Archive for February, 2012

Review – The Tempest in Six Parts – RETZproduces at Borduria (297 Hoxton Street)

February 29, 2012

Sometime in January a curious tweet passed by in my feed: “Become a citizen of Borduria now, get access to 6 installations of ‘The Tempest’ in a pop-up Shoreditch art space.” The message was vague: I couldn’t tell exactly what I was being promised (paintings? movies? spoken word with jazz hands accompaniment?), but something about it attracted me like a phone number on a bathroom wall (or a message in a bottle): give a little money and you can Make Magic Happen. I could smell the sizzle of promise and imagination: I’ll become a citizen? And I’ll come back several times? What the heck, I thought, I’ll sign up for this “O Brave New World” and hope for the best.

Initially things went badly: my passport didn’t turn up after more than a week, and while I could see from the Twitter feed that things were happening, I couldn’t tell what. A chorus? Wrackeroni? Frequently the links were for YouTube videos or stuff on Facebook, both of which were blocked at work: then on the blog there were stories (the Bordurian women’s choir? People napping?) that made me unsure if I was going to a small concert hall or just a coffee shop. The passport I bought said I got “free access during the day,” but to what? And what was going on in the evening, exactly? Pressure mounted as the Twitter feed started talking about the end of the first installation, so I stopped faffing around, went onto the Bordurian Citizens website, and just signed up for a time to go. (Well, actually, I wasn’t able to get the website to work right and sent a Tweet saying I wanted to go, and the nice person who helped me sort out my missing passport took care of it or me.)

Come a Sunday and there I was, disembarking in front of St Leonard’s hospital with a Turkish pizza in my hand, trying to figure out which end of Hoxton was the right one given that (once again) none of the buildings had numbers on them. I got lucky and turned the right way (hoping the “top” of Hoxton was the part near the canal), and there was a man in a green overcoat and a military-style hat. He greeted me, I showed him my passport, and I was welcomed to Borduria, which apparently accessed via the rear entrance of a scaffolding-covered building (be careful stepping over the ladder).

Inside my passport was checked and stamped (“Welcome back, citizen!”) and I was ushered into … a small room that seemed like a combination bar slash coffeeshop. There was a bar with a person behind it making drinks (and a crock pot of some sort full of stew); a table football game; some stuff playing on TVs; and about twenty other people sitting around in chairs or on couches talking to each other and … waiting. (“What’s going to happen?” I asked one of the girls sat near me. “I don’t know!” she answered. Fair enough.)

So what DIDN’T happen is that we didn’t get up and move around the building to different places where different things were happening – we stayed put the whole time. So it wasn’t a promenade. And, well, even though a new “environment” was created inside the building, I wouldn’t really call it an installation piece or performance art. What it was, eventually, was a performance of once section of the Tempest – an early part of the play (somewhat cobbled together, I think, though with a lot of Act II scene II) with Caliban, Ariel, Trinculo, and (I think) Stephano, the last two (human) characters recently arrived on the island during a storm. Ariel is done as a computer program – A.R.I.E.L. – who speaks through the computer monitors on the walls (I think it was just text displaying but my memory has added a voice as well).

The three non-digital characters interact a bit with the audience at one point, drinking and playing games with us (I beat Trinculo at thumb wrestling) but mostly only have eyes for each other – though Caliban does have a go at the bar. It’s all very intimate and in your face in this very small space, making the sweat and smell of the actors very vibrant. While I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t actually walking around a recreation of a shipwreck and instead watching a fairly straight piece of theater, it was a cool experience. I also liked the integration of the digital character, and (as I saw later) all of the work the team had gone to created a full-cycle experience with the videos/tweets/graphics that surrounded the performance, making it more of a … well, four dimensional show, or five, perhaps – it was a show that had not just a place and time of performance, but a world and a lot of imagination. I’m a citizen of Borduria now. I live on a strange island with talking computers (and free WiFi) and hypnotizable, “clustering filberts” drinking monsters; and come next week I am going back to see something else entirely, and I’ll go four more times over the next 5 months to see “my homeland” in its entirety.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, February 19th, 2012. “O Brave New World” continues with its A.R.I.E.L. installment from Friday, March 2nd, 2012. For further updates, please see the RETZproduces twitter feed or the Facebook page – to be honest I find the whole thing hard to keep up with and am grateful I received a flyer letting me know that Friday was the date of the new show. I still have a lot of questions about what is going on with this show and apologize if I’ve been unable to answer yours.)


Review – Rock of Ages – Shaftesbury Theatre

February 26, 2012

It’s been months since Rock of Ages opened in London (way back in the summer), but I’ve continued to find its marketing campaign, based around big hair and big, sequined egomaniacs, irresistible. This is odd, as I grew up in Arizona during the height of the hair metal era and I hated it. Sure, Pat Benatar was okay (not really in the genre in my book), but I loathed Motley Crue and Van Halen (and I bet they hated each other) even while I couldn’t escape from their music any more than the less “rock and roll” lifestyle bands like Journey and Styx. I was a punk rock girl, listening to Siouxsie and Einsturzende Neubaten (and eventually Flaming Lips and Jane’s Addiction) and I hated these big mainstream rock bands and their drunk fans.

Ah, time. 25 years (or more) and 4000 miles later and suddenly I’m nostalgic about the pop music of my youth. It brings back to mind road trips in big cars drinking coolers full of soda with the windows rolled down (because we couldn’t afford air conditioned cars and crossing the desert between Phoenix and LA was hot work). Sure, I was driving to see the Smiths and Dead Can Dance and Nick Cave, but when I think about Los Angeles in the 80s, well, Rock of Ages was hitting me right in the sweet spot. It was trashy, it was fun, I was too young to drink but there was definitely a vibe going on and this show really brought it back for me: Sunset Strip with its neon signs, strip joints, people wearing way too much makeup trying to get into clubs with fake IDs (I know I tried), In and Out burgers, and everything else. It’s captured nicely in Pamela Des Barres’ “I’m With the Band” and even better by “The Dirt” (the Motley Crue bio), but for underaged me, Rock of Ages took about eight years of my life (and twenty years of incredibly mis-matched music) and brought it to life. LA was always a place where people went when they wanted to do something more than stay and rot in their small towns, and a story about a boy who wants to be in a band (Drew Boley, played by Oliver Tompsett) while working in a bar, and another girl who wants to “really” act but is also working in a bar (Sherrie Christian, played by Natalie Andreou) is actually exactly the truth of LA then and now. Wrap it up in a story about sleazy property developers trying to destroy a cool place and you’ve got every city in America; toss in the lure of strip bars, and well, that’s Sunset Strip all over again, where the sex was right next to the rock and roll and they all fed each other in a party lifestyle.

Whew! Trip down nostalgia lane over! All of this could have made a really intense story, but as you might guess, Rock of Ages is about having a good time (rather than being depressing or too accurate). The story is pretty thin but sufficient to get us from point A to point B, and my biggest regret was that they didn’t make more of the David Lee Roth type character (Stacee Jaxx, played by Shayne Ward) who’s featured so prominently in the advertising – those big egoed creatures are easy to laugh at and I was really expecting him to be more of the locus of partying rather than a minor bad guy. And the bit of the story run with the Berkleyite who’s trying to save the Strip from being redeveloped (Regina, Jodie Jacobs) is a bit boring. Frankly, I never expected the narrator to play such a big part, but he stole the show, especially with his … well, there is a big scene toward the end that was unexpected and raised the show up about a whole star in my book for “delivering a positive message in an unexpected place and time.”

To be honest, some of my biggest complaints about this show was the use of songs I considered inappropriate, basically because they weren’t rock and roll enough – Jefferson Starship and Steve Perry are SO wrong for this show. But then you get a big dance scene with the female lead and strippers going for it to Pat Benatar, and then suddenly, well, you feel like you have to be a little more accepting with the artistic license (as they weren’t able to get all of the songs they might have liked to use) because most of it works and it’s pretty damned fun. And they even had fireworks at the end, and as an ultra bonus my balcony seats were promoted to stalls at no extra charge so I was right there in the middle of it all (and drinks WERE available during the show). Deep and meaningful and gonna change the world? No. But absolutely a fun night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday February 15th, 2012. It’s currently booking through October 21st. Note that from April 23rd, they will be adding two shows on Sunday and be dark on Monday.)

Review – The Recruiting Officer – Donmar Warehouse

February 21, 2012

As I walked into the Donmar Warehouse for The Recruiting Officer, I was amazed at what I saw: the theater was joyous inside! There were people lighting scores of candles and singing (and playing music) while they did so. It was like a party – soft golden candles, jolly music – had I gone into the wrong theater? No, same wooden floor, same shallow back, same crammed seats on the sides – it was certainly the Donmar I’ve formed a close relationship with over the years, only without the heavy overlay of gloom. What, was I not going to be getting a play about incest, obsession, and/or lies? I guess it just didn’t seem like the same old Donmar, but I was willing to give it a try.

As my reward, I got a positively jolly evening being walked through a classic play performed by a group of real pros who were entirely capable of making a 300 year old play come to life. Sure, some of the specifics have changed – recruiting officers don’t go into town stealing away the local labor force with a series of questionable promises now that they’re likely to get sued for breach of contract – but much of the underlying sentiments of loyalty to one’s gender and to one’s job over one’s affections seemed to hold true. I could see it being just as much a play set in Austen’s England, and, while it couldn’t really be done today (there’s not so much concern about finding a marriage partner with inheritable wealth, or the distinctions of behavior based on gender), the rules under which they were operating were laid out pretty clearly and then it became a bit of an anthropological study in the mentality of the time and how people sought to bend the barriers that constrain them in order to achieve their goals. And the goals are in high conflict (and high contrast): we have a woman and a man who want to get marriage proposals in from people they love (both flawed and undesirable in my eyes); then we had people (female and male) who sought to achieve social advantage over others. Finally, the recruiting officers seemed to have simple goals, which were, by hook or by crook, to get people to enlist in a volunteer army. This provided a far clearer picture of the times than poor old Bingo at the Young Vic: we had people who wanted to escape bad marriages, people who wanted money, people who didn’t want to fight at all but were clearly tricked, and people who had fantasies of a better future (aided in this case by a crooked fortune teller) that they thought would be theirs in the army.

Meanwhile the recruiting officers themselves came off as an immoral pack of crooks, willing to tell nearly every lie (to man and magistrate) to fill their ranks: I’m sure it was all exaggerated (and was certainly comic) but it all had an undertone of truthfulness that was chilling. Yet they created a compelling counter-drama to the typical “oh will this warring couple finally get over it and come together” as well as the “seen this before” trope of “woman dresses as a man and is completely unrecognized by all and sundry” that could have made this a cookie-cutter drama lost in the slop called “Restoration Comedy.” I had a darned good laugh at it all, especially Mark Gatiss’ foppish Mr Worthy (with audience interaction) and the sharp Nancy Carroll as Silvia (did her father really recommend she just “hook up” with an officer?). Tobias Menzies, however, came off most unsympathetically in the role of Captain Plume – not that he wasn’t a believable jerk but I couldn’t see why Silvia had any interest in him. And the first half of the play seemed a bit slow and I was drifting off just a bit while the officers were working their way through bamboozling the local underemployed. However, it all ended quite nicely, I enjoyed myself greatly, and I felt like the 15 quid I spent on my side view seat was rewarded with top performances. All this and I got to leave at 10:10? Well played, Josie O’Rourke, well played.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 16th, 2012. The show continues through April 14th.)

Review – Bingo – Young Vic

February 20, 2012

“You know what would be great? A play about Shakespeare! Not a play by Shakespeare, but a play in which he’s the lead character! Just think of it … we’d pull in all of the punters that would normally go see a Shakespeare play but want to push the envelope a little, flesh out the things they had wondered about … His life is so little known! I’m thinking … him and Thomas Marlowe in a pub! No, that would never work … let’s do Ben Johnson, at least they hung out together. They can discuss writer’s block! And get drunk together! Now, that sounds like some great theater!”

Nearly forty years after Bingo was written, I find myself wondering what the point was in remounting this weak show. Where we’ve gotten used to excellent wordsmithery (the ideal home for an actor such as Patrick Stewart), instead we are given an utterly uncompelling two and a half hours polluted by modern speech patterns, relationships, and concerns. Yes, the enclosure act was happening at the time this play was set, yes, Shakespeare left his (invisible in this play) wife a bed in his will, but I could not once believe the words that came out of the characters’ mouths had any basis in an Elizabethan reality.

And Shakespeare himself is set up as such a non-entity, his greatest acts (in this play) being 1) rolling around in the snow and 2) shoving the pages of his will under a door. Otherwise he says and does almost nothing while his daughter (Catherine Cusack) complains about how much better he likes his friends in London, and an important farmer with an improbably American accent (matching his Chicago school of economics nonsense at least) convinces Shakespeare to keep his yob shut in exchange for a guaranteed income. Meanwhile a sequence involving a homeless woman being gradually ground down by her inability to find work or a place to live (highly relevant to modern goings-on) seems to ultimately go nowhere, other than providing a set piece for the second half of act one; her effect on the people she has met seems to ultimately count for nothing in the arc of the story. And if this is the case, then what was the point in the first place?

Take out the boring and pointless scenes of this play and what are you left with? Patrick Stewart falling down drunk while “Ben Johnson” (Richard McCabe) talks to him about writer’s block. Does any of the rest of it matter? Not really. Stewart barely hits the levels he is capable of as his character spends most of the play mute. It was a shocking waste of talent all around. For your money, I’d recommend going to hear the bard’s own words at the Midsummer currently on at the Lyric Hammersmith; your time will be much better spent and you won’t end your evening with such a bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 18th, 2012. It continues through March 31st.)

Review – Rafael Amargo – Sadler’s Wells 2012 Flamenco Festival

February 18, 2012

With Rafael Amargo the dance segment of the 2012 Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells came to an end. The night was artistically themed: the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca were celebrated in a show called “A Poet in New York.” However, there was no getting away from the fact that the person most truly celebrated this evening was Rafael Amargo. The imagery broadcast on the giant video screens created a great feeling of New York City in the 20s; but for those of us who could not keep up with poetical Spanish, any deeper intimations were missed with the lack of supertitles or any other accomodation for non-Spanish speakers.

Amargo showed us his chops most brilliantly in a ten minute solo (after, I think, “Vuelta a la Ciudad”) in which he was surrounded by his accompanists, whom he commanded with an imperious gesture to inspire him with their singing. Someone got his needs right, apparently, as he finally laid off the peacock-like posing and insistence on seeing himself being the center of attention and actually got excited about dancing. And he smoked the stage, with the brilliant footwork and complete loss of self that to me marks the great dancer. But the rest of the night was polluted with an excess of ego, bad pacing, and some of the naffest pseudo-modern dance I’ve ever seen. The nadir was “Death and Ruin,” a piece in which a woman in a red dress sat on a chair, admired herself in a mirror, did about two dance steps, then rolled herself across the floor in a red scarf while a nearly naked man prowled across the stage, I’d been somewhat prepared by the incredibly bad solo with a woman in a tutu grabbing at giant strips of cloth above her, but this was just laughably bad. And every time Amargo came back on stage, it was all ME ME ME PAY ATTENTION TO ME! A pity, really, as he is a fine dancer but I do think this “having his own company” thing has gone so far to his head that I can’t take him seriously, especially given how bad the choreography frequently was. This was worsened by the horrible pacing, which was extremely masculine in its concept that FAST FAST FAST was all you needed – 100% climax with no build up and a complete lack of thoughtfulness. It was like a 16 year old boy was at the wheel. It needed restructuring and serious cutting: no more tap dancing garden gnomes, no woman treading on her dress’ long skirt, and, frankly, a whole lot less of Amargo standing there with his arms in the air staring at the audience all but saying LOOK HOW AWESOME I AM! I was embarrassed for him. And despite all of the fast banging on stage, I found myself yawning constantly (while my companion actually nodded off). It was an unfortunate end to the festival for me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 17th, 2012. It is repeated tonight. Be advised it started nearly 20 minutes late and ran over.)

Mini-review – Flamenco Gala (Carment Cortes, Rafaela Carrasco, Olga Pericet) – 2012 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival

February 15, 2012

(Blast, a few days after this event and I’m finding myself having a hard time matching names and performances! – ed.)

This year’s flamenco gala at Sadler’s Wells was quite different than the ones I’ve seen before, as instead of operating as a night of short solo performances done in sequence, it was a much more integrated work that had the three stars performing together as well as alternating throughout the evening, with musical interludes and performances by the various male dancers in between the women’s turns on the stage. The result was a more unified flamenco “show,” but one that had much less of the fireworks than previous nights. Highlights included Olga Pericet (in general), who at one point had so much energy going when dancing with two men that I thought there might be blood on the floor (her feet like nervous laughter – I think the song was “I have three hearts”); a trio of men dancing while passing a red hat between them (each trying to be a little bit better than the other, while still sticking to the basic choreography); and Carmen Cortés’ final dance, which showed the young ‘uns how it was done – her musicality taking her entire body and making up for age’s loss of speed and flexibility. Less pleasant were the two female vocal solos done to piano music, and an odd flamenco-done-to-cello thing that just seemed entirely too forced to be pleasant for me. I was dozy and uninvolved during the various vocal interludes, which is odd as I do like flamenco singing but the soloists in this show were not engaging. Overall, this was an enjoyable night, but had too many gaps to be a memorable one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 1th, 2012. For an alternate view, please see the Guardian’s review.)

Review – Olga Pericet – 2012 Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival

February 11, 2012

To break in this year’s Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, I scheduled a visit for the one night Olga Pericet was to grace the stage. I didn’t know who she was, but how much the better to see a new face than just to relive the pleasures of the familiar!

The show started with a barefooted woman in a frilled skirt sat uncomfortably on a chair at the front left of the stage, her knees and arms raised, looking very much like a doll with limbs akimbo. As the music started, she eventually began spinning her hands in the swirls I associate with beautiful guitar runs, little circles of musicality that eventually were also taken up by her feet.

Then a black garbed man approached her and began to move her around to the music, making her seem more Copellia-like than ever. He held her up by the shoulders so she could do amazingly fast entrechats – her feet a blur in the air – then tossed her over his shoulders as if she had no genius of her own at all. He was caring, though, very much seeming a Dr Coppelius (or Pygmalion) in love with his porcelain creation.

Next we moved into some guitar and singing – lovely – and “the doll” appeared (now clearly to me Olga and not another dancer, but still stunningly petite in comparison to the six or so men singing, clapping, and playing guitar behind her). Dressed in red with a buff floral shawl wrapped around her, she looked both all joy and all business. The dance, though, seemed very much designed to show off mastery of shawl-work, with every move in the book (wrapping the ends around the wrists, swirling it around the body, tossing an end around the shoulder just so) done as if checking off a list. This was to the expense of showing better emotional connection to the music or (nearly entirely) good footwork – it seemed workmanlike to me and lacking in spirit. Except – there was one movement fairly early on where the fringe, as it flew out around her wrists, suddenly reminded me of the feathers of a fighting bantam rooster. At the end she went for showing off her dancing more, and I felt her and her accompanists working together, but otherwise this section left me a bit dry.

Without notes, I can’t provide a complete order of events, but the modern dancer returned a lot, and I feel between his dancing and the low key scenery (two curtains), we were given a well-designed, satisfying evening. His final turn came when Olga returned in a sparkly, black bata de cola dress, the long train somehow looking like the hood of a cobra. And the man danced like a character from some Almodovar movie who had become obsessed with a flamenquera, worshipping her skirt and every bit of flamenco about her, while being entirely unaware of the human being beneath the dress.

He disappeared and Ms Pericet got on with the important business of the evening, dancing with this long and heavy lump of fabric following her everywhere. Again, I felt like she was working through a lot of display of technique without doing enough dance; a problem as it should not be the props driving the dancer.

This said, I still feel like Ms Pericet came of as a dancer of considerable charisma, at her best in the middle section with a short dress and nothing more than her own moves to show off. She has to step away from her props and let her own music drive the dance; but with her good sensibility as a creator of an evening of performance and her innate skills as a dancer, I feel certain she will be well worth seeing dance in the future.

Review – Singing in the Rain – Palace Theatre

February 9, 2012

So what do you do if you have the stage rights to one of the most popular musicals of all time? Turn it into a mostly faithful reproduction of the original, with all of the sparkle sucked out, seems to be the answer these days. While I appreciate the sentiment to move to strong, story-driven work rather than jukebox musicals, I’m really questioning the motivations that brought horrors like The Wizard of Oz to the stage. But before I go into too much analysis of this question (can the answer be anything but “money” when it comes down to it), let’s have a look at last night’s trip to the Palace to see Singing in the Rain – the fourth night of what will likely be a long run (and fully reviewable in my book as it already had a solid session in Chichester).

So: plot. It’s the end of the age of silent movies, and stars Lena Lamont (Katherine Kingsley) and Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) are at the top of their universes. While both have outsized egos to match, they’re about to be brought down a notch: for Lena, by the arrival of talkies; for Don, by the arrival of a sassy yet sweet blonde (Kathy Selden, played by Scarlett Strallen) who makes him think he isn’t really the center of the universe. Love (inevitably) ensues between Don and Kathy, but when Lena realizes Kathy is taking away Adam – and horning in on her own fame – she decides to ensure her own distinctive stamp on their first talkie, The Dancing Cavalier. Can the picture (and the studio) be saved? What about love? Don’s best friend Cosmo (Daniel Crossley) has ideas to make sure both happen … and with this being a Hollywood original, you can be sure there’s a happy ending.

I knew little about this other than it had some positive buzz and, well, of couse, I remembered the plot and songs from the movie (which I love without being obsessive about it). But, as ever, I was prepared to experience it on its own terms. Adaptations frequently must give up a lot in order to succeed in a new medium, but I figured the distance between me and my last viewing of the original would mean any removed (or added) songs/choreography/characters/plot lines would fuzz into my vague memory of the story seamlessly. I was sure Lina Lamont didn’t have her own number, but as I was loving Katherine Kingsley’s characterization, I was more than willing to have her take a star turn.

What I didn’t expect was that the lead, Adam Cooper, would have so little charisma or zing of his own. Was it because he was trying to play Gene Kelley (playing Gene Kelly), rather than playing Don Lockwood? Don is a caricature of a character, mostly just a name to hang Gene Kelly’s face on, but Cooper doesn’t seem to get that what this character needs to work is not an actor playing an iconic actor (in a role as an actor): he needs to give it his own special something. And while he worked his way through the dance scenes with well-rehearsed skill, he didn’t succeed in creating that feeling of A Star. Did he need to be “Adam Cooper, Totally Amazing Dancer, I Own This Show,” or did he need to be “Don Lockwood, Song and Dance Man Who Rose To The Top (but still has a heart of gold)?” I was willing to be sucked in and amazed, but instead I was surprised at how very wooden Cooper was. Is it because the show had just started at the Palace and he hadn’t settled in? Had he spent his time working on his dance moves rather than creating chemistry with his costars? Whatever it was, I found myself focusing on Cosmo and Lena, who were really shining in their roles as laugh generators, but I knew it was just wrong that Cooper was not owning the stage.

Meanwhile, the various song and dance routines were entertaining but similarly lacking in pizazz. I wanted more wow, more new, more now, to be overwhelmed with the gorgeousness of it all and the thrill of the dance. It’s actually not that hard to do this to me (witness my tears at Crazy for You). But only in the final scene, when the cast came out to reprise “Singing in the Rain” with multi-colored umbrellas, was I finally swept away in it all. And when Scarlett Strallen stood there at the very end, smiling her heart out, wanting us to love her as she stood between Cooper and Crossley, I thought, damn, girl, you’re a real professional and you just got short-changed … not just by Cooper but by a production team that thought what they needed to do is make the two of you play Kelly and Reynolds rather than letting your own star quality shine through. They didn’t trust the material enough as a stage show; they just wanted a faithful, live reproduction of a musical that would draw in the bus fulls of silver haired theater patrons, night after night.

And I suppose, really, my dreams of art aside, this is just, really, a commercial venture, a way to put butts in seats, and the fact that sometimes something truly beautiful is produced amidst all of this worship of the almighty dollar (or pound in this case) is merely a side product and not the main goal. And enough of the theater was full (and happy enough) that they’ve probably made it all safe enough to get those tickets sold. But I wanted to see at the end of this night was the feeling that I’d seen two amazing performers burning up the stage, connecting with each other, sparks flying everywhere. And maybe it was all the water coming down from the rafters (I have to say I was a bit worried about someone possibly getting electrocuted through their microphone – no one can apparently sing well enough to fill the house without one these days), but Singing in the Rain was a damp squib for me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012. It’ll be booking into the far, far future, I’m sure. Meanwhile, don’t forget to catch Crazy for You before it closes – it’s a really top musical that has way more bang for the buck if you’re a fan of traditional song and dance shows. Note that the upper seats in this theater have a very restricted view, are small and uncomfortable and unsuited for those with vertigo or a desire to see all of the stage from their seats.)

Review – The Odyssey – Paper Cinema at Battersea Arts Center

February 7, 2012

Back in the days when I was a Seattle resident, my shadow puppeteer of choice was Scot Auguston, whose low-tech retelling of tales both unique and bizarre kept me coming back year after year (just say the phrase “naughty taties” and see me collapse with laughter). His work (when I saw it) was done through the modern, yet low tech medium of the “overhead projector,” with “sets” drawn with colored markers and simple cut-out silhouette puppets manipulated with visible hands. No sticks, no strings, no screens, but still a world of its own created through light and sound and a barrel full of imagination.

This was the experience I was hoping for when I bought tickets to the Paper Cinema’s Odyssey rather shortly after getting a flyer in the mail from Battersea Arts Center about the production. Live animation for adults? Yes please! And, I’m pleased to say, it really delivered.

The room, as we walked in, was set up with several musical instruments (piano/drums/violin) as well as old standbys of the silent cinema such as a metal sheet (labelled “thunder”), a drum with ball bearings in it (good for ocean noises), and a saw. A partially drawn screen hung in the center rear of the stage; despite sitting in the front to the far side, I was able to see all well from this position. The performers consisted of a multi-talented group of five, three primarily musicians (though the violinist and percussionist pitched in elsewhere), two of whom were solely projection artists. As it started, lead artist and bearded Odysseus stand-in Nicholas Rawling drew on an overhead projector that shared screen space with some background images generated by Irena Stratieva. The effect of watching someone working working with ink on a screen reminded me very much of the Eurovision entry with the sand paintings I’d seen a while back, and I had a brief fear that I might be killed ded with naff. But Rawling’s drawings were beautiful and iconic, and nicely set us up for the evening, introducing us to our main characters (bearded Odysseus, Penelope with her star on her forehead, their son Telemachus, and Athena, who got her own special sound effect courtesy of a set of rope-triggered chimes) and getting us ready for the main course …

The rest of the evening was done with the puppeteers in front of two (or three) videoed projections of their live object manipulation (not to me animation but puppetry) work. It was a melange of styles, with traditional shadow puppet tricks (such as moving things backwards and forwards from the screen to make things seem nearer or further away) used regularly, but “new” techniques such as multiple projections (used not just for supertitles but for “effects” like light through leaves). There were also some very special techniques such as having one “puppet” (i.e. a building with a window) brought close to the projector so that its focus went to the back, where another puppet (such as Penelope sewing) could be seen as if it were a movie camera zooming into a scene. And then, not to spoil much I hope, there was a pop-up book – not exactly in any realm of story telling I’ve ever seen in a theater.

The puppetry was great at dealing with some of the more “please add imagination here” scenes such as Odysseus and his men being chased by a giant, his trip to Hades, and the entire scene of the blinding of the Cyclops (gross!). But it handled the simpler scenes just as well, with the wonderfully appropriate (and cleverly made) music slash soundtrack keeping it all moving along nicely. Dare I say … the experience was lyrical.

All of this was done with no words being spoken (though a few appeared on screen – remember, don’t eat the sun god’s cows!), with every move of the cast clearly visible to the audience yet all of the magic still fully intact. I don’t really understand what the separate Telemachus story was that involved him in a bus and on a motorcycle and somehow reading the Odyssey but I didn’t much care; instead I was laughing at the wit of depicting Penelope’s suitors as a pack of wolves and beaming with happiness as I recognized Dawn’s rosy fingers at the start of act three. My companion was likewise delighted with this night of pure enchantment. Based on the number of people who enjoyed Sunday Morning at the Center of the World and The Animals and Children Took to the Street, there is a deep audience for this kind of raw theatrical pleasure, and if you don’t already have tickets, I’m afraid it just may be too late. Still: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February sixth, 2012. It continues through February 25th and I see only three dates that are not sold out as I type this. May I say how nice it is to walk out of a show like this knowing you’ve earned the gratitude of another person because you’ve been able to give them a night of magic?)