Mini-Review – Pacific Overtures – Union Theater

July 30, 2014 by

It’s hardly a secret that if you enjoy excellence, tickets to see musicals at the Union Theater are money well spent. This means that they’re often sold out nearly before they start, and thanks to a lack of attention on my part, I nearly missed seeing Pacific Overtures as it was fully booked by the time I looked for ticket (a few days after it opened). I took the calculated risk that a rare outbreak of London sun might equal people who’ve suddenly decided they can’t leave the pub for an evening indoors and, behold, a weeknight ticket to this show was mine.

The cast is huge, as crammed into this, what, sixty seat space – around 20 men singing it out and doing imaginative choreography that created ships, oceans, islands and entire worlds out of fluttering fabric and a few poles. It was just so much more than you’d really expect from a low budget, low rent production, and yet, as ever, working in the Union’s restrictions resulted in a glorious Empty Space effect, in which your imagination is fully engaged by the subtle triggers on stage.

I found myself struggling with the lyrics early on – not understanding them but rather wondering if “Japan is about rice, flowers, and origami” (a summary of the lyrics for “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”) was really capturing the mindset of mid-seventies Americans toward this country as it’s clearly a ridiculous way to encapsulate Japan. Someone else argued that the show depicted Americans in a similarly racist tone, but I felt that showing us as bullying, swaggering, hairy brutes with bad manners wasn’t particularly out of line, especially when dealing with sailors and America’s expansionist colonial attitudes of the 19th century. However, I decided to put my meta-critical faculties on hold and see what the music and the story would bring – and I’m pleased to say that at the end the show emphasized Japan’s amazing techological accomplishments, taking the initial bad flavor away.

The story becomes more coherent as it focuses down on the low level samurai who is sent to do the impossible task of convincing the foreigners to go away. Kayama (no cast list on the Union site so can’t credit) becomes our guide to the evolution of Japan from feudal backwater to distinctive member of the modern world of nations; he starts out supporting the shogunate but ends up loving his bowler hats.

Although the story of the birth of modern Japan is interesting (though a bit tricky to simplify), what I particularly enjoyed about this show was its attempts to embrace Japanse theatrical tropes, from the all-male cast to the implied masks in the costuming and the use of bunraku-like puppets. In some ways this was all flavor, though, because there wasn’t a bit of the music or lyrics that seemed in any way Japanese – but why, really, should Sondheim not try to sound like Sondheim? Oddly, to me the “flavor” elements also seemed just very Union, the old “doing more with less” approach they usually do with such success. It made for a very good show, whatever the impetus.

In the end, I’m not sure how great a musical Pacific Overtures is, but I found it a night of wonderful, thoughtful music presented beautifully that was well worth the risk of not seeing it in order to actually see it. Now with hindsight as my guide, it’s time to look at the NEXT musical on at the Union and just buy my tickets now.

(This reviw is for a performance that took place on July 17, 2014. It continues through August 2nd.)

Review – Forbidden Broadway 2014 – Menier Chocolate Factory

July 25, 2014 by

Ah, Forbidden Broadway. In a world full of people maddened by sport, this is my one chance to do an event with my people, appealing to our sense of humor: jokes about our passion – the theater. If you’ve seen it before, you might find the extended look at Les Miserables looking a bit shopworn; similarly, the Lion King shtick is no longer fresh (although for some reason I still think the Liza Minelli bit is funny).

But you do get some seriously barbed new material in this year’s revue. Among the shows they roasted were: Pajama Game; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which got its own number mocking the show’s technical failures and hum drumness as well as featuring in a “Sunday Roast” skewering the use of child actors); and Once (I still haven’t seen it but after listening to this tour of the show’s plot holes I feel like it may have been a bullet dodged). More generally, we were given a lovely song making fun of ticket touts to a tune from Guys and Dolls, and a number satirizing the involvement of corporations on Broadway. This was was too New York focused for me – with ATG and Delfont Mackintosh controlling so much of what is shown on the West End, I think a whole new piece could have been done.

But still: let’s examine the Blythe Spirit number, in which Angela Lansbury appears to answer the question of why she is appearing in an old show. Why, she replies, if I wanted something good, I’d summon up the spirits of my old and great friends and have them write something for me … because what I’m given is shlock. Now, with the brilliant state of new playwriting in London, I wouldn’t agree that you need Noel Coward back from the dead to create a show worth seeing … but when it comes to musicals, I think she has a point. Which is true of many of the songs in this show – and why I enjoyed it so much. I won’t normally splash out on full price tickets, but for once (and in part because, let’s be honest, full price at the Menier Chocolate Factory is hardly the same as full price for Skylight, is it) I did, and for me – and for you, if you’re reading this – it is an indulgence worth every penny.

(This review is for a performance that took place July 11th. The run has just been extended by two weeks, so why not do yourself a favor during the August doldrums and go for it? If you sympathize with the trials and tribulations of the hard core theater goer, this evening is made for you!)

Review – The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Tricycle Theater

July 22, 2014 by

Before every show I say a little prayer, which is lifted right from The Drowsy Chaperone: “Dear God, please let it be a good show. And let it be short!” And for once, I’ve actually been given a show which admirably meets half of this prayer while utterly missing the mark on the other. I present to you: the show that’s so short you think they might have left something crucial out of the play. In this case, it’s a reason for the play to exist, a dramatic surge that forced this play into being. The Colby Sisters does not have that. There’s a bit of a build up, a teetering tension that seems ready to explode and create a completely new world … but instead of riding that wave, we get some flashbulbs and the end of the play. Huh. You think it’s going to be a modern The Age of Innocence and then you’re left with simply “there were some rich people in New York City and they were a bit sad sometimes.”

The Colby sisters are five women ranging from early forties-ish to early twenties-ish, who are drawn with fairly distinct personalities (much like the Spice Girls) and given little quirks that are easy to read so that we can tell them apart. We have the bossy Gemma (Charlotte Parry), please-every one and prettiest India (Isabella Calthorpe), “I don’t have it together” Willow (Claire Forlani), tragic Garden (Patricia Potter), and “I have just met the love of my life, no that guy was last week” Mouse (Alice Sanders, reminding me a whole lot of Edie Sedgwick). As they come together for a fashion shoot (we’re never told why anyone wants their picture or where their money came from), we are introduced to each of them in a way that allows us to see the dynamics that exist between them – settled roles of leadership and popularity, differing levels of support and hassling – but which doesn’t reveal much depth. Each of the characters seems to have been given about one note to sing and this note moves slowly from a life ring to which they cling to, gradually, a lump of cement pulling them under the waves.

Now, I know I’m murdering this metaphor, but as the play moves on we get some moments where we could either have probed the depths of who these characters are (underneath the facade, one imagines) or to show an evolution of the relationship between the characters, but it just fails mightily to happen. Bossy starts picking on Slutty, and Princess and Loser actually unite to support Slutty; but the scene fails to turn into a springboard for a deeper shift. Princess finally blows up at Bossy during a tennis game, but Bossy’s attempt to defend her behavior falls so quickly into clumsily delineated back story that I found myself becoming all to aware that I was watching people deliver lines in a play in a (thankfully air conditioned) theater.

And then the ending, in which three of the sisters unite against their one foe: the tabloid press. Their conversation again avoids anything that might actually be revealing, leaving me to believe the final line about “they’ll never understand us” is actually just the author engaging in wishful thinking, rather than how the reality of the Colby sisters: they are finger paintings made of personality quirks and hairstyles, somehow thrown together to make a play.

I’ve said many times that the mark of a great play is one where I go home trying to figure out the childhood of a character that was actually generated out of pen and ink and an actor’s breath: in this play, this never happened. The characters weren’t believable and the actresses struggled to make something of them and failed. Even the one outsider, personal assistant Heather (Ronke Adekoluejo), is utterly wasted as a character, although as an actress she convinced me that there was a life and a personality behind her rich silences. Heather and her sisters: for that play, I would have been happy to come back for after the other women walked off into the flashcubes. As it was, I was just glad I got to go home.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 21st, 2014. The play closes Saturday, July 26th.)

Review – Shakespeare in Love – Noel Coward Theater

July 18, 2014 by

It’s hard to figure out how to properly review a play that’s about a movie that’s about a play. On one hand, well, Romeo and Juliet, you’re probably familiar with that; God knows several movies have been done on the theme (if not so much on the play) and God knows there have been spin-offs in other areas as well. But what is Shakespeare in Love (“the play”), really? Should the acting be judged by the standards I’d hold for Shakespeare? Or should I really be looking at it as an (urgh) adaptation of a movie and thus hold it to the much lower standards of a thrice removed adaptation based upon a blandly populist form of entertainment that, to be honest, is what this play, at its heart, is: simply an attempt to shake some shekels out of the indiscriminate theater goer?
But, to my great surprise, the commercial enterprise that is Shakespeare In Love (“the play”) has actually succeeded in creating a very enjoyable play. I’m not talking great art here: the loose treatment of history and historical ways of speaking is all too painfully on display. But honestly, if you are choosing to see this play, you still have the option of seeing Shakespeare fifteen more times in any given month (not just at the Globe but at the other 5 theaters currently doing Richard II, Richard III, Midsummer, etc.), and of seeing shows that put their high historical research front and center (RSC’s Hilary Mantel double header, yo) and, you know what? I’ve had enough Shakespeare for this entire year, and even Wolf Hall had dialogue that I’m sure was a far cry from Tudor England reality.
The plot varies not at all from the movie, as I recall (I saw it when it was new), and it is as follows: Shakespeare has writer’s block (possibly because of his loveless marriage); a young noblewoman who loves his works (she’s seen them performed for the Queen) decides to sneak into an audition as a man; as she’s a total Shakespeare fan she of course gets ;the job; Shakespeare falls in love with her (as a woman); suddenly he can write again (“the quill is full of ink” har har); the various tribulations they experience become, bit by bit, the major scenes of Romeo and Juliet – the balcony, the morning after, the utter heartbreak at separation.
In some ways, when it comes down to it, Shakespeare in Love is a play meant for Shakespeare fandom – people who know his works well enough to get all of the little throwaway lines from the non-R&J plays that are in this one and who find a storyline that is an imagining of how R&J came to be something worth two hundred minutes and fifty quid. Once I let go of “what things were REALLY like in those days” (no noblewoman woman would really think of sneaking off to be an actress) I realized I had a play that played with Shakespeare and his tropes – switched genders, hidden identities, thwarted love – in all sorts of fun ways. And it didn’t feel like a watered down movie – it was strongly theatrical, with a very basic set that could be a playhouse, the interior of a noble house, a bar, a bedchamber, et cetera but which also allowed us to believe we were at a fireworks viewing or floating down the Thames without the necessity of flying in a helicopter to help us suspend our disbelief.
This is all helped, of course, by the genuinely enthusiastic (and in no way amateurish) performances of our leads – both as themselves and when they perform Romeo and Juliet – and the strong supporting cast, who might be hamming it up but, well, I give them some leeway as with twenty actors you’ve got to put a lot of energy out there to shine. In fact, the general levels of “on” ness of the cast makes me think that what I was seeing was the kinds of performances that actors give when they feel really confident in their material and in the success of the show. They needed to play to the balconies because, well, the whole damned house was full, and is likely to be full for the extent of the run. And, as an early music buff, I’d like to applaud the music director for giving us both correct period instruments and some lovely countertenor singing, which I found nicely enhanced the mood (and which I realize could have been skipped with most people never knowing the difference – but it was well done and seemed like a little gift amongst all of the period incorrect dialogue).

So, burn out as I am, I found myself quite surprised at how much I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, both as someone whose too, too solid heart needed melting and as a person who does, honestly, enjoy a good night’s entertainment – this was a fine show and many thanks to Official London Theatre for sponsoring this blogger’s attendance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. It is booking through October 25th.)

Review – Daytona – Theater Royal Haymarket

July 14, 2014 by

New plays set in America aren’t as common in London as I’d hope (Mr. Burns aside), so I was quite intrigued when the opportunity came up to see Daytona, which debuted last summer at the Park Theater. I’d guess that it’s season at the Theater Royal Haymarket is more about replacing a failing show than about moving something with a huge groundswell of support into an appropriate sized venue: as a three-hander, it’s a bit intimate in this barn; its replacement, Great Britain, will be much more appropriate in the space.

But Daytona is still a compelling, enjoyable piece of theater that well deserves a chance for a wider audience. It features three characters late in their lives – husband and wife, Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), and Joe’s brother, Billy (Oliver Cotton) – all with vibrant life stories and in no way suddenly made irrelevant since they’re past retirement. The play start with Joe and Elli at their apartment in New York, and they seem almost dismissable in their cute bickery old couple-ness. But Billy’s arrival sets off chain reactions that show that, even in their sunset years, all of these people have decisions to make about what it means to live right and well and we, as audience members, have no idea what any of the three of them are going to decide.

Unfortunately, rather a lot of the play is devoted to Billy’s long ramble about his recent trip to Daytona, which spends a lot of time not getting to the point and simultaneously manages to avoid Joe’s big question: why did Billy walk out of his brother (and sister in law’s) life thirty years ago and just completely disappear? We are, fortunately, given the opportunity to explore this ellipsis in more detail in the second act: but, although Cotton (as writer) comes up with an answer, I found it not entirely satisfying as why a person would not just walk away from his only family but completely reject his culture. Furthermore, I really just couldn’t believe that a traumatized Eastern European could have assimilated so seamlessly into American culture as Billy is supposed to have done. Sure, his accent is perfect Midwestern – but, despite his slip-up in Daytona, he doesn’t feel in any way like a man with a complicated psychology and cultural depth.

Elli and Joe, well, I can by them as old people who love ballroom dancing and who have been together for decades, but the feeling of having struggled as hard as they must have during the war – from what I’ve heard, there are scars, some of which manifest themselves in some pretty strange ways (i.e. avoidance tactics in conversation, a certain hard-headedness) and Elli and Joe really seem just a bit too soft to sell me on their histories. Even Elli’s little “slip” into slight European-ness in her second act accent wasn’t enough – frankly, I think she would have just started talking in her native language instead of slipping Yiddish phrases in – and neither of the other guys, well, they weren’t believable as people who hadn’t been in America their whole lives. They didn’t feel like immigrants.

That said, all three of them were convincing as people with a fifty year history, and this is what I loved about the play, as well as the pleasure of watching the story unfold because I truly never knew what was going to happen next. Sure, there were gaps, but with pros like these on stage I was willing to go for the ride. The interval came and I was eager to get back in my seat and see what happened next – an experience I get about four times a year. So even though Daytona may be too intimate for the Haymarket, it’s still an enjoyable evening of theater that well repays its investment in time. I see it’s touring, and that makes me glad: more people deserve a chance to let this well-polished cast take them on a trip of imagination.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on July 7th, 2014. It continues through August 23rd.)

Review – Great Britain – National Theater

July 12, 2014 by

Given the National’s track record of reviving the dullest chestnuts on God’s green earth, you can’t imagine my surprise when I heard they were mounting an original comedy – Great Britain. And the way things have been going with me, hey, a comedy is what is called for, and with just a few rumors of it being an actually funny show, I ponied up £28 each for seats (these were the cheapest I could find) and hurried off to the quickest show I could fit in my calendar.

A quick plot summary: Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is a news editor at a tabloid that bears a shocking resemblance to News of the World, so much so that it’s eventually closed down due to a history of its management paying people to hack into the voicemail of various people living and dead. To make this more clearly a work of fiction, we have, well, the Billie Piper character, and also changes in the critical story (murdered twin girls) that tips public opinion against the paper’s activities.

Otherwise, though, it’s really a comic look at the whole trashy episode of extremely recent British history, with plenty of characters you can recognize (oh look, it’s Rebekah Brooks! It’s Rupert Murdoch being questioned by Parliament – only no cream pies) but all sorts of purely imaginary detail (such as the sexy cop who’s literally in bed with the papers) and flights of fancy (the fake YouTube spoofs of the gay Chief of London police are a riot, as is his entire plot line and his “straight out of George W Bush’s mouth” dialogue).

But Great Britain rides an edge that I found uncomfortable. A lot of people in this play kill themselves because of the pressure that’s put on them by the tabloids, and this element is one that I have found horrifying as it has played out in the real world. Listening to Paige say that as far as she’s concerned, she did nothing wrong (in regards to these deaths), well … I was hearing a bit of John Gabriel Borkman, but I was wondering if what I was hearing was also Richard Bean’s take on how either the newspapers or the British public sees these events. To me they are truly horrifying, but I don’t see this play tackling that problem head on. It also brought up the issues of tabloids collaborating with cops and politicians, but it didn’t seem to really address just how cozy they are as, well, something that is wrong. But then, these relationships are purely exaggerations made by Bean to make a better play – or are they? In the world depicted in this play, the police work with the tabloids to try to make themselves look better, and the papers tell politicians that they’ll make sure they’re elected if they can get some favors done for them, which seems pretty damned close to reality based on what I’ve read. Is this really how things are done? Or am I just so American that I can’t tell that everybody already knows this and nobody cares?

At any rate, while I did find this a very fast moving show (and there were some laughs), overall it had enough about it that depressed me about the world and the country I live in that I didn’t exactly walk out with a spring in my step. Excellent performances all around, though, and plenty of surprises, so I think this is going to be a popular show and good on the National for laying off the dusty old crap for something that actually addresses the society we live in in a way that theater can do more quickly and more daringly than either TV or the movies.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014. It continues at the National Theater until August 23rd, after which time it will be transferring to the Theater Royal Haymarket. The consumption of cornettos during performances of this play is not advised by this author.)

Review – Richard II – Malachite Theater at St Leonard’s Church (Shoreditch)

July 8, 2014 by

This year is one in which I’m pretty much seeing no Shakespeare at all. I blame burnout – last year I saw, what, seven versions of three plays? – but also a rebellion on my side: I’m tired of theaters making lazy programming decisions because they want secure audiences (as I’m convinced it’s not the lack of copyright that’s the motivating factor). Seriously, the Michael Grandage season featured two Shakespeares out of the five plays they did, wasting what could have been an incredible opportunity to expose people to new work. So this year my new year’s resolution was to see no plays I’ve seen before, a vow I took mostly because I was burnt out on Shakespeare hashed and rehashed and hashed again. It’s saved me from Malfi but perhaps led to a mistake in View from the Bridge … and yet, there I was Friday night in Shoreditch getting ready for Richard II. What gives?

In this case, it’s partly living up to my “duties” as a reviewer, but it’s also a desire to see a project through. See, the Malachites are doing all 19 of Shakespeare’s Bishopsgate plays to Shoreditch, and I want to see the project through. But also, I was so impressed by their Titus that I’ve wanted to continue supporting the company by reviewing their shows (as long as you understand this is a bit of a risk for both of us, because I’m not going to hide the bad news if that’s what I have to give – my contract with you, my imaginary reader, holds true, that I will give you an honest take on whatever I see).

So: I last saw Richard II at the Donmar, where I came up with some distinct impressions of the script: Richard, a king who is obsessed with his God-given right to kingship; the extraordinarily melancholy garden scene with Queen Isabella listening to a painful metaphor delivered by a wise servant; and the extraordinary speech Richard gives while he hands his crown (and his ability to direct his life) to Henry IV.

For this Richard, the Malachites presented us with Nick Finegan, who, with his strawberry blond hair, pale skin, and sense of utter composure seemed every bit the man who believed in his own divine right to rule. There was no sense of his needing to get assent from the commons or even the nobles; he was above and beyond all of this earthly nonsense. Interestingly enough, Finegan’s interpretation was less otherworldly than Eddie Redmayne; he also seemed more, er, heterosexual (although it is a bit difficult to imagine Richard bothering with this kind of proletariat stuff I thought it was very odd how effeminately he was played at the Donmar).

In vivid contrast to him is Martin Prest as Henry Bolingbroke, who is incredibly dynamic and charismatic as the wronged king-to-be. I couldn’t help but contrast his performance with that of the watery Jude Law as Henry V (one of the shows that burnt me out on Shakespeare for the year). Instead of watching a name actor swagger lazily through one of the best written roles in English-language theater, we got a man fighting to be vibrant, likeable and believable … and succeeding. Bolingbroke is a man who still respects the monarchy yet also wants to fight for justice (admittedly in this case for himself). I couldn’t help but get swept up in Bolingbroke’s cause: he seemed like a natural leader and the description of the commons fawning before him as he paraded through the streets of London seemed all too believable. Prest has the crown coming to him from the moment he challenges Thomas Mowbray to a duel; Richard’s voyage to Ireland to lead the army seems, by contrast, a little boy going on a school holiday. Both of them are noble, yet both of them portray opposites of the spectrum of what it means to be a king. Watching their war of words (and silence) as Richard struggles to hand over the crown to his successor is simply electrifying. (And let’s not forget watching Richard “negotiate” while hiding in the organ loft: wearing a not very scary helmet, he looked like a child playing at soldiers, yet also an adult realizing that he has, in every way, lost.)

Even if he seems out of touch, Richard’s end is heartbreaking. Trapped in the Tower, in the dark (the church was lit only with candles for an amazing effect in this scene), naked but for a cloth around his hips, Richard can only be pitied. He understands all he has lost, and it seems that even his hold on his mind has been loosened; he fears death at every step. Finegan seemed just insane enough to kill by accident, while sane enough to fully understand how tragic his fall is; this effect is emphasized by the thick shadows, which has him looking like a Caravaggio Christ. At the end, when his broken body is brought to the king, it’s hard not to feel crushed by sadness; who would think that Richard II could be so fragile?

While I once again had troubles with the acoustics in this building, the strong performances, charismatic leads, and inventive staging made it a Richard to remember. It’s certainly more than worth the £12 ticket cost – and just 50 pence more buys a cup of tea at the interval! Life in the Cheap Seats very much approves.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 4th, 2014. I saw origins of American attitudes towards rule of law – the attitudes that led us to our revolution – in this play. Most fitting! It continues thorugh July 26th.)

Mini-review – River of Fundament – Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler at London Coliseum

June 30, 2014 by

English National Opera billed River of Fundament as the closing “new work” of its 2014 series, which I think set certain expectations: we were going to see an opera, a sung story, only since Matthew Barney was running the show, we were going to be getting our big music with some utterly wild visuals. Picture me getting all woo about some gesamtkunstwerk about to happen: really, it was crazy to think I would do this when I won’t actually go for the Ring Cycle because I don’t want to sit for that long (and don’t like Wagner). But I like film and I like experimental music and I am all about freaky art and this was an event, and event I tell you, even if I had some niggling fears that I had actually just popped $25 in the art wank piggie bank of doom; in essence, funding Matthew Barney’s fine production of style over substance in the grand tradition of Warhol and Hirst, proving that fame is the actual highest commodity of the art world, because it’s what you need to make your art make you money.

It is, certainly, what you need to get other famous people to work with you (perhaps people who think what you do is “interesting” and maybe want to be more involved with “art” to make themselves feel more like “artists”); or, perhaps, Matthew Barney does just get to rub elbows with the elite of the New York scene, like Elaine Stritch, Salman Rushdie, Maggie Gyllenhal, Fran Lebowitz, et cetera. But their presence or absence is unimportant other than in trying to decide just how, exactly, to see this opus. I believe that with the kind of background I have I ought to be able to enjoy/digest/get meaning out of a thing like this without the medium of artist’s notes; and I think we are given a big clue on how to see this at the very beginning, when a man reaches into a toilet, pulls out what looks to be a piece of poop, and wraps it in gold leaf. Now, you can choose to see this as the gilding of Osiris’ disembodied penis, or you can see it as I did: as a billboard from Matthew Barney to the intelligent viewer saying I AM ABOUT TO SERVE UP A BUNCH OF SHIT BUT I MADE IT LOOK ALL PRETTY because that is what you learn to do when you study art at Yale.

And, well, what follows is lots and lots and lots of poo; rivers of poo, and some real rivers, in both LA and Detroit and New York; appearances by Barney’s fetishistic art materials, such as sulfur, salt, and mercury (no Vaseline this time); implied (and real) human fluids both reproductive, purely sexual, nutritive, and simply expelled (I just get the feeling Barney gets a giggle out of trying to be gross, and I refuse to play along; John Waters beat him to the punch three decades ago); really badly acted scenes that attempted to be mythological (but were utterly destroyed by even a chapter of American Gods); tumescing penii and leaking anii; and a huge variety of music that made me feel homesick for the leviathan that is the American music scene. We had an all-female mariachi band; a bit of flamenco; some marching bands; experimental music ensembles (doing laughs and screams and going “Boop Bip”); freestyle jazz … it was all over the place.

And then there was the car obsession. I stand by what I said earlier, that this entire thing is an homage to the death of the American industrial machine (not to Mailer), as epitomized by the muscle car and embodied by the hood decor of the Trans Am (so as to fit into the whole Egyptian journey of the dead hoo hah) – a subject which I do actually consider well worth exploring as art – but I also stand by my assertion that this lushly filmed and richly visualized movie is, in essence, a giant piece of art wank. The individual performances this movie documents might have been interesting to watch as they happened (although I doubt it as the participants looked bored), but I feel like Barney just got really excited about smashing cars and running a giant metal melting apparatus and making a pristine Trans Am be driven off of a bridge into a river (tragedy, I tell you, way more than that of the pregnant Holstein in act one). The point does not need six hours to be made.

The link/poorly executed parallels to a wanky indulgent failure of writing by a great (and importantly FAMOUS) American writer is another symptom of the whole “golden turd” syndrome of “River of Fundament:” it’s a movie that wants to ennoble itself. And here’s the kicker: IT’S A BAD OPERA. But that is too kind, because it’s not an opera, it is an art film. There is an atmospheric soundtrack, done in the style of modern opera, but it’s just background music. Making a movie is what this was about. Barney has put making a spectacle first and, well, shat on the opera. I think he just wanted to say “River of Fundament” is an opera so he could show his movie in really, really cool places: as if being in a place where art is created would confer on him the status he wants this movie so badly to have. He needs us to gild his poo. And, if we agree to this, he will, as in the movie, shove it in without the benefit of lube.

Ah well, it was only 25 quid, it was entertaining to see ENO jammed full of hipsters of all ages, and it was a rainy June Sunday so I didn’t miss much else. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was coming. Anyone for a roast pork sandwich?

(This review is for the screening of “River of Fundament” that took place on Sunday, June 29th, 2014.)

Mini-review – Thriller Live (new cast) – Lyric Theater

June 30, 2014 by

Given my general aversion to jukebox musicals, I’m sure you’re wondering just what exactly I was doing at Thriller Live at the Lyric Theater last Thursday for “new cast press night.” Well, it’s a bit embarrassing, but I’d been promised it was a cheesy fun time and, for all that I do love my Pinter, I also enjoy some cheesy fun. And I recently realized that songs like “Shake Your Body” actually really get me dancing. So I cast aside my fears of the actually bad era of Michael Jackson and headed in for a night that I hoped would awake the 80s groove within me and get me boogie-ing.

The evening opened with a recap of some of the bigger hits of the Jackson Five, as fronted by a tiny boy who didn’t really seem to be into it and who reminded me that getting a really young child fronting a pop band is actually quite a feat. Fortunately, we had some other singers rescue us from the rather under-energetic lad, including the quite excellent Cleopatra Higgins. However, during an energetic disco number that had all of the girls in short shorts, Cleo inadvertently reminded us of one of the many Jackson moments that were completely glossed over in this show, namely Janet Jackson’s Superbowl peek-a-boobie. The girls next to me were nearly in hysterics as the energetic dancing vigourously attempted to reproduce the titillation of that long-ago faux pas, but through some sort of miracle Cleo managed to keep the girls under harness.

This actually brings me around to one of the real highlights of the show: the backing dancers. Insofar as we were supposed to be getting our groove on, it was the sexy, talented, acrobatic and athletic male and female backing dancers who really got me into the show. Jackson’s music excelled at getting people to boogie, and watching these pros go for it made me want to get on the dance floor. And when the Jackson Five came out in rainbow colored suits and got some late-era disco action going – well, it was like a early Pride celebration settled right down in the Lyric theater.

Unfortunately, both the pacing, the musical choices, and the (non-Cleo) singing talent didn’t work. I realize recapturing even just some elements of Jackson’s zing is an uphill task even with five men and a woman trying, but the net result was so much less than the effort involved. I found myself cringing at most of the singing and relieved when the dancer who did Jackson’s most famous moon walking and zombie action moves settled for lip synching. I was also confused by the uneven chronology: while the show seemed to be going for a historical approach, Jackson’s biggest 80s hits were piled on at the end. That left me struggling to stay motivated (or unmotivated to stay) as songs I’d never heard before and never missed – “Dirty Diana,” “Smooth Criminal” – reminded me of why I switched to alternative music in 1982 and never looked back. And then, well, let’s be honest, can you really examine Michael’s “legacy” and completely leave out chimpanzees, hair a-fire, bizarre adoption schemes, and baby dangling? Those things are forever tangled up in the Michael Jackson story to me and to completely ignore it seems calculatedly dishonest. So when the show finished, with skeletons in a graveyard and a zombie Michael Jackson twitching and jerking his way through Thriller, I thought, given how long it’s been since he died and what kind of black magic they used to “revive” him without any baggage, it’s no surprise the rotting ghost of Michael was all they ultimately managed to summon.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 26, 2014.)

Webcowgirl’s guide to surviving Rift’s Macbeth (Balfron Towers)

June 29, 2014 by

I’ll be publishing a tell-all review soon (since it’s sold out I want to have a good record of the show), but for you who want to preserve the air of mystery yet still need to know how to properly prepare yourself, here’s a few tips.

1. Do show up on time. The DLR runs only about every 10 minutes to the nearest station so allow for the extra wait at Stratford.
2. You’ll be asked to change to Bordurian money tokens, but don’t go wild – four quid per drink is enough, and you won’t want the hassle of changing back when you leave. Bevvies are limited to red/white, water, a few sodas, cheap mixer booze, and two juices.
3. Pee before you go in as the show starts immediately when you are walked into the sub-basement.
4. EAT before you arrive. The late night “feast” of borsht, sliced bread, and grilled peppers is wholly inadequate to normal caloric intake; I’d consider it an atmospheric snack. Any other food will not be forthcoming at any point (not even crisps) until breakfast so EAT BEFORE YOU ARRIVE. And pack a snack bar or two in your bag if you suffer from blood sugar issues. And for God’s sake don’t eat the thin yellow peppers.
5. If in the room with the three couches and the TV, try getting a corner seat facing the door to the hallway. (I’m not sure about the layouts of all of the areas where the show is being performed – there are three casts, I’m told – but I’m guessing the action is probably set up on similar lines.)
6. You may need to pee between scenes but if so go immediately after. I’ll never know just what was in that letter Lady Macbeth got, but she sure got excited about something.
7. In fact, for toliet timing, I suggest the moment immediately after Duncan is offed. The bit after is VERY LONG and does not feature anything in the play itself.
8. Smokers: you might want to secrete some on your body or bring e-cigs as after 5 hours you’ll be dying. There is patio access so you can get a smoke in, though it might be hard to figure out when you can do this without having a scene take place. My advice: the build up to the attack (Birnam Woods marching) is lengthy; it’s a nice time to admire the view even if you don’t smoke.
9. Is it worth spending the night in uncomfortable circumstances? No: the show ends before we go to bed so if you want to cab it home, you genuinely won’t miss anything in the morning. Staff was very accommodating about letting people get their stuff (including our confiscated phones) and leave early.
10. The beds (if you got beds) are actually pretty comfy: I slept like a champ and got in about 6 1/2 hours before we were awakened. However, there was one wash rag and a bathroom that was suffering from an excess of Damned Spots so be advised that the hospitality situation is quite straitened – even getting cups for water required a bit of an effort and you certainly won’t be bathing – just sleeping in a bunk bed.
11. Breakfast is served at about a quarter til nine and consists of tea, coffee, croissants, and fresh fruit. I found this completely adequate and really enjoyed visiting with my fellow hard core theater goers. Final checkout is at ten.


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