Friday, June 12, 2009

Coraline (or, A Theatrical Concept Album)

All season, I'd been anticipating MCC's Coraline. It's got some top-notch artists: a novel by Neil Gaiman adapted by Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields) and David Greenspan (of some truly mesmerizing perfs off-B'way). Director Leigh Silverman brought out some of Off-B'way's most interesting talents, starting with an imaginative flair by casting middle-aged Jayne Houdyshell as a nine-year-old.

The story (if you missed the quite good animated movie) sees the bored titular kid exploring her new suburban home. She's especially curious about a bricked-off door which, at night, becomes a portal to a mirror universe. There she finds her Other Mother, who showers her with love and attention. But a hep stray cat advises Coraline that she escape before she's eaten by the Other Mother, who's actually a witchy monster.

Silverman isn't a flashy director, but generally she's clear and uncluttered; here she's downright reserved. She dispatches Gaiman's most ominous visual -- denizens of the mirror world have buttons rather than eyes -- with a dull gesture instead of a flourish. As the Other Mother, Greenspan's unconventional presence is also muffled, despite the diabolical treat of a role. His adaptation is also bland (a word I never thought I'd apply to Greenspan) but at least it defers to Merritt's work.

Because Coraline may be dull to watch but it's worth listening to. The performances have more substance aurally than physically. Merritt, fashioning a modern style on grand, toy, & prepared pianos, provides a sonic canvas that's far richer than the show's visual one. His work, played superbly by Phyllis Chen, is probably enough of a draw; the virtue of lackluster staging is that it's unobtrusive.

Recently I've been listening to a pair of narrative rock albums: the Thermals' The Body, The Blood, The Machine & the Decemberists' Hazards of Love. Merritt's work on Coraline is just as musically strong as these, but it's ahead of them story-wise due to Gaiman's craftsmanship. I'd suggest Merritt & the cast book time at Electric Ladyland Studios a few blocks away & record the show. Coraline is a much stronger concept album than it is a work of theater.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Into the Hazard (or, Henry by Another Name)

The title Into the Hazard may be snazzier than Henry V, but the show itself is a standard production of Shakespeare's history. It's a lean & brisk two hours (and change), performed by 6 actors. Director/adaptor Jessica Bauman depicts Henry as a dirty, violent, bully who treats his subjects as cannon-fodder for his glory. Bauman offers a few bits of fine theater, like a pair of soldiers who chat while stacking empty boots after the battle. Lead Nick Dillenberg plays King Harry as a hard-boiled warrior who, in his scene with the French Princess, treats her like another plot of France soil that he's won. So far so simple.

In a bid for 21st-century relevance, Bauman cast a flatscreen TV as the play's chorus. Her videos are clever pastiches of modern televisual styles: the play's description of the English encampment, with its mellow voiceover and slow pans of still photos, burlesques a PBS documentary. Bauman would probably justify her TV as a 21st-century reflection of the play's meta-theatrical theme. And, since she seems like an intelligent director, she'd also probably say that the TV shows the disconnect between the reality of our current wars and the sanitized perspective we see in the media.

It's a sophisticated idea but it's not great theater. Having Harry deliver “Once more unto the breach” as if he's reading from a TelePrompTer is clever in concept, but it's dull to watch. Use of the TV slows the pace and distracts from the clear, smart version of Henry that's onstage. I also wish Bauman had edited the script more willfully: the subplot involving the Welsh soldier Fluellen may be part of Shakespeare's play, but it's neither funny nor relevant to her concept. This is a simple, clear production muddled by a few over-clever ideas.


Into the Hazard plays at Walkerspace thru June 20. Tickets are $15 (a steal!).
Photo: Lisa Dozier

Friday, June 5, 2009

MN visit: Kushner at the Guthrie

While in the Twin Cities to celebrate our upcoming wedding, Lady Hotspur & I saw Tony Kushner's new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide*, at the Guthrie. Lady H. noted that the show could lose 45 minutes. Of course, a 105-minute Kushner play is farfetched. But we did see a work-in-progress, so please read my notes accordingly.

The basic conflict is a clever irony: a family of Marxists gather to decide who'll inherit their home. Or that's the pretext, anyway: the patriarch, Gus (Michael Cristofer), has called a vote (w/ a consensus rule) on whether to kill himself. Gus is a zesty role: a Brooklyn-bred Italian-American, a former dockworker & union leader, and an overbearing father who, ironically, is closer to his daughter than to his two sons.

The family's architecture is solid, rooted in their shared history but living in a dramatic present. But it's also where the script needs work. Of the three children, Kushner focuses mostly on a queer love triangle between the elder son, his husband and a hustler. This subplot loops, drifts, & sometimes just kills time, but it never quite justifies itself. And it's at the expense of the younger son, who fades away in the third act and takes other minor roles with him. I'd like Kushner to pare the romantic subplot (maybe resolve it earlier, in Act 2?) and add substance to the youngest son.

Probably the show's great strength isn't the script, or Michael Greif's direction (which is inversely related to the number of actors onstage -- the more there are, the less sure he is). It's the cast. Linda Emond (as Gus's daughter) and Kathleen Chalfant (as his serene, gnomic sister) again prove they're perfect vessels for Kushner's characters. Cristofer matches them, esp. in a final speech where Gus describes an earlier suicide attempt, conflating sex with death in an almost mystical way. But the youngest son and the hustler both need actors with more presence.

It's odd to see radical Kushner try on the most traditional American genre, domestic realism. All that family resentment, the threats of suicide and revelations of quasi-incest, and a juvenile rage at the American way of life! It's not a dialectic, it's a cacophany. The genre's thrills & twists suit him well, but he's still learning how to deploy them. Something to look forward to!

I also can't wait to catch the play in its final iteration: comparing the '01 draft of Homebody/Kabul with the '04 version was a rare dramaturgical experience. Meanwhile, my MN pals should catch it now.

* full title: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Black History, Black Citizenry

Strictly speaking, Pure Confidence (at 59E59) is “pre-Obama”: its first major production was at the 2005 Humana Festival. But Carlyle Brown's play about Emancipation gains a length in historical perspective with a black man in the White House. Using an athletic footnote (most jockeys in the antebellum South were slaves), Brown takes us back to the original sea-change in the African-American's status as a US citizen.

The show's essentially a four-hander involving a jockey, his owner, and their wives, focusing with varying degrees of concentration on how the Civil War altered the relationship between (former) masters and their slaves. It's surprisingly uncynical--maybe it prefigures the optimism that Obama's election brings to Black America?--without being Pollyanna-ish about the shortcomings of Emancipation.

As entertainment, however, the show's uneven: when director Marion McClinton had worked on August Wilson's plays, he'd balanced the historical sweep with the intimate human stories. But this play, with its tricky shifts of pace and tone, rides him instead of vise-versa. At least McClinton gets fine perfs from the cast, tho' Chris Mulkey's slaveowner is mannered and dull.

Between acts, Brown and McClinton trade a sloppy, episodic verve for a more nuanced realism that's offset by a deflation of energy. It clumsily marks the play's jump from antebellum to post-Reconstruction America. It's too bad: the play's great strength is its vivid evocation of the periods (especially by set designer Joseph Stanley) is what I like most about Pure Confidence. In the middle of a seismic advance in Black American citizenship, Brown's show reminds you that the stakes of history are human beings rather than grand ideals.