Archive for May, 2016

Review – The Invisible Hand – Tricycle Theater

May 28, 2016

The lead up I got to the Tricycle’s presentation of The Invisible Hand was that it was some kind of international finance thriller set in Pakistan. Boy, it was really hard for me to imagine mortgage derivatives being in any way exciting! But, in fact, The Invisible Hand manages to develop a John LeCarre level of tension with a story that manages somehow to be intellect expanding as Stoppard’s lectures on quantum physics in Hapgood (but without the buzz kill feeling of being talked down to). The situation is fantastic: American banker Nick Bright (Daniel Lapaine) has been inadvertently captured by a small group of Pakistanis, who are holding him hostage in the hopes of getting an outrageous ransom. But Bright isn’t who they were trying to capture, and can’t possibly come up with a $10 million ransom. His three captors – the kind hearted Dar (Sid Sagar), leader of the pack Imam Saleem (Tony Jayawardena), and “I grew up in Hounslow but now I’m keeping it real in the ‘stan, innit” Bashir (Parth Thakerar) – decide to let Bright earn his ransom, using his own money as a basis for some shady trading.

Now, at this point, to try to explain just what is going on with the making of the money seems unbearably dry, but since the Imam doesn’t trust Bright to use a computer, Bashir has to do all of the work, and Bright has to painstakingly explain to him how it works. Along the way, we get some major insights into the kind of corruption that is endemic to second and third world countries as well as the ridiculous near-religious belief that many people (especially Americans) have that the behavior of markets is outside of the hands of man … that it is, essentially, an invisible hand moving money around. This belief in the “rightness” of markets’ behaviors is very much like a religious belief, only without any examination of the rightness or wrongness of what happens when “the market moves.” And Bashir points out to Bright the immoral outcomes of the actions of the people who hold to this world view … as well as proving to him that sometimes the forces that move “the invisible hand” aren’t as neutral as Bright likes to believe.

Despite the fairly intense audience/character education that has to go on to make this story move forward, the overall feel is very tense and action driven. Bright, the Iman, and Bashir begin to form quite a triangle; Bright trying to find some advantage between the two of them, while the two locals work on their own unknown schemes. The scenes are all so short that there seems to be a bit of a lack of breathing room (certainly all room for complexity has been driven out), but given that this whole play takes place in one tiny room, I’d say we’re taking on an exciting enough journey that I’ve really just got quibbles. The whole thing is less than 2 hours and it really has a great payback, even if in the end perhaps what Bright earns isn’t quite what he was hoping for, as an audience member you’ll certainly feel like you got your money’s worth.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 23, 2016. It continues through July 2nd.)

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Review – Threepenny Opera – National Theatre

May 24, 2016

I swear I’ve seen The Threepenny Opera before, but I’m beginning to think either it was very, very long ago (a student production when I was in college?) or perhaps a film? Was it just tapes of the music? Or perhaps … was the National’s reimagining of this show so original that it just blew all of my memories away? It’s so difficult to say. I mean, everyone knows Mack the Knife(er – Captain Macheath – Rory Kinnear) is a murderer … but do I remember him as being so hopelessly weak around the ladies? Did he also sleep with men? Was Mr Peachum (Nick Holder) as corrupt as all that? The only thing I was certain was absolutely, positively NOT in the original was the newly tarted up Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig), who was more of a gangster’s moll than an innocent led astray by love. And of course I’ve never seen the cast be such a variety of races and even disabilities – assuming Jamie Beddard as Matthias “the Shadow” is actually really handicapped and not just playing “a bloke in a wheelchair with a speech impediment,” which would be just too incredibly distasteful for the National to contemplate and which caused a friend of mine to leave the theater in outrage, believing him a stereotype rather than an example of incredible casting. I found it all perfect, and well suited to a show set in London’s East End. So perhaps there really have been huge changes to the script. Rather than comparing it to what’s gone before, I’m going to treat this show like it’s all brand new, because, really, I felt it was a whole new ball game, and that’s how I’m going to write about it.

So. It’s London, and it’s time for a big celebration – the Silver Jubilee? The Golden Jubilee? Who knows. It seems to be today, a time when British soldiers are back from Afghanistan (including Macheath and Chief Inspector Brown – Peter de Jersey) – but simultaneously an older London, where criminals and prostitutes have their “patch” and beware those who cross it – most of all anyone else trying to earn a living begging or stealing on the streets. The evil Mr Peachum runs a gang of beggars which seems, all things considered, to be quite copacetic with the police, because each is as corrupt as the other. Peachum seems to be a man of no morals – he’s unconcerned who his wife Celia (Haydn Gwynne) has sex with – and he celebrates violence. But for some reason he is outraged that Macheath has married his daughter Polly. Possibly he was planning on keeping her around to sell for sex – it’s all a little unclear – or perhaps Mac is just his enemy from past deeds. Polly runs home from her nuptial deflowering, grabs some clothes, and is off again, and the plot is set in motion: Peachum wants to catch and kill Mackie. Songs ensue.

The set for this show is stripped back, with the walls of the theater exposed and the various elements (staircases, platforms, etc) done very bare-bones, with the occasional burst of excitement from, say, an extremely realistic car, a sparkling hoop of a cartoony moon (best decorated with George Ikediashi standing on it and singing), or a giant British flag that’s about the size of the entire Lyttleton. The characters, however, are dressed richly, with extravagant hair, makeup, and costumes helping to bring all of the principals (and secondaries) to life. This is the kind of theater where we are being forced to use our imagination, and with that little help a rich, seedy world comes brilliantly to light.

Yet somehow the combination of music, story, and setting didn’t gel for me. I didn’t feel anything for anyone on stage. They seemed like cartoon characters, as unrealistic and formless as Marvel superheroes but without the outrageous back stories. And I found that without sympathy, there was no tragedy, merely a tale of several lives gone bad, done to music. Is it because I was watching a preview? Or perhaps that was all the effect that the show sought? Either way, it was a dissatisfying evening, with some musical highlights and a few coup du theatre but nothing that really grabbed me. I was in the back row, though, so perhaps it was just too hard to get to me. Still, it seemed like a good production of this show, and if you’re paying more than £15, you may find you get a more intense experience.

(This review was for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 19, 2016. It runs for a while.)

Review – The Local Stigmatic – Melies Productions at the Old Red Lion

May 16, 2016

I was intrigued by the invitation to see a play described as a “sinister, disturbing study of psychosis, fame, obsession and envy. Darkly comical at times, it reveals society’s fascination with ‘celebrity’ and the resentment it can provoke.” This is an ongoing problem in our society, where there are more celebrities than ever thanks to reality TV and social media. I mean, who had heard of a “fashion Vlogger” ten years ago? Or “noted pundits” without a newspaper column to their name? The Local Stigmatic seemed to offer a prescient look at issues I wouldn’t have thought existed fifty years ago … so off I went to the Old Red Lion to catch this show in person.

So: Soho, mid 60s, before the summer of love. It seems to be the tail end of the Mod culture. Graham (Wilson James) and Ray (William Frazer) share an apartment (with posters of bands and celebrities on the walls). Graham is obsessed with dog racing; as he talks to Ray, he begins to sound like he’s actually teetering on the edge of violent insanity. Why would Ray want to live with this nutjob? When they agree to go out for drinks, I fear that Ray is going to have Graham turn and beat the living daylights out of him.

But no. For some reason, they decide to go to Soho, where Graham decides to pick on a blind man (Tom Sawyer, who plays all other roles). Then he and Ray go to a club and set up a near total stranger for an attack. Why?

I watched this and found myself unable to buy into the relationship between the two characters at all. Graham seemed five minutes away from a flip out constantly through the show, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live with this nut job. Ray seemed ridiculously passive, then utterly willing to go along with Graham’s more violent side. It just didn’t make any sense. The person who got beat up – well, his responses were believable – but Graham was like a cartoon drawing of a real person and Ray seemed like an empty bubble. The overall effect was like watching a live action Clockwork Orange set in a dystopian past instead of a dystopian future. Maybe this was an accurate representation of some people at this historic period of time, but I found it wholly unrealistic (and a little bit nauseating – I don’t like violence). I left wondering why this play was revived, which seemed ultimately to make no more sense than Graham and Ray did. It’s completely blown out of the water by Barrie Keefe’s Barbarians, which came along 10 years later, and I’d say if you’ve seen the second you can give this one a miss.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 11, 2016. It continues through May 28th.)

Response – Reassembled, Slightly Askew – Shannon Yee at Battersea Arts Center

May 13, 2016

Bloggers. We’re ignorant (and unpaid) and not really proper writers, so who should read our blitherings? I lack the intellectual background to write about theater, because I am a BLOGGER.

Well, in this case, I’m going to really exploit the format of having a platform where I can talk about my personal experiences in life, and share my very personal response to a show. Fuck (hey I can swear here as well!), I am just going to WALLOW. I AM NOT A PROPER WRITER. I AM A BLOGGER AND YOU DO NOT GET YOUR MONEY BACK IF YOU DON’T LIKE WHAT I WRITE because you didn’t pay me anything.

But in this case, I sure as shit have the background to know what I am talking about in my response to the show I saw yesterday.

So.

I fucking cried last night while watching Shannon Yee’s play/promenade/experiential theater thing, Reassembled, Slightly Askew. I was in the Members Library room of the Battersea Arts Center, laying on a hospital bed, with a blindfold and headphones on, purely submerged in the experience of trying to recover from a severe brain injury. I was not afraid; I didn’t at any point feel claustrophobic. What I got was a very unfiltered world most especially notable for the voiceover that was Shannon’s internal monologue. This is the kind of thing you don’t get to see on stage, although you could maybe see it in a movie; but usually any show featuring someone who’s severely ill just shows them in bed and about makes it out that they don’t have any thoughts going on. In this case, you could hear the people talking to or around Shannon, fading in and out as her awareness came and went; sometimes you heard random sounds. You heard her healthy (“What shall I get Grauniad for Christmas?”), you heard her under morphine (“Staple. Staple. Staple. Staple.”). And, most heartbreakingly, you heard her discovering what her new limitations are, and realizing what kind of an impact it is going to have on her life.

Listening to someone say, in a conversation with a doctor, “But when can I go back to work?” is nothing compared to listening someone think through the implications of their being unable to make their body (including their mouths) do the things that all well people take for granted. The inner voice has the conversation that is devastating, because it is the unfiltered voice of someone who has been devastated. It’s not just a physical change; the brain is also wrecked by the psychic impact of all of this struggle.

This, then, is what made the tears spill out around my face mask and trickle down my face: Shannon’s feeling of exposure, isolation, and profound fear; the looking back at all of the things that were lost in what must have seen like a moment; and the fear of all of the other things yet to be lost. I remembered my own experience of being profoundly ill three years ago, when my life changed in ways I never expected, and my body and brain completely let me down. I felt like I sat there with Shannon and held her hand and had a cry over all of the things we lost: the ability to feel normal on a daily basis; the sense of faith in yourself; the ability to make your body do what you had always been able to make it do; all of those friends. It is a horribly, horribly lonely feeling, looking over your shoulder at the past and finding that you’ve turned into a pillar of salt, eroding away under the power of your own tears. And Shannon has been there. And I think, if you go to this show, you’ll find that you go there, too.

Afterwards we were invited to stay for another 20 minutes and watch a documentary on the making of this show, but I wasn’t able to stay: I had to run outside and feel the warm summer air, and cry a little bit more, and find someone out there to reassure me that even though I have lost so much, there was still going to be a future and it might actually be okay. Just look forward. Be your own Euridice. Just keep looking forward, and making things, and trusting the future will still be there to meet you as you take one faltering, slow step after another. Take your time. Take your time. You’re going to make it. You’re going to be alright.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 12, 2016. Nobody’s paid me a penny to do any writing for over fifteen years but I still think I’ve got what I need to do it. Thanks for taking the time to read what I have to say. We’re all going to make it. We’re going to be alright.)

Mini-review – The Flick – National Theater

May 12, 2016

It seems so appropriate that a Pulitzer prize winning play would get its UK debut at The National. The Flick, though, is such a profoundly odd show that it seems, retrospectively, strange to me that this play would be done in the UK at all, even with two years since it won its crown. The three people who tell this story seems to have no story at all to tell, and all of the time in the world to not tell it. They’re geeks and rejects, struggling to make any sort of small talk, with a “waiting for Godot” feel to all of the nothing that happens in their lives. Pinter may have accustomed us to silences, but underneath his nothingness his characters seemed to have furiously working minds, with Pinter expecting us to figure out what those unsaid words were. But in the case of The Flick, the three characters seem to be quiet because, in fact, they have little to say to each other. They are, in some ways, killing time before they die, working jobs that are repetitive and joyless, and seeing a future that gives them little reason to think that anything else will ever be their lot in life. This is the world that we are plunged into; a world very different from that of most people who go to the theater: a world where just holding on to a shit job is really about the best you can hope for, where you spend years having the same old nothing to say to anybody because your life just doesn’t have anything in it worth talking about.

Interestingly to me, this play is being billed as the ultimate “millenials” story, because it’s about people who are really burnt out about life and don’t see hope in the future. (It is, actually, really funny, though, and you’re never laughing at the characters … well, anymore than they would be laughing at each other.) But I see this play as actually being pretty spot on for what it’s like to be in your twenties even twenty years ago, for us Generation X types, for basically anyone who can think and who does the math and realizes that there really isn’t much of a chance of any of us having a fabulous life. Our hope is to create meaning for ourselves where we find it, but what is crushing about The Flick is that it seems to be pushing toward the Big Message that it’s our relationships with other people that really can make life bearable underneath the intolerable burden of meaningless work. Yeah, sure, people have cell phones and Facebook like we didn’t have in ’92, but this is the same crap job as Rachael had in Friends (and I had in real life only without the glamor of being in New York). And the dialogue and the relationships are so very, very real and believable and so entirely American and comforting and …

then the carpet gets pulled away and we see that the friendships you make aren’t really going to save you from life being shit, because maybe people are kind of shit. And it’s so very un-Hollywood that I had a moment of thinking “only a play would do this,” but then I remembered, yeah, those really good movies would do this, too, the same kinds of movies that are never popular and that never make it to the big cinema chains because people only want to see things with happy endings and this is why the cinema The Flick had to die and really nobody wants to talk about how shit life is for people that aren’t leading a glamorous life. And nobody wants to spend over three hours doing that. Except Richard Linklater. And Annie Baker. And maybe, just maybe, you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. It continues through June 15th. I recommend NOT drinking before this show, and putting a little box of candy in your purse so you can have a proper cinematic experience.)

Mini-review – Les Blancs – National Theatre

May 11, 2016

So big surprise isn’t the National Theatre (RE this one time to distinguish it from the one in Washington DC) doing a play by Lorraine Hansberry, but that they’ve chosen to do Les Blancs – an play that this fantastic American playwright left unfinished at her early death. And the National hasn’t just revived the Broadway version cobbled together from her manuscripts, but has developed a new text with involvement from the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. This is more than a revival: it’s a substantial investment in an American writer dead some forty years …

Did you want to know the plot? An American missionary has just arrived in some unnamed country Africa to write about a group of missionaries who are holding on as the world around them is slowly turning into civil war – a war where those the missionaries have helped will come to exact vengeance against them. This play looks at just what exactly has this help been, and the answer is not pretty. And instead of taking the white American as the protagonist, we are sent to focus on a different outsider – Tshembe (Daniel Sapani), a man who was born, black, in this country, but has lived for years in Europe. So this story is not about who “we” as a European (or American) theatrical audience might focus on, but what the true story of this country is, and what the true story of colonialism is.

Hansberry struggles with pulling this tale out of its historicity (people’s thoughts about colonialism have evolved since it was written), unable to become unAmerican in her viewpoints and (per the script presented) not entirely able to develop the characters out of viewpoints and into three dimensionality. (I found A Season in the Congo much better because of its historic specificity but also because of its choice to plunge deep into character.) At the time, though, I think her revelations about the kind of atrocities the white settlers exacted on the black populace – i.e. cutting off the hands of the locals – would have been real news to the people attending this play.

Despite its shortcomings, however, this play is clearly still relevant, and to an audience that was of varied ethnic and national origins. The house wasn’t full (shamefully), but it was hugely diverse, with maybe as much as 50% non-Caucasian audience the night I went. This programming choice makes me think the National got the gist of my point about the lack of diversity in UK theater audiences: it’s about subject matter and (possibly) casting. Does this show speak to the black audiences of London? Oh yes it does. And I, a white member, benefitted from being in this more diverse audience, because I was able to hear laughter and rumblings and all sorts of (polite) responses to what was being said, responses that were coming from people who had had a different experience of the world than I have, who saw the relationship of white settlers to the people they colonized much more clearly than I did, people who knew a hell of a lot more about the self-delusions of racists than I did. (Note: as an American I often find myself laughing or not laughing entirely off synch from audiences here: in some ways I always know where I do not fit in, but in the case of this show, I felt like I was getting an insight into Hansen’s play I would not have had if I had watched it in a room by myself.) This show is really a high note in the National’s programming for the year, and, as an American, I can’t help but feel grateful that they went to so much work to ensure the work of my compatriot could get the attention (and investment) it deserved. Thanks, guys!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 5, 2016. It continues through June 2nd.)

Mini-Review – Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court

May 6, 2016

We’re nearly at the end of the run for Cyprus Avenue, but given what an outstanding night at the theater this was – a blazing bargain at £20 – I didn’t want to fail to take the chance to draw my readers’ attention to David Ireland’s excellent play. It is a play firmly set in now, in the current situation we live in, and it takes full advantage of the benefits of playwriting – to be able to respond to life now without a two year drag to get produced, filmed, and distributed – to make theater that reflects a mirror back at society and says, “This is the world and these are the people that are in it, even if you haven’t noticed them before.” And I hadn’t. What do I know of what it is like to live in Northern Ireland today? What do I know about what it is like to have spent your entire life growing up with an “us” and a “them” who lived side by side and killed each other, and had been for years? What does it mean to be a person who defines themselves as British but when they open there mouths would be labeled by any person (nearly) living in London as Irish? And to reject the label of Irish?

This is the world of Cyprus Avenue, a complete mess of squished up past, present and future, with labels that may or may not have any meaning to me but which are as potent to the participants as a Confederate flag in the United States. Smack in the middle of this seething pit of unsettled change is Eric Miller (Stephen Rea), a British Protestant who can’t see what the future of Northern Ireland is supposed to look like no matter how clearly his daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) does. In fact, he’s been buried in looking for Fenians for so long that he thinks his baby granddaughter looks like Gerry Adams. And while this seems very funny … and the whole play is comic right up until the last twenty minutes or so … Eric’s belief is, in fact, a golden bell ringing ring a ding ding saying, “This man has actually plunged over the edge.”

As a play about madness, Cyprus Avenue was wholly satisfying, only really exceeded by 4:48 Psychosis. But the side of madness that this play showed was just how damned logically satisfying it is when you’re on the inside of the brain that’s gone bad. Eric is totally sensible; he’s even able to convince other people that he’s on the right track. But it’s the conclusions he draws about what his delusions “force” him to do, as a defender of the Republic, that show how clearly mad he really is. And watching this all happen – the story of his poor collapsing brain turning into a pile of rubble as sure as the Sands Casino – is absolutely a fantastic night of theater, the ending made all the more powerful by the glad-handing comedy of most of the show. Once again, the Royal Court has proven to me that for theater that really matters, just climb up those four flights of stairs to the Red Door.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 27, 2016. It continues until May 7th. It is worth standing for two hours in line to see. Trust me.)