Archive for April, 2013

Review – The Weir – Donmar Theater

April 27, 2013

Rural Ireland is poverty stricken and full of superstitious alcoholics – or so it would seem if you choose to take the world of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (now playing at The Donmar Warehouse) as indicative of a lifestyle. Before I’d moved to the UK, I’d never heard that the stereotype (or one of) of Irish people was that they were superstitious, but this is the second play I’ve seen set in modern Ireland that takes that tack. Is this really the point the playwright is trying to make? The set up for this play seems as stale and backwards as the concept of a world where a pack of cigarettes could be paid for with pocket change and a twenty pound note would be a rare sight in a pub.

But … I don’t know about these stereotypes. What I do know about is plot and character and setting. And The Weir is, at its heart, a ghost story, or a series of ghost stories, which we, the audience, get to listen to just like we were all crowded around a fire in a dark house in the winter. It takes the opportunity of people’s reactions to show the character of the people in the play, not what kind of “characters” they are but what kind of character they have, and by doing this we come to see them, not as a bunch of drunks trying to one-up each other, but as a group of individuals carefully given life by McPherson’s script. There’s “local lad made good,” a swaggering braggart who wants to show off in front of the other guys (Risteard Cooper); the helpful hand and peacemaker (Ardal O’Hanlon); the kind-hearted barman whose future happiness may be in question (Peter McDonald); and the happy go lucky, down on his luck guy who’s made some mistakes he can’t get past (Brian Cox). And then, into this knot of known quantities, comes a woman (Dervla Kirwan). I wondered where the play would go with her, what her role would be; and, in the end, I concluded, her role was to be a foil to allow each of the men to show their true natures. The well-to-to-guy comes off as shallow, protective of the social order, and quick to cast of people who upset his view of the world; the peacemaker continues to be kind but unwilling to take a stand; the down on his luck guy still good hearted but more of a sad case; the bartender someone who will stand by you when the chips are down. And the woman, well, she becomes someone who has a past, and someone whose future you wonder about, and you can’t help but hoping that somehow she and the bartender wind up together.

The setting is perfectly realistic as an old bar; although the accents seem occasionally forced, the acting is smooth and professional; and, added together, the evening has all the ingredients to let you sit back and enjoy stories and place and the strange way people behave when they feel their lives are being challenged – sometimes in ways that do them credit, sometimes in ways that show what they’re really made of isn’t much to be proud of. It was a good night out, a lovely evening of theater, and both quick (at just under two hours) and the right kind of fast, as each person’s tale drew me in so much the evening flew by. Nice job, Josie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013. The Weir continues through.June 8th.)


Mini-review – My Perfect Mind – Told by an Idiot at the Young Vic Theater

April 24, 2013

“Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”

I booked to see My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic because the subject matter – an actor about to play King Lear is suddenly incapacitated by a stroke – thinking that much of it was going to be about the frustration that stroke patients endure, retaining their mental faculties but losing their ability to control their bodies. The character’s name is Edward Petherbridge, but in this production he’s actually played by the real Edward Petherbridge, because this is his own true story adapted to the stage (although early on we are told he is actually King Lear and is hallucinating that he is an actor called Edward Petherbridge). But what a story, eh? I was curious how we were going to show that frustration that stroke victims have, of not being able to do or say what they clearly know they want to, and how we would be let into Lear when Petherbridge wasn’t able to get the words out.

What I didn’t realize, first, was that this play was going to be really funny; second, that it was going to be, essentially, a one man King Lear (a la Alan Cumming’s also-not-really-one-man Macbeth), with another actor filling in the many other roles; third, that the play would strongly explore the parallels between Lear’s loss of his mind (I tend to think of the mad bit as being a “scene” but as per the quote above, Lear goes through quite a period of self-doubt) and the actor’s loss of control over his body. Very little of this play, in fact, was about being in a hospital or recovering from a stroke; rather, it was a journey through Petherbridge’s life as an actor, with rather a lot of King Lear happening alongside. There were scenes in Bradford, scenes with his mom, some made-up scenes in a university lecture room, lots and lots of scenes from Lear (sometimes as done in rehearsal with the company in New Zealand; sometimes as done with the cleaning lady from Romania as Petherbridge is learning the role; others more straight); and lots of reminiscences about actors and acting life gone by (Lawrence Olivier wearing fake blackface for Othello while doing a Richard III limp was pretty good).

I laughed far more than I thought I would, enjoyed the in-jokes about theater, and laughed at the sadness of a seventy-year-old actor performing a children’s song at a sea-side resort (in a melding of memories past and present that perfectly captured the way the mind wanders under stress). The actors improved off each other, the audience, and the captions above the stage, so the whole thing was very fresh feeling and not at all like a medical or personal history. In fact, it was extremely touching, and when it was over 90 minutes later, I thought it had been about 45 and I’d misread my watch. Congratulations to both Petherbridge and his Fool (Paul Hunter) – you’ve created not just a performance about one person’s experience, but a fine play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 23rd, 2013. It continues through May 4th. I could only fit in one more play before May 5th and I feel confident that I made a good choice picking this one.)

Review – Halbwelt Kultur – PK Productions at New Wimbledon Studios

April 19, 2013

As a fan of burlesque, cabaret, Cabaret, and Weimar-era Germany, I was thrilled to get an email inviting me to review Halbwelt Kultur at the New Wimbledon Studios. I hadn’t heard of PK Productions before, but I’d sure heard of Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht, and Rosa Luxemburg.

The production was set up as a series of vignettes featuring seven different women of this era, with the cast each having a star piece while also providing support in each of the other women’s pieces. As a group, they were fairly varied in hair color, faces, and body types, but dressed in matching knicker/camisole set with garter-look stockings; when they came out to do their star turns they had special clothes (such as kimonos, evening gowns, coats, day dresses) that helped them efficiently take on their new personas. Then they performed a bunch of songs from the Weimar book (Spoliansky’s “I Am a Vamp,” Friedrich Hollander’s “Falling In Love Again,” Brecht’s “Supply and Demand”) with, I think, some new songs dropped in – I could be wrong as they did seem period appropriate but the program didn’t let me know, but they were delightfully accompanied by a three piece band that included a tiny little trumpet. And each vignette allowed the performer to talk about where the star they portrayed belonged in the cabaret constellation – although I didn’t feel like some of them were really in that galaxy at all, but rather in the larger society and pulled in to the show more because of their gender rather than their place in the “underworld.”

My favorite piece of the night was Claire Waldoff (Gabriella Schmidt), who did a crazy “dress tease” in which she saucily put on the clothes of a man while the various cabaret dancer girls flirted with her (updoing her zipper, playing with her tie, et cetera). It was full of sexual tension and laughter and was utterly charming and quite yummy. It then took the opportunity to switch into a more meaty view of the reality of her life, showing her relationship with her girlfriend Olga (Stephanie Hampton, I believe) and both the joys and then the dangers as life as a lesbian as the Weimar era was overtaken by the Nazi regime. It was both entertaining and extremely humane, though it didn’t give us any clues as to how things really resolved for them.

Halbwelt Kultur

As a piece, the evening felt a bit tacked together, as some of the non-performers featured didn’t really seem to fit in as members of the Halbvelt even though they were clearly on the edges of acceptable society; the numbers for Gabriele Tergit and Rosa Luxemburg just didn’t fit and seemed to be a case of filling out the show more than creating an artistic unity. And some of the numbers seemed very soft … Marlene Dietrich (Sarah Bradnum) just didn’t have much to say and came off a bit cartoony. I was far more interested to see the bizarre dancing and performance art that came with Valeska Gert and Anita Berber’s bits, which really pulled me into the era rather than just giving me a history lesson.

As this evening was a workshop production, I’d say it was a success – 40% of the show might be cut or reimagined, but there’s more than enough there for a good evening’s entertainment and it was a success as it stood – at least if you judged by the opening night house, which was quite sold out (as was most of the rest of the run). I’d say that between the actual performance style and the story that Halbwelt Kultur was tryign to tell, there is an even better show waiting to come out – and I’ll probably be back to see it again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 17th, 2013. It continues through April 20th.)

Mini-review – Moby Dick – simple8 at Arcola Theater

April 17, 2013

Moby Dick, of all novels, not only doesn’t seem suited to the stage, it seems especially ill-suited to the low-budget, fringe theater stage. So I could help but feel myself attracted to the ballsiness that led simple8 to bring their original adaptation of Moby Dick to the Arcola Theater. I mean, if you’re going to dream, dream big, right? I’m bringing my imagination, fellahs (and as it turns out it was all men!), you take me whaling … while I’m sitting in my seat … in a crappy little, funny built theater in the middle of grimy old London town. You can do it, right?

I’m pleased to report that … wow … with three stepladders, a plank, and a mattress, simple8 did quite effectively manage to take me out on the Pequod. And not only did they do that, but with even less, they took me in a tiny boat on the open seas and harpooned a whale. And dragged it back in. I was watching them, sitting on their little stumps of wood, the five or six men that made the crew, pretending to row, pretending to throw an imaginary sharp thing at an imaginary leviathan, completely conscious of the fact that I had been bamboozled into believing into the magic of the theater … and then I shook off my standoffish critic’s glasses and stepped back into the boat. We had work to do, first getting back to the Pequod, then taking care of the whale.

If you know more than three things about Moby Dick, you’ll be aware that its structure alternates narrative with expository chapters, which would certainly pose challenges to any adaptation that tried to get too literal. This production happily embraced the opportunity to use some of these “explaining” chapters to help make the story come more to life (in our heads), for, even though Moby Dick (the narrative chapters) might be about madness, obsession, and the battle of man against nature, it’s also a book that vibrantly brings to life an entirely vanished culture. I enjoyed our lectures about the types of whales, the details of butchering, and the uses of whale oil; they gave flavor and rhythm to the evening.

They also helped lessen some of the stresses of the weight of Captain Ahab on the play. Having a madman call the shots … well, it all could have been too much of a smothering star turn, and as it was, I found myself a bit turned off by the tics and twitches of the actor (though Queequeg’s affectations grated far more). But instead, it was nicely turned into a show more about the dynamics of the men interacting with each other, with Ishmael and Queequeg’s friendship, and with Starbuck’s attempts to manage the unmentionable and unconfrontable without making it all there was to the play.

I had a few other small quibbles about this show – a few things that happen toward the very end were not clear to me until a character said what had happened – but as I (ahem) actually didn’t know the ending of the book, I won’t spoil it here. Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable production that exemplified the kind of theater I enjoy – the kind that relies on me to build empires in my head, the kind that trusts its audience to make that leap. There’s certainly wonder in seeing a play where they have all of the money to do all of the things, but I’ve always felt that you don’t need to show a helicopter to make one be there on stage, and I’ve always preferred the “less is more”/empty space aesthetic that simple8 embraces. My only regret? That I hadn’t come earlier to see their Cagliari.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, April 13, 2013. I liked it enough to buy a script. By the way, the new bathrooms in the Arcola are really confusing. I wasn’t entirely sure where the actual toliet was or what ou were supposed to do with the sink.)

Mini-review – Ubu Roi – Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican (Silk Street Theater)

April 15, 2013

You’re not going to care but I’m going to tell you anyway. When I was in college, I was in a punk band with my roommates called “Sheepchild.” One of our songs was called “Ubu Roi.” It was what I’d named my really crappy car, the one I bought for $400 and then immediately spent $600 repairing over the course of the one month I had it before I gave up. It broke me financially and pretty much ensured that, right after I graduated, I was unable to work any kind of decent job because I was dirt poor and living in a city with no public transportation. I’d painted a picture of Ubu Roi on the hood of the car in florescent spray paint; I’d seen the picture in one of my roommate’s art textbooks. The song went:

Ubu the little car
Ubu where you are
You’re in the garage
You’re not in my house
Ubu. Ubu.
One day, you’re gonna be in jail! Where cars go when they die, you know, car hell!
Ubu. 160 dollars. 97 dollars. 120 dollars. Ubu.

We were never famous but somewhere there is a cassette tape of me singing this song while one of my roommates plays the drums and the other roommate plays a badly tuned guitar.

Okay, so did that bore you? Now that is how I felt during the opening moments of Cheek by Jowl’s production of Ubu Roi. I was peeved that the tickets were so freaking expensive (27 quid is way high for me) and then it was going to be TWO HOURS (nearly) with no interval, and there we were watching some fucking actor with a live video camera feed showing his face, and then the couch, and then some more of the set. And then he goes back stage and the feed continues as if there’s actually a house back there with people (his parents, presumably) preparing food and getting dressed in preparation for a dinner party. And I’m sitting there going, for fuck’s sake, they’re wasting my time showing me a close up of the fucking carpet in the bathroom, and I’m going to be thinking I could have been home 20 minutes earlier if they hadn’t wasted my time with this Katie Mitchell crap.

And then, I realize, the whole play is going to be performed in French, which the actors are muttering to each other while the supertitles have clearly frozen. I don’t even have the opportunity to try to understand what they’re saying because they’re not talking loudly enough. And there are an hour and forty minutes still to go.

Doom. I consider leaning over to my husband and telling him some anecdotes about my day to kill time while this wretched beast lumbers along, and then, suddenly, everything goes green, the kid’s mom and dad start twitching and jerking and it’s like he’s starting to channel his feelings about this bourgeois spectacle through them. It clears up and they act normal again, but then it’s Hulk time and off they go and they’re nearly humping on stage and reality is getting fucked with. And it clears again and it’s a dinner party with a sulky teenager …

And then it’s the play Ubu Roi, a tale of greed, lust, cowardice, violence, and stupidity (with functioning supertitles), that could never have been much more than a Punch and Judy show but somehow as spoken through the mouths of these rather glamorous normal people took on a hideous reality that I was totally sucked into. Every character was a caricature but pushed to the uttermost limit of ridiculousness. You couldn’t help but despise each and every person on stage, and, yet, the whole thing was just incredibly compelling, and made absolute sense as a channel of the id and idiocy of a teenaged boy.

Damn, this was a good night. I never thought about needing to go to the bathroom after minute 12. But I did find myself craving, just a tiny bit, some nice cheese and perhaps a bit of wine, and remembering the raw creativity of 1990 and how much fun it was to live in a house where we did spontaneous plays, band performances and puppet shows, made art out of pizza and stages out of couches and cushions, and rollerskated through the living room. Aaaaah, Ubu, your reputation has only improved over time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 15th, 2013. It continues through April 20th.)

Review – Two Nacho Duato Mixed Rep Programs (Multiplicity; Forms of Silence and Emptiness; Without Words, Nunc Dimittis; Prelude) – Mikhailovsky Ballet at the London Coliseum 2013

April 13, 2013

The Mikhailovsky’s visit to London had on offer the kind of varied items you would expect at a restaurant in a tourist town. There was the house specialty done to excellence (Don Quixote with Osipova and Vasiliev); the tired old regional dish that everyone in town has to have because it’s expected (Laurencia); and then the last two programs of the visit, which featured something the chef added to keep the menu up to date for the locals, and then one special dish that he had lavished all his care and attention on knowing that only one or two diners might order it …but he wanted to do it to challenge himself, and because one fantastic ingredient was in season.

Multiplicity and Forms of Silence and Emptiness were done to be popular, taking well-known classical music (Bach) and setting dance to it that was intellectually unchallenging. I cringed a bit when the curtain went up, because, it turned out, I had seen it before (I call it “the ballet with the chair”) and disliked it. It’s kind of crushing because I love Bach, but for Duato to use the same trope over and over again – of dancers as musical instruments – just made me want to claw my eyes out. If he had done it once (the harpsichord duet would have been my choice) I could have handled it, but instead it was a whole damned ballet of cutesiness. Bleah. Bonus points for the hot shirtless men in panniers but otherwise the entire thing was a trial.

Next up was “Forms of Silence and Emptiness,” which I had also seen before, way back when it was new and Duato brought it to Seattle. Why, why have Bach as a character? Why “embody” inspiration? It all just seemed a way to ham-fistedly find a way to make modern ballet “accessible.” At least there was some gorgeous singing (Svetlana Moskalenko, thank you!) which coincided with my favorite bit: a gorgeous little duet to the aria “Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not” in which Victoria Zaripova ans Rishat Yulbarisov lost and found each other again. It was plotless and perfect pure dance, but before I knew it, the spell was over and Duato was back with his wooden bat of obviousness. At least it was a short program, and my half-priced tickets in the front row gave me the opportunity to really enjoy the dancers in a way I normally never can.

The final evening completely made up for it with a work of breath-stealing amazement. No, not “Prelude,” which seemed to be designed to please the locals (in Saint Petersburg) by showing them “oh look, I can make pretty, classical-esque dances that are modern but not so much that you can’t relate to them, don’t worry about having me run this group, everything is going to be fine;” but “Nunc Dimittis,” which took the amazing music of Arvo Part (and David Azagra) and built a work of art that completely engaged the eye while showing of the talents of Ekaterina Borchenko. Watching this work, a perfect unison of movement, costume, lighting (the little cavern of red at the back of the stage!) and music, I couldn’t believe this was the same company that, just a few days ago, left two thirds of the corps dancing in the murk for Don Quixote. Is Duato going to pizazz up the rest of the repertoire? I certainly hope so. The dancing was equally lovely for Without Words, an older piece I found hypnotic in its endless partnerings and repartnerings and mysterious entrances and exits. It’s a pity they didn’t ditch Laurencia in favor of a third modern bill; and I’m a bit miffed that Vasiliev and Osipova were too grand to make a showing for either of these evenings. Maybe they just haven’t been with the company long enough; maybe they’re too rigid in their views of what kind of dancing they’re willing to do. At any rate, it was wonderful to end the Mikhailovsky’s visit with this excellent evening of dance, and I look forward to their return. But next time, can they announce it before I book my holidays? I don’t want to have to miss two shows next time!

(This review is for performances that took place on Friday, April 5th, and Sunday, April 7th, 2013.)

Review – #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei – Hampstead Theater 艾未未

April 12, 2013

In some ways, I feel Like I’ve spent the entire last 25 years of my life getting ready to see and write about “#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei,” a new play currently showing at the Hampstead Theater. So I’m going to let it all rip here without trying to explain too much: but my interest in human rights in China, the evolution of modern China, and modern art are all going to come to a head in this review. So: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

In execution, “The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” is the most purely political play I’ve ever seen. It’s not designed to lecture the audience (except for a few minutes at the end) like “Earthquakes in London” or pretty much anything by George Bernard Shaw; instead, it’s actually the equivalent of a newspaper editorial, directly written as an attack. Its performance is part of the attack, and in order to achieve its goal, which is embarrassing the Chinese government, we, the audience, are required to be there; for a play embarrassing China means nothing if it only exists on paper. This play is being performed on a stage, seen by hundreds or even thousands of people, and reviewed in newspaper: its position, mocking Chinese officials as being stupid and petty and the Chinese government for being rigid and censorious, while simultaneously raising the profile of the treatment of political prisoners in China, is one that the government of China cannot help but be offended by. This play “ruins face” for China; it shows it to be a backward country dedicated to crushing any individual who dares speak against the state. China wants to appear like a modern state on the modern stage; this play peels away the facade of technological innovation and shows China to be just as much of a fascist regime as it ever was. And for this to count, for this to make its political point, for it to be a barb or a dart in China’s self image, it must be done in public.

So, in some senses, this is not designed to be a play that we see and enjoy; it’s a work of performance art. But still: it is a play. And as a play, well, if you’re not really into China or Ai Wei Wei, you might be a little bit bored. It’s no Kiss of the Spider Woman; there’s no moment when the layers peel away and we’re exposed to great art or some sort of, well, fabulous theatrical experience. It actually plays out rather flatly, with the Chinese officials who discuss Ai Wei Wei’s case inside a garden seeming completely artificial, and the “action” inside the places where he is kept prisoner, well, rather dull. In fact, you could make the argument that, as a political prisoner, 90 days of imprisonment in which he’s kept handcuffed to a chair but never beaten is actually a bit on the dull side. In fact, it doesn’t seem like particularly harsh treatment at all, except, of course, if you’re being forced to watch it. (It is, however, a good chance to get to learn about some of Ai Wei Wei’s art works besides his very famous “Sunflower Seeds,” and I am inspired to read up on them.)

I was also very interested in the presentation of Ai Wei Wei in this play, given that it’s based in interviews with Ai. Ai is very much an artist celebrity (or, in the view of the Chinese interrogators, a “con man”) whose art is in part predicated on his position as a dissident in society. At the end, he is freed in part because the officials think his imprisonment would serve Ai more than it would serve them. I remember thinking, when he was arrested, that China could hardly do more to improve his celebrity status and increase the value of his art. But is this play also serving to create “Ai Wei Wei, the legend?” As written, all of his captors turn to his side: the Beijing policemen talk noodle recipes with him; the soldiers speak to him without moving their lips; the transcriptionist at the end says he admires him and wants to shake his hand. Is any of that real? I kind of think Ai may have made all of that up to show how well he connects with everyday people – he even gets his last set of captors to learn about Dadaism. (My favorite moment: Ai being confronted with a picture of Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Brilliant!) But I can’t cross-check his story. It’s being presented as history, but I think it may all be self-serving hagiography.

So is this a good play? I think it’s important in terms of being a good piece of politics making some important points and poking a government that really needs to have its ugly side exposed to the world; but it’s dry and I suspect plays fast and loose with the facts. It may be good for people who are really into modern art, modern China, or human rights; it will be highly offensive to many Chinese people. And for other people, it may just be dull. I don’t expect it will stand the test of time, but one thing I feel certain about, “The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei” was a play that was meant to be talked about. And for all that his jailors said that Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds were a con because they couldn’t even grow (“They were just dirt!”), I say I disagree, because, for me, they, like this play, made beautiful flowers of thought bloom in my mind.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, April 12th, 2013. For another take on the same evening, please see the Monkey Matters blog.)

Review – The Salon Project – Untitled Projects at The Barbican

April 9, 2013

What would you think of buying tickets to an event where YOU are the entertainment? I think for a lot of people the very idea of doing this would make them run screaming from the room; for others, adding “in costume” would provide the rest of the motivation for quitting; “while talking to strangers” would be the cherry on top. But for those extroverts out there, spending an evening in fancy dress in an environment that attempted to recreate the French salons of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t sound nearly as bad as all that. I’d actually wished frequently that I could have gone to one of these events: an entire evening spent talking about art, literature and politics – I was born for this!

As it turned out, though, our costumes were not Madame de Pompadour, but Opera House Fire Sale, with the results that, as we trickled into the mirrored white room that was the salon, we looked like time-traveling refugees cast ashore in the promenade room of a luxury cruise ship. I was green and gold twenties matron, “she” was 1905 Klimt vamp, someone else was 1860s mish mash (no petticoats!) and someone looked positively futuristic in a black banded gown with a gold collar and crown. Most of the men were in much less glamorous tuxedos, but still, the feeling was quite, “Ooh, aren’t we all so amazing!” and we spent rather a lot of the first half hour or so just looking at each other and staring, somewhat distractedly, at our highly altered images. We hadn’t just been sent back in time: we’d emerged as somebody elses.

Around the time that we were running out of goggling, a gong rang and we were told to close our eyes: when they reopened, a bevy of naked people sat or stood motionless among us – a stationary “tableux vivant.” What was odd, though, is that with their hair, tattoos, and (dare I say it) unique pubic hair styling, the naked models looked far more modern than we clothed people. And nearly all of them (as I recall) seemed to be fiddling with some kind of personal electronic device. Now, mind, most of us had cell phones or cameras (all the better to Tweet the event with), but somehow our touristing was of a very different sort …. the models almost, I think, made us feel more … obvious … but somehow united in our imaginary being in the past-ness. The naked people were 100% 2013, and they felt like they were working, while we were there to enjoy ourselves. I cast a glance over each of them but found nothing much really to talk about, stare at, or otherwise distract me from the rest of the evening; the rest of my fellow costumed crew seemed likewise to be nonplussed. My thought: now where did I put my glass of prosecco? And was there any chance of hors d’ouvres?

More people showed up, and there was some more structured entertainment (two people talked, one on mental illness as personally experienced, the other on brain research; and there was a piano concert), but mostly we were left on our own to entertain ourselves as we saw fit. Not much, however, was done to actually encourage people to interact with each other, which was a bit of a pain since I’d come there by myself. I randomly talked to about four people over the course of the evening, which seemed like not much, given that I was fully prepared to speak about almost any kind of artistic subject (and re: politics, Margaret Thatcher had just died so you would have expected something to be said!). I had my best conversation of the night with Yolanda, a Spanish actress, whom I only happened to speak to because she had been in a picture I was taking and I wanted to repose it to show her off better. (The ensuing conversation, about training as an actress in England, and about the meaning of accent culturally and use of it at a professional level, was actually really great; we conducted it in Spanish just because we could, and it seemed appropriate for the evening.)
With this great lump of not-happening going on, I reached a point where I was getting bored. Had we really just signed up for playing dress up and not much else? It really seemed so. I resigned myself to making the best of it and got more serious about photo taking, but I was ultimately beaten out by the staff photographer, who herded us all behind some chairs for a group photo. Well, alright, but then we were done, right? Oh no, there was going to be some unattractive, bloody yet artsy video shown on a TV screen. At least the piano player got to let rip with some Phillip Glass piano stuff; I enjoyed that a lot, but mostly had to grit my teeth and wait for my chance to be disenchanted and allowed to slip back into the night.

There is no doubt that being dressed up by other people is fun. But mostly, as an event o encourage interaction, Salon seemed to me to be a failure. Why is it so easy to find 80 outfits to fit 80 hugely different people, but so hard to find a few things to get them all talking to one another? I wish the organizers had focused more on the talking than on the fashion; this, to me, would have led to a much more enjoyable evening and memories I would have treasured much more than a few photographs. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 8th, 2013. It continues through April 14th and is very much sold out.)

Review – The Trial (part 2) – RETZproduces at a secret location in Shoreditch

April 8, 2013

The idea of doing Kafka’s The Trial as an interactive play seems, on the face of it, both really exciting and a bit scary. It’s a well known work of literature, but I’m far away from when I read it, and I decided I didn’t want to contaminate my experience by comparing it too closely with the source material; I just wanted to see how it held up as a work of art on its own (or as an experiential performance, to be more accurate). I’d been to see the first half a month earlier, and left, slightly confused (I was unsure that it had ended) with an appointment card to the next stage of the event: the trial itself.

Part Two of The Trial starts at the Department for Digital Privacy (tucked in, I think, an underused government building not too far from Hagerston train station). The waiting room is full of a much more attractive version of bored governmental functionaries than I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in my many encounters with the slightly hostile bureaucrats staffing the UK Borders Agency. We, some five or six of us, were jammed in with too few seats, while some of us were checked in, some were wanded down, and … er, there was some other things taking place, but overall, the feeling was of the group of people who do work without thinking about what the consequences are to them other than possibly losing their pension if they don’t stick to the rules, whatever they may be.

Once I was finally “processed” at intake, my real journey began. My suspicions are that what I was doing was somehow mirroring the plot of the trial itself … friendly people not in the system … being told by a chipper departmental functionary I’d been flagged as guilty and needing to be punished, not because of any crime I’d committed, but because of an analysis of my propensity to do illegal behavior … a room with a bit of food … something read to me too quickly to be understood …

I knew other people were likely doing these things both right behind me and in parallel, and that each person in each room was having to go through a fairly set script. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Was I, as the protagonist, only allowed to take the position of Josef K, of protesting my innocence? I decided that it was better for me to say yes, I was wrong, and for the good of society it was best that I be dealt with appropriately and according to the laws of the land. In some ways, this is because I’ve been dealing with so much bureaucracy since I became an immigrant, and read so many things telling me about my guilt “as an immigrant” for ruining the UK, and how I need to follow every pointless rule that exists to the letter, that I’ve given up fighting for my rights. I’ve been trained to placate the bureaucrats. And somehow, I think, my approach was throwing off the actors. The happy ones dimmed, the evil ones softened, the hard core rules mongers seemed not to know how to maintain their place in this different society.

Unfortunately because of the feeling I was just moving through rooms full of actors, I was never able to completely plug in to the experience, and when we got to the final scene, I felt pretty clear about how the audience was being managed. Ultimately, as a polemic against the all-seeing eye of the state, Retz’s The Trial was fairly pointed – but it didn’t succeed in taking me to another world. Perhaps it’s because in a world filled with actors, I screwed things up by not knowing the script. I accept the verdict: guilty as charged.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 4, 2013. It continues through April 27th. Tickets can be booked through the Barbican web site.)

Review – Darling of the Day – Union Theater (Southbank, London)

April 4, 2013

The Union Theater’s production of Darling of the Day was my first chance to see a fully realized production of a show I’d only ever seen done before in concert form (in the Lost Musicals series). In this case, the show (as a show) was also a UK debut, for despite its fine pedigree (Jule Styne! Yip Harburg!), Darling of the Day had been an utter failure in America, no doubt due to being unfortunately placed as an old-fashioned, story-and-songs musical at the same time Hair came out. Rock and roll and naked hippies, or, um, sorry, what was that again? Something about about lower class/Cockney English people a la Mary Poppins? You can see where it failed to find its audience.

It’s a show that for several reasons, I think, rates a place in the silver era of American musical. The songs are really solid, and held up well even under the limitations of opening night, when the second female lead was too unwell to sing at all and the first lead (Alice Chalice, played by Katy Secombe) was singing, if softly, through her own bronchitis recovery period. But the unique story, about an artist switching places with his butler so he can live a life of happy obscurity, is a great set-up for a show; we get on one hand the silly, shallow art world (depicted as being pretty much exactly the same as today) and on the other hand the fun yet poor world of the working class folk of Putney (obviously long departed and a comic element of its own in 2013 London). It’s all brightly realized with some pretty costly costumery and non-trivial dance numbers, both of which I think exceeded the normal budget allotted to the Union Shows. The comedy, though, came along with the script, and in a spring that shows not even a peep of hope of arriving, Darling of the Day is a lovely little charmer well worth the ticket cost for its power in warding off gloom and chill.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 22nd, 2013. It continues through April 20th. If the Union’s website is crashing for you like it was for me, tickets can be bought directly at Ticketsource or by calling the box office.)