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!


Heavier than … Cyclops: A Rock Opera?

22 08 2011

I caught the last performance of Steve Yockey’s Heavier than … at Boston Court today. While production values were high, the script and lead performances were disappointing. Truth be told, I couldn’t stop drawing comparisons to the more innovative Psittacus Productions’ Cyclops: A Rock Opera throughout the show. Intertextual connections are one of the joys of theatergoing, so in a playful postmodern spirit, I offer a mashup of thoughts on sexuality in these reimagined Greek myths.

Steve Yockey’s world premiere play Heavier than … is “a strange account of Asterius in the labyrinth.” This “strangeness” derives not only from the fact that the minotaur is now the central character, but because Asterius is likely gay. If this buff minotaur is not gay, then he is certainly sexually ambiguous; the effiminate Icarus constantly flies into the labryinth and flirts with the lonely horned creature, who has a deep Freudian attachment to his mother.

What are the potential implications of portraying this mythological creature as gay? Most obviously, it registers homosexuality as unnatural and even monstrous. The minotaur Asterius is the bastard child of a white bull and King Minos’s queen, Pasiphae. Thus the minotaur is a strange, hybrid creature – part beast and part man. This “monstrosity” has several consequences. Perceived as a threat to men, the monster is isolated, estranged, exiled. King Minos confines Asterius in a labryinth after the creature lashes out in a violent rage at age 3, killing several men. Now every 7 years, Minos sends men to try to kill the minotaur – unless Asterius can kill the men first.

Of course by telling the tale from the minotaur’s point of view, Asterius becomes a sympathetic figure; it is clear to the audience that Asterius has been unfairly deemed a monster. It is nonetheless fated that Asterius will die: there is no possible happy ending for this creature. In a clever bit of staging by director Abigail Deser, the chorus of fates come to the end of Asterius’ (literal) rope at the play’s end. Although his fate is never depicted, the ellipsis of the play’s title points to the inevitable: we know that the minotaur will eventually be killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Heterosexuality will stamp out homosexuality: Ariadne helps her lover navigate the maze to kill her own brother.

Similarly, Psittacus Productions’ Cyclops: A Rock Opera is a reimagining of Odysseus’ encounter with the one-eyed Polyphemus. (I have previously written about it here … and here … and here … and here … with a little overture here.) Based on Euripides’ satyr play, this carnivalesque inversion of a familiar Greek myth centers on the Cyclops – a sexually ambiguous figure in this adaptation. Polyphemus is a gender-bending glam rock star, drawing on cultural referents ranging from wildly excessive bel canto opera to Rocky Horror‘s Frank ‘n’ Furter. Polyphemus may have burned with desire for the sea nymph Galatea, but he drives into “Sodomy” with equal panache.

What are the implications of portraying this mythological creature as sexually ambiguous – especially with the creature’s blinding following close on the feet of a song called “Sodomy”? Again, it registers homosexuality as unnatural and monstrous. The Cyclops is not only a strange, hybrid creature – part god and part man – but he literally consumes men, gobbling up Odysseus’ crew. He is another isolated, estranged figure with only his satyr slaves to keep him company. Over the course of the show, the Cyclops becomes a sympathetic character. But he must suffer for his monstrosity: by all means, he must be blinded. That is how the story goes. Right?

What would it mean to alter the outcome of a familiar story? Neither of Heavier than … nor Cyclops changes their sympathetic monster’s fate. But they each bend the stories to varying degrees: and it is in the degree of stylistic and performative bending that Cyclops comes out as a much more successful reiminagining.

Heavier than … is stylistically nonrealist, with a Greek chorus of three fates watching over Asterius (Ashanti Brown, Teya Patt, and Katie Locke O’Brien). Their voices mix and mingle in a rich polyphonic array, and their heightened physical vocabulary threads the rope of Asterius’ life to its fated end. The fates’ ensemble interplay is subtle and stunning. Unfortunately, there is no palpable connection among the remaining characters. Asterius (Nick Ballard) broods and occasionally bursts into an angry growl. Blonde and beautiful Icarus (Casey Kringlen) never mines deeper than his pretty boy surface. Pasiphae (the wonderfully grounded Jill Van Velzer) and moody teen Ariadne (Laura Howard) seem to inhabit entirely different theatrical worlds. Amidst such stylistic dissonance, the audience never reaches beyond the surface level of sympathy for Asterius — or for Icarus, who meets his own tragic death from flying too close to the sun. These (gay) figures are tragic, but ultimately impotent at the show’s conclusion.

Not the Cyclops. From his grand entrance in “Bloodier Than the Cherry,” Polyphemus (Jayson Landon Marcus) commands the stage; the satyrs, maenads, and even Odysseus are forced into his service as band members and backup singers. The Cyclops’ catchy music and fully embodied presence actively work to overturn preconceptions of his “monstrous” persona — and even call into question Odysseus’ own heroism in the process. As I wrote in my original review, Odysseus is arguably the most complicated role in the show. This epic hero, given a nuanced performance by Chas LiBretto, is forced to a consideration of his own masculinity. Odysseus may wield a sword … but Polyphemus wields a guitar. The Cyclops’ riveting musical presence arguably exceeds his blinding. The audience leaves the glam rock opera singing the sympathetic “I’m a Cyclops” anthem with a deep ambivalence about Odysseus’ act of violence.

I enjoyed Heavier than … today, if only because it was such an interesting counterpoint to my deep and ongoing consideration of Cyclops: A Rock Opera. Both pieces stem from Greek mythology into critical contemporary issues of sexuality and gender roles, of violence and estrangement. But both make me wonder: at what point is it time to not only bend the myths, but break them? Can we defy the fates?

(Psittacus Productions is currently rehearsing to rock the NY Musical Theatre Festival this fall. Support their road to NYMF at http://www.indiegogo.com/CYCLOPS-A-Rock-Opera.)

Gratitude for the LA Theater Community

10 05 2011

I have been less present on the theater reviewing scene in the past few months – for several reasons. My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker opens this weekend at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre. I have had a slight addiction to CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera, which inspired repeat viewings and multiple posts on the same show. But even more significantly, I have been in the midst of PhD qualifying exams. I have been studying theories of corporeality, integration, and temporality for at least 8 months. (A little theater here and there, too.) Writtens were just before Easter, my final oral exam was today – and I passed! I am now a PhD candidate with “only” the dissertation to go. 🙂

Academia was an obvious choice for me after undergrad. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, and I am genuinely excited to get started on the dissertation now that I have advanced to candidacy. I am so fortunate to have 4 brilliant, supportive scholars on my dissertation committee. Today’s exam was more like a conversation than an intense questioning. A lot more enjoyable and less stressful than I expected!

Of course, one reason why the exam was less stressful is that I had “rehearsed” my answers. I didn’t know the questions going into the exam today. But for the past 8 months, I have been an avid theatergoer, a fan, a critic, a composer, a music director – and this nebulous thing called the LA Theater Community has continually engaged me in conversations about theater and performance studies. For that, I feel incredibly blessed and grateful.

One reason I decided on a PhD program in Theater and Performance Studies (rather than English, which I was also considering) was the collaborative aspect of theater. While I was at Duke, theater – and specifically musicals – became an important mode of mediating my social relationships and shaping my cultural world. As much as I enjoy academia, it can be a lonely and isolating pursuit – even in the realm of Theater and Performance Studies. The past 8 months consisted of studying my bibliographies, writing and rewriting my prospectus, organizing and reorganizing my plan for the dissertation; I was mainly holed up in my apartment amidst stacks of articles and books. Meetings with my professors were always welcome conversations, but scholarship is still often an isolated, mental pursuit. Writing stages imaginary conversations among theorists and texts.

Enter the “LA Theater Community.” Amidst all this potentially isolating intellectual work, the idea of a theater as a mode of relation has been central to my life in the past few months. Music directing (Is There Life After High School, Happy End, Gone Missing, Thank You, Mr. Falker, and sporadic concerts and benefits with friends) has been a space of rehearsing my theories about the musical, of actively engaging with my thoughts in practice, of seeing both the ideals – and the contradictions and conflicts – within any community. Thank you to all with whom I worked creatively over the past few months – directors Gary Gardner, Hunter Bird, and Lane Williamson, choreographer Christopher Albrecht, all the stage managers and casts and crews. You were the vibrant musical numbers to my academic narrative; you gave me a renewing respite from my academic work each and every day, not to mention a space to actively discuss and engage in embodied practice of the musical, which I view as invaluable to my scholarship.

What more can I write about CYCLOPS? (Perhaps you should ask me again when I start my dissertation.) This rock opera was simultaneously an ecstatic, Dionysian release from my academic work – and a theatrical experience that actively engaged my scholarship. Psittacus Productions could not be a more brilliant or welcoming company; the sense of communitas among their ensemble palpably extends to the audience. And, by the way, I wrote most of this post before closing night … which Colin Mitchell can attest was a pretty ridiculous and unforgettable experience in my superfandom. (Yes, that was my imaginary overture of Jayson Landon Marcus’ and Benjamin Sherman’s incredible music playing at closing.) Once in a while, shows like Venice and Cyclops come along, reassuring me that theater (and specifically musical theater) can be layered, political, generous, and endlessly entertaining.

I feel blessed to be in a position in the LA theater community where I can advocate for such exceptional new work, in my own small way. But my position in the critical community would not be possible without a great deal of support from readers and fellow critics. I started blogging about a year and a half ago. Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons picked up on my work first, for which I am endlessly grateful; he has been one of my greatest supporters and has brought attention to my random, start-up blog in a way that I never imagined possible. In the early months of my blog, I had some fun debates about styles of theater criticism with Trevor Thomas – who is now my fantastic editor at EDGE Los Angeles. And I recently signed on to write for Stage & Cinema, as well. A theatergoing habit has turned into a reviewing practice and, hopefully, can one day become a core part of my career.

My place in this virtual community of theater critics is amplified and enhanced when I have the great pleasure of spotting a fellow critic at the theater: Steven Leigh Morris at Crack Whore Galore, Tony Frankel after Three Sisters or Perestroika, Colin Mitchell at CYCLOPS (twice!). My life is literally structured around theater dates with friends. I cherish the conversations that surround the theater experience as much as, if not more, than the theatrical experience itself.

I recently accompanied a group of UCLA musical theater undergraduates at a Center Theatre Group benefit in Palos Verdes Estates. Over dinner, one of the donors asked me what my “dream role” would be. I explained that I’m not really an actor, but my dream role is actually what I’m doing right now: composing, music directing, reviewing, and engaging in academia. The LA theater community allows me to negotiate multiple roles and to continually push myself into new fields. I never thought I’d find my “dream role” in Los Angeles; I was certain to be NYC-bound after undergrad. And yet here I am after 3 years, honored to be a part of it all and even beginning to call LA “home.”

With so many upcoming theater conferences in LA, we are continually attempting to define this nebulous thing called Los Angeles theater. Yet its excitement, perhaps, is its dynamism and continually shifting shape. We all play multiple roles, as artists and audiences. LA theater is multifaceted, decentralized, vibrant, and mutually supportive. The sense of community is palpable and has been so important to me lately. Thank you all for your continuing support. See you at the theater!

CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera x5, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse

16 04 2011

One of my greatest pleasures over the past few months has been repeat visits to Cyclops: A Rock Opera, which recently transferred to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse.

I think I’ve scandalized a few of my friends in the theatergoing process. After all, I am probably one of the most subdued people they know: totally conservative in my own lifestyle, although liberal in my beliefs. A bawdy rock opera for mature audiences doesn’t seem quite my style. But I am a mess of paradoxes and an unabashed devotee of Psittacus Productions’ latest theatrical venture. If you haven’t seen Cyclops yet, let me know when you’re going. Because chances are, I’ll join you. Again.

Having seen Cyclops five times since February with several different friends, I have thought a lot about the show itself, as well as its wide range of reception: what I see, what my friends see, what other reviewers see. Provocative on so many levels, Cyclops has opened up an array of discussions beyond the theater for my friends and me. I thought I’d take a short break from studying for quals and write a follow-up post to my original review to consider some of my ever-shifting thoughts on my own experiences of Cyclops in dialogue with my friends’ and fellow critics’ experiences.

Most of my friends react first and foremost to the open sexuality of the rock opera – and since most of my friends are traditional musical theater writers, actors, and producers, they instantly connect this new show to Spring Awakening. The comparison is apt. Cyclops employs a collapsed time frame (Euripides’ satyr play via Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 19th century translation is akin to Spring Awakening‘s collapse of Wedekind’s 1891 play into a contemporary rock musical). Cyclops also embraces the mediation of presentational microphones rather than hidden body mics, which was a radical, stylized choice in Spring Awakening.

I didn’t hate Spring Awakening per se, but my friends know that I have major issues with that show – so they’re shocked that I have such an appreciation for Cyclops. But for me, there are fundamental differences in representations of sexuality between the two.

Spring Awakening made me incredibly uncomfortable when I first saw it. I interned with the Broadway production in summer 2007 … saw it several more times … and started to articulate exactly why I took issue with the musical. I know Spring Awakening has been central to a lot of teens’ and young twenty-somethings’ identity formation; while I can respect that, I think much of the show’s narrative is washed out by the exuberance of the songs. Most frustratingly, Wendla’s encounter with Melchior is no longer a rape (at least textually, although physically it could be argued otherwise) – and Melchior emerges as a steadfast hero of a sexual revolution, rather than the very confused boy of Wedekind’s original play.

How does Cyclops differ? This rock opera is a raucous, bawdy, overtly sexual performance that literally consumes the Carrie Hamilton Theater. On a visceral level, I would expect it to make me more – rather than less – uncomfortable than Spring Awakening. You may even end up with a satyr in your lap! But the difference comes down precisely to the intimate, visceral nature of Cyclops – and to the gaze.

In Spring Awakening, the audience casts a voyeuristic gaze on the staged performance of sexuality just beyond the proscenium arch. The audience peers in on intimate scenes; most of the sex scenes are played realistically, behind the mythic fourth wall. (Maybe the experience would have felt different from the onstage seats … but with realist modes of acting for these moments, I still have my doubts.) This voyeurism is awkward, unsettling, unsolicited, and uncomfortable for me.

In Cyclops, on the other hand, the 99-seat Carrie Hamilton creates a potential reciprocity of the gaze. The audience member is never a protected voyeur; your gaze might just be met by the one-eyed Cyclops. That reciprocity of the gaze undoubtedly makes some audience members more uncomfortable. But paradoxically, I find that reciprocity liberating. It makes me feel less like I am objectifying the actors onstage. Instead, the actors invoke the audience members to enter into a shared Dionysian spirit of the performative, presentational rock opera. There is also a refreshing gender equality to the gaze in this show. Yes, the maenads are scantily clad, thrashing about in their undergarments, but the barechested satyrs play up their sexuality just as much. Cyclops requires the audience members’ willing surrender – even better, their active embrace – of that communal environment.

Once I enter into that Dionysian spirit with the actors, I see not so much the specific performance of sexuality onstage, but simply the performance of a remarkably talented ensemble. One level of my pleasure in Cyclops is seeing the genuine enjoyment of the actor/musicians, their total dedication and investment in this dynamic rock opera in development.

I am also oddly reminded of the opening lines of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

THOMASINA:  Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS:  Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

In short, I also take pleasure in Cyclops: A Rock Opera because it is about the (ever-ironic) passion of knowledge. This show saturates the audience in sensational spectacle and sound, but it also offers an intellectual pleasure of decoding the swirling array of cultural references onstage. Even more radically, Cyclops suggests that these visceral pleasures and intellectual pursuits – the body and the mind – are not so easily divided, but intimately bound up with one another.

If you have read the original reviews agglomerated on Bitter Lemons, you’ll notice that each reviewer traces a different genealogy of Cyclops. As I mentioned earlier, Euripides and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation are immediate predecessors, but some critics call the classical-sounding narrative “Shakespearean.” Some critics locate Cyclops‘  musical roots in glam rock, others see musical theater predecessors like Rocky Horror and Hedwig; an opera buff will even hear a nice bit of bel canto in there. The truth is, Cyclops: A Rock Opera calls up all these cultural associations and more. It is a distinctly postmodern collapse of times, places, and genres. I take the “poly” of Polyphemus a little more seriously with each visit. (Among the three new songs at the Carrie Hamilton, we even get some polyrhythms in the catchy chorus of Dionysus’ “Wine Conquers All.”) Each friend that I bring to see Cyclops has a slightly different frame of reference to mediate his or her experience – which always prompts a great post-show discussion.

The transfer from Son of Semele to the Carrie Hamilton has meant a more visceral theatrical experience, a more polished narrative and sound, three fantastic new songs, and amplified roles for the women, among other ongoing transformations that keep improving this new work. Cyclops is a protean show, and it literally feeds off its audience – which brings a different dynamic every night. So I keep returning to Cyclops, allowing myself to be consumed time and time again. Join me for the feast next time.

Consumed by Cyclops

4 04 2011

Biting into the LA theater scene with vivid reimaginings of classic texts, Psittacus Productions invites the audience along for a wild, provocative ride. “You have no choice but to be consumed,” says company member Liz Saydah. Their newest work reinvents the only remaining Greek satyr play as the raucous Cyclops: A Rock Opera. After a critically-acclaimed run at Son of Semele, Cyclops is transferring to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse from April 7 – May 8.

Cyclops is as far from a “straight play” as you could ever desire. Historically, a satyr play would cap off the Greek Festival of Dionysus. After a day of tragedies, a chorus of drunken, horny Satyrs would ravish the audience with a ribald display of subversive excess; the narrative and form were a carnivalesque upending of the day’s earlier tragedies. What better genre to capture this pleasurable excess than a contemporary gender- and genre-bending rock opera? With musical muses like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury alongside theatrical inspirations like Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cyclops is primed to become a cult classic – and the tight-knit ensemble couldn’t be happier.

Developed in Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival, Cyclops stems from a productive collision of worlds: classical theater and rock music. Many of Psittacus’ classically-trained actors, such as Madeleine Hamer and Paul Corning, embarked on the project with limited backgrounds in musical performance, but they embraced the experimental, Dionysian spirit of the piece with panache. Corning reconnected with his bass-playing skills to join the Satyr band and found to his surprise, “The practice of singing frees you physically.” For composers Jayson Landon Marcus and Benjamin Sherman, the experience was reversed; rooted in rock, they were thrilled to write for specific narrative and characters. Taking on the title role of the Cyclops, Marcus discovered a dynamic bridge between his rock band persona and this new theatrical character.

Cyclops: A Rock Opera began as a “dude-driven” project. The satyrs gathered in December 2010 to adapt the text (Euripides’ original play via the 19th century translation by Percy Bysshe Shelley) and compose the score, but Dionysus has offered them “serendipitous nuggets of joy” throughout the rehearsal and production process.  Under the direction of Louis Butelli, Chas LiBretto, and Robert Richmond, Cyclops began shifting and evolving with the physical components of the Son of Semele production, including the specific bodies inhabiting the stage.

At least three new songs are being added to the Pasadena transfer, including more material for the maenads. Originally cast as back-up singers, the company’s three women brought a new halo of radiance to the piece; for the transfer, their roles have been amplified in “show-stopping moments of feminine time,” according to Saydah. With scanty costumes and nymph-like energy, Cyclops releases the women’s sexuality – but in a liberating rather than objectifying manner, which Hamer observes is all-too-common in LA’s entertainment industry. In fact, the sexuality of the entire company – male and female – is refreshingly open and fluid.

Blame it on the wild excesses of Dionysus, whose central positioning Butelli calls “very Greek.” Dionysus does seem to have showered a divine presence on Psittacus Productions’ latest work, whose infectious songs penetrate the audiences’ bodies and invoke them to join the freeing ritual performance. According to Marcus, Cyclops: A Rock Opera “takes aside the rules of life and just lets you feel happy,” channeling “pure cosmic energy” in a vibrant, communal theatrical experience. At least for the night, audiences can be consumed in an exuberant, alternative musical universe.

(Edited version for EDGE Los Angeles)

CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera: Psittacus Productions, 2/4/11

6 02 2011

Last night, I listened to a satyr song. Today, I’m still under its spell. Part of Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival, Psittacus Productions has reimagined the only remaining Greek satyr play – Euripides’ Cyclops – as a one-act rock opera that is making waves in the LA theater scene.

Musical theater is undeniably my passion, so one of my greatest pleasures is finding a new show that is a provocative counterpoint to what I am already researching. My dissertation just happens to be about musical theater as a genre laden with formal and social excesses – an intersection that Cyclops tackles with panache. I’d like to believe that performance writes theory, and theory writes performance. Moreover, I’d like to believe that all of this has some sort of “real world” relevance: that theory and performance not only reflect society, but have the power to shift and shape it. This dialectic is perhaps one of the reasons Psittacus Productions continually impresses, bringing contemporary questions to the “classics” with an astonishing blend of historical intellect and creative intuition.

Or perhaps creative intellect and historical intuition? After all, Psittacus has avoided any stale intellectual attempt at historical “accuracy” in Cyclops, instead playing up the wild Dionysian spirit of the piece for a new era. Historically, a satyr play would cap off the Greek Festival of Dionysus. After a day of tragedies, a chorus of drunken, horny Satyrs would ravish the audience with a wild display of subversive excess; the narrative and form constituted a carnivalesque upending of the day’s earlier tragedies. What better genre to capture this pleasurable excess than a contemporary rock opera?

The Satyrs, led by the captivating and conniving Silenus (Louis Butelli), kick off the evening’s festivities to a musically compelling, but narratively rocky start. Clad in goat-fur chaps with dark eyeliner to pump up the volume, this glam rock band (Paul Corning, Stephen Edelstein, and Benjamin Sherman) leaps directly into a raucous number – and the audience’s ears may take a few minutes to adjust. After all, the dated language is a challenge: Cyclops is adapted from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation, originally published in 1824. But once the scene is set and the story begins, The Satyrs cast a spell, as the narrative is creatively interspliced with gritty rock numbers.

A musical number is often a space of excess – but instead of exploring excessive feeling and interior depth as in a traditional musical, Cyclops‘ songs expand on excesses of the body: food (“Bloodier Than the Cherry”), drink (“Put Your Elbow Right”), and sex (“More for the Whore” and “Sodomy”). Instead of bridging from dialogue into heightened and poetic lyrics, Shelley’s classical verse gives way to dirty, contemporary lyrics: a deliciously perverse reversal. The onstage band rocks out to a harmonically and stylistically rich array of sounds from acoustic ballads to power rock, composed by Jayson Landon Marcus and Benjamin Sherman. Meanwhile a trio of scantily-clad Maenads (Nicole Flannigan, Madeleine Hamer, and Liz Saydah) flirt and fly about the stage. Their “Dreamgirls” backup routines thrive on difference: in direct contradiction to precision dance, the choreography is differently embodied by each woman, giving the movement a free-flowing feel. Dionysus himself (Casey Brown) joins in the festivities – when he’s not yanking off backstage.

The satyrs and maenads are undeniable social excess. They play with codes of gender and sexuality in their wildly performative makeup and costumes (designed by Caiti Hawkins) and mannerisms. But they’re nothing compared to the Cyclops.

The tale of Euripides’ Cyclops is likely most familiar to audience members from Homer’s Odyssey. On his journey home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclops, Polyphemus; Odysseus must conquer the creature to escape the island. Channeling Tim Curry’s sweet transvestite Frank ‘n’ Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jayson Landon Marcus’ Polyphemus subverts genders and sexualities to the extreme – to the point of being a threat to the established social order, i.e. the bastion of masculinity that Odysseus represents.

Drawing on the original source material, Odysseus conquers Polyphemus just after the Cyclops has acted on homosexual tendencies; immediately after the terribly catchy song “Sodomy,” Odysseus blinds the creature by stabbing his one eye. This juxtaposition of scenes is undeniably disturbing; even in a satyr play, the ultimate excess, monstrosity, and threat to the social order has to be contained. Yet Psittacus comes through this challenging sequence with fascinating directorial and production choices.

The show arguably hinges on Chas Libretto’s unexpected and apt portrayal of Odysseus as palpably uncomfortable in his own skin, struggling to maintain a semblance of masculinity in this sea of fluid and free identities. Odysseus is most confident and authoritative in the “normalcy” of dialogue, rather than in the excesses of song and dance; his every move seems precisely constructed and premeditated, even as he gradually joins in the Dionysian festivities. And when he joins the Satyr band, he plays the most remarkable instrument: a ukelele. Odysseus’ ukelele comes laden with a toy-like quality and “fake” sound; it’s not a “real” guitar, after all. The ukelele’s “little” or “fake” guitar quality could be likened to Odysseus’ inability to live up to the constructed masculine ideal. With the fiction of masculinity on the brink of being revealed, Odysseus is driven to another Dionysian excess: violence.

So who gets the “real” guitar in the Satyr band? Fascinatingly, it’s the Cyclops. While The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus’ journey, Euripides’ satyr play gives the Cyclops the last word – and Psittacus Productions gives him the last anthem, which echoes some of the great, participatory ballads of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. After Polyphemus is blinded, “I’m a Cyclops” directly juxtaposes Odysseus’ ukelele to the Cyclops’ acoustic guitar – an instrument that resonates with authenticity, intimacy, genuineness. The most authentic character in this play, then, is the most fluid and performative: “I’m a Cyclops. Aren’t I a bit like you?” belts Polyphemus with a powerful, empathetic wail.

But I overanalyze. At the end of the day, the excesses of Cyclops: A Rock Opera saturate the audience in infinite pleasures of sight and sound. This rock concert delights in playful ambiguity, excess, and performativity. Drink it in while you have the chance. I’ll be indulging another weekend soon.

A Tale Told By An Idiot: Psittacus Productions, 8/14/10

19 08 2010

Streamlining Macbeth and interweaving Shakespeare’s Scottish play with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Psittacus Productions shines a light on the exciting, experimental potential of the Los Angeles theater scene. Adapted by Robert Richmond and Louis Butelli, A Tale Told By An Idiot probes these contemporaneous acts of treason in a fascinating postmodern form.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

A Tale Told By An Idiot is a play of lights and shadows, fiction and reality, past and present. Enshrouded in darkness behind a scrim, the black-clad ensemble executes tight choreography of flashlights to illuminate each moment of the production. Designed by Dan Weingarten, the lights sometimes throw monumental shadows across the scrim, the position of the king (whether the fictional King Duncan or historical King James I) always exceeding the individual human inhabiting the role. Flashlights held tightly let the blood shine through murderous hands, and haunting daggers float through the air. The effect is incredibly filmic – and unbeknownst to the live audience, a ghostly cameraman hides inside the action every night. After catching the 8pm show on Saturday, I streamed the 10pm production online. No longer was A Tale Told By An Idiot a stage production; it was an equally (although differently) entrancing film.

A Tale Told By An Idiot thrives on fragmentation and isolation. While the camera guides one’s perspective online, lighting flashes the live audience’s attention from one part of the stage to another – from the hands of rulers engaged in deep discussion, to the witches’ spidery fingers creeping up the wall, to bare feet tottering across the floor. Rarely does a body stand before the audience as a full, complete being: instead, characters are incomplete – dependent upon one another for their illumination, haunting one another or supporting one another, taking one another’s lines. Amidst this ensemble effort, the isolated faces reveal stunning individual performances drawn out by director Robert Richmond. Of particular note are Lisa Carter’s compelling Lady Macbeth and Louis Butelli’s trembling Guy Fawkes. Even in masks, the twitching three witches cohere the tale with their familiar chants: I even heard a few audience members chanting along to the most memorable lines of this tale, which has become our own.

A Tale Told By An Idiot stylistically floats among graphic novel exaggerations, homespun horrors like The Blair Witch Project, and epic kung fu films with stirring (if rather unexpectedly amusing) underscoring. I look forward to Psittacus’ next innovative, multimedia collaboration. Their premiere production has already made a notable impact in LA theater, and I hope their company can sustain this refreshing ensemble experimentation.