Archive for January, 2015

Travel Review – Legend of the Lunar Eclipse – Joe Louis Puppets at Thailand Cultural Center

January 12, 2015

After three days of tourist focused shows, it was a relief to get to the Thailand Cultural Center in Bangkok for a night of art not designed for the tastes of busloads of bored travelers. Now, if you’re not a regular reader, you might want to skip ahead: the story of how I got to see this performance, which wasn’t advertised anywhere in English, is a tale of its own. I’d read about the Joe Louis puppet company in my slightly dated copy of Frommer’s Thailand, which said they no longer had a permanent home and recommended I go to the website. Thus began a wild goose chase, from the outdated, Thai only website to a hotel travel agent who suggested I go to the restaurant where they perform and ask there (it’s the restaurant in front of the Asiatique Calypso/Muai Thai performance/shopping complex); there I was told they were not back until the week after I left but were instead performing at the Thailand Cultural Center (not mentioned in my guidebook at all!) which had a big website that unfortunately only had two pages of English language information – from 2013. I had two days left that I could go – would it work?

Well, things were looking down because when I got someone to actually call (a difficult trick finding the number since they appear to have carefully avoided being findable on Google – may I suggest you look into search engine optimization?), it turned out they were only going to be there on the Friday (at 7:15) and not the Saturday due to some big holiday celebration I was of course unaware of. Nail in the coffin: the tickets, which were free, had all been allocated. It appeared that fate was against my going: I’d successfully found their new home and been denied, and then even found their temporary space and also been denied.

Well, if you know me, just being sold out isn’t reason enough to keep me from a show I really want to go to. There was nothing to be done about getting tickets online (everything was in Thai so I couldn’t even see if there was availability), I’d been shut down on the phone (mind you as I don’t speak Thai I wasn’t able to follow up), so I decided to try my old standby of just going to the venue and just seeing if a spare ticket showed up. See, my experience for free shows (especially) has been that when people don’t have to spend money, they frequently decide not to show up, so maybe there was hope. I do really, really like puppets, and I was by myself so there was no one else to irritate if I failed.

So … the night of, I found my way to the center (not particularly well signed from the five way intersection – despite having its own tube stop it was still a challenge actually getting there), blazed up to the people giving out tickets, and bang – I was in like Flynn. In fact, about 20% of the seats weren’t taken, and there was a balcony that was completely empty. The audience (600 or more) seemed to be rather a lot of Chinese people (I was sit next to a group of four) and of course lots of children. The stage was huge – forty or fifty feet across, bigger than most London houses – and on the left side was a 15 person music ensemble, the kind with xylophones and such that sounds like Gamelan music to me (I don’t know the Thai name for this collection of instruments – there were also three singers and a guy playing what I think was a leaf, held between the lips and buzzed). To the right was a Buddha altar, surmounted by three masks – one of Hanuman, one of Ganesha, and the other of Ram. The performers – about 20 black clad men and woman – came out and kowtowed to the altar right after we all stood for the Thai national anthem. I was definitely NOT in London. And that was good.

To my great and grand surprise, there was also, at the right side of the stage, a free-standing screen, which meant … supertitles! Hurray! And so I was able to follow along with “The Story of the Lunar Eclipse,” this evening’s presentation, which was the retelling of a myth about the origin of lunar eclipses that pulled from the Ramayana (or, in Thai, the Ramakien). The framing device was that Hanuman was chasing a pretty lady through the woods, trying to seduce her, but the moon slowly went dark … and this happens because (condensing 80 minutes of back story) a long time ago, the moon betrayed a demon shortly after it had drunk water of eternal life, causing the demon to become immortal – only to be sliced in two (“by a crystal chakra”) by said god. So the demon punishes the moon by eating him whenever he can find him.

The set for this show was beautiful and simple, relying occasionally on shadow projections on the backdrop, the foreground containing generally very little. Sometimes the performers held clouds; there was also a large lump representing a mountain. After my visit to Angkor Wat, I was feeling very on top of the ancient legend of the world being conjured by a sea of milk being churned by demons and gods playing tug of war with a giant snake (naga), and here I saw the statues of the temples brought to life, with piles of additional details added. The naga was fantastic, like a Chinese dragon (carried by many) only with nine heads and the fantastic ability to shoot steam out of its mouth. And, of course, with puppets, you have no problem adding characters in with multiple heads and arms, and having them be sliced in half and then carry on acting.

I was really impressed by the detail and beauty of the puppets. Their hands were frequently curved in a gesture that brought to mind Asparas; but they also did a good job holding swords. Interestingly, the three puppeteers assigned each puppet echoed both the facial expressions and the movement of the puppets, so that if a puppet was stomping or dancing, the puppeteers also did this – but in perfect unison. The level of skill was very, very high. And the performers did more than just work the meter high puppets; for a big fight scene, they came out and performed as people in full Thai dance regalia. This, plus the live music, and the use of shadow puppets for the scene of the demon chasing the moon (and for the moon eclipsing) really just marked this troupe out as one of the best performance puppet groups I have ever had the pleasure to see. War Horse is what it is, but it’s a play (that’s become too cheap to bother with live music last I heard); this was an extravaganza of world class performers. And I got to see it for free.

I can’t say what exactly the Joe Louis puppet group does at its standard dinner performance, but they’re really amazing, if perhaps not at a level most kids would really enjoy. If you ever have a chance to see them, you absolutely must go, especially if you can see a performance that’s all them and without any dinner distraction – on a full stage with 90 minutes of show, it was great. And thank you for whoever sponsored this performance; yes, I bought the t-shirt.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 9, 2015.)

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Travel review – Siam Niramit – Siam Niramit Thai Village, Bangkok

January 12, 2015

Given the options for seeing Thai dance in Bangkok were mostly being presented to me as dinner shows, most of them on river boats, I thought that seeing a production that was the star of its own show (rather than a side attraction to dinner), I decided to book tickets to see Siam Niyarit, a production big enough to merit its own theater a block away from the Thailand Cultural Center (and its subway stop). My ticket was around 1100 baht (approximately twenty quid) and did include dinner, but unfortunately a late arrival from Cambodia meant that by the time I arrived at the theater I had about five minutes to get checked in and find my seat. Dinner is in an entirely separate hall next to a parking lot full of coaches, and the only food to be found was a packet of peanuts at the snack stall at the patio in front of the hall. They were searching bags for food and cameras (with a mandatory camera check – I kid you not) so I decided I’d just power through and catch dinner at a street stall afterwards. Dinner isn’t mandatory for this show, by the way: some girls who came in the same shuttle I took from the tube station (there’s one there on show nights to get you to the theater, located across an absurd number of intersections) hadn’t bought dinner. Ah well. I missed the elephant rides, too.

While I had thought the Smile of Angkor show was pretty big, Siam Niyarit blew it out of the water in the way only a show designed for a single stage, to be performed nightly, with a big budget to back it, can do. It’s basically a history of Thailand (with any negative stuff left out), hitting the peoples and dances of the various ethnic communities, showing the Chinese cultural cross-pollination in a nice narrative segment that didn’t need any language skills to follow, and ending with a big segment on the festivals of Thailand that didn’t really explain any of the festivals but did have performers dancing in the aisles.

The technical values of this production were really top notch. The lighting had obviously been very professionally designed, and the sets! They had an entire junk boat with a twenty man crew come onstage, and a little village with five or six huts that very much looked like they were full size. And this was just one of about five or six completely different scenes, each richly detailed, that graced (yet never dwarfed) the stage. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more wow factor – they’d had live goats and chickens in the village scene – they brought out AN ELEPHANT. A real live elephant. And then a series of boats were PADDLED ACROSS THE FRONT OF THE STAGE in the pool someone had jumped into earlier. Now, maybe the boats were on little tracks – I checked and didn’t see any muscle movement from one of the women canoers – but WOW. And there was a rain scene and later some geysers, and the elephant WALKED BETWEEN THE LEVELS OF THE AUDIENCE. And during a bit about hell and heaven (if there was a plot I missed it), we had fifteen different people floating through the air dressed in gorgeous costumes, representing various mythological beings and creatures and damn, it was just all really pretty.

But you know what it wasn’t? Thai traditional dance, at least not for more than about three five minute sections, and that was what I had come to see. I was disappointed as this was my second try to see some and what I got was a spectacular that doubtlessly, in its 90 minute length, satisfied most of the audience, but left me disappointed. I will grant it was assuredly worth the price I paid (more so if I’d been able to eat beforehand), and, with its high quality design and good flow, I can’t deny that it was entertaining, if painfully loud. It just wasn’t what I wanted. The many street stalls near the tube stop (where I was quickly whisked back to) did, however, take care of my other hunger. And I think it was a really good thing that they took people’s cameras away – for some reason, the crowds at these things can be pretty rude.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 9, 2014. It seems to be on indefinitely.)

Mini-review – Cambodian shadow puppet show – La Noria, Siem Reap

January 11, 2015

Having been recently disappointed by my attempt to see Apsara dance at the “Smile of Angkor” show, I decided to try again, this time for shadow puppets. My slightly out of date guidebook said that shows were done Wednesday nights (only) at a restaurant called La Noria, and to my surprise these shows are still happening five years on. The group that performs them is a charity (Krousar Thmey) which provides education and training to Cambodian orphans (I think, definitely kids), and all money raised from ticket sales (a grand $7 per head) goes to the orphanage. A good cause, I thought, so even if the show isn’t so great, I knew I wouldn’t end the night feeling I’d wasted my money. The evening is not done as a dinner/performance combo, so if you’re going to be eating beforehand, it will be a la carte off of La Noria’s menu, which runs about $7-$15 for entrees – outrageous by local standards but obviously not a bank buster for traveling first worlders. A bigger problem for me is that they were not comfortable about seating me by myself, but as it turns out they just needed confirmation that I was okay sharing a table – which I was. I showed up to the packed house­­­ at 7:15, ordered a Tropical Glory ice cream and fruit dessert (yum!) for $5, and got ready for the show.

The music was performed live, which was a treat for me: the sort of gamelan orchestra that I now think is the traditional sound for puppet shows and dance in this part of the world (must do more research to confirm!). The evening was actually a mix of shadow puppets and dance. Each bit was introduced in English and French, which was good, but unfortunately the shadow puppets talked to each other in Cambodian – a little hard to follow along with. The first piece was about a demon god fighting Hanuman – lots of sword shaking and the same kind of loud fight music and puppet actions that you get in Sicilian puppet shows – and the second was about a man and a woman having some kind of altercation about their water buffaloes (resulting in police intervention). The puppets were beautifully made, but for the second piece I was unfortunately lost. I could tell it was the kids doing the voices, though, which I liked, but I was frustrated that I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

For this reason, although I had wanted a full night of puppets, I was happy to have us switch to dance. Three dances were done, with costume changes. One had a bit of a romance – fisher boy teases fisher girl, she pushes him away, it all ends happily – while another involved the kids knocking bamboo poles on the floor longways, together (touching) then apart while the performers danced in the gaps. It would have been immediately recognizable to anyone whose seen jump rope tricks or, I think, even the same sort of dance done with, I think, swords.

The kids were obviously not professional and were occasionally looking at each other for cues, but they were positive and enthusiastic and I thought that, as a student performance, this was quite enjoyable and a much more pleasant evening than being jammed in a room with 500 people who were trying to talk louder than the performers. The upper story of La Noria, where the performance took place, was open air on the sides and a very nice place to relax; I only regret I didn’t have someone to sit and talk with before the show and I really should have left some more money in the collections kitty when I left. If you’ve got two nights in Siem Reap and one is a Wednesday, I would definitely recommend this show.

(This is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. Please be sure to contact La Noria and make reservations beforehand as it does sell out.)­­­­­­­­

Travel review – Smile of Angkor – Siem Reap

January 11, 2015

When I travel, I want to experience local culture to the extent I’m able. I like eating street food, I don’t like going out with big groups, and I take any opportunity I can find to see the local performance styles, especially of dance (theater won’t work for me unless it’s in English). So when in Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor, I was interestedin having an opportunity to see Apsara dance, the local style best known for its static form, on the walls of the temples of Angkor. The form was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge regime, but these days there’s a plethora of options if you want to do a dinner/dance show. I didn’t have a stack of reviews to sort through (see, we do actually do useful work) and only my hotel receptionist to rely on, so when I said, “Send me to the best show” I wound up at the stupendously expensive Smile of Angkor (tickets $45 and $55, comes with dinner). Now, based on London prices, that’s not too bad, but given the local economy it was like what scalpers were charging for Kate Bush tickets.
Unsurprisingly, it was an event only popular with tour groups (as no one local could afford it), and they were there by the bus load, some 15 or 20 of them, all clustered outside of a purpose built structure that looked for all the world like an American casino on an Indian reservation … in the middle of an empty field, near a canal where locals were having open air picnics (it looked pleasant) and playing volley ball in other nearby lots. The folks in attendance were a mixed lot of Japanese, Korean, Chinese (probably 60%) and a few mysterious European looking folks that seemed to have trickled in by tuk tuk rather than organized tour.

Since you’re not getting in without paying for dinner, I’ll give a run-down on the food. Simply put, this was the most impressive buffet I’ve ever seen, suited to feeding 400 people at a shot without running out of anything. There were at least five stations where things were being made fresh – a grill (for pork skewers, YUM), a fresh-fried profiterole (not cream filled) stand, a stir-fry (four chefs!), something involving duck, and a do-it-yoursef soup … I couldn’t sort this one out so passed. There were also a table of many kinds of fresh fruit (chili infused salt to go on the fresh pineapple – gotta try it), a bread carousel, a table of funky desserts, fifteen or so vegetable dishes, curries, and a tea/water/fruit juice/coffee stand. There was drink service if you wanted it; I was of course happy with tea. Little concessions were made to European food preferences (although everything was labelled in English) – I couldn’t have cared less and let it be said that I did eat well and it was tasty. Yet oddly the bathroom had no toilet paper and the floors seemed puddly and the whole thing was a bit whiffy despite the sign outside declaring the awards from the international toliet association. Still, the food was great and after a long day of travel I was glad of it.

So … the show. The whole thing was a Broadway production values, over the top, video projections included extravaganza complete with water feature and giant talking statues. It was a little bit “background of the art of Angkor” heavily peppered with “walk through Khmer history” and giant lashings of patriotism and Buddhist/Hindu religious teachings on top. We started with a little child addressing a 10 foot tall carved head – the ones that are associated with the temple of Bayon – asking about its smile, then being transported back into the rise of the Khmer kingdom. We got battles (with some nice acrobatics), building of the temples, mythology (the “churning of the sea of milk” showed up, always nice to see a tug of war on stage), temple dancers, and some bits showing how people lived then and how they live today. All of this was done with simultaneous four language translation (English, Chinese, Korean, and something else), though much of the actual dialogue (all pre-recorded) was done in English. And no, the whole Khmer Rouge thing wasn’t mentioned. And the Chinese members of the audience talked throughout – nearly justifying the extremely loud volume.
In the end, while I liked the village scene with live geese and people playing in the pond in front of stage, the greatest excitement of the evening was without doubt the live frog that got into the audience right in front of me, clinging desperately to a wicker chair (which is what we had instead of normal theater seats) and looking rather a lot like a spider as he moved around. I felt terrible for it and wanted to rescue it from the screaming Chinese girls sitting in front of me, but couldn’t move fast enough … it’s reappearence thirty minutes after the start of the show ended, I’m afraid, with the death of the frog.

Did I get my Apsara dance? Well, I think I got about five minutes of it, but far more demons fighting gods and human battles and general running around and the kind of thing that plays well to people who are easily bored, full, and wondering when they could call it a night (answer: five minutes before the curtain, apparently). It was beautiful to watch as a show, shallow, full of information on current day Cambodian society (if you read between the lines), and a rah rah session for Buddhist values. But it didn’t give me what I came for. I know think that for a really good dance show the $25 one advertised at Angkor Village was probably the one I should have caught, but I may never know. However, if you find yourself in Siem Reap, you at least know what kind of a show you’re going to get now, what the food is like, and that you should bring your own toilet paper. And please, be kind to any frogs you should see in the auditorium.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 6 2015.)

Editorial – Racial Diversity in London Theater Audiences

January 7, 2015

In the heat of the Christmas season – with eight performances booked per week and five reviews due on top – I didn’t have time to respond meaningfully to Janet Suzman’s jaw-dropping statement about race in theatre. But the issues raised still need to be thrashed through. I did it on Twitter with Naima Khan (her response here); I did it on the Tube with Antonia Kemi Coker (I’d just seen her in Beauty and the Beast); but it’s time to do it in print.

First, though, you have to look at Suzman’s statement. The easy one to shoot down is this bit: that “theatre is a white invention” and is not “in the DNA” of people from ethnic minorities. This is too easy to slap down, but I’ll give it a little love tap with a few theater traditions I enjoy: Peking opera, Kabuki, and Bunraku puppetry. I realise Chinese and Japanese people are ethnic minorities in the UK, but there they are in their own countries, making theater. It’s laughable to think there is any sort of theater gene and this statement isn’t worth a deeper analysis as if the DNA comment were meant literally.

So let’s look at what she might have been talking about more deeply, because I think there are some genuine concerns that she’s raised clumsily. In context, she was being asked why more can’t be done to attract Asian audiences to the theater, and her response was as follows: “I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?And they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why.”

I want to unpick this statement. She’s already said theater going is a culture thing, and I accept that, because I come from America, where we do NOT have a theater going culture. And look, she’s noticed that there aren’t black people in the audience, and that bothers her, and she’s thinking about it. I think this is a good thing, because I too have noticed rather an excess of white faces at the theater and thought to myself that the balance doesn’t appear to be right.

But there are problems in her conclusion, which is to give up. And I think this is because she’s not doing empirical research about what drives different groups of British people to go or not go to the theater. From her position, a play about South Africa should be intrinsically appealing to black audiences. I think she’s made a mistake. I have seen theaters brimming with black British audiences, and they have been for plays by black American playwrights (August Wilson at the Young Vic and James Baldwin at the National); about the American civil rights movement (Scottsboro Boys); and about a truly inspired black African leader (A Season in the Congo). And of course, I see them doing the panto thing with their kids (but mostly at the Hackney Empire and Theater Royal Stratford East).

I do think about why people go to the theater, because I come from a culture that isn’t playgoing the way Britain is; and I’ve noticed a lot of time it’s a lot of white faces out there and not what I’d consider a representative slice of the London population at the London theaters I attend. I don’t have demographic information about London theater goers, but I know there are some barriers to getting people to attend, most strongly around child care (keeps the middle aged people out) and cost of tickets. I suspect the cost issue is very relevant to this population, if poverty lines follow race as strongly in the UK as they do in the US; fortunately, both The Young Vic and The National have strong programs in place to mitigate this problem and make theater accessible to people of all incomes.

I’m going to propose, then, that there’s a problem of content, specifically a lack of engagement with putting on shows that appeal to non-white audiences. I don’t think it’s about racism, though: I think most theaters just don’t care because they don’t need their audiences to be any different than they are now. Did a lack of people of color keep any show in London from selling out, ever? With record high attendance levels, it’s clear that reaching out to a different audience than the one they already have isn’t something theater producers are worried about. They’ve got customers. They produce things they like. End of story.

But I think the big cities in the UK could be doing better than this. I think they could be doing research about what is interesting to the communities that don’t regularly attend them. I do believe the Young Vic and the National both have a bit of a concern with getting more racially diverse audiences in their doors: but is any theater in town doing proper (potential) audience interviews about what kind of shows will get their attention? Once you work out what they want to see, then it’s a pretty simple matter to get it written and get it on stage. I have no fear of this being “pandering” or “lowering standards:” this country produces great theater and new topics just makes it better. But I’ve got this idea, see: I want the hobby I’m passionate about to reach more people so it stays alive and vibrant. And I think there’s some really exciting stories that haven’t been told. Here’s what I’m imagining: Zora Neal Hurston’s They Eyes Were Watching God done as an opera. It’s an amazing story set in the Black American community of Florida around 1910 or so that tells about a young woman “coming into her own,” but with really big dramatic moments (like a hurricane) – not to mention some serious passion – that I think would really work as an opera. And something I like to think of when I fantasize about this happening is that some little girl will see an amazing black singer on stage and go, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” And me, I want to be there to see a fantastic novel brought to life, and to see non-white performers getting leading roles, and to, just maybe, see people coming to see a show that might not have come before, because finally it was something they were interested in.

So: theaters of Britain, the glove has been thrown down. You know it’s not a problem with DNA. You know how to do audience research and you know how to make new works happen. You’re choosing to ignore a big percentage of the UK population when you do your programming. I accuse you of not caring enough to do anything differently to change what you’re doing to pull in non-white audiences. Now go prove me wrong.

(Hyperbole aside: I care. I want things to be different. I know some theaters are trying to serve a more racially diverse audience but it’s not enough. Write me if you take up the gauntlet and tell me about how you’re going to improve the situation.)