Archive for May, 2008

The Only Girl in the World – Arcola Theatre

May 23, 2008

I realize there’s not much point in publishing a review of a show that’s only going one more night, as there probably aren’t any tickets available and I’m not going to be able to convince anyone to see the show who hasn’t already chosen to do so. However, it’s a really teeny little show, and it’s a bit of new writing (by Glyn Maxwell), so … let’s give it another bit of energy on the internet.

The Only Girl in the World is the story of the last woman killed by Jack the Ripper. When I took the London Walks Jack the Ripper tour last summer, I found the tale of this Mary Jane Kelly just extremely sad. She had a boyfriend; he, if I’m not mistaken, had just paid to get her out of the workhouse so they could live together; by all accounts they seemed to be trying to crawl their way out of poverty, fingernails against brick. The house they had lived in had been torn down (and is now a parking garage); the description was of a shoddy little building that probably couldn’t hold the heat in to keep the tenants warm and roundly deserved to be replaced with something a little more solid. She seemed like she might have had a little bit of hope for her life, and certainly someone who missed her, and I found it heartbreaking that it was all taken away from her so quickly.

The play itself seems in many ways to be a character sketch of Mary Jane (Jennifer Kidd) and her boyfriend Joe Barnett (John Wark). Mary Jane is a bit of a drunk, quite rough, and very much aware that she needs to take care of herself in a world where no one can be relied on to take care of her – but she loves life enthusiastically and finds a lot of joy. Joe is a hardworking guy who is trying to just get by and is amazed by this gorgeous creature who has taken an interest in him; you can see where he would want to do anything to keep her happy.

The play makes it out that he’s not aware of how she’s been making a living and doesn’t seem to focus too much on what happens to the money he had at the beginning of the play and winds up squandering. Mary doesn’t come off as using him, but rather thoughtless about the fun they’ve been having; and when they run out of cash, while she pushes him to work, she also tries to deal with the situation reasonably. The extreme poverty of the era really seeps through, and the fact that once you slip off the ladder of respectability and trust and middle-classness, it’s almost impossible to climb back out. Mary seems to mock Joe for his pretensions or attempts to not be dirt poor; Joe, whether he achieved the lowest rung or not, doesn’t want to slip the rest of the way back off.

My fear was that this play was just going to be this terrible “Oh the spooky drama of the soon to be stabbed girl!” or some overly political “Prostitutes! No one treats them like people!” but instead it showed what I thought were two complicated, not-perfect people just trying to get by in a life that didn’t have a lot of romance in it. The two saddest moments for me were when they quoted the prostitute (Dark Alice?) who’d been killed trying to make enough money to get a place to sleep for the night, who laughed as she went back into the night to make her few pence; and when Joe tried to make Mary stay in and she said (in with a bunch of other dialogue), “I’m hungry!” The point was made and it didn’t need to be any stronger than it was.

Overall, quite a good show, and I’m really glad I made it all the way to the far east end of the London theater scene to catch this – and the dinner beforehand at 19 Numara Bos Cirrik was super tasty and a bargain at 30 quid for three people with leftovers.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 23rd.)

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Review – New Works in the Linbury (spring 2008) – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2008

Lured by the promise of seeing a Wayne McGregor piece I hadn’t yet had the fortune to see, I headed down to the Royal Opera House today to check out “New Works in the Linbury.” (Here’s the description of the show: “Monica Mason is delighted that The Royal Ballet are back in the Linbury Studio Theatre presenting a series of world premieres by choreographers from within the Company. Plus, there is an opportunity to see Wayne McGregor’s new short work Nimbus, which was specially commissioned for the World Stage Gala last November.”)

Well, the night is over and I’m not sure when the chance was to see Nimbus. Was it in the lobby before the show started? Was it a special “extra features” at the end of the night, after the dancers had all taken their bows as if it really was all over? Was he really laboring in such obscurity that it was no longer possible to see his stuff on stage? I really have no idea. Thankfully it meant there was also no chance of an unfortunate encounter with Mr. McGregor, in which I would be tearfully ashamed of liking his work so much and yet being no longer capable of speaking to him, but then, surrounded by what I can only assume were British ballet folk, I suddenly felt, well, I really was just a nobody anyway – none of these people were ever going to speak to me of their own will other than to tell me to please let them pass by or kindly stop whispering during the performance. What a change from the software testing conference I went two three weeks ago, when the giants in the field were all most open to speaking about their work and how it might relate to what you personally are experiencing, in a helpful, problem-solving way.

The list of works were as follows: “What If,” choreography Ernst Meisner, danced by Romany Pajdak and Sergei Polunin; “b,” choreography Viacheslav Samodurov, danced by Sarah Lamb and Ivan Putrov; “Of Mozart,” choreography Liam Scarlett, dancers a cast of hundreds (or rather eight); “Agitator,” choreography Matjash Mrozewski, danced by Isabel McMeekan and Thomas Whitehead; “Monument,” choreography Vanessa Fenton, also many dancers; “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” choreography Jonathan Watkins, danced by Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson …. and some more dancers, but I’m trying to avoid carpal tunnel here.

The opening number, as it turns out, was my favorite of the night. “What If” was just … what do they say, luminous? The two dancers were fun, young, athletic, and made me fall in love with them. They were young colts frolicking on stage, and though Romany seemed to not quite smoothly get two of her turns, I couldn’t help but get excited about a future of watching the two of them dance together.

Liam Scarlett’s “Of Mozart,” with a musical choice that couldn’t help but make me think of Mozart’s Journey to Prague, seemed straight out of the school of modern choreography that plays it straight, with lovely, classic costumes (long, toned skirts for the women; shorts and long sleeved, tight-fitting tops for the men); old music; and a dance vocabulary that’s very familiar but throws in occasional bits that show its modernity (feet held at a 90 degree angle; supporting dancers by holding the back of the neck). It even had little bubbly “personality” bits that made me think of Jerome Robbins; most notable was the hand movements (clenching; rotating; opening and closing) during a pizzicato movement. Liam really seems to get what I think modern ballet audiences want, and I expect he’s going to have a pretty successful career as he gets more fully into his stride.

Sadly, I don’t think what he’s producing is what ballet needs. How are we going to get new audiences? Are we going to stick to what’s safe until there are no more people under 65 watching ballet? I started thinking about “Chroma” and how awesome it was and how the choreography was just so blistering fresh at some point in the middle of “Of Mozart” and just couldn’t get my concentration back. The performance I was watching was fine, but it wasn’t pushing myself or the art just one little bit. I felt sad about this and kind of relieved that it was time for intermission.

After intermission the evening restarted with “Agitator.” This also wasn’t a genre-breaking piece, but … my god, could Isabel McMeekan dance. I could not get my eyes of her fantastic legs and her fluid movement from one position to another. (I felt a bit badly for Thomas Whitehead as he didn’t have nearly the opportunity to show off she did.) I felt like it was on the verge of breaking into that really exciting partnering work that Forsythe does, but no luck. That said – it was still pretty damned yummy. I’ll be watching for her in the future.

My last review is for my least favorite piece of the night – “Monument,” which is apparently by a choreographer that was quite popular with the audience. It all started off quite well, with fantastic electronica (“Pathogenic Agent”) by Jens Massel, aka Senking. The full-body, black with orange neon and glittery lines bodysuits were all a little to amusingly Cyberdogs for my taste, but we had black toe shoes to deal with and I was just kind of riding with it, watching the dancers contort themselves, the women’s feet arching in their shoes, the men throwing them over their shoulders, the music sounding really fantastic on the Linbury sound system.

And then it all went south. Maybe I had show fatigue; maybe … it was bad. Suddenly we transitioned into the second movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, and we were staring at a couple on stage. The woman was stiff, her feet as flat as they can get, her eyes staring straight at the sky – and if we weren’t clear that she was dead, the man waved his arms over his head in this Z motion straight out of a Greek play (and, I think, Martha Graham). Good God! Why the obviousness? What happened to what we were watching before? Then it was grief, grieving, oh, the sadness, the other dancers joining in the sadness … and at the very moment I was thinking about what I’d just seen and how cliched it was and how with any luck I’d never see someone making this Z motion with their hands again … all of the dancers were doing it at the same time! AAAAUGH!

I’m afraid at this point I snapped the tether, and then I was looking at things like the bottoms of the pointe shoes (were they black, too?) and the violinist (Tatiana Bysheva, really making a career in classical music look sexy). Eventually it was over, and we got to watch “Stop Me When I’m Stuck,” which I was now too tired to really enjoy but J said reminded him of a dream ballet (it was his favorite bit of the night). There were occasionally some pretty great solos but I had my fill for the evening, and without Wayne, I felt like the evening had a few too many empty calories in it as a whole (despite being filled with utterly gorgeous dancers).

(This review was for a performance on Thursday, May 22, 2008. Reviews of the other pieces may come later.)

Review – Pinter’s The Birthday Party – Lyric Hammersmith

May 20, 2008

Normally I don’t bother seeing a play twice unless it’s a razzle dazzle musical (i.e. Drowsy Chaperone). But in this case, I went to see a play I thought was really bad … in the hopes that in more competent hands, it would be really good. As you should know, I am a big Pinter fan. The previous time we saw The Birthday Party was at the Capitol Hill Arts Center in Seattle, Washington. Now, I tend to find fringe theater (of the sort we saw so much of in Seattle) very enjoyable in general – when it’s not actually part of a fringe festival, but rather by an established, small company presenting a regular season. Seattle companies really have very high quality actors, inventive directors, and all sorts of other things going for them that makes their shows generally quite good. But The Birthday Party was a failure. We couldn’t make sense of it, and we felt to a great extent it was because it didn’t make sense to the actors. They seemed to be just saying the lines to each other, as if they were reading a series of shuffled together flash-cards with dialogue written on them, yet not really understanding a word of what was coming out of their mouths. So they successfully showed they’d memorized the play, but, otherwise, they just stumbled through it practically with a look of fear and desperation in their faces that wasn’t really called for by the story line.

Three years later, I’m living in London, and I have really come to believe that American actors just can’t handle Pinter. It’s not, as Ben Brantley says in his review of Homecoming, that they can’t get the class implications in the accents. I fact, it’s so much more than that; it’s a complete miss on the culture underlying the plays, into which I fortunately have a little more insight these days. I was pretty aware of how far I had come watching The Birthday Party tonight at they Lyric Hammersmith. For example, I heard someone talk about getting “fried bread” for breakfast in the first act, and I thought, in America, that would just sound surreal and would probably throw an actor off. In America, you don’t fry bread any more than you fry lettuce or milk. And later, a man talks about coming home with the lights off “and I put a shilling in the slot and, boom! Lights on, nobody home!” This also is completely nonsensical because in America you don’t have coin activated meters to dole out electricity. You have parking meters and you have pay laundromats, but coins in a slot do not turn lights on.

I think these kinds of things would really fluster actors – the play would have to be annotated just as thoroughly as Shakespeare for them to follow along with what was going on. The towns where Goldberg went on vacation all have certain associations and implications, the concept of what it means to be a “deck chair attendant” at a beach resort means something, it all just builds on a life that can’t mean anything to a person who hasn’t seriously researched the culture and, perhaps, lived in it (as much as you can live in 1958). So it’s no surprise that the previous production I had seen was a failure, but I can’t really hold it against the actors too much.

I’m pleased to say that the production we saw tonight at the Lyric Hammersmith was a complete success in nearly every way and has pretty well completely overwritten my previous memory of the play. The doddering old landlady (Sheila Hancock) is not a drooling, brainless maniac – she’s a sweet, friendly, older woman who wouldn’t think it unreasonable to be flirted with (a bit of a Blanche Dubois in some ways), but not nearly the sex fiend she somehow came across before. Petey, the husband (Alan Williams), is a fairly decent man who lives a life that’s very much in many ways built on habit – but he’s still engaged with the world.

Goldberg (Nicholas Woodeson) and McCann (Lloyd Hutchinson) – what is up with Pinter and his fascination with mob types? Hitmen in The Dumbwaiter, a pimp in Homecoming – is this his fantasy of the dark side of London or something? When last I saw them, they were as evil and creepy as Gaiman’s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and I found the scene where they were trying to force Stanley (this time played by Justin Salinger) to sit in a chair unbearably tense. I imagined them trying to break his legs once they got him down. They also seemed to be in a struggle with each other, for Goldberg to prove he still retained his youthful power by exerting himself over McCann. This didn’t really seem to be the dynamic tonight. Instead, McCann was the somewhat stupid muscle (with the loveliest singing voice!) who was very obedient to Goldberg’s wishes – including the scene where he blew in his mouth (and WTF was that about – I was cracking up). He had a lovely Irish accent (which Chris Macdonald flubbed) … which put Goldberg’s bizarre English/Jewish accent into high relief to me, as an American New York/Jewish accent leavened with occasional Britishness. It sounded like he’d tried to cram the two things together unsuccessfully, as if to imply the whole schtick Goldberg was doing was a put-on. I imagined the actor had perhaps just failed to get a proper voice coach, but the friends I went with to the play (Trish and Simon) assured me he sounded completely fine to them.

So, really what do I know, I am still a foreigner here. I will say, though, that this play was a really good time for us and much more clearly comic than it was the last time I saw it. I no longer think it’s meant to be read literally, and the absurdist elements were very clear to me (“We’ll make a man out of you!” “And a woman!”). What, really, is the plot? We weren’t able to make it out. Stanley (Justin Salinger, looking too young for the role) didn’t really telegraph it to me, and Pinter, as usual, didn’t bother telling me up front by having something obvious like an extended, painful mermaid metaphor at the beginning of the play. Bless his black little heart! I was so pleased I went and bought a book “about his thoughts on his work” in the lobby at the end of the night, and I’m going to try to puzzle through it myself. In fact, now that I see that his complete archives are at the British Library, I’m wondering if perhaps I ought to do even more research on him … of the sort that might eventually lead to a book of my own. I bet I’ve got it in me, but it’s going to be hard to do when I don’t want to read any scripts for shows I haven’t seen lest I ruin the surprise. How will I ever have the same amount of fun discussing what happened after a show (as if I and the person sitting next to me had seen two completely different plays) if I already know what the received wisdom is on the play I’m watching? One play at a time, though, I bet I can eventually make it through the oevre, even in enough time to get that book written. It’s a goal!

Review – Lady from the Sea – Arcola Theatre

May 16, 2008

I don’t know about how you like to celebrate anniversaries, but to me nothing seemed better than going up to the ass end of north east London to see a show about a woman thinking about leaving her husband. Sounds romantic, eh? And if you’re me (and the ever-suffering Shadowdaddy, you’ll want to start of the night with some Jamaican food hot enough to peel the enamel off of your teeth. Mmm, mmm! Jerk chicken, rice and peas, stewed pork, polenta, $16 for two people, Centerprise, you make the grade! (We also got to see a guy chased out of the restaurant by the cashier and the store guard, who called him a crook. It was quite a scene. Review of restaurant here.) Then it was off to the Oz Antepilier for some tasty Turkish baklava to keep our strength up while we waited in the lobby of the Arcola for the mad dash for our seats.

Anyway, I studiously avoided reading anything that might give me too much of a clue as to the actual plot of the show beforehand as I enjoy having a show unfold and surprise me – I figured the 5 star recommendation it had got somewhere was sufficient, plus Ibsen, for me to watch. The play, in a nutshell, is this: there is a woman, and she is feeling trapped in her marriage. She has stepchildren who seem extraordinarily unsympathetic to her, and, to top things off, she seems like she might be going mad.

Well! Quite the light evening’s entertainment, to be sure. For me, for some reason, the whole show was coming in through the filter of these two articles I read in the New York Times this week about love in Saudi Arabia. The men, for example, would have found it completely fit for a man to tell a woman she’s not a free actor, and that he will decide what is good for her and “protect” her: while the women, I thought, would agree that women are naturally less rational than men.

But they would have had a lot of problems with the rest of the story. The concept of a woman wishing to be a free agent, I think, would not resonate in the least; the thought that it might not be agreeable to essentially “sell” yourself in order to have a roof over your head would also seem mysterious; the odd behavior of the girls (not to mention the wife, Ellida, played by Lia Williams) would certainly have drawn note. I found it all a bit late Victorian feminist, but with a sort of unexpected (and illogical) ending – and very much enjoyed the idea of a play about someone who was on the verge of cracking up throughout.

That said, I think I found more problems with the script than anything else. It just seemed … clunky. People kept announcing other people were about to come on stage, then announcing that they were going to leave. The young, wannabe artist had no real purpose in the show other than to show the selfish side of men (I think) and had utterly corny lines (and pulled faces); the younger daughter (Hilde, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, apparently from the Irish side of this family based on her thick accent) seemed to change her feelings too quickly. The foreshadowing at the beginning (the bit about the painting) was like getting hit with a blackjack in terms of its subtlety, then further added to this point by having the actor say, “The idea was given to me by the lady of the house!” Please, as if the fact that she swims in the ocean every day wasn’t enough clue for us to link her with a mermaid!

While the acting was generally good, Ms. Williams seemed to be pulling rather a lot from Lady Macbeth with all of her hand wringing and twitching. Her face was beautiful to watch but I wanted more of a buildup – as it was, I was completely incapable of thinking anything but madness lied in her future.

Overall I think this was a good production but not one of Ibsen’s finer works, and the 75 minute journey home a bit of a pill – good enough if you like Ibsen or are in the neighborhood, but not worth seriously deforming your week to go see.

(This review is for a performance that took place May 15th, 2008, my fifteenth anniversary.)

Review of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” with Jane Horrocks – Young Vic

May 13, 2008

Last night Wechsler and I headed to the Young Vic to catch Jane Horrocks in “The Good Soul of Szechuan” at the Young Vic. Beforehand we went to the Bangalore Express, which is my new pre-Vic (young or old) dinner joint; it’s right across from Waterloo and thus easy access from work or home, and they got the food on my table in about five minutes flat after I ordered – “no muss, no fuss,” as they used to say. Their prices are great and they serve duck.

But really, this is about the play, right? Well sated and sufficiently caffeinated to overcome my post-Florida jet lag for the duration of the night, we joined the long, long queue in front of the Young Vic only to discover the savvier Whingers had set themselves up at a bar down the street (their review of the evening, I mean play, here). I briefly joined them (else we would not have been able to enter the theater!) then returned to wait in line for another five minutes or so. Eventually we traipsed in the long (and scene-setting) way, then scored ideal seat about eight rows back. The dust in the air from the set nearly cost me at the outset (and if you’re asthmatic I suggest you highly consider skipping this show), but it settled enough for him to enjoy the rest of the show (despite the smoking).

Sooooo … the play. This is Brecht, right? And you know about Brecht. It’s like Shakespeare; if you don’t want multiple plots and soliloquies and strange words, don’t go. For Brecht, well, he’s got a message: people are basically good, but this society of want in which we live keeps them down and makes them do bad thing. If people just had a little more to eat, so many problems would go away! Creating plays with character “evolution” or, really, introspection isn’t really Brecht’s way. He’s going to put his flat characters on stage and make them dance, and, if you’re like me, you’ll find it generally amusing, except for the singing bit (why do they always having singing in Brecht shows? It’s never any good). I mean, it’s a morality play, basically, sometimes with gangsters, sometimes with ….

Three gods come to a small village in Szechuan (which no one apparently knows how to pronounce, despite living there), looking for a good soul. Inadvertently, they come upon Jane Horrocks (looking twenty years younger than she did in the wretched and unfunny Absurd Person Singular), playing the part of a really pretty prostitute. They give her a pile of money … and now that she’s got something, instead of nothing, her life REALLY starts to fall apart, because, well, when you’ve got nothing, people can’t get much from you, but when you’ve got something, everyone wants to get their piece.

Or, well, so Brecht posits, or perhaps he’s saying that money is just corrupting and the poor can’t win. He gets in his digs at pious capitalists (as embodied by the gods) and other people that do their best to make the lot of the poor worse while supposedly uplifting them (some things do never change). Me, well, I loved Horrock’s charming turn as the two-natured Shen Tay (perhaps really Shen Tai), and found her just as adorable in her little cheap dress as in a suit and fedora (rar!). I also found the boyfriend just as convincing playing a miserable clod who wanted to die as a lying man who wanted to take her for all she was worth – it’s funny how those words can come out of the same person’s mouth and yet still sound like the truth – when not delivered by actors! While other member of the party were finding the script just too cartoony to be managable, I found myself instead nodding along with Horrocks as she looked into the audience and said (of her boyfriend), “He is a bad man! He only wants me for what he can get from me!” And I was also sucked in as she decided to not hate him. It takes really good actors to take this stuff and make it mean something, and I bought it. It’s a good production – but remember, if you don’t like Brecht, there’s probably not much that will change your mind. (That said …. if only they’d really let her sing! What is the next show she is going to be in? Something with songs that don’t make me want to clap my hands over my ears?)

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, May 12, 2008.)

Review – Dina Martina – The Soho Theatre

May 3, 2008

Last night we went to the Soho Theater to see Dina Martina with robot_mel, beluosus, and silkyraven.

Dina was totally on and the show was a hoot, filled with many Seattlites (including Imogen Love, of all people). I think I was most hurting when she was singing some horrible eighties song, clutching the microphone stand between her legs, and I noticed it slowly disappearing in the horrible folds of her camel toes. Then, to make it worse (better?) she came to our group of front-row seats and straddled beluosus’s leg, and suddenly I imagined him disappearing into the depths just as the microphone stand had. It was hysterical and horrifying at the same time – sort of a perfect Dina moment. Best Dina-ism? Referring to the people suffering from the Iraq invasion as the “Iraqnids.” It was all quite perfect.