Archive for August, 2014

Review – Autobahn – Kings Head Theater

August 31, 2014

I’ve been a fan of Neil LaBute for some years now, and when a chance came up to get reviewers comps to see the London debut of his short play cycle Autobahn, I was all over it. New job leaving me too tired to go out? Fie, I say, I will survive!

And yet, even with a 7:15 start time and seven playlets tucked inside its two hours, Autobahn struggled to keep my attention. I struggled especially with the ones that were essentially monologues with an audience: “funny,” a young girl (Zoe Swenson-Graham) talking to her mother (Sharon Maughan) as she drives the girl away from rehab and back to normal life, struggled to become interesting – her own lack of awareness of how much she was monopolizing the conversation and how little she had to say left me empathizing with the mother. Later on, “long division,” which had one man ranting at the other about how incredibly unjust it was that his friend’s ex had kept his video game player, seemed to be struggling for a reason to exist. I couldn’t understand why the silent member of these two parties didn’t just stop the car and get out.

Much more interesting were the skits in which the characters were engaged in conversation. I was quite caught up with the unspoken violence underneath “bench seat,” “road trip,” and “autobahn,” where we were merely given snippets of what had happened to bring the characters to the point we joined them and then plenty of time to watch the story spin out, leaving us wondering when the explosion would happen. (In all cases, we never get to what seems to be the “inevitable” violence – a relief, really.) My favorite, though, was “merge,” in which a man (Henry Everett) and a woman (Maughan again) try to work out just exactly what happened to the woman when some men broke into her hotel. It reminded me of Rashomon – just what version of reality is the real reality?

While the cast was uniformly good at creating substantially different characters without even the benefit of a change of scenery (everything took place in the front seat of an American automobile), I have to give special credit to Zoe Swenson-Graham, who was fully believable as a semi-psychotic small town sweetheart and as a fairly innocent teenager with a violent past (and possibly a violent future) to deal with. It was hard not to get caught up in the stories she was representing, but unfortunately they were whisked away and replaced with less interesting ones. I’m glad I got to catch up with some shorter works by LaBute, but unfortunately I ran out of gas long before it did.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, August28, 2014. It runs through September 20th.)

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Review – The Ring Cycle Plays – Gods and Monsters Theatre at The Scoop

August 25, 2014

If there’s one thing I like, it’s a bargain: and The Ring Cycle Plays, performed outside, for free, was really ringing the bells for me. And as a theater-obsessive, I feel a twang of guilt about the fact I’ve never made it through the Ring Cycle. In fact, I haven’t been to even one of the operas, because they’re always sold out and the prices are above Webcowgirl means. But I console myself that I don’t really like the music anyway and besides, the bunch of them are just too long, too much of a commitment, and for that much money I want to be sure I’m going to enjoy myself before I go. So here I got the opportunity to enjoy the story (hey, I like Norse mythology as much as any other … er, mythology nerd), skip the music, and pay not a penny.

Given that this is an outdoor event, I think there might be a need for a bit of a survival guide. First, it starts at 6: given that it’s 4 hours (plus) long, this is a good thing, but since I was coming over from Paddington, it didn’t work in my favor. However, they are perfectly fine with letting you in pretty much whenever you arrive, so it’s not as bad as being late at, well, The Royal Opera House. Second, AHEM it is outside (The Scoop does not get special covers for the event), so bring a few layers and consider water resistance when packing. Third, The Scoop is made of cement. I have to say, it really gave The Globe a run for the money in the bum breaking challenge, but fortunately we’d brought a picnic blanket which folded nicely in fours (and made a good warmer later). Fourth, while they sell food, I highly advise you to bring a picnic; all of those horned helmets just made me want to quaff mead and there’s a lot of comedy to be found in Doom Doom End of the World Doom as watched while eating popcorn.

As I arrived, puppet-tailed Rhinemaidens were floating around the bottom of the Scoop, begging the very round dwarf Alberich to give them back their gold. (I never figured out where they got it from, or how he knew it was there, but this is what you get for being late, I supposed.) Something about the high pitched voices of the women and the sort of “big movement” put me off – I mean, I think they were really trying hard to make some theater magic happen in this scene, but I absolutely wasn’t there with them. It wasn’t the best puppetry (it all looked a bit done on the cheap), and as the actors couldn’t hide most of the time I just felt like I was watching people wearing funny costumes and being silly.

Odin and Fricka then appear (Odin apologizing weakly for being what I’ll call a man-whore), and, while they were supposed to be gods, well, I kind of wasn’t buying it. Again. The scene was being set – Odin needed to sort out a bad bargain he’d made with the giants who were building Valhalla – and we’re introduced to Loki, who, despite wearing a red fright wig, was actually convincing a lesser god dealing with bullying and bad dealing by someone who ought to have been setting a better example – an interesting situation I wish had been more the focus of the play.

Next up was the scene in the dwarves’ lair, where Loki tricks Alberich with the old “ooh if you’re so magical why don’t you transform yourself into something small (so I can trap you)” trick that’s been used a million times. Great fun was had by the audience who are first asked to bang on pans (to create the workshop atmosphere) and subsequently terrorized by whip-weilding Alberich – you can’t wait for him to be taken down a notch! As Odin makes off with the ring (and its curse), I couldn’t help but think, “Oh hey, J.R.R. Tolkein might have had a bit of help when he wrote his little story, didn’t he?”

Unfortunately with the really broad acting and the difficulty in getting interesting characterizations when people are playing gods, for me the whole thing just came off like a summertime panto. This was not helped by Brunhilda, who had the legs of a leading boy and a costume that did its best to divert attention from the action in grand Peter Pan style. Whoa, I’m sorry! Are you feeling genuine grief about your dad casting you out from the gods? I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening to you talk!

I certainly got a kick out of things like the Albrecht actor licking his two “children” and the horribly mismatched Valkyries (including, once again, Albrecht, complete with wig), and I’m sure I would have loved the dragon … but I just wasn’t convinced, I was cold and uncomfortable, at at the second interval I bailed. I’d say it is worth seeing for free, if you’re properly prepared and don’t get rained on, but only if you don’t really have anything better to do and you’re not expecting anything particularly serious. Dramatic, yes, but … well, four hours long and camp as hell. It wasn’t for me, but I could see where it could be for a lot of people, and if you’re waffling, well, it’s easy enough to leave at any moment – which in my mind is always a plus.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August 20th, 2014. It continues through August 31st.)

Review – Dogfight – Southwark Playhouse

August 23, 2014

A new musical is always a cause for celebration Chez Webcowgirl. I’m convinced the glories of the “golden age” were due in part to the high volume of new shows being created during that time; without a higher volume, it’s hard for the cream to rise to the top. So I was enthusiastically ready for Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse – a new musical, bring it!

And yet somehow so many years had passed between the movie that is this show’s source material and now that I had pretty much completely forgotten about Dogfight and how revolting I thought its premise was. The thought of a contest to see who could bring the ugliest girl to a party is deeply offensive to me. And as I sat there, realizing what I was about to see, I felt a creeping sense of horror. I’ve avoided seeing Taming of the Shrew for ages because I can’t find comedy in misogyny, and this evening brought that feeling right to the front again. There was a drama going on centered on the young men going to Vietnam – the “Three Bees” – which to me seemed an interesting subject to focus on. Birdlace (Jamie Muscato), Bernstein (Nicholas Corre) and Bolan (Chellen Chugg Jones) are three young Marines having their last hurrah before being shipped out to Vietnam – and it’s clear they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re about to face. They’re not just full of bravado – they are genuinely steeped in ignorance about America’s military might and their own power.

But as the play goes on and I saw how their sense of elitism, entitlement, and arrogance leads them to treat other people as things – to be screwed, screwed over, or shot – I found my ability to empathize with them disappearing. These guys were jerks, from a long line of jerks, and their attitudes are the basis of the rape culture we have today, where raped women have to defend their clothing and pretty much their entire sexual histories if they bring an attacker to trial.

And watching the show, I felt a sense of creeping horror at what it took to create it. What does it mean to hire an actress to be “the ugly one” or “the fat one?” What kind of mentality does it take to put a woman in front of an audience and dress her in a way that deliberately makes her unattractive? To me there seemed to be a meanness pervasive in the whole exercise. It was even more grating to see the very pretty Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson), with her beautiful voice, presented to us as ugly and fat. (And for her to be put in a dress clearly from the 1980s for the big party scene – seriously, Lee Newby, you got so much of this era right, did you have to screw that one up so hard? It ruined my suspension of disbelief. Sew a new one if you couldn’t find a 1964 era dress in maroon.)

The songs were serviceable, the choreography lively, the music sadly forgettable. The whole effort was almost saved by the incredible charisma of Jamie Muscato … almost. But it was brought down by Rose’s characterization – not how she was performed, but how she was written. Rose had to be cut from cardboard for the whole thing to make dramatic sense, because no woman with self respect would ever forgive or want in her life someone who thought picking a stranger out to be an object of ridicule was an acceptable pastime. As a person who sees women as people, I just can’t forgive this show for choosing to take as its premise that they aren’t. I was relieved at its short running time because I felt complicit watching it, much as I did watching Carousel. With luck, my next musical outing will meet with greater success.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 21st, 2014.)

Ten Things I Hate About Balanchine’s Apollo

August 13, 2014

It has to be said: I’ve had it with “Apollo!” Of all of the Balanchine or Ballets Russes productions to get revived, this popular number is the golden turd in the swimming pool of ballet. As I sat through yet another performance last Friday (prior to watching the Mariinski perform Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), I started listing out the reasons why I hate it so, and given my lack of time to review the actual performances I’ve been seeing, I’ve decided I’m going to share this instead.

1. The props! My God, the props! Has NOBODY ever seen the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia has to do the modern dance WITHOUT the scarf? GET RID OF THE PROPS!
2. The way they get rid of the props! It’s a little funny in The Firebird when the sleeping princesses toss their golden apples off stage, but the sloppy way the props are handled in this piece just makes me want to scream. DON’T GET RID OF THE PROPS!
3. The mime! The horrible horrible mime! HI I AM THE MUSE OF SPOKEN WORD AND I’M GOING TO BE REALLY REALLY OBVIOUS WITH MY HANDS. Olivia Newton John in Xanadu has more subtlety than these muses.
4. The way the women are so utterly and completely trivial in this work. They look beautiful but they’re just window dressing.
5. The way this ballet allows every arrogant ballet dancer to portray himself as LIKE UNTO A GOD with absolutely no sense of irony. Not that Carlos didn’t make it work but mostly I have to roll my eyes.
6. Has anyone noticed how revoltingly the women fawn and coo over Apollo? Does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, there was a little bit of Balanchine in this role? Isn’t it gross? I imagine him handing out bulimia and anorexia to them in exchange for their pathetic props, and feeling smug because it was for their own good.
7. The birth scene! Both ridiculous and inaccurate! How is it someone giving birth could be so COY?
8. It’s almost the only ballet where a woman OPENS HER LEGS toward the audience, and she’s doing it from eight feet above the stage. Ew! I am particularly grossed out by this position as it makes me feel like I’m at a gynecological appointment.
9. The goofy, herky-jerky choreography, almost like Picasso had a hand in figuring out how to move people around. Why don’t people just go around with HELLO IT’S THE TWENTIES stamped on their foreheads?
10. The guitar strumming scene. I love laughing about Apollo as a member of The Who but it’s just too ridiculous to tolerate.

Is that enough? CAN WE KILL THIS BALLET? I would suggest we replace it for all time with either Les Noces or Concerto DSCH, which has the incredible good luck to be new, fun, and generally awesome. NO MORE APOLLO. JUST SAY NO TO APOLLO!

Review – Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios

August 13, 2014

As regular readers know, I’m an easy mark for a new musical, and when a chance came up to review Dessa Rose – a recent American musical (2005) making its British debut at Trafalgar Studios– I was pretty psyched. Ahrens and Flaherty are both powerhouses on the New York scene (thanks substantially to Ragtime), but I was fascinated by the opportunity to see, here, a musical about our great American tragedy – slavery. I remembered how, when growing up, I had seen pictures of “ante-Bellum plantation houses” and thought that they came from an era when everything was more beautiful (not being too good with Latin). Listening to Ruth (Cassidy Janson – long time no Avenue Q) I was struck how every bit of gentility and luxury (“ten petticoats!”) was really only possible because of the fantastic profits that could be made using slave labor. (Well, cotton was also trading high as well, but if a family had been trying to run a farm with their own labor, well … there would have been a whole lot less gentility to it all.)

Anyway, it was notable that this show was coming over nine years later – to me, an indication that it wasn’t very successful the first time around – and also that it was coming over on the the heels of The Scottsboro Boys‘ sold out run at and transfer from The Young Vic. Maybe there’s something about being further away from the still hot feelings on this matter that makes the English audience capable of enjoying a show on its merits rather than judging it strictly on its political content … or maybe there was just a gap in the season. For me, watching 12 actors jammed into the tiny downstairs space at Trafalgar Studios, I couldn’t help but think this show was produced in hopes of a transfer. The set may have been tiny, but the costuming showed signs of a substantial budget – I think I was looking at actual Victorian hand-made lace on a few outfits – which spoke of solid backing. There was certainly no stinting on talent.

As a story, Dessa Rose is a bit of a fantasia on the American South, taking inspiration from the era but in no way beholden to strict cultural accuracy. The lead character, Dessa (Cynthia Erivo, sounding a bit New York and not very Old South), is born into slavery around 1830; we pick up her life in 1847, when she is living on a plantation with her mother Rose (Miquel Brown) and being courted by Kaine (Fela Lufadeju). When Massa Steele (Alexander Evans) kills Kaine in a moment of rage, Dessa Rose’s life is transformed, sending her ultimately to a jail where she awaits execution for murder.

Somewhat in parallel, we have the story of Ruth, a Charleston belle whose love marriage to a gambler leaves her running a plantation alone with a baby and not even her old nurse (Sharon Benson) for company. When a bunch of runaway slaves show up at her door, well, in my eyes novelist Sherley Anne Williams just decides to have a little bit of fun with the format. In my eyes, its all in service of good story telling, so rather than being disappointed that this play didn’t turn into a polemic on American race relations, I’m just grateful that the second half built into a fun “Ocean’s 11” buddy/caper tale that made for a solid night’s entertainment.

The whole experience is even more amazing in the context of being crammed into a tiny basement with a high quality cast belting out the tunes right in front of you, their skirts brushing your legs as they passed by. The intensity was amazing. And while the songs didn’t have the Tin Pan Alley singability of golden era Broadway, “White Milk and Red Blood” and “Twelve Children” were emotionally powerful songs. This show is only on for a few more weeks and is shockingly underpriced for the value delivered: I highly recommend seeing it in this intimate space while you can.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, August 9th, 2014. It continues through August 30th.)

Review – Music Hall Menagerie – Leicester Square Theater

August 8, 2014

What does the British musical hall tradition mean for a night on stage? I’ve heard a lot about it since I moved here, but I feel like I don’t really have my head wrapped around it. Is it just basically American vaudeville redux, or were there some special elements to it? Or did everyone just have a lovely bunch of coconuts those days? With those burning questions in my mind, I accepted an invitation to a night that promised “the return of the glories of the music hall,” only at the Leicester Square Theater and with a drag queen as compere. But why not, right? I thought it wasn’t a traditional choice but still appropriate given the evolution of the fandom. To keep me on the music hall path of righteousness (provide quality control and give me an excuse to drink – if this was appropriate), I brought along a friend who is an aficionado.
I was surprised that this was actually at the small stage downstairs at the LST. So intimate! So … um … was this the right size? I thought music hall was a big thing! And our cast was four actors plus our besequined compere … somehow I expected a bit more, perhaps a clown or maybe a live band.

What followed was a mixed bag of schtick/sketch (i.e. two men dressed as women talking about where to go on holiday), diva belting from Miss Dusty “O,” and comic songs in the cabaret vein. We ended the first half with a sort of Cockney medley, including “Oom Pah Pah” and “Lambeth Walk.” During the interval, my companion confided that none of the material had been original; furthermore, it wasn’t really classic music hall, but rather classics of modern British comedy. I, as usual, was completely ignorant of the originals, but I was having a good time so I got another glass of wine and sat back to enjoy the second half. Highlights were, for me, the cast singing “Does Your Mother Know” on ukeleles, and the brunette actresses doing what I was informed was Victoria Wood’s “Pam” – absolutely the highlight of the show for me and delivered with deadly wit. There was also at least one original comedy number in this section as well as credits to the many originators of the sketches, which satisfied my companion.

As a person not familiar with music hall, I don’t feel like this performance gave me any real flavor of it, but it was a good comic variety evening and very pleasant light entertainment ideal for August – plus with its 7 PM start time the dancing nuns were done early enough to get me home in time for “a game of rummy and an Ovaltine.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014. It continues through September 13th.)

Review – Between – Fourword Productions at King’s Head Theater

August 7, 2014

After seeing a run of gay themed plays at the Above the Stag theater, I was surprised to be contacted out of the blue (or out of Twitter more precisely) and asked if I wanted to review a gay-themed play at the Kings Head Theater\ – a show that had been already been to Edinburgh but was going to be making its debut in London. So I said yes and waited for Between (and its South African creators) to arrive for late night quickie in Islington. (All of the performances are at 9:30 PM and it’s only 50 minutes long so I feel this is both an accurate description and an irresistible bit of innuendo.) I normally won’t do shows that start that late, but this show seemed promising – anything that’s toured this much has decidedly got something going for it – and I wanted to find out exactly what in person.

The play is a two hander with multiple story lines – I was told three but I wasn’t entirely sure if they were actually two or possibly even just one set of characters at different points in their lives. There were two pubescent boys discovering their sexualities together (and dealing with what it meant to be told you were gay, or to actually do sexual activities with a member of the same sex); a couple reaching the end of their relationship and (I thought the same couple) a teacher and a pupil who develop a connection through their work together. This final story line involved endless readings of sonnet 23 which, at its peak, nearly had me in tears: a delicious, delightful chance to see acting methodology and approach discussed on stage.

My heart was also breaking watching a long term couple break up, but, despite the crush my heart felt, these scenes were least engaging; I think I was having a disconnect between watching these two characters get together early on (as actor/teach) then watching them fall apart and trying to figure out where the cracks came in; in retrospect (and only after a discussion with one of the authors) I think the reason I couldn’t get the matchup – which only was clear to me when the student shakes his teacher’s hand after getting cast in a role – was that this romance actually was one that didn’t happen.

Most fascinating, though, was watching Oskar Brown and Nicholas Cambell as two young men reading porn and fantasizing about sex together. These scenes were also undeniably hot – because what we in reality had were two really good looking adult men in front of us behaving sexually in a convincing way – but also extremely original and painful. I’ve never seen a play that made a real stab at showing how teenagers behave behind closed doors (Romeo and Juliet leaves out a lot), but Closer really, really got it right … the fantasizing, the questioning, and, to be honest, the lying, headgames, and repercussions all rang 100% true at a level that reminded me of Judy Blume and other fiction.

While the script isn’t perfect, the performances are very good, and, let’s be honest, seeing sexy men strip off and kiss is a bonus for most performances in my book. Was it hotter inside the theater or out? On this August night, the boiling air was rolling out from the stage door.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 5th. It continues Tuesday-Saturday through August 23rd.)

Review – Diary of a Nobody – Rough Haired Pointer at The King’s Head

August 1, 2014

It’s depressing to go to a show based on a literary classic and find yourself wiggling in your seat, going, “But I just don’t get it!” It’s even more depressing when said show is not just an original adaptation, but is transferring from another venue. Clearly a whole lot of people have enjoyed Rough Haired Pointer’s Diary of a Nobody, but I wasn’t one of them.

The story is slight – deliberately so (for comic effect): a clerk (Jamie Treacher, although voiced by all of the actors at different times, as this is the narrator) has a quiet little household in North London (Holloway, actually) where his lives with his wife (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and a few house servants (frequently played by George Fouracres). Their simple lives of meals, home improvements, and bad puns is interrupted by the return home of their adult son (Geordie Wright), who seems unable to hold down a job and not concerned by this.

And then … I don’t know, hijinks ensue? Mostly, it seems like very little happens, other than our narrator making himself out to be rather self important and his son acting like a git, but I just really didn’t find it very funny, except for when the actors were corpsing (it was a preview so I presume some details were ironing out) and of course when an egg was thrown to the ground and bounced. Now THAT really got me going!

But I was so enamored of the look of this play that it seems churlish of me to give this show a purely negative review. All of the set decor, props, and costumes were done in a uniform style of drawn lines on white that I thought made the show unbearably entrancing to look at, like a live action cartoon. Nearly the only breaks in color are red from a painted bathtub and some lobsters – and some colored bells. There is also a very rich soundtrack, nearly at the level of a radio drama, which I felt added a lot of atmosphere (and occasionally a sense of impending doom) to the production. My feeling is of a production company that is probably going to be doing things I will like – but not this show. I have bought a copy of the book and will see if, after reading it, I am illuminated about the jokes that I clearly just did not get.

Be advised that if it’s a hot day out, you’re going to be quite warm in the theater: iced drinks are highly recommended, but not too many as the first act ran nearly 1:10 the night I went and the show was not finished until after ten. Your running time may vary.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Diary of a Nobody continues through August 24th. It runs in rep: see the King’s Head Theater’s website for details.)