Monday, June 27, 2011

Happy 85th birthday

to Frank O'Hara.



Here's the text:

Fantasy
by Frank O'Hara (1926-1966)

(dedicated to the health of Allen Ginsberg)

How do you like the music of Adolph
Deutsch? I like
it, I like it better than Max Steiner's. Take his
score for Northern Pursuit, the Helmut Dantine theme
was ...
and then the window fell on my hand. Errol
Flynn was skiing by. Down
down down went the grim
grey submarine under the "cold" ice.
Helmut was
safely ashore, on the ice.
What dreams, what incredible
fantasies of snow farts will this all lead to?
I
don't know, I have stopped thinking like a sled dog.

The main thing is to tell a story.
It is almost
very important. Imagine
throwing away the avalanche
so early in the movie. I am the only spy left
in Canada,
but just because I'm alone in the snow
doesn't necessarily mean I'm a Nazi.
Let's see,
two aspirins a vitamin C tablet and some baking soda
should do the trick, that's practically an
Alka
Seltzer. Allen come out of the bathroom
and take it.
I think someone put butter on my skis instead
of wax.
Ouch. The leanto is falling over in the
firs, and there is another fatter spy there. They
didn't tell me they sent
him. Well, that takes care
of him, boy were those huskies hungry.
Allen,
are you feeling any better? Yes, I'm crazy about
Helmut Dantine
but I'm glad that Canada will remain
free. Just free, that's all, never argue with the movies.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In the midst of all this

conversation, it seems we missed this. The Wicked Stage linked to it and I'm just reading today. Michael Ritchie in conversation with Theresa Rebeck about programming the three theaters of CTG. He talks a lot about a switch from a subscriber model for the Kirk Douglas Theatre to the Douglas Plus programming that's been going on. Here's a sample quote:
We were sitting around in a staff meeting and it wasn’t me saying we’ve got to come up with Douglas Plus. It came up from me, pounding my fists on the desk saying fuck subscribers. I’m so tired of subscribers. They drive me nuts; they’re strangling me; I hate them. I don’t care how good they are; I don’t care how much money they bring in. Fuck subscribers! And someone there at the table said well if we’re going to fuck them we should tell them we love them first, and we should figure out a way that we can fuck them but they stay anyway. How could we have it all?
There's a lot more good stuff in there, including his defense of one of my favorite shows he's done there, The Black Rider.

I got a little

theater fatigue by Saturday night by the time I was seeing my second show of the day, Brewsie and Willie; I have no idea how these TCG people or critics or more hardcore theater junkies than I am managed with so much going on. I only saw 5 shows! I could've seen a lot more if I'd had the time. Of course I also fit in the new X-Men and Super 8, so it was a lot of sitting in dark theaters last week in general.

Okay, full disclosure: For those who might wonder why I'm suddenly all-RADAR LA-all-the-time, I don't like to consider myself press and I generally refuse comps when I am occasionally offered them. I was excited about RADAR LA when I heard about it and I'm generally a fan of REDCAT's programming so I did agree to write about the festival when asked by a friend to do so. I received comps only to Brewsie and Willie; I paid for every other ticket for myself and for JW. I probably don't even need to say this but I need a jumping off point to write the last of these posts about the festival so there you have it.

Over the course of this festival -- and of course Fringe, on which I'm still waiting for recommendations, by the way -- the media onslaught has been impressive. Between engine28, all the theater critics, and other online coverage, there's plenty of writing to be found on the experience. I often find it hysterical; if anyone were to suggest L.A. doesn't have a supportive theater press, this week they are seriously wrong. Throw in the panels and the controversies about the panels and so much other mess and it almost makes the performances seem secondary to so many assertions about the relevance of the performances, the town, the "conversation."

In the midst of all this "conversation," I wonder if all of it is actually able to connect with an audience outside of the people participating in the local events. It's as if the entire experience is encased in an echo chamber. All of southern California's theater establishment is screaming "WE EXIST! WE MATTER!" And then the theater journalists are doing their own version of that too with their pop-up website and their inserting themselves so forcefully into the conversation. Arts journalism is still relevant! Writing about theater matters! Theater criticism matters!

Maybe this is all a good thing and it's reaching the national theater establishment because of the CTG Conference and national press coverage -- thanks to Julie Taymor's New York theater soap opera -- and maybe that matters too. I do wonder if it's reaching general audiences. But then again, many are quick to point out that the Spiderman story is the first theater news to reach general audiences in decades, so maybe that's too much to ask.

There was a big international theater festival this weekend. I saw a decent portion of it. Some of it was compelling; some of it was tedious. Brewsie and Willie was somewhere in between. It runs through this weekend; it's an auspicious if flawed first show by an industrious new group. They're probably going places.

The one that stood out was The Method Gun. It runs through this weekend and is worth seeing.

It stood out because, of all the shows I saw, it was the one that was most significantly engaged with its audience. Neva was a reasonably close second, but everything else, even as it occasionally addressed the audience, seemed so obsessed with its own process, or in the case of Brewsie and Willie, with the effort -- of its acting, of its "conviction," of its attempt to activate a rich, resonant, but dramatically inert text and give its period trappings an avant garde spin.

Amarillo purposely abstracts its own subject matter to bring universality to the human suffering that's forgotten in the illegal immigration debate. In the process they make a fitfully moving work with moments of messy beauty. But an abstracted one. Easy to watch. Easy to watch from a remove.

The Method Gun begins its show by asking every member of the audience to summon up a favorite mentor, connecting their very loose, sloppy, too-clever conceit immediately to the audience's own experience and history. They counter-balance formalism with conversationalism in direct address. They take great pains to bring the audience on their journey with them. They're not content to be in conversation only with themselves, or with the handful of theater establishment types, or critics, or other theater nerds out in the audience. The only show of the weekend that I recommended to everyone I know who likes theater is The Method Gun. I recommended it to showqueens, to garden-variety theater-goers. Maybe theater-folk would get it more, with the satire of acting ensembles and methodology and the Streetcar business, but I like to think that its accessibility is even wider than that.

Conversation is okay, and I guess self-justification is often necessary. I just want to see good, engaging work. And I guess I want to write about it sometimes too, when I feel so inclined.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

JW and I

met at the new used bookstore across the street from the Alexandria Hotel downtown last night and I looked through the drama section for cool old hardback editions of plays I wanted to own but all I saw was Alan Ayckbourn and then I looked for this Edmund White memoir that I was thinking of buying a couple of weeks ago before Kevin started quoting me salacious anecdotes about Robert Mapplethorpe that had me super curious but I didn't find anything I wanted so I turned to look instead at the kind of boringly dreamy bearded guy at the door who could've been one of those East Side sexually ambiguous hipster types you see at Akbar or could've just been waiting for his girlfriend and it turned out the latter was true but that was okay because I still liked his beard and his pleasing paunch and I turned my back for a second to look at a display I'd missed and when I turned around he and his girlfriend were gone and JW asked me if I wanted to get a beer and I said sure and we ended up at The Gorbals for a quick pint before wandering over to see The Company's As you are now so once were we which is in this strange theater with stadium seating and JW told me a story about waiting in the lobby for me to deal with tickets and some guy asking him if his wife dragged him along and he corrected him and said "no my boyfriend did" and I scoffed at such heterosexism with a chuckle and finally the play started and I fixated on the cute comic redhead partly because he was cute and partly because he reminded me of an old friend from school days and I also thought of Ireland and hobbling around Dublin when I was studying abroad after just breaking my toe but refusing to let it stop me from seeing the sights and then I got confused because they were both in Ireland in the play and apparently right outside the theater and then my mind wandered and I started to sigh a lot and I wondered if I was giving off a bad energy because I felt like the redhead was delivering his whole schtick to me as if trying to win me over because I was really spoiling the mood for him and I could hear everyone else in the theater laughing but I wasn't really amused and I thought of Joyce who I know they were inspired by but I thought of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway and mostly I thought of Frank O'Hara who wrote his Lunch Poems about the pedestrian suddenly invaded by memory and all of the poignancy of those feelings and then I don't know why but I thought of Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass and I thought of this blog and how I recently made light of it by posting the Youtube clip of a song from Whitman and then I wondered how I was going to write about this play because I wasn't really all that immersed in it and I tried to refocus but I saw all these actors working out their play about themselves and for some reason it just drove me completely inward as you can see from this writing so I came up with this whole idea that I would just write a post kind of like this where I went stream-of-consciousness and wrote about writing and about my present and my past and the living and reliving of it but it felt kind of gimmicky and maybe hackneyed and then I realized I was missing the play's one big idea which was something about POV and the present co-existing with the past onstage which is of course also life and that was all fine but I still missed my old redheaded friend and I wondered about that bearded guy and why people automatically assume everyone in the world is heterosexual and what I was going to write about and what we would order when we got back to The Gorbals for our dinner reservation and whether we should walk or drive the few blocks to 6th and Grand for the birthday party we were attending after dinner and then the cast was bowing so I did the polite thing and applauded and felt like applause was okay because I was more or less having the same experience in my seat that they were depicting onstage.

Friday, June 17, 2011

DO NOT READ

Charles McNulty's review of The Method Gun in the LATimes. Unless you plan on skipping it, that is. He gives away the whole show -- THE ENTIRE SHOW -- with mild condescension and thin analysis. You deserve to be surprised by all that is meant to be surprising about this show! Have fun with it. Go see it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

So far

at RADAR L.A. I have seen Neva (Monday night) and The Method Gun (Tuesday night), both of which were radical and familiar in their ways, and both of which offered a lot to think about. I found myself linking certain themes in the pieces as I watched The Method Gun; it was nice to let one inform the other, as it brought out themes that were definitely present in the script but not necessarily dominant.

Neva, a show set in 1905 about Chekov's grieving widow, Olga Knipper, has a lot of big ideas to offer, and it does so with stark minimalism. I went to the first Radar mainstage (if there is a mainstage) show at REDCAT on Monday night expecting a big visual experience, so to see the exact opposite -- three actors on a small platform lit by a single floor lamp that looked a lot like a space heater -- was a surprise.

I loved that about it, actually. And I also felt a little distant from it, but I picked back row seats in the hopes that the Spanish supertitles would be easier to navigate while watching the actors. In the past I have seen non-English performances in REDCAT and felt lost in them, unable to concentrate fully on the language or the actors. This experience wasn't much different, particularly because the intimate staging in simple lighting all but demand you sit as close as possible. If you speak Spanish, go for it and sit on the front row. I think you'll have a great time.

Still, the combination of pathos and humor is nicely Chekhovian. There's also subtle subversion in the writing, beginning with a consciously stiff approach to exposition from the actors, and continuing on through some funny predictions about the future that serve to highlight social excess and decay. The closing speech is a knockout, too -- an angry rant about revolution, calling out theater as dead, shit for the bourgeoisie, sitting comfortably in their chairs playing at emotions while the poor starve outside their doors. I want to see the show again, mainly for that speech. It feels true, it feels ironic, it feels like the tension between the folly and necessity of art just explodes in your face.

In the context of all that is rumination on the recreation of experience through drama. As Olga insists on her fellow actors helping her stage the moment of Chekhov's death, quibbling over details, trying and failing to get it right, the audience laughs at the characters' failure and frustration. I found it really moving, though; the genius has departed, leaving them all desperate to preserve their fleeting last moments with him. Talk about folly and necessity. Tragedy too.

All this rings loud and clear in The Method Gun, as we catch up with another group of actors struggling to continue after their resident genius has departed. It's viewed through a sort of excavating lens, as actors from Austin theater troupe Rude Mechs play investigators getting to the bottom of the disappearance of eccentric acting guru Stella Burden while also playing the roles of Burden's students in the 1970s, trying to put on their modified version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

There's something about the controlled introduction of danger into the performance experience here, as well; it connects back to Neva in an interesting way. I'm not sure exactly what Rude Mechs is getting at with it -- well, I have some ideas -- but it makes me think back to the contemptuous way Neva's young actress/revolutionary chastises audiences for their "suffering as entertainment." This craving for emotional engagement -- to be moved, to be scared, to feel danger -- it's obviously a human impulse and I'd argue that both Rude Mechs and Teatro en el Blanco are exploring this idea. It's just interesting to be scolded for it in one show and titillated by it in another.

I don't want to over-analyze The Method Gun, because one of its charms is both its ability to surprise and its juxtaposition of loosely structured amiability and precisely choreographed ritual. I read a review of this show when they did it in New York in March who compared them to Wooster Group. I was reminded more of Elevator Repair Service in their ragtag energy. I suppose they're all connected somehow, but of the three Rude Mechs is by far the most accessible and ingratiating to their audience. Rude Mechs just really want you to have a good time. They want to toy with your expectations, they definitely want to make you think, and they want to engage with your own history of loss, your feeling adrift. The meta-theatrical approach becomes an excavation of the ephemerality of performance, of relationships. And of the symbiotic nature of the ensemble. And of the geniuses that have wandered in and out of our own lives.

Try to see

The Method Gun at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City if you can. It's great fun. I'll write more about it in a bit.

Monday, June 13, 2011

I'm excited about RADAR L.A.

and I'm seeing lots of it this week. Most of it Saturday. I think I might actually collapse from theatrical exhaustion on that day, but I'm seeing Neva tomorrow night and The Method Gun on Wednesday, so I'll have some thoughts about those, hopefully.

I also know Hollywood Fringe is going on right now but it's all too much, there are so many options, the website's out of control, I don't know what the hell to do about it. I need some guidance. And I'm not talking about you filling my inbox with press releases. I'm talking about you people telling me what I need to see. Put it in the comments, find me on Twitter, write it for me on your own pages. I don't want the solo shows, I don't want the ethnic humor, I want the epic, the ridiculous, the heavy shit, the edgy shit that's going to give me nightmares. Bring it.

Got back from Ojai

on Saturday after attending a concert of George Crumb's song cycle, Winds of Destiny, sung by Dawn Upshaw. JW and I really liked the Crumb evening at the Green Umbrella earlier in the season, so this was a must-see/hear.

The difference between the Green Umbrella concert -- a moving concert presentation of folk hymns called The River of Life, among other things -- and this weekend's concert was, for better or worse, Peter Sellars.

The southern California music establishment loves Peter Sellars. I suppose the world music establishment does. But for one who sees a lot of stuff around town, it gets a little repetitive seeing his same approach time and time again. I've posted about this before, both jokingly, and more seriously.

Lately every time I see a Sellars staging I witness something that could be profound, tough, and meaningful if the experience hadn't been reduced so much by Sellars' literal, political didacticism from the stage before the performers set foot on it. No one hesitates to hand him a microphone so that he can explain his stagings to the audience before we're given the opportunity to experience them for ourselves. And even then he's usually paraphrasing his own director's notes from the program.

In last weekend's example, George Crumb set new music to familiar American war anthems like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." His compositions are unusual and haunting; a timeless commentary on the horrors of war is obvious in the juxtaposition of text with ominous, percussive instrumentation. The effect is made specific by dressing Dawn Upshaw in fatigues and directing her to appear to relive combat scenarios as she sings. The effect is made trite by the director reciting statistics about female soldiers and PTSD before presenting the program. It would be one thing if there were actual confrontation in Sellars' delivery, but it's all too civilized for that. Just enough liberal concern to feel prescient without actually being challenging.

And I don't mean to suggest that PTSD isn't an issue that merits serious treatment; I just think Crumb's music is far more expansive than Sellars' agenda. Even Sellars' own staging was more expansive than his agenda. But his lectures direct the audience's focus in a way that's detrimental to his own work.

And what about that expansiveness? What about myth and mystery? What about trusting your audience to make interpretive connections in your work? What about valuing the role the audience plays in discerning meaning, even supplying its own as it relates to its own experience?

Still, I adored Crumb's songs, and they were powerfully sung by Upshaw. Other than the music itself, the highlight of the evening was a conversation with George Crumb about the work with both Sellars and pianist Gil Kalish. This followed Sellars' explanation of his staging, and was full of both Sellars and Kalish trying to pin down Crumb on a topical explanation for his stark musical settings of these songs. "You composed these in '03 and '04. How did the events of that period inform the work?"

Crumb seemed to have absolutely no interest in explaining his work's content in the way that they wanted him to. He talked about Bartok, he talked about Mahler, but he never really explained away his music. I have no idea why, but I like to think that's because he doesn't want to dictate meaning to the audience.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

RADAR LA

is coming up, as you may know. There's a lot to check out, but I'm particularly excited by the following shows--

Teatro en el Blanco: Neva


The Company: As you are now, so once were we

Rude Mechs: The Method Gun

CalArts Center for New Performance/Poor Dog Group: Brewsie and Willie

Moving Arts: The Car Plays: L.A. Stories

Fleur Elise Noble: 2 Dimensional Life of Her

Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews: The Word Begins
I will likely not get to all of these, but I might just try. And there are plenty more interesting shows on the list. Check here for more info.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I used to read

and link to L.A. lit blog The Elegant Variation a lot back in the early days of this page. I guess its author, Mark Sarvas, is losing his blogging steam. His latest post is from May 31, writing about a change in his approach to his own page, and spends some time contemplating the relationship between bloggers and their commenters.
In recent weeks I’ve read a number of posts at lauded sites, sites I admire, written by folks I like, and I’ve been, well, dismayed at how lousy they can be. But that’s nothing, in and of itself – we all have our off days, we’ve all written things we probably would like to take back.

What I found more troubling was the chorus of commenters who would invariably leap in after each post declaiming its virtues. And I’ve come to believe that perhaps the problem with the internet isn’t that it gives voice to every crank with a keyboard and a broadband connection. No, it may be that the insidious thing is the insularity of the waiting chorus of those who champion mediocrity, who validate self-indulgence or unoriginal thinking.
I've commented and lurked around enough arts and theater blogs over the years to relate. And I guess since I'm a blogger with no regular commenters, I'm just, what? Unchampioned mediocrity? Oh well.

I celebrate myself, then!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Where this "I'm not a gay writer" thing

gets problematic for me is that Albee's method of defiance indirectly legitimizes everything the establishment insists on. And by establishment I mean critics, taste-makers, literary managers and artistic directors, and anyone else who would create or act according to a hierarchy of value based on the subject matter of a work and its relationship to the majority. I can't relate to a gay play because I'm not gay. We can't do a gay play because it won't sell.

This is why it's Mart Crowley and not Edward Albee who gets the distinction of writing one of the most important, pioneering gay plays in theater history with Boys in the Band. A play that both steals from Albee's most famous play and dares to take for granted a specific gay experience while transcending it at the same time. Maybe Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rates higher on the "major American play" scale than Boys in the Band. Maybe that even means something. But Crowley did something that Albee did not. Maybe he stood on Albee's shoulders while he did it, but Crowley's the one who did it.

Of course Albee has plenty to say about that, too. In a recent documentary about Boys in the Band called Making the Boys, he laments that the first major gay play was too negative and damaging, something our friend Criticlasm wrote about a couple of months ago--
It's tiresome to hear him talk about how damaging a play that was actually written by a gay man about gay men as real people with real feelings (at a time when no one did that) when he hasn't written a single play about gay men EVER, ostensibly because it's too what? Constricting? Bitter because people have tried to pigeonhole him as a gay playwright when he didn't want to be categorized? Yes, writers should write what comes out of them in whatever form, but for him to criticize someone who actually put it out there as a gay man when he's never done it just rubs me the wrong way.
And of course Albee has written gay characters before -- The Goat and Three Tall Women (which Criticlasm goes on to mention) among them, and, most subversively in The Zoo Story, a play that is as confrontational as it is indirect about its gay protagonist. I wonder how he would've progressed if he hadn't been embraced by the establishment and awarded a Pulitzer for that play. To me it seems his most rebellious play. The fact that he felt a need to stage as preamble a domestic scene with the strait-laced Peter four years ago, while residing at the revered post of the Greatest Living American Playwright, only shows the weight he gives to the establishment in his worldview.

But then again, it also reinforces the theme he introduces in The Zoo Story -- a confrontation between the civilized, the establishment, and the savagery it wants so desperately to suppress. I mean, it is his major theme, isn't it? There is subversion in that. Maybe he's no Genet, but then how many audiences have actually seen a production of The Screens? So I guess it's no surprise this confrontation plays out in his rhetoric about being a gay writer.

Just as an aside,

one thing worth noting is that he has a far less complicated relationship to class and race in his writing. His milieu is almost exclusively the white upper middle class. One could argue color-blind casting would partially solve that, but race is not a major theme in his writing that I'm aware of. There's The Death of Bessie Smith but it's about a white hospital. As for class, is there another depiction of a working-class story in his writing than Ballad of the Sad Cafe? Something that is his original material?

Albee's

been saying this sort of thing for decades, but I do find it interesting that people aren't exactly putting up with it this time (although Bilerico calls it the "most boring controversy ever"). It is a bit rich to accept an award as a pioneering gay writer with a speech that denounces the recognition as ghettoizing, but Albee does, and always has had, a point with this. It's just a complicated one, and it seems more outmoded with every new insistence he makes.

He's exactly right that gay writers do get pigeonholed in ways that straight authors don't, but there's also something problematic about policing your subject matter to appease those who would pigeonhole you. He says something to the effect that he doesn't want to limit his reach as a playwright by writing exclusively about gay subject matter, but that presumes that straight audiences are automatically alienated by gay themes, something that seems less of a concern as time goes on.

But then I don't really think he's talking about audiences. I think Albee has plenty of faith in theater audiences, or else he wouldn't have been so challenging for all these years. I think he's talking about critics (and by extension the press), who, like it or not, work to define and identify trends for audiences.

All these years later Albee still brings up that Stanley Kauffmann article from 1966, "Homosexual Drama and its Disguises." It was a critic with a limited understanding of Albee's work and his intentions that attempted to reduce him to a type, even as he avoided writing directly about gay characters and gay subject matter. He had good reason to be irritated about this, and I'm sure it was a battle he fought constantly.

(And of course this still happens; just look back to the Ramin Setoodeh article in Newsweek from last year for a related example.)

For those who don't know about the Kauffmann article, the gist of it is that Kauffmann argued that gay playwrights were writing gay characters masquerading as straight in plays like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, plays which, he more or less argued, portrayed a toxic portrait of marriage and humanity. The funny thing is he actually suggests gay writers come out with their material so they can show themselves honestly, but of course his main purpose for asserting this was far more conservative -- he wanted the gays to stop messing around in the straights' territory.

And that's where Albee's main point of contention lies. He says it in that LAMBDA speech: "A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend the self." Of course this is true, but I'd remove a bunch of that text and just say "A writer must be able to transcend the self." Period. Albee would still agree with that. He even elaborated on it in the NPR interview I heard this morning, rightly asserting that authors shouldn't be expected to only write about their own race, sexuality, gender, etc. So he's spent his career refusing to be pigeonholed. I don't blame him for that.

More on this in a bit.

You have one weekend left

to get to the best 99-seat show I've seen in Los Angeles since I don't know when. I saw House of the Rising Son this weekend; it's a big success on all fronts. It's an unapologetically gay play that played quite well to the mixed house I was in on Saturday night. Edward Albee's way isn't the only way, it seems. But more on that a little later.