also look forward to being charged a $175 “acceptance fee” to see their work performed.

Excuse me?

Dear budding playwrights and other writers: the name for a company that poduces or publishes you in exchange for money is “vanity publisher.”

IScreenshot_2014-04-29-10-26-44 realize that reading plays takes time, and producing them takes money, but as a company, if you’re not making enough off your ticket sales and from producer investments to profit from a play without charging the people who wrote them (who are notorious, industry-wide, for NOT GETTING PAID FOR THEIR WORK) to put them on — and you’re not okay with that — then do you really have any business running a theater festival?

Open a theater school. Run a summer camp. Set yourself up as a dramaturg-for-hire. Open your company to development-for-hire.

Just don’t pretend you’re interested in producing theater that opens opportunities or artistic space for those who can’t afford to subsidize you.

When I co-produced ANY OBJECTIONS? for Glasgay 2012, my fellow producer and I put out a global call for short plays dealing with marriage equality. We were particularly interested in getting plays from Asia, Africa and other regions that were under-represented in the world of Western theater, because those were the perspectives we felt it might be most important to show our primarily English-speaking audience. Our only barrier to entry? The plays had to be in English – we simply didn’t have the time or money required to make a translator available.

Did we charge a reading fee? No. Did we charge an “acceptance fee”? No. Did we make any money off anybody but the patrons who came to the performance? No, we did not. And did everybody involved get some kind of paid?

You bet your underwear they did.

The actors got paid, the director got paid, and every single participating writer (with the exception of one who chose to remain anonymous and who, I believe, we were unable to contact with follow-up information, despite our best efforts) got a check as payment for their participation in the event.

Paying For The Right To Work

While the language of the Playbill notice differs slightly from the language used on the company’s website, let’s note that this is posted in a major theatrical publication under the title of “Editorial/Job Opportunity,” and the last time I saw a job you had to pay to take it was because they were selling you a kit of “E-Z ASSEMBLE-AT-HOME JEWELRY, MAKE $5000/MONTH” or a list of real estate leads. Let’s also note that this is a production festival for female playwrights, a group that’s historically under-represented in theater productions worldwide – which, to my mind, makes it even more unethical to charge them for the privilege of having their work produced.

Screenshot_2014-04-29-10-30-27The company who placed the ad cited above offers a $1-per-ticket return (they call it a “kickback) after a $175 “acceptance fee” – which comes after a $15 “reading fee,” mind – so that the playwright can hope to recoup some of her investment. That means a playwright has to see three sold out shows and one half-full house before she’s broken even. Does the company give any information on their average audience size for the festival, past production attendance or marketing reach? No? What? You mean the festival’s only in it’s first year, so there’s no data on how much reach it has or what ticket prices should be? (Note: While I’ve emailed the company regarding questions about past audience size, marketing reach and more, they requested more information Tuesday and have not responded to subsequent emails.)

If we playwrights are investing, shouldn’t we be doing so in an informed manner? And shouldn’t the company we’re investing in encourage that?

With this kind of barrier to entry, the company is already excluding any playwright who doesn’t have nearly $200 in her budget from even competing. Is this approach really going to net them the most talented, most engaging entrants? Is it going to open up the possibility of performance in a meaningful way? As an audience member, do you think that this company is more interested in producing an evening of theater that excites and challenges you, or in finding a way to wring as much money as possible from an evening of performances?

I get it, making theater takes money. I also understand that not everyone has a deep-pocketed producer on board to help offset their costs. I’ve produced theater under those circumstances, too. You know what we did? Anybody who put money in got their money back first, and any profits were split evenly between all members of the company.

Know what else? Every single one of those productions was profitable.

Artists Get Taken Advantage Of All The Time – Don’t Be One Of Them

Many years ago, a co-worker told me about a friend who had started a photography festival and was now living off the entry fees. Each photographer who sent an entry was charged $150 for the privilege, and in addition to making enough to pay for a considerable cash prize, the person who had started the contest was now making a full-time living off the fees.

So excuse me if I’m a little skeptical of companies that set up on this kind of model. As a producer, either you believe in the work you’re putting on stage or you don’t. If you do, then you assume the financial risk, pay your artists (or take them on in an equal, transparent profit-share), and hope for the best.

If you don’t believe in the work, and you don’t think you’re going to make a profit, and you have a problem with that, then don’t produce the play in the first place.

That said, the only way this practice is going to stop is if writers stop responding to these calls for work. So writers, if you value your work and your time, don’t buy into the hype. Submit to the hundreds of opportunities that don’t ask for your financial investment. You’ve already put your time, training and effort into your art. Don’t feel like you have to pay someone else to make it for you.

Charging artists to produce their work in order to make yourself a buck isn’t about making quality theater. It’s about running the production equivalent of a vanity press.

Presenting that as a great opportunity for new playwrights is not okay.

 

*To note: this is not the only company charging for acceptance (although Manhattan Rep frames their Spring One Act as a production fee, not one aimed at playwrights, and doesn’t charge for entry) nor are they charging the most.

Getting paid to write.

2013-02-07 20.39.28

In today’s blog, and in light of the issues I’ve read about online and e-published authors have had in getting paid, I wanted to say a few things about writing and getting paid for it.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I meander around a bit. Money for the fruit of my soul is an emotional subject.

I got paid on Thursday for a job I did last fall.

Due to a miscommunication, I never realized they’d requested an invoice.

Within days of raising a question about payment (uh…Monday?)…the money hit my account.

I’ve been wondering what was going on since at least October; I remember having a conversation with a friend who was part of the same project around then. And now I’m kicking myself – why didn’t I just ask the producer at the time, why did I step back and not bring up this question of payment earlier?

I didn’t want to seem pushy or petty. But asking “Hey, what’s up?” at a point sooner than four months after the fact would have saved a lot of time, and that would have been nice. As evidenced by how quickly we figured out what was up once I opened my mouth.

Anyway, I’m meandering.

What I wanted to say was this: it felt SO GOOD to get paid for something I’d written because I *felt* it. The piece I was paid for landed in my lap like a flash of inspiration, and having it produced (even abroad, even when I couldn’t go to see it) gave me the most wonderful, settled feeling in the world.

Getting paid for it today, seeing the money land in my account – that gave me a whole different kind of good feeling.

In our society, money is a potent type of validation. I remember the first time I got paid for writing something. A friend bought a short story I’d written. Later, I felt this kind of validation again when I earned money on my Fringe shows (most notably, “Stuck Up A Tree,” which is now *ahemavailableonKindle*). At the same time, we’re told not to ask about it – to the point where I put off a polite inquiry for four months! How crazy is that?

As a freelancer, a self-owned business, you – much like reporters – are advised to follow (up) the money. Nobody is going to think less of you for asking a question.

And trust me. Getting paid for a passion project? The best feeling ever.

2012 was a weighted year. When I got my 1099s for my self-published work in the mail the other day, the amounts added up to a very small sum. Even smaller, once I sit down, do the math, and send money to the writers, illustrators, designers, co-editors and charities owed for the last quarter or two. Having made a somewhat significant sum a few years ago thanks to commercial freelancing, I appreciate the difference between getting paid to write, and getting paid to write what you love.

But what’s left will still be more more than I made on my creative writing in 2011. Which isn’t a bad trend to be following.

Addendum: I asked for some advice re: photography for this entry, because I stress about things like that, and here’s the best response I got.

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.

Sunday and Monday: Kindle Select Promo Days!

Cover art for PLAYING IT COOL

This Sunday and Monday (September 16th and 17th, 2012) you can download my first Edinburgh Fringe play, Playing it Cool for free on Amazon. (Apologies to those who’ve been patient since Friday night – a glitch in scheduling meant the promo didn’t go live as planned on Saturday).

Playing it Cool (a snappy romantic comedy) was written in 2003, and was my first produced play since 1999’s POST (a surreal tale about gun violence).

If you don’t own a Kindle and want to check out the play,  you can download apps for almost any platform on Amazon’s home page.

And as I said last time:

Playing it Cool is a one-act play about two friends, subtext and communication. It’s a two-hander that takes place in an apartment and a cafe, so might be of interest for those looking for audition scenes to read with a partner.

No big monologues here, I’m afraid, although both my later Fringe plays, Stuck Up A Tree and Mousewings (particularly Mousewings) will deliver on that front.

I’m listing Playing it Cool with Kindle Select for at least 90 days, so if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, make sure to put it on your list for a free read.”

Reviews of Playing It Cool:

Playing it Cool may not be the most ambitious play, addressing only a single issue. However, it contains much humour and is very well written. It will be very interesting to see a longer and more intricate play from the very promising Rachel Lynn Brody, at some time soon.”

– Philip Fisher, The British Theatre Guide, regarding the play’s premiere.

If you want to find out about awesome stuff like this ahead of time, subscribe to my Mailchimp mailing list. I won’t send stuff often, and won’t sell your email info, but I can promise at least a few promos ahead of the curve. And who knows what else.

But first, download Playing It Cool.

Playing It Cool – now available on Amazon Kindle Select

In the summer of 2004, my second play, the romcom one-act Playing it Cool, was produced at the pend fringe @ Gateway as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The Fringe sees the population of Edinburgh more than triple as hundreds of thousands of visitors descend to experience a round-the-clock theatrical melee that lasts for three weeks of the summer. For a theatre student honing their craft, the city is a mecca.

 

Eight years later, and as promised a week or so ago, the first of my Edinburgh Fringe plays is now available for purchase.

Playing it Cool is a one-act play about two friends, subtext and communication. It’s a two-hander that takes place in an apartment and a cafe, so might be of interest for those looking for audition scenes to read with a partner.

No big monologues here, I’m afraid, although both my later Fringe plays, Stuck Up A Tree and Mousewings (particularly Mousewings) will deliver on that front.

I’m listing Playing it Cool with Kindle Select for at least 90 days, so if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, make sure to put it on your list for a free read.

Cover art for PLAYING IT COOL

I’d love to hear what you think of this little snippet from my writing past.

Those interested in doing a production of Playing it Cool, please email me at PIC@rlbrody.com for more information on securing permissions.