Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: New Rep's Boston Premiere of Arthur Miller's BROKEN GLASS

On The Arts Fuse I review New Repertory Theatre's production of Broken Glass, a play by the major American playwright, Arthur Miller, that first premiered in 1994 had to wait until his centenary before it was ever presented in the Boston-area.

A major theme of the play is anti-Semitism: Both the violent anti-Semitism that erupted in Germany in November 1938, in a pogrom now known as Kristallnacht and the more polite form it takes in America. Most radical is Miller's treatment of the internalized anti-Semitism exemplified in the figure known as the "self-hating Jew":

Today’s dramas about identity politics are usually confident tales of empowerment. Miller goes in a far more radical direction: he creates a harrowing portrait of Jewish self-hatred. “Self-hating Jew” is a charge that has been leveled by and against Jews from a number of directions — religious and secular, the ideological left and right. Typically, this involves Jews adopting or excusing the attitudes, beliefs, rhetoric, and behaviors of anti-Semites – often with the benefit of increasing their status as individuals amongst anti-Semites.

Philip works as the head of the mortgage department at the Brooklyn Guarantee & Trust Company. (He brags he is the only Jew employed at a company owned and operated by what would later be known as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.) However, when Philip first meets Margaret Hyman (Eve Passeltiner), he is offended when she mistakenly addresses him as Goldberg; he even goes so far as to insist that he’s not Jewish, but Finnish. He will only affirm his Jewish identity when it confers special status: he is not just the only Jew at Brooklyn Guarantee, but the only one to set foot on the yacht owned by his boss, Stanton Case (Michael Kaye). Philip imagines that his son, an Army captain and West Point graduate, will someday become the first Jewish general in the U.S. Army (in truth, that title may belong to Civil War-era Brigadier General Frederick Knefler).

I also consider the historical contexts of the play: Its 1938 setting, the on-going atrocities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia when it premiered in 1994, as well as the human rights crises faced by the world in 2015.

Read the entire review on The Arts Fuse!

Friday, August 28, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: Maiden Phoenix' THE WINTER'S TALE

On The Arts Fuse I review Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company's all-female outdoor production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale that closes on August 30:

While I do note that there are at points where the production is uneven (some of this reflects more on the difficulty in staging any of Shakespeare's "problem plays" than it does on the company), it has many aspects that make it worth seeing, including how director Sarah Gazdowicz makes use of the landscape of Somerville's Nathan Tufts Park:

Sarah Gazdowicz bridges the shift in genre by shifting the playing space during the intermission. The tragedy is staged at the peak of Nathan Tufts Park by the historic colonial-era Powder House that gives the neighboring square its name. The comedy transpires by the cyclopean-style masonry that separates the upper and lower parts of the park. The stone Powder House is a wonderful backdrop, but the steeply sloping foot path and the large stones that challenge the leg muscles of kids and adults make for a more inspired setting. Gazdowicz’s tableau work is far more intriguing in the latter two acts. Her actors are sometimes half-hidden in crevasses, perched on irregular ledges, or have to adapt their stance to the incline — particularly during the festivities that are part of the sheep sheering ceremony.

And I am particularly excited by Juliet Bowler's performance as the paranoid and later penitent King Leontes:

Juliet Bowler is a powerful Leontes. Her vocal precision heightens the paranoia of the King in his madness; his carefully constructed walls of words are impregnable to any voice of reason. But she also does a fine job of portraying Leontes’ grief when he finally realizes what he has done, as well as well as his inability to forgive himself, even in the end, when others have forgiven at least some of his sins.

Read the entire review on The Arts Fuse!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The New Play Exchange: Recommendations Received and What I Have Learnt

In my previous post, I described the New Play Exchange in terms of some of the problems in "the new play sector" that I believe it may help resolve, noting how playwrights simply upload their plays and allow them to be searched by those seeking new plays to develop or produce.

A key tool that makes it possible for directors, literary managers, and dramaturgs to search for new plays is metadata. Some of that metadata is simply information about the themes, genre, and cast breakdown of the play -- data attached by the playwright. But there is also data added by the playwright's colleagues; other registered members of the Exchange: Recommendations.

Yesterday, I shared recommendations I have given to other playwrights' work. Today I share some recommendations that I've received.

Playwright Claudia Haas wrote the following about my as-of-yet unproduced one act play, Jan Kultura, Substitute Teacher, Meets the Crowd:

This is one high-octane, verbally rich play. The barbs and creative reasoning (appropriate for the "creative economics" debated here) kept me riveted to the page with huge smiles and chuckles. All four characters have the smarts and are engaging and you cannot wait to hear what comes next. As the play draws to a close, you are left with, "Wait? Satire? Or is this a truth about our current economic climate?" Theatres, universities and high schools would all serve this play well. And leave everyone discussing the play.

Asher Wyndham, on the other hand, recommended four of my plays. Concerning my The Conversos of Venice, the full-length play that has received the greater share of my creative energies over the last several years, he writes:

A great play for community colleges and universities or theatres that want to produce a historical drama that is not written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A captivating continuation of the Shylock story that is both comedic and tragic, with lines that capture the grandiose personality of each character. Great parts for actresses (esp. Gessica) and actors (esp. Shylock and the hilarious Capitano and Launcelot). The playwright's knowledge of the period, the alliterative power of the poetry, the rhetorical strategizing, the spectacle, the largeness of the world on the page and (hopefully) the stage is...breathtaking.

My one-act play, The Second Annual Administration Building Takeover And Slumber Party, had been slated to premiere this summer at a theater festival, but was cancelled after the the director and at least one actor pulled out, citing "scheduling conflicts". My colleagues have assured me that this isn't as unusual a circumstance as it should be. Nonetheless Wyndham was inspired to write:

Hey student actors! Are you disenchanted with academic administration? Then read this comedy, and perform it! This comedy is an intelligent, probing satire and criticism of administrative politics--- and it will certainly ruffle some feathers in administration. Honest, necessary political theatre just right for a daring group of actors. It's a lot of fun, with quick witty dialog. There's a pillow fight!!! The statement on student activism at the end of the play is powerful. There's no play like this.

Arlecchino Am Ravenous is arguably my most popular play. This one-act started life in 2008 as a structured, long-form improvised performance at the now defunct Willoughby & Baltic art space. I went on to perform it numerous times over the years. It was later performed by Jonathan Samson in Bangkok and presented as part of Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company's short play festival, Rollercoaster. Arlecchino Am Ravenous also recently appeared in the literary magazine, Steel Toe Review which led to a project about which I hope to be able share news in the near future. Wyndham writes:

Arlecchino of Bergamo is an unforgettable, larger-than-life buffoon. From Heaven to Hell, from auto-cannibalism to clowning, the actor must showcase near madness, an animation and athleticism that is kind of like commedia del'arte to the power of 10. The playwright's logophilia -- the specificity, onomatopoeia and rhythm of Arlecchino's thought-process-in-action -- reminds me of wacky Mac Wellman.

The shortest play of the bunch is Two Cats Explain The Monstrous Moth Group which premiered last year as part of The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest's Summerplay festival. In Wyndham's words:

What's in Ian Thal's Kool-Aid? Whatever it is, I want to drink it. Cats & a bat in an attic -- Thal's images are wonderfully child-like. A perfect piece for puppeteers or costumers seeking a one-of-a-kind challenge. Fabulous, freaky, f-d up -- read it, perform it, direct it.

So What Have I Learnt?

A sample size of two playwrights, especially two who are bound by the rules of the NPX to only post positive recommendations, may be too small a group to arrive at any conclusions of my work, but there are a few things I can glean from them:

Both Haas and Wyndham suggest that at least three of my plays are ideal for a school environment -- particularly in a college and university theater setting (though I suspect that The Second Annual Administration Building Takeover And Slumber Party would be seen as "biting the hand that feeds you" if produced by a university theater department.) It's not something I've given a great deal of thought to, but both of them are more experienced than I am in the business, and if they consider that a potential market, then it's one I ought investigate.

There's also a lot of talk about my use of language: Haas describes one play as "verbally rich" ; Wyndham writes about my "logophilia", citing my "onomatopoeia and rhythm", "alliterative power of [my] poetry, [...]rhetorical strategizing". I take this to mean that it is evident to the reader that rather than setting out to be a dramatist from the beginning, I was a poet who chose to write plays out of a desire to work in long form.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The New Play Exchange: Some Brief Recommendations

Earlier this year, I joined the New Play Exchange, a platform that may end up radically changing the new play sector of the theater industry.

Under the old model, playwrights would submit their work to theaters and hope to get someone interested in the work they had labored upon. On the other end of this submission process developed a class of of theater professionals whose duties included the appraisal of new theatrical texts -- often known as dramaturgs or literary managers. For playwrights, the experience is something I have elsewhere called "the dramaturgical black box." On top of this process is the natural tendency amongst those making the selections to privilege the cohort with which they are affiliated, meaning that often attempts to reform widely perceived biases within the system reaffirm the privilege of social capital that comes from attending the right school with the right people, writing plays that neatly fit into the right genre, living in the right metropolitan area at the right point in one's career, and receiving prestigious fellowships and awards (often chosen by other people with associated with the right schools.) In short, the social capital of the people associated with the play often ends up being more important than the play itself.

The New Play Exchange serves as an alternative model in which playwrights upload their plays to a database, affix metadata about the genre, themes, and cast breakdowns. The metadata then allows directors, dramaturgs, and producers to search out and discover plays rather than wait for one to come in over the transom, or rely primarily on their professional cohort.

Other metadata are recommendations posted by users. Since most of my current writing about theater has been in my capacity as a critic, I have not yet posted a great many recommendations to the New Play Exchange, but I will share those I have posted thus far, and soon, I will post some of the recommendations I've received.

This year, I reviewed two plays by Cassie M. Seinuk. Last week it was Wax Wings' production of her Eyes Shut. Door Open. which is described as a modern update to the Cain and Abel story (my full review can be read here.):

Seinuk knows her mythology, and drawing upon not just Genesis but also Greek and Norse mythology. Her allusions to and repetitions of mythological violence elevates Eyes Shut. Door Open. above the popular plot formula of dark domestic secrets revealed at a family reunion.

I reviewed her earlier play, From The Deep (full review here when it was presented by Boston Public Works:

From the Deep manages to be psychologically realistic despite being set in a rule-bound imaginary space. Seinuk deftly acknowledges the political and social realities off-stage without taking the focus off of the struggle that Ilan and Andrew face as they attempt to maintain their sanity.

Asher Wyndham is something of a New Play Exchange hero, having, as of this writing, written fifty-eight recommendations, including four for my plays. While his play Allegra Gray is still in development, I was impressed with how he dealt with the ethical conundrum faced by his protagonist:

ALLEGRA GRAY treats the protagonist's decision to either keep or abort a pregnancy as a very personal drama: As a local celebrity, she is forced not only consider how her decision will affect her family, but her career, and ability to live in her city, as she becomes the target both of well-wishers and advocacy groups unafraid to engage in public shaming. Wyndham's play avoids simple moralizing, rather dealing with how individuals must navigate the myriad balance ethical demands they can only face on their own.

I was particularly interested in reading Trish Harnetiaux' play, If You Can Get To Buffalo because of its setting. LambdaMOO is an online community founded in 1990 that predates Facebook, Myspace, and even, and Friendster -- and in which I had participated since 1996. If You Can Get To Buffalo is adapted from Julian Dibbell's 1999 book My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World and his 1993 Village Voice article, "A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society". Both Dibbell and PBS talkshow host Charlie Rose appear as characters in Harnetiaux' play:

Speaking as a long-time denizen of LambdaMOO (though my time began a few years after the events of 1993), I find that "If You Can Get To Buffalo" captures the creative approaches to identity (and in many cases, ethics) that marked the milieu -- as well as the trouble that people had articulating just what life was like in this new frontier -- not just to those for whom the internet was still unexplored, but even to those who were experiencing it daily.

Having seen a reading of an early version of Meron Langsner's Burning Up the Dictionary in 2011 and later, in a full production by Vagabond Theatre Group, I had this to say:

"Burning Up The Dictionary" very cleverly tells its story of a couple negotiating the intimacy of their private language after their break-up. Particularly smart is the final scene actually forces the audience to question whether they may need to reevaluate their understanding of what had been said and done; it's not a plot twist, so much as a semantic twist.

Up next: Recommendations I have received and if I have learnt anything from them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: Double Edge Theatre's "Once A Blue Moon"

Last week, I travelled to the rural town of Ashfield, Massachusetts, to review Double Edge Theatre's summer spectacle, Once a Blue Moon (Cada Luna Azul).

What sets Double Edge Theatre apart from other troupes is that it has always forged an intimate link between the world of physical theater and the world of literature and ideas.

As I note that while Once a Blue Moon is a devised piece featuring contributions from many collaborators, the particular role that, Double Edge's artistic director, Stacy Klein, has in shaping the performance:

Those who have thrilled by Double Edge’s performances in conventional theater spaces have had a glimpse of director Stacy Klein’s expansive imagination. (My first encounter was a 2007 production of Republic of Dreams at the Charlestown Working Theater). But you don’t really know just what she is capable of unless you see Klein working on her home turf. She uses music, sound effects, dialogue, and the movements of actors and puppets to guide the attention and focus of audience members. In some ways, Klein is like a highly skilled filmmaker who uses camera pans and zooms to control what appears on the screen. Of course, in the theater Klein is working in real time, in three-dimensional space. There’s no editing room here.

Of course, Klein knows that the human visual cortex remains a far more powerful instrument than Hollywood’s most expensive cameras.

You can read the entire review on The Arts Fuse!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: I Review EYES SHUT. DOOR OPEN. By Cassie M. Seinuk

I haven't blogged about the last few reviews I did for The Arts Fuse in part because they came out so close to their closing date.

My latest review is of Wax Wings Productions presentation of Cassie M. Seinuk's Eyes Shut. Door Open. -- a Cain and Abel story set on the SoHo arts scene:

Seinuk, of course, knows her mythology, and the allusion to and repetition of mythological violence elevates Eyes Shut. Door Open. above the popular plot formula of dark domestic secrets revealed at a family reunion.

I also admire the acting from the three person ensemble of Victor Shopov, Melissa M. DeJesus and Michael James Underhill as well as Rose Fieschko’s fight choreography. However, I feel let down by some of the production design choices:

Lighting designer Christopher Bocchiaro (whose work I generally admire — particularly in ASP’s recent production of Measure for Measure, and Apollinaire’s Blood Wedding) and sound designer Patrick Greene made some messy missteps here. Turner’s PTSD flashbacks were conveyed through a number of unsubtle and clichéd choices: Red-lit chiaroscuro, voices slowed down, distorted, and pitch-shifted down an octave or more. The upshot was memories of trauma made campy rather than cathartic – the episodes were suited to a straight-to-cable horror movie.

Read the whole review on The Arts Fuse!

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.