Under the Radar Festival: The Public Theater

16 01 2013

The 2013 Under the Radar Festival, tracking dynamic new theater from around the world, is bringing an electrifying hustle and bustle to the Public Theater from January 9 – 20. Theatergoers catch up with friends and grab a quick jolt of caffeine between a veritable smorgasbord of sold out events. After an exhilarating day of new works from companies based in New York City, Iran, Australia, and beyond, the Festival Lounge is the perfect setting for drinks, dancing, and discussion. After all, the conversation surrounding this festival is a performance unto itself.

I spent Saturday, January 13 seeing five shows at Under the Radar, including several of this year’s top picks and critical darlings.

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A Year in Performance – 2012

31 12 2012

2012 has been a year of travel and transition. When compiling my Best of 2012 list from the reviews I had written for L.A. Weekly and Stage and Cinema, not to mention the playbills I had accumulated from a hundred or so additional shows that I had seen but not reviewed, I was thrilled to find that my list encompassed my final months in LA, my first months in my new New York City home, and even a brief trek to DC for a friend’s wedding. The list also crosses genres from musicals and plays to cabarets and concerts, from mainstream Broadway venues to 99 seat black box theaters. In no particular order, here are my theatrical highlights of 2012.

Everything at Joe’s Pub … but especially February House

Since moving to NYC, I have spent many a night at Joe’s Pub. With affordable ticket prices and a dynamic lineup of entertainment, not to mention a snazzy new menu featuring pizza popcorn, Joe’s Pub has quickly become one of my favorite venues in the city. I streamed The Civilians’ first Occupy Wall Street cabarets when I was living in LA in 2011, but I was thrilled to catch their one year anniversary cabaret live and in person. My friends and I were relieved that we didn’t have to commit mass suicide with Ben Walker and his cohort of provocative standup comics at Find the Funny on Election Night. Frisk Me: The Songs of Max Vernon packed the house unlike any other show I had seen at Joe’s Pub, marking an exciting step in this genre-bending singer-songwriter’s career. And having fallen in love with the folk storytelling of PigPen Theatre Company at The Old Man and the Old Moon, I swept my friends away to two concerts featuring songs from their new album Bremen; the boys’ rolling harmonies are guaranteed make your jaw drop, and their camaraderie – swapping instruments as they share silly stories – is totally endearing.

One night at Joe’s Pub in particular soars in my memory: the cast album release concert for February House, with book by Seth Bockley and music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane. February House chronicles an attempt to build an empire of artists in a Brooklyn Heights boardinghouse just before the outbreak of WWII; George Davis’ utopian experiment included artistic luminaries such as Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. While the musical may have been criticized for a weak book at the Public, the score stuns in concert. A sophisticated musical vocabulary breathes life into this reimagined writer’s menagerie: Kristen Sieh sighs secret longings into Carson McCullers’ lonely ballads, which are accompanied by a sole banjo; Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and Pears (played by an exuberant Kahane on this night) burst into an hysterical operatic duet about “Bedbugs” plaguing the boardinghouse; and Kacie Sheik stops the show with the sassy and smart stripper’s song “A Little Brain.”

Yet it was the longing strains of “Wanderlust” that most captivated me: a scalar melody underpinned by an unexpected and entrancing chord progression; a queer quartet, gently unfolding and subsuming me into this artistic utopia. I wanted to cling to that expansive moment forever. Suffice it to say, February House – along with Kahane’s other astounding body of work in popular and classical music – became the soundtrack for my transition to NYC this fall. Be sure to catch Kahane’s concert at Joe’s Pub on January 14, and keep your eyes peeled for his WPA project with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra later in 2013, which should prove to be another fresh and rewarding take on a history that resonates in the here and now.

GATZ (Elevator Repair Service)

Elevator Repair Service’s trilogy of literary adaptations has been an essential part of my theatrical landscape over the past several years, and The Select (The Sun Also Rises) made my Best of 2011 list. Not only did I see The Select a second time in 2012, but I marathoned the legendary Gatz … twice. A man sits down at his office desk one morning to discover his computer isn’t working, so he picks up a novel – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – and begins to read aloud. Over the course of his workday (a full 8 hours, including an hour-long dinner break and several intermissions), his coworkers gradually become characters in the novel – and this initially awkward reader (the indomitable Scott Shepherd) gradually becomes the cool and confident narrator, Nick Carraway. While I was enthralled by my first encounter with Gatz at the Public, I was even more attuned to the processes of performance in my second viewing at REDCAT, wondrously aware of the gradual transformation of the characters and of the space as we collectively immersed ourselves into the world of the novel.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (The Civilians) – Review

I am an avid advocate of The Civilians’ investigative theater and enjoyed both their OWS cabaret at Joe’s Pub and Paris Commune at BAM this fall – but Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Woolly Mammoth takes the cake. When a nuclear disaster wipes out much of the United States’ population, the survivors establish tenuous alliances with one another for provisions and protection – and they retell the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons to pass the time. Anne Washburn’s script is a compelling exploration of storytelling as an essential mode of human survival; Michael Friedman’s pastiche music is wonderfully witty; and you may never look at pop culture the same when this show wends its way to NYC in 2013. Two more cabarets and a second production of The Great Immensity, a play about environmental challenges, are planned for 2013/14, as well!

LOLPERA (The Epic Futurists) – Review

LOLCATS + musical theater = the best pop opera since Jerry Springer the Opera. In a not-too-distant dystopian future in which lolcats are humans’ only form of communication, the epic LOLPERA links our memes into a new religion for the Internet age; watch in shock and awe as Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat, God and the Devil, music and the machine, battle for our souls. Ellen Warkentine and Andrew Pedroza’s inspired new work provoked, disturbed, and endlessly entertained. I can has cast album?

Fellowship! The Musical Parody of The Fellowship of the Ring (Steve Allen Theater) – Article

I first encountered Fellowship! The Musical Parody of the Fellowship of the Ring in 2009, when my sci-fi/fantasy fangirl of a roommate introduced me to this delightful improv-based musical. With most of the company intact from the original run in 2005, Fellowship! returned to LA this summer for a raucous run at the Steve Allen Theater. After roaring with laughter from the audience for several weeks, I was fortunate enough to be subsumed into the company as a music director for the last month of performances. The Balrog (Peter Allen Vogt) initiated me into the company during the “Balrog Blues”: “Hey, Sarah? Sarah! You’re a girl. You’re new. I don’t care if you’re new, I will cut you.” Here’s hoping Fellowship! has another revival during the excitement of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit over the next few years.

Hamlet (Wooster Group)

Wooster Group’s Hamlet uses Shakespeare’s canonical text as a provocative springboard to consider our complicated relationship to technology, which makes identity ever more fragmentary. The production stages an encounter between the 1964 production of Hamlet – an edited and remixed film of the Broadway production, which is projected onto the back wall – and a live reenactment, which recreates not only every vocal inflection and action, but also every costume, set piece, and camera angle. The ghosts of Hamlets past, present, and future flicker into view across the splintered screens. Between narrating Gatz and reperforming Richard Burton’s Hamlet in this multimedia production, it has been a challenging and undoubtedly rewarding year for the versatile Scott Shepherd. Kate Valk also stuns in her dual roles as Gertrude and Ophelia; my group of friends hardly recognized her until the transitions between characters became too quick for her costume changes. In spite of the incredible technology at play, the live performers’ uncanny acts of mimesis – including one of the best (recreated) sword fights on stage in recent memory – stand out most in my mind.

One Man, Two Guvnors (Music Box Theatre)

A deliciously witty update of Goldoni’s commedia The Servant of Two Masters and an incomparable comedic ensemble made for one of the best concocted comedies of the year. I enjoyed One Man, Two Guvnors so much that I saw it three times, including the wild closing show that extended a good half hour beyond its usual running time as the cast played endless pranks on one another. One Man, Two Guvs struck the perfect balance of carefully crafted comedy and unpredictable improv, making every performance thrillingly unique.

Once (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

Already a fan of the indie film, the musical adaptation of Once swept me off my feet with its homespun storytelling by a stirring ensemble of actor-musicians. It probably helps that my twenty-something artsy friends and I feel oh so much like pianist Girl (Cristin Milioti, whose rich timbre fleshes out her Manic Pixie Dream Girl character) and guitarist Guy (the gorgeous Steve Kazee): always missing one another in love, but making beautiful music in their infinite longing. Catching composer Glen Hansard in concert at the Wiltern in LA was another musical highlight of my year; the raw emotion and rich complexities of his songs cross beautifully from the concert to the theatrical stage.

Peter and the Starcatcher (Brooks Atkinson Theatre) – Review

A high-tech Broadway spectacle has been swapped for the homespun magic of a talented troupe of players and the audience’s engaged imaginations at the Brooks Atkinson. With an unbelievably smart and sassy script by Rick Elice and innovative direction by Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, this captivating prequel to Peter Pan inspires childlike wonder. I may have already seen Peter and the Starcatcher four times (twice with the unfairly charismatic Christian Borle as Black Stache, twice with the crafty team player Matthew Saldivar), but I wouldn’t say no to a return to Neverland before it closes on January 20.

Our Town (Broad Stage) – Review

Because of my small town background, I have always been wary of Our Town – but David Cromer’s production amplified the play’s embedded critique of small town life to strike a necessary balance between nostalgia and criticism. Cromer’s direction restored nuance, depth, and detail to a play that too often falls into idyllic cliche. His production made me see Our Town as if for the first time, and I emerged from the theater with my senses wide awake, able to embrace my life and background in all its beautiful contradictions.

Honorable Mentions: Cock (The Duke on 42nd), Follies (Ahmanson Theater), Fun Home (The Public Lab), Sleep No More (Punchdrunk), Uncle Vanya (Sydney Theatre Company), Venus in Fur (Lyceum Theatre), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Booth Theatre), The Woman in the Wall (Overtone Industries)

Shuffle: Elevator Repair Service, Brooklyn Public Library

21 09 2012

I was lounging at an oversized library desk, perusing the papers strewn about – fragments of Gatz (The Great Gatsby), The Select (The Sun Also Rises) and The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1978) – when Mike Iveson plopped down behind me. I swiveled around, perching my left arm over the back of the chair, and leaned back for the monologue that was sure to follow. Iveson locked eyes with me, only occasionally peering down into his floppy paperback book for his lines. He began:

She was a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity of a wan, charming discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before.

How uncanny. Was this monologue about me? Fitzgerald seamlessly gave way to Hemingway, and Iveson’s commitment to deliver this monologue directly to me increased with each line. However self-conscious, I was wholly enraptured by the performance – and, in fact, had become a tacit part of the show myself. Mike Iveson was reading the text, and the text seemed to be reading me.

Such glowing moments make Elevator Repair Service’s experimental installation Shuffle a worthwhile experiment in the inaugural BEAT Festival, which celebrates Brooklyn’s Emerging Artists in Theater. ERS – with Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin – mashes up the texts of their recent trilogy of acclaimed literary adaptations in an improvisatory event in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. While a machine scrolls through the interlocking texts, the performers read their lines off iPhones cleverly housed in gutted paperbacks. The scripts are simultaneously projected onto the walls and several screens throughout the space, and audience members are encouraged to mingle with the performers a la Sleep No More. Improvisation is a challenge with an ever-shifting array of fragmented texts and the actors’ noses frequently buried in the books, but Shuffle is certainly a thought provoking new piece.

Most of Shuffle is utterly cacophonous; the phrases occasionally fly across the screens too quickly for the performers to handle, and some actors are visibly less comfortable with improvisation than others. (Can you – and should you – commit to a character choice when your “character” is a series of decidedly discontinuous bits?) The show is set up in four 22-minute cycles with a somewhat awkward, dead break between each performance round. The reading room is littered with John Collins’ directing diagrams and clippings from the novels to keep the audience entertained, but most audience members opt to whip out their own iPhones for a bit of web browsing during these respites: a meta moment, adding another layer of texts to the proceedings.

The actors’ choices became more bold as the opening night’s show progressed, and sensational moments began to sync up in the textual algorithm. Scattered across the theatrical space, the actors rapidly recited a list of nouns, an array of sentences beginning with “She was,” and a series of “Why?” and “Because.” Actors played more with vocal inflections and the acoustics of the library, particularly an empty and echoey hallway. Actors grew more comfortable engaging with their audience, spontaneously directing lines – and sometimes entire monologues – at their onlookers.

At a certain point in the second cycle, I sat down at a desk, picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby, and began reading silently, simply letting the other texts jostle around me. While ERS’s Gatz offered the experience of wholly disappearing into a work of literature and shutting off the outside world, Shuffle offered the aural sensation of intertextuality; my attention phased in and out as I tapped into the varied conversations around the room. I found a certain pleasure in the literary bustle, although another audience member simply confessed, “I don’t get it.”

Shuffle is scattershot, to be sure: variously taking shape and falling apart before your very eyes – and, even more importantly, your ears. Yet I walked out of the Brooklyn Public Library tonight unable to stop thinking about what I had experienced, particularly those unexpected and uncanny moments of synchronicity between texts, as well as between performers and audience members. Give everyone in the audience a glass of champagne and ERS may really kick off a literary party. Right now, the concept intrigues more than the execution – but Elevator Repair Service is to be commended for this playful, participatory experiment.

A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!