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King Charles III: A dire matter of tradition

17 Dec

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, mostly, I’ve been writing romance novels with Erin McRae, as well as writing (with Patty Bryant) and producing for Serial Box Publishing‘s Tremontaine, a text-based web serial that is a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. (Yes, this is a professional endeavor Ellen herself is involved in).  But in the land of romance novels, the project about to go out the door is called A Queen from the North.

A Queen from the North is about Amelia Brockett, the youngest daughter of an Northern earl and recent grad-school reject who winds up agreeing to a marriage of convenience with the Prince of Wales in a modern Britain where the Windsors never happened. In the Britain of our book, fault-lines from the War of the Roses remain deep and mistrust between the houses of York and Lancaster remains strong. Along the way to Amelia and her prince actually falling in love, prophecy, tradition, and the prince’s niece — a fox-faced witch girl who looks like Anne Boleyn and has nightmares about the Tower ravens dying — make Amelia’s life as challenging as her ridiculous family, her sex-obsessed best friend, the prying hordes of the Internet, and the entire nation of Canada. Canada, by the way, saves the day in the end via a Tim Horton’s shop girl.

It was with that book in final edits for submission, that Patty and I went to see the sublime, haunting, and ritualistic King Charles III on Broadway last night. This would be an easy play to miss. No one really likes Charles, and another play about the British relationship with the tabloid press and the royals as tourism industry doesn’t seem particularly fresh. The marketing of the show also does it no favors, suggesting a light satire instead of the classically inspired tragedy that it is.

King Charles III, written largely in blank verse, borrowing heavily from Shakespeare (from Richard II to Hamlet to the Scottish play), and staged with flickering candles and live music and chanting for great moments of state (a death vigil, a coronation) is the type of theater that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It taps into what is primal and dangerous, about tradition both maintained and upset while also conjuring the totalitarian fears of those of us who remember the Thatcher years.

It is a glorious, clever, wicked, and dark thing, that features Princess Diana as a limping trickster ghost that promises too many men they will be Britain’s greatest king. And while the play will seem at points to advocate for any number of uncomfortable political positions on the vagaries of constitutional monarchy, it ultimately condemns them all, suggesting the glory of monarchy rests only in our discomfort with it.

King Charles III is running in New York City only until January 30. The cheap seats (and rush tickets) all have excellent site lines, and if you can get to this show, at any price level, it is an absolute must see.

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A View from the Bridge: The Poison of Honor

5 Dec

If you are planning to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge, I would encourage you not to read the following as even those familiar with the play will benefit from the shocks created by the staging.

For a year in college, I had a boyfriend who was tall and thin, more angular than delicate. I brought him home for Thanksgiving that year, and he slept, without argument on the floor of my parents living room, as they required. That they would not allow us to have a conversation in my bedroom with the door even  partially closed was the subject of argument, but only between myself and my father. The boy, a Southener, was achingly well-behaved.

Two days into the trip my parents informed me that they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), because he was thin. And it wasn’t what they wanted for me; that he’d give me AIDS. And they disinvited him from our home in which he was already staying in. Ashamed and awkward, I packed our things, and we drove back to Washington, D.C. A few months later, we’d broken up, because I was having an affair with barrel-chested man much older than me. That man had a wife too, but after the matter of the too skinny college boy, if I’d told my parents, they likely only would have been reassured.

It was with that story buried in a pretty large pile of weird, difficult drama in my Sicilian-Jewish family, that last night Patty and I went to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge. If you’re not familiar with the play, it tells the story of Eddie Carbone as he freaks out when Catherine,  the niece he raised as a daughter (and is now inappropriately attracted to), beings to date Rodolpho, a Sicilian immigrant who “just ain’t right” (he dances, he sings, he makes dresses, and he doesn’t fight back in a manner deemed correct when Eddie kisses him).

Sound familiar? Yeah.  I thought so too.

But despite having actually seen other productions of the play before, it had never registered to me just how much I knew this story personally. Mid 20th-century drama is often staged with stifling domesticity and focuses so much on the ordinariness of men that it becomes difficult to see how these stories actually revolve around non-male presences in the narrative.

Ivo van Hove’s production eschews naturalism for acute simplicity and an almost ritualistic performance of Greek tragedy. Opening with Eddie and another dockworker showering and dressing after a shift, the play immediately forces the audience to look at and appreciate male flesh in a way that was for me — again, raised in that Sicilian household — wildly uncomfortable.

To stare at a man way a man would stare at a woman is to feminize him, and this production of A View from the Bridge brings that home as all the characters assess the show’s men constantly — who is strong, who is desirable, who looks like a man should. The audience, made complicit in this gaze, squirms (truly, a highlight of seeing the show from the seats on stage — and this is where you should see it from) is hearing the bulk of the audience gasp, and even cry out in shock at several key moments. This was as extraordinary and terrifying as anything presented by the players.

While the emotional arcs of the play can seem peculiar, — Eddie, in particular, tends to go from 0 to 60 in rage — I can only say that the volatility felt truthful to the home I was raised in. The way Catherine shrinks into herself after these outbursts, I suspect also seems disproportionate to some audience members, but the reaction read to me as less to anger and more to volatility, and I should know, as a girl who can’t bear to be startled.

Perhaps most astounding though — other than how any actor can be asked to give the performance Mark Strong gives in this show 8 times a week — is the culmination of the show’s design, in which the shower that opens the show closes it, this time, with blood raining down into the final tableau of a melee in which Eddie is stabbed by one of the cousins. It’s a holy moment, at least if you’ve spent any time around the bloodily painted saint statues of Sicily. It’s also what should be an obvious moment — the water that rains down in the opening a gun that goes off with the blood raining down in the closing — but so wrapped up are we in the demand that we look at these characters, and their bodies, we miss it.

I should note, the blood, while surely some random theatrical compound, has a stench. Much like, one supposes, the poison of honor.

 

Let the Right One In: The Nothing That Lives Next Door

3 Feb

On Saturday night, I went to see Let the Right One In at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s novel and film, both by the same name, the play tells the story of a peculiar friendship between Oskar, a young boy, and Eli, who seems like a young girl who lives next door.

Odds are, you know what happens next.  The film was something of a minor sensation when it came out, and you probably recall that the girl is actually a vampire.

Except, not really.

For one thing, she’s not exactly a girl.  “I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy. I’m not anything, I’m nothing!” she says at one point.  And she might not be a vampire either.  That word is never uttered in the course of the play, and at the moment it’s about to be she insists ferociously that she’s “Not that! Never that!”

The piece is filled with unanswered questions — about Eli’s gender both now and in the past, about what she is and how she got that way, about the reasons for her flat and abrasive affect, and about her motives.  One of the most weirdly shocking moments of the piece is when she insists to Oskar she has money, and then proves it by pulling a Faberge egg out of the trunk in which she sleeps.  The egg is never addressed further and barely explained (“What’s it for?” Oskar asks.  “For having,” Eli says, both disinterested and certain). But despite its mystery, that egg feels indicative of the great wrongness that has led to the current circumstances of murder in a small town, isolation, and the desperation of friendship.

Presented in a dreamy movement-heavy manner with a filmic score, Let the Right One In is consistently seductive, but in a manner completely inconsistent with vampire mythos.  There is no desire for glamor or eternal life here.  Instead the desire engendered by the play focuses on the methodical nature life in a small town, the strength to do what it is necessary, and the silencing power of snow.

Oskar’s encounters with bullies that help drive an otherwise languid narrative towards a jarring conclusion may be difficult for some audience members to endure. A significant number of effects involve copious stage blood, and one — thanks to the addition of excellent light and sound work — is genuinely terrifying thanks to the startle factor.

The performances are uniformly brave, but Rebecca Benson‘s demanding work as Eli possesses a disturbing intricacy that gyrates between flat and fey.

Ultimately, the show is driven by silence and physical language. And while the audience engages it as an often amused collective (Both Oskar and Eli are, at times, hilarious; and we are addressed in turn as concerned citizens and frightened children by police authorities as the murders in the town are investigated), after it was over it was difficult to speak, as if over its two-and-a-half hours we had all moved from identifying with Oskar to becoming something just a little bit like Eli.

Strange, hard to describe theater, but wildly recommended.  The show was supposed to have closed this past weekend, but is now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 8.

Julius Caesar: But Brutus Says He Was Ambitious

4 Nov

Friends keep telling me to see Donmar Warehouse’s all-female production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison.  It’s a lovely recommendation, and a funny one, since I actually saw it just a day or two after it opened. That I haven’t, until tonight, found my way to writing about it speaks perhaps to its impact on me as as much as to my schedule.

Although it felt muddled at times in terms of devices — Was this Julius Caesar set in or performed in a women’s prison?  Was the rupturing of the forth wall about placing us in the prison or having prison escape its bounds? — the heightened reality and evocation of war through petty politics and electric guitars evoked more Oz than Orange is the New Black, and the acting was uniformly stellar.

But nothing mattered so much as the performance of one of Mark Antony’s critical speeches, which continues to haunt me some four weeks later.  The role is performed by Cush Jumbo (my Whovian readers may remember her as Lois Habiba in Torchwood: Children of Earth). In it, he (the production does not change pronouns for these women) attempts to make sense of why Julius Cesar has had to die, while also grieving his friend.

But Brutus says he was ambitious is repeated throughout the speech with increasing bewilderment, contempt, and even bitter acceptance by Mark Antony.  It’s always been a powerful moment, but in this production, it carried even more force — justifying both the all-female cast and dwarfing the other elements of the production both stylistic and narrative.

Nothing in the play felt like it mattered more than that speech as I watched it, and four weeks later, I remain in the same place — clutching at the indictment of Antony’s words, at a woman pronouncing ambition (and gossip) the reason for the death of another woman. A group of women decided Caesar was ambitious and whispered about it, curse and sentence.

The nature of the ambition, the form of its execution, was ultimately rendered irrelevant, because of how the moment forced the audience to confront its own beliefs not just about ambition in general, but about competition and ambition amongst women.  It is not comfortable and requires an eye towards misogyny both internalized and external.

Since seeing the production, but Brutus says he was ambitious has become something of an internal catch phrase for me, a reminder of the spaces between ambition as generalized virtue, gendered sin, and useful tool for specific achievement amid the also often gendered consequences of desire.

Having been reminded of these spaces, however, I am left with no answer, not for Caesar, not for the Donmar’s production which reaches far and stumbles often (mostly around the characters that were also female in the original text), and not for myself.  But I do keep wondering if there was some way Caesar could have wanted the world — a world, any world, no matter how small — politely, and if that would have made any difference.

Julius Caesar runs through November 9 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY.  Catch it if you can.

Kinkstarter II: The 7 Deadly Virtues

10 Mar

It’s baaaaImageaack!

Please join us for an evening of cabaret as Dogboy & Justine alumni and friends once again bring Broadway to its knees by putting a naughty, kinky twist on musical theater classics with Kinkstarter II: The 7 Deadly Virtues.

The event will be at the historic Stonewall Inn on Monday, March 18, 2013 at 9pm. The Stonewall Inn is located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City.

There’s no cover and a two drink minimum for this event as we pass the hat in support of Dogboy & Justine‘s ongoing development.

Last time we did this it involved a BDSM striptease version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and the mouse was a dude.  Do you really need more incentive?

Anna Karenina: Theatre as faerieland

8 Jan

Last year’s Anna Karenina is one of the most interesting and confounding genre pieces I’ve ever seen.  In part because it inhabits its genre spaces both more literally than many of its peers and from a greater distance.

At its most obvious, it’s a historical costume drama.  But because its setting is a world effectively built from the remains of an old theatre, it is also literally a costume drama not just for the external audience, but for the internal players. But it does not actually take place in a theatre. It’s not a stage show; there are no stage hands. Rather, the walkways meant to hold lights become train tracks. The pulleys and weights that operate the curtain form the brocade walls of a country home. A garden grows in the orchestra. And when Anna goes to the theatre the theatre returns to mimic its original purpose. 

Of course, this theatre device, along with the film’s gorgeous heightened use of movement and less successful use of rather stylized acting (not all the cast is as equally up to the task), is meant to highlight what ultimately destroys Anna — the world of appearances and those who feel beholden for it.

But somehow it is also these choices that transform Anna Karenina into a fantasy.  I felt as if I was watching faeries act out a cruel parody of the lost human world, and half my brain spent the entire film wondering how this had come to pass.  A week later, I’m still haunted by these creatures for whom the bend of a wrist, a turn of the head, the color of a dress, is a language of a world that would never be translated for me.  This otherness reminds us that as transferable as Anna story seems it occurs in a world we as viewers do not entirely know, whether that is Russia, the aristocracy, or, in this case, a faerie kingdom.

While the film is not entirely successful and somewhat unpleasant to endure for both the tragedy and cruelty that female sexuality engenders in its story, it’s incredibly compelling, and worth hunting down, especially if you can see it on the big screen before it goes away. Among other things, it makes a fascinating companion piece to Les Miserables, by introducing theatre where it was not previously present, as opposed to the withdrawal of theatre that the naturalization of the musical into film in provides.

 

Les Miserables: Yup, we can hear the people sing

1 Jan

After way too much time in the Philadelphia airport just after Christmas (and why don’t airports contain movie theaters?), I finally managed to see Les Miserables a couple of nights ago. I’m going to use that as the primary excuse for the horrible title of this blog entry and hope you’ll stick with me anyway.

Certainly, Les Miserables was very good, clear and satisfying Oscar bait, and made an admirable and largely successful effort to resolve a number of weaknesses in the stage production. But it wasn’t perfect, and also arguably underscored just why it’s so hard to sell audiences on the idea of the musical as a major modern film genre.

But whatever weaknesses the film might possess they aren’t, as many reviewers would tell you, that is is long or bombastic or emotionally manipulative. It’s a movie musical, after all, and complaining about these things is a bit like fretting that a thriller contains murder or an action movie contains explosions. The genre is what it is (and neither bombast nor sentimentality are inherently bad; arguably these are the very reasons some of us go to the movies and the theatre). While there is certainly space for genre films that draw in those not normally interested in the genre in question (a space which I think Les Mis does successfully occupy, even if only through marketing buzz), this ability to broaden the audience should hardly be the main criteria by which we evaluate a film.

Les Mis the film works in that it not only makes the narrative of the original show clearer, but in that it minimizes some of the elements of the show that even I always found cloying. Baby Cosette’s “Castle on a Cloud” somehow managed to be less syrupy on film, and Gavroche’s “Little People” was substantially and thankfully minimized, although Daniel Huttlestone’s performance as the boy has a surprising nuance to it.

Similarly, the film resolves a number of tone issue, with “Master of the House” being funny but quite dark, and “Lovely Ladies” being clearly terrifying from the beginning. The visual language of both songs also helps to draw a clear line from the French Revolution of 1787 to the events of the film.

Other issues, including the death of the antagonist long before the narrative concludes and a love story that while structurally necessary, completely shifts the center of the story 60% of the way through the piece, remain fixed and likely unresolvable. They make more sense on film, somehow though. As if the detail of film can successfully carry these narrative transitions in the way stage can’t.

What I remain the most conflicted about is the way the singing was naturalized through live performance at the time of filming. It’s an immense technical and artistic achievement, and without it we should have been deprived both of Anne Hathaway’s utterly shattering performance as Fantine, and the adult and palpable inner-conflict that Hugh Jackman brings to the screen as Jean Valjean. But it also renders many exquisite songs less beautiful in a way I didn’t mind at all while watching the film, but felt some regret towards when listening to the original New York cast recording later.

However, what I perhaps most missed in the performances perhaps had little to do with vocal quality and more to do with what I assume to be directorial choices. I didn’t feel menaced by this Javert and rarely encountered the delight at his own power that always struck me as so essential to the performance of his character in the stage production. The vocal duel between Javert and Jean Valjean may be my favorite moment of Broadway music ever, and it was largely lost on film thanks to the distraction of a real, if brief, challenge with weapons, and the very real possibility that Russell Crowe’s voice (which does have a quality I love, but is not perhaps meant for musical theatre) was just not up to the task.

Les Miserables is a remarkable achievement, not just for what is on screen, but for the degree to which it respects the audience’s ability to accept and enjoy it. In no way does it replace or live up to the experience of live theater. But it is also not a pale imitation of the stage production. It’s its own thing, that enhances, informs, and calls out to the experience of seeing the stage show many of us have had.

I find myself perhaps most interested in it for how it will influence whatever the next major attempt at a big screen musical proves to be, and to what degree it will inspire further demand for and acceptance of the movie musical as acceptable and in demand fare for U.S. film audiences. I am also interested in how it may impact what we view as acceptable audience behavior and participation as singing along and discussing our reactions as the film played out was common in the theater I saw it in, and that, somewhat surprisingly, actually felt anything but inappropriate.

Personal: Musical theater is not like baseball, except when it is

18 Jun

In some ways musical theater is not like baseball. There’s totally crying in it, and if something flies into the audience, you can’t keep it.

In other ways, it’s totally like baseball: getting into the minors is one hell of an accomplishment in itself, the journey to your goals can be a long one, and there’s a lot of mythology to play with along the way.

Dogboy & Justine, the full-length musical version, completed its first (and nearly sold-out) run yesterday. We got what we wanted out of it — a good show, and lots of learning from the audience, the actors, and the rest of the team about what to tweak next to make it an even better show.

I personally discovered what was apparently obvious to everyone else, which is that I like, and am fairly good at, producing. It was also a tremendously character building exercise for me; I am absolutely a more capable person, with better self-esteem and better boundaries than I was three weeks ago, which is really good considering the ways in which musical theater is not like baseball (look, I cry very easily) and we’re no where near done with the show’s life-cycle yet, which means if you didn’t catch it this time, there will be other chances to see it.

I also discovered that no matter how much of an introvert (people exhaust me) and a natural complainer (I’m a NYC-native for heaven’s sake) I am, I do genuinely like people, enjoy their company, am fascinated by their foibles, and want to do right by them as much as possible.

Other facts, which aren’t really new discoveries, also remain: My life is largely defined by its propensity for small world theater and freakish synchronicity, and I do the stuff I do for lots of reasons.

A lot of those reasons aren’t necessarily “good,” even if they’re really human. They include vanity, and a need to feel like I actually exist. Some of the reasons are also pretty murky, because the desire to make an impact and the desire to tell stories about people like me and my friends — that’s vanity too, even if it sounds more altruistic than fame or success.

So I’m not gonna lie and say I didn’t enjoy all those moments in the American Theatre of Actors lobby where people were complimenting what my collaborator and I, and the whole creative team, made happen up on the stage. I loved that. The truth is, is that if you make stuff, those moments are like food.

But every once in a while this past week someone said we made an impact with the piece in a way that meant so much because it wasn’t about me — or any of us but that audience member — at all. The experience of that type of feedback, on some level, is about finding out I was able to help give someone else the stuff I’m always trying and failing to find for myself and instead tend to find in other people’s art.

That sentence is outrageously convoluted, but if you both like stuff and make stuff too, you probably know what I mean. And if you were there, and were one of those conversations, I hope we get to continue it (this is, in fact, being posted here for that very reason, and also to wrap up this round of D&J intensity, before this blog goes back to other subjects).

So thank you so much — if you came to the show, worked on the show, or just had patience with this space while I haven’t had as much energy for it as I would like. I still have a lot of administrative wrap-up to do, and I’ve an essay due this week for an anthology, but we’re almost back online here.

See you soon!

Soon: Tyrion Lannister. Now: Kinkstarter!

29 May

Sorry about the headline, it was just a little bit irresistible.

So, while I slowly work my way up to a post about leader-of-men speeches and Tyrion Lannister, but must currently plead exhaustion as I spent the night on a train to Boston, I do have one more Dogboy & Justine related announcement for now: Kinkstarter!

On June 6 at 9pm, please join us as we bring Broadway to its knees for an evening of cabaret as the cast, crew, and friends of Dogboy & Justine and Treble Entendre put a naughty, kinky twist on classic Broadway (and a few pop hits!) at the historic Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Inn is located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City.

There’s no cover and a two drink minimum for this event as we pass the hat in support of our upcoming production of Dogboy & Justine.

I’m MC’ing (after spending a day adventuring at BEA), and I promise you, it’s going to be very strange, very funny evening.

Travel: Would you want the Scottish play hovering over your bed?

3 May

I am currently traveling on business and ensconced at the Revere Hotel in Boston. It’s a very nice hotel, and full of boutiquey weirdness, just like I like it. Plus, the price was right on Hotwire. But I need to discuss its art with you. Specifically, two items that are illustrated Shakespeare quotes.

The first is a quote from Othello, over the desk:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

The second is from the Scottish play:

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.

Am I just weird and not appreciating the theater theme of this room since we’re in Boston’s theater district? (The Do Not Disturb signs are super cute), or am I completely reasonable in being creeped out by a room featuring artistic centerpieces involving both a quote from a play about a guy who smothers his wife with a pillow and a quote about how life has no meaning from a different play that happens to be considered cursed?

I get how the two pieces almost work for their positioning — the Othello piece arguably speaks to the act of business just as the other one arguably speaks to the exhaustion of business travelers like me, but I feel like the hotel is almost counting on no one having actually read these plays. Surely they could have chosen something from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and been just as edgy without being appalling, right?

I love both these plays; Othello is one of my absolute favorites, and I played the Lady when I was in Sydney, so I was almost tickled by the art until I started thinking about it.

So help me out, Internet — what on earth was the hotel decorator thinking and would all this be more or less creepy if I weren’t here on my own?