Archive for March, 2012

Review – Going Dark – Sound&Fury’s at Young Vic

March 22, 2012

Hustled by an usher into a very dark room, I squeezed next to my companion, glad he’d come out to find me when I darted off to the bathroom shortly before the start of Going Dark. I hadn’t read too much about the show other than it was about an astronomer – or maybe astronomy – and was by the guys who did Kursk. I hadn’t realized it was in a non-standard space behind the Young Vic, was general seating, and was going to require me to leave all my bags in a locker (although I kept my coat on as I needed access to my cough drops).

Inside, we were sat in a triple circle around an open middle, with a rather low ceiling, and warned to not stick anything under our chairs. What followed was, for me, quite unexpected. I was expecting lectures on the stars and man’s place in the universe; I was not expecting a one man show with a disembodied voice playing the invisible six year old son, Leo. I was not, to be honest, expecting to be taken on the emotional journey the protagonist experiences as he realizes he is going blind. We understand he is losing his sight at the very beginning, when a red dot projected on the side of the room fails to draw a response from him during an optical exam, and it’s easy to understand how this is going to be a problem for an astronomer; but it all becomes a catastrophe as you realize how it is going to impact his relationship with his son. To lose your sight is sad; to have this cause you to lose your job, terrible; to have blindness take away your identity as a parent and the most central relationship you have in your life, an incredible tragedy.

All the while this show is going on, we are, in some ways, able to experience Max’s sight, his vision of the stars (“look away and you can see the Crab Nebulae with your peripheral vision” – and he was right, it was there), the things he starts not to see, the things he stops seeing, the things he shouldn’t see. And, for long minutes, we experience all of his world: a great, dark room, with voices announcing tube stops, and the tap tap tapping of a cane on a tile floor. Not even the exit sign was visible in the infinite blackness; there was no sign that there was another human being around anywhere. I reached out in the dark and touched my friend’s face and was reassured; somehow it seemed to say to me that I wouldn’t die by myself.

For all that this play is visceral and intense, it is not, in the end, gloomy (nor nauseatingly chipper, thank God). But it really moved me. I never knew what to expect; I felt my mind expanding and contracting, thinking far more about the character on stage than I usually do, wondering about his life … forgetting he wasn’t real. That, for me, is magic; that and the feeling that in a universe that is almost entirely made of nothing, for a moment I did not feel alone.

(This review is for a performance that took lace on March 21st, 2012. Going Dark continues through March 24th.)

Review – Master and Margarita – Complicite at the Barbican

March 20, 2012

How do you adapt a novel with no less than four different story lines going simultaneously? Worse, how do you do this when you’re dealing with a novel that commonly is chosen as one of the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century? That’s the challenge I knew Complicite was facing with Master and Margarita. I’d seen it performed before in Seattle, in an enjoyable production by Theater Simple. However, I didn’t know the work at all at the time (mutterings of “cult like following” and “classic” were heard), so I was mystified by what Jesus had to do with a giant black cat.

Over time as I started choosing non-science fiction books to read, Master and Margarita made its way into my stack. I found it really impressive – a story of a poet being beaten down by the bureaucratic realities of writing in the Soviet era, narrative breaks about Pontius Pilate’s struggles during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, a meta-narrative about the author of the story of Pilate (and told by him to the poet while they are both in an insane asylum), and another quite fantastic tale of Margarita, a woman who sells her soul to the devil to be reunited with her lover, whom is only ever called “The Master.” How do you make sense of this? I figured it would be necessary to cut, cut, cut (and was correct – I mean, after all, this was not Harry Potter fandom we were dealing with), but that still we would be left with several real challenges. After all, there are TWO decapitations in this play, and in both, the head talks afterward! And then there is the talking giant cat (still!), the devil’s ball, and the question of how you can handle having a witch fly.

But then there is the group doing the performance: Complicite, who knocked my socks off with their near “Empty Stage” approach to Shun-kin a year ago. I felt very positive going in. First, I felt they would make the right choices about what to cut. Second, because of their tendency to approach theater from a stripped-down perspective, I felt they would tell the tale in a way that engaged my imagination rather than feeding it to me with a spoon. Really, the story could easily be over-produced. But, in general, the company used minimal props (a bed, chairs, a rug) and substituted minimalist lighting effects for sets, defining rooms with delicately drawn outlines on the floor and mostly letting us add the walls in our minds’ eyes.

I have a real dislike for projections being used to crush imagination instead of setting it free, so I’d like to talk a bit about how they were used for this show, as it was quite intrinsic to the stagecraft. At some points, they were quite heavy-handed: providing a sea of bodies for a scene in a theater (with actual actors planted on stage in chairs in gaps in the pictures); showing a huge pan as if we were shooting up above the streets of Moscow (this done with a satellite photo – while overwhelming especially from own seat in the gods, I found it appropriate for a story so entwined with the actual geography of an actual city); the transformation of the floor of the stage into a sky and clouds upon which Margarita (paddling on her stomach on the stage) could fly. Despite their usefulness, I couldn’t help but feel these full-stage moving images were dictating our visual experience in a way I think belittled our abilities as an audience to take small cues and run with them.

My biggest problem with the projections was when they were used in a Katie Mitchell-esque way (i.e. Attempts on Her Life), to show people’s faces in closeups on the back of the theater as they talked in front. This to me was too much like watching TV and I seriously disliked it. That said, the projections deftly handled the issue of the decapitated heads, with (in one case) a projection of only the face an actor (who was sitting on the side of the stage with a bright light on his face) being shone onto a clay model of a head, thus letting it “talk” (via the projection) and then be smashed – not really possible with a real actor. So score one for stagecraft.

Amidst all of this, how was the story? Well, I think it was a bit difficult to get too emotionally involved in it; like the book itself, there is a lot going on and a lot to think about, but not too much to tug the heartstrings. And there is a great element of comedy and absurdity in the goings on, but also a kind of distant observation of the struggles of humankind. Pilate’s self-questioning as he deals with Yeshua seem typical of how every person deals with hard decisions, and in a way a bit of a foreshadowing of what was going to happen in Germany … and of the humanity of Yeshua’s response, that underneath it all, even when forced to do evil deeds, people are still essentially good.

Watching all of the flappings of the still-new Soviet state as it attempted to bed in Communism and figure out its relationship to the arts, though, I felt a profound sadness about the world this play depicted. Yes, people struggled to get treats like cigarettes and nice clothes, yes, people ratted on their neighbors in order to get better apartments, yes, dissidents were starting to disappear, but I could see a civil society struggling to take place, I could see people undertaking deep intellectual pursuits in a society that had time for serious literature: and all of it was on the verge of being entirely blown away, both by World War II and the Stalinist purges. I was watching a society attempt to flower just before a boot heel ground it out – and it was heartbreaking to see this work as a memory of a time that had been so thoroughly erased by history. It all could have gone so very differently.

Despite this feeling, despite what happened later, Master and Margarita is profoundly compelling both as a message in a bottle and as a beacon of the amazing powers of the human imagination. You can feel all of that spirit swelling up through Complicite’s production, even way up in the corner of the second balcony where I was perched on the edge, enjoying it all. Overall, I think this was an excellent production of a timeless work of fiction addressing universal concerns, and well worth its investment in time (195 minutes, the first act an intense 1:45 so don’t have a drink beforehand) and money (I only spent £14 but I’d rate it as worth £30 or £40). Sadly, it’s sold out for the run … but if you keep hitting F5 you may be able to get a ticket, so don’t give up.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 16th, 2012. It continues through April 7th. Contains both male and female nudity done in the best possible way to move the script forward.)

Review – A.R.I.E.L. (second installation of the Tempest in six parts) – RETZproduces at Borduria (297 Hoxton Street)

March 18, 2012

On my return to Borduria I was much more prepared for what to expect that the last time. As expected, my passport was stamped, but I was sent away because I was too early (apparently 8 PM for an 8:15 start is too early, but be warned it did actually get going pretty damned sharpish so don’t be running off to the pub down the street as if you really have time for a drink before the show).

When I returned, I was let through the door separating passport control from the rest of the building. Lo! The interior of the building had been completely ripped out since my last visit, and I was now in a sort of central control chamber, with video screens on the walls showing loops of a burning plane – the modern equivalent of a shipwreck. And raised in the corner was a little bed, with a young woman sleeping fitfully under blankets – our Miranda.

The tenor of the videos changed, and the show seemed to start (for the five of us standing in the room) – and a voice overhead, Prospero, began to argue with Miranda about the recent crash on the shores of their island. She seemed sincerely traumatized by it in a way I hadn’t remembered feeling from any other Miranda I’d seen. Eventually, the figure of a young man, Ferdinand, appears in the monitor screens: Miranda is fascinated. Then he bursts into the room, and we see them both amazed by each other. We were literally inches away from the actors, and every twitch of their faces was visible to us – somehow making it all seem more real. When Ferdinand is enchanted by Prospero, forced to work for him, it seemed quite believable – the magic in the old work somehow being realized in the technology of the modern room in which we stood.

The next “scene” took place through another door, in the front half of the building. It had been rebuilt as a sort of an office, with a bar in the middle serving drinks and coffee – I took advantage of the break to get a glass of red wine. Then Miranda and Ferdinand acted out the scene in which he is forced to attack the pile of “logs” Prospero has set as a task for him – in this case, they are log books (ooh how clever) and he is doing data entry. The entire scene was charming, and I found the words exchanged between the two actors more compelling than I had in any performance before. This, truly, was Shakespeare brought to life. I am looking forward to seeing the next iteration of this fun project!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 8th, 2012. To book, please follow this link. I think it’s going for another week but I’m not sure – I can’t get any information off of any of their many websites. However, the next installment, in April, will be “Caliban’s Cave,” followed by “Hotel Lobby,” “Prospero’s Library,” and “The Port.” For more information, I’d suggest emailing Retz.)

Review – 4:48 Psychosis – Fourth Monkey Theatre Company at Theatro Technis

March 9, 2012

A few weeks ago I received an email inviting me to review the new season being put on by Fourth Monkey Theater Company. The season looked pretty dark: the Bacchae, an adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and 4:48 Psychosis, which rang a bell but which I actually knew nothing about. Given the options, I thought this was the play to choose: for some reason, the little voice in my head said “modern British classic,” but I couldn’t get anything more out of my head other than the phrase “tragically short career.” I figured this probably wasn’t going to be a cheery play given the rest of the season, but that’s not why I go to shows: I like dark as well as light. Per the email on opening night, it looked like the play was just short of two hours running time, with a 7:45 start time: ideal for a person like me who still has to get in to the day job after a night on the town. Let the rest of the world worry about getting the new Ipad: I had theater on MY mind.

I’ll skip telling anything you could find out about this show on Wikipedia and say that, per my experience (and from how it was performed), it’s a play about being suicidally depressed, to the point of being institutionalized and medicated. The female lead talks about her feelings and interacts with other people at the hospital (mostly doctors) and describes how she is treated and what she thinks about. At the same time this is happening, we see other people speaking what often appears to be her inner monologue, and occasionally the words of other patients.

I found this play a gripping and realistic depiction of mental illness that for once broke the standard of crazy people being performed in a way that bears no resemblance to actual craziness. Witness the sister in Floyd Collins, who mentions that she was in an institution but then spends the play being dreamy and generally moon-calfy, with a secret smile and a swoop to her arms and a glance that goes to the distance. This is a typical theatrical version of crazy: cute, crazy, prone to running off with cute men without thinking about the consequences, possibly throwing themselves in a river while reciting nursery rhymes.

Crazy is not Giselle or Lucia di Lammermoor, girls in floating dresses dancing themselves to death. Crazy is a person who can talk to you completely normally because they are actually still very much a human being: the problem is their inner dialogue, which may or may not be shared. 4:48 Psychosis gives you those words spoken aloud: you can see that a person with mental illness is still completely logical, that the powerful human brain is still running the show. It just is coming to conclusions like questioning just why anyone would want to bother to be friends with you and “I hope to God death is the fucking end.” Oddly, the statement by itself seems so extreme, but in the context of the play you can see all of the reasoning that lead to it being a logical conclusion (or hope). Wonderfully, the lead actress in Fourth Monkey’s 4:48 was exactly the logical, thinking, engaged, sympathetic, real person she needed to be to be convincingly a person who actually really is not well at all.

In the play, we are shown a lot of the realities of modern institutionalization: not the horror show of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but the depressing truth of the witches brew of medicines people are given to try to make them “better,” along with the laundry list of effects each of these drugs have (so many of the people I know who have been medicated have kept list of their actual reactions to these drugs so that they can remember what does and doesn’t work and what side effects they had to endure); the narrator’s recollection of its affect on her weight and her sex drive was also very poignant and a sharp reminder of how the drugs still inhibit a person’s ability to lead a “normal” life. And the narrator also makes real her feeling of isolation and friendlessness and the frustrations of her relationships with her doctors – none of whom seem particularly interested in providing her with any kind of emotional anchors, none of whom ever seem to engage with her as a person rather than as a patient.

However, overlaying this script was the horrible directorial decision to put some 20 or more other women on stage at the same time, all in costumes that were differing cuts of green hospital gowns. Sometimes they were patients, sometimes they were doctors, sometimes they were the narrator’s thoughts, sometimes they did movement work, sometimes they all shouted together. Too, too frequently they were a distraction to the actual words of the show. Only once were they effective, when they surrounded the narrator and, as her thoughts, essential drowned/tore her apart: otherwise I found their clownish overacting killing my engagement in the show. I couldn’t help but think that the actresses were having a hard time splitting themselves off from their work in the other plays in rep. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t stand the noise levels anymore, and realized – despairingly – that per my estimate we still had 45 more minutes to go. (“20:46 boredom” was the comment in my notebook.) And suddenly – the stage cleared to one person and glitter fell from the ceiling, and then no one was there. And I realized it wasn’t the interval, the play was done, and we could go home. What a relief!

While at the end I felt highly impressed by Sarah Kane’s writing, I was really turned off by this performance. I hadn’t realized: it was a student show. I usually don’t go to them. In retrospect, I’m glad to have been exposed to the play, but this production was heavy handed enough to ruin the evening for me. Ah well. By 9 PM, I was down the street at a pub, and if nothing else I got a full hour discussion in about how this play could have been done more effectively.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, March 17th. Another review is here.)

Mini-review – Floyd Collins – Southwark Playhouse

March 9, 2012

Let’s not say too much about how I came to be at the Southwark Playhouse for a matinee on a sunny Saturday – I had the free time and someone said, “Hey, there’s this musical on,” so I went, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

Floyd Collins is a play about a man who gets stuck in a cave while looking for a new possible tourist attraction (in Depression-era Kentucky this seems reasonable, and the play is based on an actual incident). The Vaults is a great setting for a show in which much of the action takes place underground, and the use of ladders to indicate cliff faces and also to let the actors physically demonstrate the difficulties and challenges of moving around underground made the experience quite visceral – I was really able to buy into the caver’s predicament and the harsh truths of people’s physical conditions affecting their ability to rescue Floyd. The desperation was also made even more visceral by seeing him actually stuck on the stage for the entirety of the first act, sitting on the floor while everyone else “on the surface” was getting on with life. You couldn’t help but get creeping feelings of claustrophobia.

Ideal setting aside, there were problems with sound quality that meant I frequently could not hear what the characters were singing. But this was less of a problem for me than the fact that the music was a style I simply don’t care for – vocal noodling without any sort of real tune. So I while I could hear the music perfectly, and I could hear enough of the lyrics, I didn’t like it at all. And as the story carried on (Floyd’s sister really wants him out; a cub reporter is actually able to make it to where he is trapped and bring him food; a media circus begins to happen on the surface as the story spreads across America), and the music continued to be not compelling (sure, a riddle song is fun, but I’d like it more if I wanted to sing along), I sort of mentally drifted away, as Floyd himself might have. But at some point I began to feel a sense of freedom, and my spirit lightened: I’d just realized that I didn’t need to stay to see the second act, and that, in fact, it made no sense for me to do so. Not only was I not enjoying myself, I realised I didn’t care whether Floyd lived or died. And there was no longer anything to keep me back from rejoining life on a sunny spring afternoon on the streets of Southwark. And as the music drew to a close for the first act, I felt a sense of joy as I prepared to leave the darkness. It was just a pity I couldn’t do anything to help poor Floyd. Oh well: every man for himself.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, March 2nd, 2012, which technically was still winter but please grant me artistic license. Note that a friend of mine who is a fan of this composer was having an ecstatic experience, so your milage may vary: I can at least say that I thought the singing voices of the various characters seemed pretty good in general, although, as ever, nobody seems to know how to perform as a crazy person.)

Review – Pavlova Gala – London Coliseum

March 7, 2012

Sunday night was yet another of those Russian gala evenings in which a fistful of different dancers who normally never share the stage are dumped together for one event and only allowed to dance for about 8 minutes each. At times, these have been recipes for disaster (under-rehearsing a perennial problem, lack of chemistry and bad programming another); sometimes, though, it’s a true showcase with a rare chance to see outstanding performers who rarely grace the London stage in works that showcase them at their best (and a bonus opportunity to see works I am not familiar with). I hadn’t been planning to go to Sunday’s Pavlova gala at the London Coliseum (the advertising passed me by), but fortunately (as it turns out) Graham Watts’ Twitter feed pointed me to it and gave me enough feel of who was performing that I rolled the dice on a Sunday night out … and won!

Pavlova, I think, does not need me to discuss her; however, this was a charity event and the hall was stuffed with shockingly overdressed folks not normally seen in my upper Amphitheater hideout at the Royal Opera House. But it was the dance that brought me and it was great.

Two dances for me provided the best performances of the evening. The first was Ulyana Lopatkina (“Big Red”) in “Russkaya” (new for me). With her Russian headdress on, Lopatkina utterly commanded the stage, dancing very slowly to traditional(ish, by Tchaikovsky) music on her toes, smiling quietly to herself, almost toying with us. Then … as if Mama Rose has shouted, “Sing out, June!” she went into overdrive, suddenly a whirlwind of white gauze and flickering feet.

Also top of the heap was the “Raymonda” duet performed by Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin. Polunin did moves I’d never seen before, with spins in the air with one leg half bent underneath him, and amazing landings with his legs arranged in ways that made my knees ache: only for the young! As I watched him power through the solo work, unaware of who was performing, I thought, “The incarnation of the danseur noble!” Afterward, reading the program to see whose performances I had enjoyed so much (Rojo was a charmer, too), I couldn’t but selfishly hope that Polunin stays in the dance world.

In the “strange curiosities” department were “Splendid Isolation” and “Life Is a Dream.” The first will probably be known forever as “the dance with the really big skirt.” A woman is on stage in the center of a ten foot diameter circle of fabric: her partner walks around her but seems to not be able to get close to her. The expression of their isolation is overly reliant on OTT arm gestures; the use of the skirt is primarily as stage dressing when flamenco shows us just how much more you can do if you try. I found it shallow. (See: “Marcia, next time do it without the chair.”) Meanwhile the world premiere performance of “Life Is a Dream” left me with the uncomfortable feeling that Rojo’s talents were being wasted: I had no desire to see her imitate a fish (even though having one onstage was a novelty).

Finally (though I could praise Alina Cojocaru and Alexandre Riabko’s joyous “Dame Aux Camelias” duet) we have the gala “bonus points” which I award if I get to see pieces that make me long for the whole. “La Prisonniere,” with choreography by Roland Petit, was a fabulous interpretation of Proust’s narrator’s relationship with Albertine that I guessed few people could enjoy as much as I did (see Sarah Crompton’s review for photos). The obsession, the voyeurism, the desire to control were all brought to life by Marlon Dino; the innocence, the arrogance, the love of life and the desire to hold on to her sense of self all expressed richly (and appropriately coolly) by Lucia Lacarra. The entire piece showed the arc of their relationship (yet to me somewhat shuffled together), from innocence to lust to manipulation (she tries to escape, he holds on to her ankles; later he rolls her along his legs) and finally to her death: the sheet falling down on her at the end nicely bookending it. I barely managed to take notes: if only I could see all of Proust ou Les Intermittences du Coeur!

The second (and probably more generally popular) “discovery” piece was the balcony duet from Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet,” danced by Iana Salenko and Marian Walter. What utter joy this was! I adored the way Salenko’s knees bent as Romeo turned her; she was so excited she was weak at the knees! Walter was as wonderfully strong as the “older” partner should have been, exactly the kind of youth a teenaged girl would fall head over heels for – and yet both of them were passionate and somehow shimmering with new love. Again, it was a dance that captured my attention to a degree that my notebook sat ignored while I enjoyed myself. Overall, it was a great evening and I feel so lucky to have been able to see so much great talent and such a diverse set of choreography. Thanks to all!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 4th, 2012.)