Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Mini-review – The Blue Dragon – Robert Lepage/Ex Machina at Barbican Center

February 18, 2011

It’s so much easier to really dig into a review for something you love or hate than something you were indifferent about. That’s how I feel about The Blue Dragon, Rober Lepage’s current show at the Barbican. He’s the kind of guy I read about in college, a really snazzy director who Does Cool Stuff, and I had high hopes for this show, especially since I’ve been a sinophile for years and was looking forward to a chance to take my Chinese language skills for a walk and maybe learn a little bit more about “the effervescent paradox that is modern China.”

Well, fiddle-dee-dee to that. While the show had nods to Chinese opera, dance, calligraphy, and customs, it was ultimately just about a French Canadian couple having their own mid-life crises: in short, a “Lifetime ‘Television for Women’” movie presented as a play. The Chinese characters (there was one, Xiao Ling, played by Tai Wei Foo) were seen through their eyes; for him (Pierre, Robert Lepage), as a focus for his lust and ambition; for her (Claire, Marie Michaud), as a producer of the child she wants. Pierre criticizes Claire for wanting a Chinese daughter to be a “pretty little doll that will perform for you, ” but neither of them treat Xiao Ling like anything more than a doll herself. And to me, this play, “about” China, supposedly about modern China, treated it entirely as set dressing for a story that could have been set anywhere. The problem with rich (white) people seeing children from poor (non-white) countries as a commodity was wholly ignored; the question of freedom of expression (or lack of) for Chinese artists was a one-liner; the push-and-pull between a couple severed by decades, or even between a couple (Pierre and Xiao Ling) who have a third party come between them, there was nothing of what could have made this a compelling human drama or something that really illuminated what is going on in modern China.

What we did get was some serious eye candy, mostly in the form of projections that followed the actors perfectly on stage, but also as snow, fish, paintings, and other forms of set dressing. In addition to this, there’s no denying that the sound and lighting design were, as near as I can tell, flawless. It was an ideal play to bring a horde of theater students to show them just what you can do technically (and all within a two hour time frame). It’s just a pity that so much effort was expended in the service of such an empty play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 17th, 2011. Blue Dragon continues through February 26th. The play is about 30% Chinese, 50% French, and 20% English.)

Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar Warehouse

February 17, 2011

Unlike many, I went into the Donmar Warehouse’s production of the Putnam County Spelling Bee completely cold – I think I didn’t even know it was a musical, and I certainly hadn’t seen a previous production. Therefore, when, shortly before I was due to meet my very large group of fellow theatre die-hards at the pub, I got a message saying that there was audience participation to happen, and that if one wished to participate one must be at the stalls bar at the Donmar at 6:45, well, I’ll have you know I was all up for it. I mean, I remember the glory that was the Holiday Gameshow Spectacular back in Seattle, where I won the grand prize with my glamtastic rendition of “My Way” … could the magic happen again?

I did manage to get on the list, but, to eliminate any possible tension in this review, no, I did not make it on stage. Was the choice of people truly random? Somehow I think not, else why the photographs et cetera? Still, be aware that you, too, could be among the lucky four that spend 30 or so minutes (or less if you can’t spell well) on the stage of the Donmar, dancing, fending off the cast, and generally feeling unsure if Joseph’s Amazing Dreamcoat was in Technicolor or Technicolour (I suspect the correct spelling is whatever will result in your being kicked off stage).

The Donmar’s interior was done in a classic American school fashion, with school banners everywhere, Putnam County logo clothing on the front of house staff, rows of blue plastic seats in the stalls, and a basketball hoop hanging from the back of the stage. It was great to see and I’m pleased to report the cast held up their end of creating the illusion, with nary an English mispronunciation in sight. I’m embarassed to report I actually had a wave of nostalgia as we were all forced up to recite the Pledge of Allegience, though I was snickering that the pledge leader was having to recite the words in small sections for us to repeat as if we didn’t all know them already.

Our bee-ers were a motley collection of nerds: the pushy science master with the unfortunate nut allergy; the over-achieving Asian student who speaks six languages; the home-schooled kid with the strange clothes; last year’s winner, a boy scout with way too many badges; a girl whose parents were too busy to bother to come (this one hit a note with me). Of course the entire cast was played by adults, and, while I didn’t buy the kid-ness of the cast (I kind of wanted to mess with their clothing a little bit to make it look more naturalistic and less like Beryl the Peril), their various responses to what was going on and the event they were participating in were appropriately child-like without being nauseating. I loved their (pretend) raw enthusiasm as they jumped around singing about how exciting it all was – it was just so much more fun than many different versions I’ve seen of this same excitement.

Shortly after the beginning, four schmucks were picked from the audience to fill out the ranks of the spelling bee participants. For us, we got a woman in her 20s, one in her late 30s, a cute tall guy in his early 20s (apparently one of the crew I was there with although we hadn’t met before), and a man in his 60s. I am pretty sure they are very controlled about who stays on and who goes off, and though I wrote down the words as they were spelled (it was fun to see how good my spelling was :-) ), I think they make sure that you leave when the story dictates you will. So if you are number one to be picked, you’re just going to leave as soon as you are called – take your juice box and walk away with dignity, knowing many other people wished just to make it as far as you did. It’s rather a nice metaphor for a real spelling bee, I think.

While I admired this show’s brisk pace and running time (hurray for 9PM exits), the music wasn’t outstanding and the emotional content was thin. That said, I did get some laughs, and it was certainly more engaging than Ordinary Days or Frankenstein, both of which had similar running times. I also had fun comparing my spelling of the words as the show went along (easy enough with my little notebook already there) and liked the jokes they made by mispronouncing words and giving comic examples of their use in daily speech. I’d say overall it’s an amusing post-work evening, certainly worth the £10 I spent for it, but nothing to cry over if you can’t get a ticket.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011. It runs through April 2nd. Sample words for the geeks among you: elanguescence, flagellate, cuniculus, strabismus, capybara, telepathy, cystitis, mammilaria, boanthropy, xerophthalmia, titup, hausehole, chimerical, omphaloskepsis, phylactery and weltanschauung. For those of you who prefer your reviews spoiler-free, the Whingers have reviewed this same night’s performance – fair enough as they’re the ones who arranged my ticket!)

Review – Frankenstein – National Theatre

February 16, 2011

As the bell rang next to me (making me jump out of my seat and scream) and the lights darkened for the “Cumberbach as the Doctor” version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, I was fascinated by the big glowing circle at the middle of the stage. It seemed made of skin or parchment, and had the shadow of a human figure inside. It seemed … egg like, somehow. Oh my God, were we about to see Lady Gaga?

No such luck, I’m afraid, as when the skin finally tore, it was the scarred, naked body of Jonny Lee Miller that fell onto the stage. We were then treated to about ten minutes of watching him twitch and stumble while a curtain of incandescent lights overhead glowed and glared and flickered in a nice simulation of waves of electricity animating our monster’s frame. He was gaining control of his body, in preparation for heading into society and finding … well, just what would it be?

I’m afraid to say that despite the rather spectacular staging, Mr. Miller had falled, as if by accident, into a rather bad play. As a fan of Romantic literature, I really enjoyed the examination of basic questions such as, “Is man by nature good or evil?” “What is the influence of society on creating character?” “What does it mean to be human?” Most of these really exciting philosophical issues were undertaken by The Monster, who I think made a strong argument for being the most human character in the play.

Sadly, the rest of the characters fell flat, though The Blind Old Man (played by Karl Johnson) who teaches The Creature about philosophy was at least enjoyable in his scene. But Dad Frankenstein (George Harris) was positively wooden and Ella Smith (as “prostitute” and “maid”) was painfully bad (yes, darling, you’re projecting to the back of the Olivier, but I suspect the commuters at Waterloo might have been able to feel your performance as well). I’m going to blame the script for some of this, as Dr Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Naomie Harris) seemed emotionally believable … well, mostly … but was weighted by dreck dialogue.

With a sold-out run, I fear that most of the punters are actually coming to see Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, in his various turns as monster and mad scientist. If this is the case, I think you may enjoy his Creature, as it will ensure you get an eyeful of his kit and tackle. I found his Victor Frankenstein stiff and cartooney. It’s not a sympathetic character to play, I grant: in the end, he, with his desire to have the power of life and death and lack of concern for other people (living, dead, or both) comes off looking like the real monster. Still, mightn’t a better actor have pushed this role to show some sort of conflict that would have made him more interesting, if not sympathetic?

The clunky script is compensated somewhat by really powerful and at times deliciously stark staging, from the steampunk train to the Live! Fire! on stage to the glittering green gaze of polar sky at the end, as the lightbulbs somehow became curtains of ice and Northern Lights at the same time. And I have to say I admire a play that is so focused on the narrative and philosophy of the original novel. That said, we’re two centuries beyond the original, and purely symbolic characters that talk in morality soundbites are not the fashion either on stage or in literature. This could have been so much better and Nick Dear’s script is 80% to blame for this poor result. Without an interval, you’re stuck pushing through the very long two hours without a hope of relief; I have to say, I admired the two women who walked out the center aisle of the stalls, just in time to have Cumberbach point at them and say, “Look down there! Little men!” Rarely has an exit been so pointedly (if inadvertently) mocked by the great … and envied by me.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, February 14th, 2011; the official opening day is the 22nd AND 23rd of February. The show runs through Sunday April 17th and is supposedly sold out for the run; however, there are always some returns so if you’re determined to see this, keep checking back daily for returns for the next few days. Note the women who walked out were allowed back IN to the auditorium … with drinks. Now this was MY Paradise Found.)

Review – When We Are Married – Garrick Theatre

February 9, 2011

It had been months since I read the West End Whingers’ positive review of When We Are Married, but I kept putting off going until I realized the show was getting close to the end of its run. Conveniently, a Metro offer for half priced tickets came out in January and I saw this as my opportunity to finally get off the horse and see this show.

As it turns out, I wish I hadn’t bothered. While I have nothing against seeing a show with an audience full of more gray hair than a Madeira hotel in January, I could have lived without their loud chatter during the show. And what, exactly, was fuelling their enthusiasm? Clearly some of the actors struck a nerve – I think most of them are best known for television work – and the set got its own round of applause as the curtain rose (never a good sign). But the play felt like an over-fed sitcom, with a comedy element (“Oh noes, arrogant pillars of Edwardian society discover they’re living in sin”) drug out from the 55 minutes it merited to a full two hours with interval, leaving me sitting there yawning while a drunk photographer shmoozed a young maid. Ooh gosh, being tiddly is so funny, and doesn’t she have the most humorous accent?

Even more offensive was the story line of the henpecked husband and his wife. Once he discovers they’re not married, he’s now free to hit her! Boy, didn’t people laugh! Isn’t it great when a strong woman is finally beaten down! Ha ha ha!

As I dragged myself back to my seat after the interval, I heard a delighted audience member say, “This is very exciting for us country bumpkins.” Is it really, now? It seems like this is possibly the perfect play for readers of the Telegraph and Daily Mail, who might be offended by any slightly modern storyline but still want to have an annual night at the theater and have already exhausted the pleasures of The Mousetrap (while the much more worthy Clybourne Park was opening up the street). I’m all for more plays with older actors, but When We Are Married should be shot where it sits and never be allowed out the door again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 8th, 2011. It continues until February 26th, at which point something that can only be better will replace it.)


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