Thursday, January 13, 2011

Glenn Beck is Right! or, My Obligatory Spider-Man Post

Glenn Beck saw Spider-Man, twice, & it doesn't surprise me too much that he lurved it. He's so obviously into spectacle: think of his beloved blackboards! Whatever his flaws, the man knows that entertaining the crowd helps to get your message across. So yep, he digs opera and he enjoys splashy Broadway musicals like La Cage aux Folles.*

I don't watch or listen to Beck's shows, so this is my first real experience with his straw-man M.O. At one point, he adopts a snooty, vaguely French accent that's meant to be a New York theater critic. Beck-as-critic has never heard of Bono, disparages rock music, and looks down his nose at comic books. Now I'm existential proof that theater critics can enjoy rock music & comics.**

But I also partly agree with Beck's point. For one thing, yes, there are Broadway musicals that rock out. But the genre's stylistic mainstream is still bemoaning how the Beatles edged West Side Story off the Billboard charts. The fact that we still distinguish rock musicals from … what, “conventional musicals”? says something. So does the fact that it took thirty years for punk rock to go from CBGBs to the St. James. And the genre has made few attempts, such as In the Heights, to assimilate hip-hop into its idiom.
And another thing: conventional American drama is still beholden to realism. At its best (like Ruined) it's socially relevant, a throwback to Ibsen; more often, it's domestic dramas like August: Osage County and Rabbit Hole. There are few successful shows that couldn't be translated easily into a movie. In the context of popular American dramas & musicals, a sci-fi superhero work of fantasy like Spider-Man really is alien.

I'm also surprised and impressed at Beck's reading of Spider-Man. He notes the that Spider-Man's powers derive from an atheist scientist's government-funded experiment, then points out that the Daily Bugle's demagoguery supports the scientist & condemns the superhero. Is the show as politically conservative as that? Despite reading the handful of reviews & talking to attendees, I couldn't say. Anyhow, regardless of his accuracy, by putting the show's content into its cultural context, Beck does the job of a critic. That's work that none of the (debatably premature) critics have done; they've mostly just lambasted the show for its dramaturgical problems.
My point is, resistance to Spidey within the theater community is a lot more complex than schadenfreude at the hubris of moneyed producers & starry creators. I have read intelligent theater critic takes Spider-Man down, pointing out valid flaws in the hopes that the critique might change the system, its tastes, & its tendencies. But (apart from Glenn Beck, of all people!) I haven't read or seen anyone celebrating how unconventional Spider-Man is or analyzing its content as well as its style. The circus of money and injuries have distracted us from asking some basic critical questions about the show and its context in the world and community.

Finally, lest you think I've turned coat and become a Glenn Beck booster, here's a final point. The asshole checks his text messages during the show! Then he shows the text message to your wife, so she can cackle at a dramatically weighty moment?! That's some shabby, juvenile behavior.

* Surprised at this? Nah. The show's parody of gayness is broad enough that a conservative can laugh at it rather than with it.

 ** Here's hoping I can write off my comic book purchases as work-related research this fiscal year!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Theater: Title Bout (January 11)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

An iteration of the convention 'stick “American” before a word to make it resonant' (see American Buffalo, American Idiot, etc.). What makes American Sexy a cut above the rest is that it uses an adjective instead of a noun.

Following the practice of his era, Shakespeare (or his producers) (or the editors of the First Folio) name this show for its most regal character―even though he's not particularly central. Not a great one frankly, especially since the Folio perversely calls it The Tragedie of Cymbeline when it's no such thing.

A funny, nonsensical title, which works for & against it: easy to notice, hard to remember. It sounds like a 1980s toy imported from Japan.

Characterizing the title character (rather than naming him, which wasn't Moliére's style anyway, Tartuffe aside) as a misanthrope is dodgy from a marketing point-of-view. But it's great from a dramatic one & especially a comedic one. You expect a caustic work full of personality clashes &, ultimately, probably, unhappiness.

A title after the setting rather than the protagonist. There's a portent to this one―it's a little like Room 101 in 1984. But the randomness of the number & the subdivision of the room adds a bureaucratic confusion to the setting.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia only lists one movie with this name, & it's a porno. Doollee also lists only one other playscript with this title (AR Gurney). So most writers, or their producers, know enough to stay away from such a bland, generic title.

This production of Chekhov's classic drops the standard definite article, which is okay because Russian doesn't use articles at all. Its absence does make you stop short. With or without “the”, this title has always sounded a little like a fairy tale to me.

It sounds like a 18C portrait, full of detail but also slightly allegorical. It also has echoes of a 'whipping boy', the surrogate for a naughty prince who's too high-born to receive the punishment he deserves. So does this title refer to the person whipping or the one being whipped? A good script will play upon that ambiguity…

A modern version of As You Like It? Maybe it's the contemporary style, maybe it's the 'public'―but this sounds more like pandering than Will's titles did. But it could also be a show that examines & critiques the title subject. Not a great title, but its ironic fold adds a layer or two.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Theater: Title Bout (January 4)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

Sounds like a sci-fi story―and wouldn't you know, it is! 'Annihilation' is actually one of my favorite words, with its root 'nihil' or 'nothing'. And 'Point' has a Newtonian specificity. I imagine the term to be analogous to 'event horizon'. My point is, it inspires a little imagination if you're inclined to faux-science terminology.

The location of America's first modern encounter with suicide bombers, Beirut might be the prototypical “war-torn Middle Eastern city” for Americans. Savvy historians will also recall the city was once the Paris of the Middle East. So whether the play is actually set in the titular city or not, the word evokes a concrete image. Better than many cities that could be used in titles.

I'm not sure about this one. It sounds like a term George W. Bush would've come up with (“Iraq is now part of the Freedom Club, a coalition of freedom-loving nations.”) or, more likely, a right-wing thinktank. And ironically, it also sounds like the policy they'd come up with: beat our enemies with a freedom club.

A generic title that tells us nothing whatsoever about the show. Nor is it specific enough to evoke an image or sensation.

The implication of children getting hurt, and badly, has to be quite a turnoff for ticketbuyers―I admire the playwright's willingness to alienate before the show's even started! Sonically, it's pretty good but not great. The 'g' & 'j' sounds echo one another well, & so does the proximity of the 'r' & 'oo' sounds in 'grue-' and '-jur-'. But it lacks syncopation.

A clear improvement on Green Eyes. 'Honey blue eyes' is more standard (though it makes less sense to me), which adds a small cognitive hook to the title. And there's something smart about honoring the most prosaic eye color with poetry.

I like this. Like Gruesome Playground Injuries, it dares its audience to see it. It also takes a classic titling structure―“the (adjective) key action of the character”―and adds dark humor. And paradox too: note that the root of 'interminable' is 'terminate', so it's an ending that never ends!

Our first 'title = protagonist' of 2011. Ibsen (for he wrote this one) includes the character's middle name. It's an allusion to the Archangel who served as God's messenger (& would blow the trumpet at the Last Judgment). And 'bork' is Norwegian for, uh, 'bark', as of a tree. What's that signify? I dunno.

This phrase is almost stubbornly ambiguous. Which men? All men? Go down where? To their death, to the seaport, on other men, or what? If it's a quote, it's too obscure to catalog.

I'm fond of full-sentence titles. This one implies isolation and decline. A milk train stopped at every podunk station to pick up milk & deliver into the city; obviously, if the milk train no longer stops 'here', it's been abandoned by the outside world.

A rarity: a clear yet elegant title. This show adapts Shakespeare's Lear, apparently. The triplicate long 'e' leaves no syllable unstressed, while the 'r' & 'l' swap positions from one word to another.

In the late 19C, the New York Idea referred to the notion that Gotham is the most modern, sophisticated place on Earth. (I believe, but can't prove, that it was actually a term of reverse snobbery by non-NYers.) In circa 1906, Langdon Mitchell took it as the title to his prototypical screwball comedy, which sees rich divorcees celebrating that they can marry for love.

Not to be confused with Ovid's Metamorphosis, presumably. Actually, I don't take issue with that distinction. It's the company's name, Pants on Fire, that sinks the title. It's very contempo British theater: past zany to outright inane.

I'm not sure what the curators of the Coil Festival intend by the name. 'Coil' isn't an acronym, and it's has no meaning in a theatrical context. I guess it's distinctive & therefore kind of memorable. But mostly it does nothing for me.

Culturemart, on the other hand, has a nice ring to it. It implies that it's a one-stop shop for arts culture. But  there's a tongue-in-cheek tone that's hard to pinpoint, suggesting that the curators don't support the commodification of art after all.

From experience, I can tell you that this showcase offers more imagination than its title implies. 'Under the radar' is such a cliché that it comes across as crass, clumsy marketing. The curators would do well to consider changing it.