Monday, June 15, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: THREE by Emily Kaye Lazzaro

On The Arts Fuse, I review Emily Kaye Lazzaro's Three currently running at the Boston Center for the Arts. The play, directed by A. Nora Long, and presented by Boston Public Works, is, sadly, a huge disappointment. For several months, I have championed the mission of Boston Public Works, a theater company centered around a collective of playwrights producing their own work (see my 2014 interview with four of BPW's member playwrights), however, with Three I saw what may be the weakest script I have ever seen receive a full, professional production. Prior experience is that similarly bad scripts never get further than a staged reading or student production, so even though I had seen my share of bad plays this season, nothing prepared me for the cheap plot devices, characters who are no more than one-dimensional stereotypes, and pretensions to social relevance.

In truth, Three is not much of a play at all, but an anthology of “very special episodes” (possibly season finales) of an unproduced television or web series. Many young playwrights seem to be going this route. It may be too soon to tell if this trend is good for television or the web, but it’s certainly not good for the stage, even though Lazzaro has a good ear for turning the vernacular of her generation into pseudo-naturalistic dialogue.

[...]Lazzaro makes an effort to label Three a feminist work, but she sets the bar pretty low – this is feminism as brand identity with little political or social commitment. Yes, the play is about three women and was written by a woman, but the three characters are passive. They never take an active role – they don’t even take a reactive role; life just happens to them. Maybe there are people who would be shocked to learn that there are women who enjoy both alcohol and penises, but I doubt they attend fringe theater productions. Moreover, I know of 20-something women in my immediate social circles who are quirkier, wittier, funnier, more socially aware, and who lead more interesting lives than the females in Three Perhaps Gen-Xers and baby boomers will come away thinking that they have learned something about the millennial generation, but it is like going to an Olive Garden restaurant for authentic Italian cuisine. There are excellent contemporary plays written by women, featuring all-female, or mostly female, casts – I’ve reviewed some – but Three isn’t one of them.

I dubbed Three a "vanity project" -- a label to which fellow playwright, Andy Boyd objected:

Read the full review on The Arts Fuse and decide for yourself if I made my case.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: Actors' Shakespeare Project's "Henry VI, Part 2"

On The Arts Fuse, I review Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of Henry VI, Part 2, which despite being the origin of the oft-quoted line, "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers", is rarely performed. This presentation, currently running at The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University through June 7, is masterfully directed by Tina Packer. I was particularly taken with the character of Jack Cade, the villain of Act IV, played by Allyn Burrows:

However far he may depart from his ‘real life’ inspiration, Cade (Burrows) is unprecedented amongst Shakespeare’s characters: a truly lethal clown – through much of Act IV he and his followers ravage England, lopping off the heads of one nobleman after another to great comic effect. He even has his own convoluted claim on the crown, reciting his questionable pedigree — a parody of York’s own claims — even as he strikes the figure of a lord of misrule, espousing an incoherent philosophy that is alternately a parody of anarchy and communism (Shakespeare’s distrusted the hoi polloi as a political class). Behind the mayhem (York’s and Cade’s) is a thirst for absolute dictatorship – the famous line about killing all the lawyers (an ambiguous rallying cry for both tyrant and anarchist) comes from one of Cade’s followers. The historical Cade might have been less of a clown, but the theatrical one comes off as an unacknowledged forerunner of Alfred Jarry’s famous Père Ubu (as well as Mister Punch and Fredrico García Lorca’s Don Cristóbal) He is also a prescient parody of the political extremists and tyrants who have shaped the past century for the worse. Burrows’ portrayal of an ignorant but bloodthirsty imp of perversity is a rip-roaring joy.

I also suggest that perhaps the current pop-culture zeitgeist makes the time ripe for this particular play to be revived more often:

Given the current pop-culture climate in which audiences thrill to stories of cynical realpolitik handily trumping the virtues and idealism of public service (as in the case of popular series such as House of Cards, and Game of Thrones) – the zeitgeist is ripe for Henry VI, Part 2 to be revived – and perhaps, with the taste for long form storytelling so prevalent, Parts 1 & 3 may deserve some love as well. Nonetheless, Part 2 is sufficiently self-contained, beginning with the marriage of Henry and Margaret and ending with the First Battle of St. Albans and start of the Wars of the Roses. Familiarity with the oft-staged Henry V and Richard III provide more than adequate background on what happened before and what happens next.

Read the full review on The Arts Fuse!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: I Review Bridge Repertory Theater's "Julius Caesar"

On The Arts Fuse, I reviewed Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. While I admire the visual style and the sonic rawness of this interpretation, I feel much of the story and political subtext is buried in the breakneck pacing.

Julius Caesar has long been the best known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays: its plot and the historical events that inspired it are common knowledge, and Marc Antony’s funeral oration has long been used as an object lesson in the rhetorical use of irony and sarcasm. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus are beginning to generate some more productions and interest, but for the time being, Caesar still reigns.

The Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston is currently offering a stripped-down, modern dress production that clocks in at about 100 minutes without an intermission. Director Olivia D’Ambrosio is due some praise for helming a visually distinctive minimalist presentation, but her breakneck ‘fast and furious” pacing ends up leaving the Bard’s poetry and the subtleties of the realpolitik narrative in the dust.

I was entertained by the roughly twenty-minute set of improv by Fine Line Comedy that followed in which they lampooned the play and production.

Read the full review on The Arts Fuse!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett's "Albatross"

Back in February I reviewed Albatross, a theatrical adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's narrative poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I judged the play, written by Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett, performed by Evett, directed by Rick Lombardo and produced by The Poets' Theater quite highly, noting its all around excellence, and I expressed hope that it could be remounted (preferably elsewhere, as a representation of what Boston's theater scene can offer.)

My hope has born some fruit, and Albatross is bing remounted at New Repertory Theater, May 21-24.

Read my review on The Arts Fuse!

Monday, May 18, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: I Review Jeff Talbott's “The Submission”

On The Arts Fuse I review Zeitgeist Stage Company's current production of Jeff Talbott's play, The Submission a dark and transgressive comedy directed by David J. Miller about a playwright who hires an actress to hide the fact that his play about an alcoholic African-American woman and her card-shark son was actually written by a middle-class gay white man:

Today, many dramatists feel under pressure to represent a more diverse cast of characters, while questioning whether they (or others) have the right to write about people whose experiences are unlike their own. And if they do attempt to jump into other shoes, will it be seen as legitimate or will it be condemned as exploitation? In this script, playwright Jeff Talbott argues that “some guy [sitting] in his middle-class apartment” is capable of imagining other lives, even if there are questions (political, artistic) about whether he has that right.

However, while I admire Talbott's sense of dialogue and the dynamic performance of the actors in this production, I find it flounders on a rather substantial plot hole:

The catch is that The Submission is saddled with too many implausibilities that go well beyond what can be tolerated in either a farce or a satire. It’s one thing to turn a reasonably protective dramatist into a bullying control freak. But Danny is so incurious and dismissive of other people’s experiences, so unaware of the racial coding of the language he uses, that it is hard to imagine he could write anything credible about working-class African-American families. Indeed, all the listicles and YouTube videos with such titles as “Ten Things White People Need To Stop Saying To Their Black Friends” are written for people just like him. How could Emilie, the literary office at Humana, or anyone working on the production possibly conclude that a play written by Danny was an “authentic” portrait of African-American life? Is everybody in the theater world brainwashed to the point that their notion of ‘the real” is rooted in the same pop culture cliches and political correctness strictures absorbed by Danny and Trevor? If that’s the case, Talbott’s script never considers a possibility that darkly and daringly comic. Is Danny really that much of an emotional idiot savant, or does Talbott imagine that the staff of the Humana Festival is haplessly gullible?

Read the rest on The Arts Fuse.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Kilroys Were There: Playwrights, Gender, and Class: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part V

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.


The Kilroys, a collective of female playwrights formed in 2014 and based in Los Angeles, had made a splash in online discussions of the new play sector in the week or so before the conference, and was on the tip of the tongue at many. On one front, The Kilroys are a production group modeled upon 13P. 13P had been founded by playwrights whose own experiences with the submission and development process had left them feeling disenfranchised and with plays unproduced. Their mission was to produce one play by each of the member playwrights and then implode (their website continues to exist primarily as a public archive of the project.) In the wake of 13P's deliberate expiration, other 13P-style groups have come into existence, such as Boston's Boston Public Works (see a recent interview with four of BPW's members here), and Washington, D.C.'s The Welders.

That The Kilroys were yet another 13P group, or that they were centered on producing work by female playwrights (one of a number of underrepresented groups among writers in contemporary theater) attracted little controversy. While parts of of Emily Glassberg Sands' 2009 study on gender bias in American theater have been disputed in terms of her methodology and the conclusions she drew, the broader conclusion that female playwrights are less likely to have their plays produced did seem to be supported (a more recent but less formal study by Donna Hoke suggests that a major cause of under representation is that female playwrights simply make fewer submissions). So while The Kilroys' primary mission to produce work by their member playwrights was widely lauded, their decision to publish “The List” attracted far more attention. The List was of 46 plays by 42 female playwrights that had had thus far only one production at most. The plays were selected from over three-hundred plays recommended by 127 “influential new play leaders” invited to participate by The Kilroys themselves.

One of the few published criticisms of The Kilroys' List was in an essay in The Clyde Fitch Report credited to CFR Staff (note, that while I am a sometime contributor to CFR, I was not one of the contributors consulted in the writing of the piece, and I do not agree with all the opinions voiced in that essay) several issues of privilege were raised -- most importantly that of the 46 plays, only one was by a playwright who was not identified as already having an agent and a publisher. The geographical pipeline that privileges New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London stages in determining what gets produced in “the regions” was evident when one considers, as Jessie Baxter, Literary Director of Fresh Ink Theatre Company did. While participating in a panel discussion Baxter, in the midst of discussing her company's mission to develop New England playwrights, noted that “No one was offering both development and production opportunities for new work in Boston,” in part because, “New England writers tend not to have agents.”

Of the over three-hundred plays that were nominated for the Kilroys' List, all but one of the 46 that made the final cut were, by most standards, institutionally privileged playwrights. Recent works by well established playwrights such as Theresa Rebeck, Paula Vogel, and Timberlake Wertenbaker, all of which are likely to be produced widely in the next several years without help from The Kilroys, made the list. Most of the 42 authors whose work made the List of 46 were already well-connected. Looking only at residencies, fellowships, and productions since 2000, I found that twelve of the playwrights had been playwriting fellows at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; another twelve had been in residence at The Lark Play Development Center; Seven had been affiliated with Page 73 Productions; Six had had plays produced by Playwrights Horizons; Another six are currently resident playwrights at New Dramatists; and three were alumnae of WordBRIDGE Playwrights' Laboratory (a program designed for playwriting students.) The playwrights whose work made the final 46 were also generally alumnae of the seven playwriting programs whose graduates dominate the new play sector, which Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss identified as Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, Brown University, and the non-degree granting program at Juilliard in their book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play

Indeed, of the approximately 250 plays that were nominated and did not make the same cut, most of the playwrights were of these similar cohorts, albeit with fewer honors, or with a less fortunate geographical situation.

In short, the list was not “46 plays by playwrights theater people don't already know but should” but “46 plays by 42 playwrights that theater people likely already know” (indeed, I'm a fan of a few of the dramatists on the list – notably Jenny Schwartz, and the aforementioned Wertenbaker.) There were even two Pulitzer Prize finalists in the mix! (Most Pulitzer finalists were probably too successful to make “The List”.)

The playwrights whose work made the list who already had successful careers and received institutional approval that few playwrights, male or female, critically acclaimed or not, ever achieve. By any standards, these were insiders who had already been vetted by other insiders and being selected for further honors by another set of insiders. Many of the insiders involved in the selection process, as dramaturgs, literary managers, and artistic directors, were already professionally attached to the plays that were nominated. It does not take a cynic to note that an artistic director can nominate one of next season's plays for The Kilroys' List and then include The Kilroys' List in their promotional materials.

The ironies are manifold: a group whose own mission is to get work past the gatekeepers and onto stages, issuing a list that normalizes the authority of the gatekeepers (albeit a group of gatekeepers considered to be sympathetic); a list that aims to increase awareness of women playwrights and advance gender parity, promotes the careers of already successful playwrights and ensures that the overlooked continue to be overlooked. Furthermore, the way that The Kilroys' List became a rallying cry and mantra on both social media and the LMDA conference allowed literary managers and artistic directors to pretend that they were not institutional gatekeepers and that it is their aggregate decisions that contribute to a lack of gender parity (indeed, a curious finding of the Glassberg-Sands study was that female literary managers were more likely to discriminate against female playwrights than male literary managers.)

Finally, all the attention on the list, and the reluctance to engage with the attendant contradictions critically ignored the most radical thing that The Kilroys and other 13P-style groups are doing, which is bypassing the gatekeepers and empowering playwrights in a new play sector in which playwrights are often disempowered.

Not addressing the privileges of class and geography that run rampant in American theater is going to limit any strides towards gender parity to an elite class of playwrights who went to the right schools, made the right connections while still at school, live in the right metropolitan areas, and received the right fellowships at the right time of their careers, and continues to normalize a system that priviliages personalities over plays.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Dramaturgical Black Box: A Playwright's Perspective: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part IV

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.


For the playwrights, the world of literary managers and dramaturgs is a black box: plays or ten-page excerpts are sent in with a brief cover letter and possibly some supporting materials, and anywhere between three weeks and three years later, there is usually (but not always) a response. Oft times it's a simple form letter, and other times it's a surprisingly human piece of correspondence from someone who wants to make a genuine connection with playwright. What happens in that intervening period is mysterious to the playwright and is subject to much speculation when playwrights speak amongst themselves.

Occasionally, once a playwright has submitted their work, they are invited to meet with a dramaturg or literary manager either as part of a development workshop or as a one-on-one consult about the script. Some of these encounters are rewarding, but some are at times immensely frustrating. Companies and dramaturgs often enter with preconceptions of the working relationship with the playwright. The playwright simply wants to have their play produced, and depending on the situation, the dramaturg can be either an ally and collaborator, or an obstacle and opponent. As Sarah Lunnie, Associate Literary Manager at Playwrights Horizons observed during a discussion of dramaturgically driven companies, using a dating analogy,
“You don't want to keep going on dates with someone who doesn't like you.” Some playwrights don't want to or need to work with dramaturgs, but are placed in a circumstance where a dramaturg is preordained. Meanwhile, dramaturgs have skill sets that can more be more fruitfully applied elsewhere. It becomes unrewarding for both the dramaturg and playwright to have the relationship forced on them.

Attendees were able to witness the playwright/dramaturg relationship up close in a Friday, June 27, 2014 playwriting workshop chaired by Rebecca Kastleman (Harvard University.)

Several weeks before the conference, a call was made to Boston area playwrights. Playwrights were asked when submitting their scripts to identify their plays as problems that needed to be solved through consultation with the dramaturgs, rather than simply express a desire to have a second pair of eyes on the script. It's certainly reasonable to expect a dramaturg to identify problems with a script, but does it not border on infantilizing to ask the playwright to identify their own work as a problem that someone else needs to solve? Lunnie's quip about dating is quite applicable; adults should not feel pressured into relationships that infantilize.

If the writers' plays were selected, they would be paired with an early career dramaturgs with whom they would consult over a period of weeks. At the session, the playwrights and dramaturgs reported on their collaborations.

Since these plays are still in development, and I only know them from the summaries given at the session, I will not comment on the specific plays, but only give impressions of the processes. Some of the plays, as described, seemed to be so well developed that I found myself questioning whether the dramaturgical consult was necessary, and whether or not the play would have been better served with a workshop with actors and director. Other times, it seemed to me that the play was in such an early stage that the playwright still had to resolve important issues of narrative structure or character motivation, that I had to wonder if the consultation was not premature.

Premature dramaturgy, unfortunately, is not always just a pedagogical exercise. In 2013, I was made privy to communications from a member of the production staff at one of the nation's most well-known regional theaters. The theater had made a commitment to produce a new play before it had actually been rendered as a performable draft. Despite a round of workshops the year before, when the script was finally brought to the rehearsal room, the consensus in the room was that the play did not make sense. Rehearsals were suspended so that the director, dramaturg, and playwright could be sequester themselves somewhere to salvage the script in time for curtain call.

Not surprisingly, the play received consistently negative reviews. This however, was not a unique, freak occurance: Recently, I reviewed the premiere of Ronan Noone's Scenes From An Adultery, at New Repertory Theatre. The play was developed in-house as part of New Rep's Next Voices Fellowship Program – and clearly New Rep had committed itself to producing it before Noone had finished writing it, or even before there was a promising draft.

The idea that playwrights are not obligated to resolve obvious problems with their scripts before a dramaturg is brought in is itself a problem, especially with the limited amount of time a dramaturg has to work on a script. Some of the plays presented in the Friday workshop seemed to be symptomatic of this problem. In a time of economic crisis it seems misguided for a theater to devote resources, including the valuable time a dramaturg could have been devoting elsewhere, to a play that is clearly not ready -- and of course, the biggest loser is the audience that had to pay the ticket prices that are the norm at major regional theaters. Certainly if plays are getting fast-tracked to production when even the director recognizes that the play is not ready (and when there are likely many plays out there that are ready, yet are not being produced), then the current model of new play development is broken – in part because the paradigm is not about finding the best previously undiscovered plays and getting them on their feet, but inserting unfinished work into a development process.

While some of these tensions are often in evidence when playwrights grouse amongst themselves about less-than-satisfactory dealings with dramaturgs, some dramaturgs, as Lunnie's use of the dating analogy indicates, are also quite aware of them. In some informal conversations I had with the conference, I was asked what playwrights need. I noted that in the books I have read on dramaturgical practice, notably Lenora Inez Brown's The Art of Active Dramaturgy best standards and practices are already spelled out. Unfortunately, between the limited resources and the mandates given by their employers, dramaturgs do not always have the freedom to engage in best practices.