Posts Tagged ‘please no more animated projections on stage’

Review – People, Places and Things – Headlong at the National Theater

August 29, 2015

Considering how much I loved The Effect – a show which has stayed with me strongly even three years on – there was little doubt in my mind that I had to go see People, Places and Things at the National. But the cost of tickets put me off – £35 quid in previews and all of the cheap seats sold out! What was a girl to do? The situation was not helped by the general sold-outness of the shows – if I didn’t get in, I was going to miss out. Argh! Fortunately I remembered I had a credit slip from my cancelled trip to Everyman, so I was able to tell myself I was really only paying 20 quid and just went ahead and bought a ticket. There, done.

I’m glad I did, because People, Places and Things is a very interesting look at a slice of modern life I haven’t seen on stage much: addiction recovery. That said, this was also hit quite recently by The Motherfucker with the Hat, and one particular aspect of twelve step programs came up in both: the “give up responsibility for yourself to God” or something like that, it’s the big issue I have with twelve step programs as well – what’s the point if it’s going to be so focused on the Great Sky Father that I don’t believe in? Emma (later revealed to be named Sara, Denise Gough), the protagonist of People, Places and Things goes through this mental journey quite convincingly – I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see an almost Shavian confrontation with modern bullshit philosophies.

Earlier on, though, when Emma checks in to the clinic, we get an extended section of classic Headlong work as she comes on to whatever drug she ingested before she walked in the door and then starts coming off of the anti-anxiety meds (and God knows what else) she’s become addicted to. The exit signs warp and twist (thanks to some excellent animated projections – I hadn’t realized they weren’t real), the tiles on the walls slowly warp and float away, and an entire bevy of Emma clones come crawling out of the bed she’s been sleeping in. It was an excellent depiction of hallucinations and nicely captured the unreality of what Emma was going through, including all of the vomiting and loss of bladder control.

Almost a third of the play seems to center on Emma’s experience dealing with the group therapy aspect of the treatment, and, while this provided a great opportunity for many members of the cast to show their chops, I didn’t really get a good feel for how it was supposed to work in terms of her experience. Clearly, when she embraces doing it, we’re meant to see that she’s had some kind of internal change that has pushed her to committing to the program, but exactly what this is is never revealed; and, unfortunately, it’s this giant missing plot point that undid the play for me. So many good performances, such a well-crafted production, and yet the script completely failed to deal with something so very vital to character evolution – ultimately letting down the whole evening. While this is a very engaging show, I think Duncan Macmillan is going to have to find something a little more solid than Wile E Coyote’s outlook on life to get us to buy into the overall arc of this play. Ah well, it nearly got there.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 27th, 2015. It continues through November.)

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Mini-review – Edward II – National Theater

September 5, 2013

Given that Edward II is a major production by the National, you may wonder why it’s only getting mini-review status from me. I’ll summarize it quickly:

VIDEO PROJECTIONS.

Yes, many of the most emotionally fraught scenes of Edward II are marred, not just by having large, distracting video projections on both sides of the stage, but by actually having the actors perform WHERE YOU CAN’T SEE THEM, in a little room in the middle of the stage where “secret things” happen. This was maybe acceptable for the scene where Edward (John Heffernan), Gaveston (Kyle Soller), and Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) were having some kind of a party; but under no circumstances to I expect to have to watch a scene take place ON GIANT TV SCREENS when the actors are RIGHT THERE ON STAGE. I was especially wanting to tear my hair out during the scene where Edward is captured at a monastery. It’s thoughtful, sad, painful: and yet it was performed for the camera rather than for me, sitting right there in the third row (£12, a great price!). Seriously, I do NOT come to the theater to watch TV, or to watch actors talking to a camera. There’s a whole PROGRAM of events for people who like that kind of stuff, it’s called the NT Live, but I was actually WATCHING THE NT IN THE FREAKING THEATER AND I EXPECTED TO BE WATCHING ACTORS AND NOT A TV SCREEN.

So have we established that I had some serious problems with this play? I think so. Yet I stayed after the interval when 15% of the audience walked out. I can’t say why they left – maybe boys kissing is a problem for them, maybe the weather was just to gorgeous to be ignored – but I stayed because this was, while not emotionally engaging, still the best Marlowe I had ever seen. I was also freshly engaged in Edward’s story after having just been to Dunstanbugh Castle (it was built by the Earl of Lancaster, who captured Edward’s favorite, Gaveston – and it stands in ruins! What happened?) and very much on a bit of a history kick after seeing the Globe’s production of the Henry VI plays. So I wanted to know the story of Edward II, even if told through Marlowe’s eyes.

Oddly, in the end it was the women who held my attention – Kent, Edward’s sibling (Kirsty Bushell, cross-cast as his sister, with a lovely voice and a role I was willing to believe was historically female); Isabella, his queen (Vanessa Kirkby, regal, gorgeous, and the one person who managed to tug my heartstrings as she was sent to the Tower by her son); and the (also cross-cast) Pembroke (Penny Layden, the only one of the barons who actually seemed to care for Edward). I couldn’t really connect to any of the men, but watching Isabella, who loves Edward, make decisions that seemed Machiavellian but really were just based on ensuring the best chances for her son to, not just be king, but live … it was really very, very hard, and utterly believable. The men, well, they were busy acting for the cameras. It was still a well written play excellently acted, but I found it didn’t move me.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on September 5th, 2013. It is in performance until October 26th.)

Mini-review – Hamlet – Tiger Lillies at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center

September 20, 2012

There’s only two days left to see this show, so this review needs to be quick if you’re looking to make up your mind. I’m going to assume you know about Hamlet: to me, it’s the very best play in the English language; as a classic, it’s very open to being “interpreted” as a play as well as being able to form a basis for many other works of art. The Tiger Lillies, well, if you know them I don’t need to say more (and you’re already going), but if you don’t I’ll summarize as: dark clown cabaret music, heavy on the accordion, with liberal helping of Edward Gorey and sex.

Right! So, about that Tiger Lillies’ Hamlet happening at the Southbank Centre for two more nights: it’s 2 1/2 hours long, it has about 10% of the text of Hamlet, and it has five performers doing six characters (Polonius/Laertes is doubled up – well, actually Rosencranz and Guildenstern do make an appearance but they hardly count), so you’re obviously not going to get it all. Instead, you get a journey through the psyche of Hamlet (and a bit of a tour de Gertrude et Ophelia), which, unsurprisingly, the Tiger Lillies find obsessed with sin and death – which, considering the play, isn’t really much of a stretch. There’s far more acrobatics than you get in a normal Hamlet, and very effective puppetry and projections.

Let me go on about the last two for just a bit. Hamlet’s father is a projection, a face bounced onto the cast that contracts until he is only a tiny projection on Hamlet’s body: a powerful expression of his hold over the story as well as his intense sway over Hamlet. This was a nearly shocking use of a frequently lazy medium to convey actual artistry and metaphor: would that all projections were so well used. Ophelia’s drowning scene was also done as a projection, of various waters and splashes behind her while she was suspended from the ceiling; I could have hated it but water (like fire) can just be hard, splashes are impossible (without real water), and the whole thing was just beautiful as well as a summary of Ophelia’s mind (I am particularly thinking of a bit I was sure was blown snow).

The puppets were also very good: Polonius is such a figure of ridicule that he _is_ just perfectly expressed as a giant puppet; and the scene with the players, done as the actual cast with strings holding them to the ceiling, captured nicely the feeling of the performance being controlled by Hamlet as well as the bigger metaphor of the characters in they play all being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Did the Tiger Lillies intend their design to hit deeper levels so effectively, or was this merely a side effect of someone else’s artistic choices? Oddly, their songs did not really add too much to the show other than atmosphere, a fault that was not entirely caused by the murky sound design (Hamlet’s mike totally gave out at one point). Still, I’m not one to complain; this was a very engaged adaptation of this play and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012.)

Review – Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – National Theatre

July 26, 2012

“So I went to this PLAY and it was about this BOY and it had a lot of MATHS in it and it was REALLY COOL and I was in a PRIME SEAT so I had a PRIME NUMBER and I was Technetium and I was SPECIAL and then I won a prize.”

That is the eight year old inside of me trying to explain how excited and happy I was at the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Yes, okay, maybe there were a few things nice going on outside of the two hours and forty five minutes I spent under Marianne Elliott’s control (I did, actually, win a prize, for having a name that added up to a prime number – in my case, 109 – and having the good fortune to sit in one of the “prime” seats in the first place … plus it was the middle of the most glorious week of the entire summer), but my joy was pretty much entirely caused by what happened inside the theater. So many times I go to see new plays, get my hopes up, am briefly suckered by some interesting design work, then WHAM, the true horror hits as I realize that all of that buildup has come to nothing: it’s a dud.

But not last night. Oh no. Curious Incident had the cool movement going (which reminded me of Earthquakes in London), really great projections on stage (well, on the floor) that absolutely added to the story (and which were added to by actual embedded lights, and chalk) and helped build the world of the protagonist’s mind for us and … er, for once, practically no set at all, at least not in the National’s usual way of telling us every little detail of the play by building it for us in an utterly realistic way. And this matters because all of it made a good play better. If you don’t know the book, it’s about an autistic boy who discovers a dead dog and then decides to solve the mystery of who kills it. Conceptually it’s a story about where this leads him, but I believe it is a story much more about what it’s like to be inside of an Aspberger-y mind; and also a play about what it is like, on a daily basis, to live with someone who is both highly intelligent and very, very difficult (and occasionally violent).

And the play just utterly succeeds. I’m not convinced that the performances were 5 star amazing (but since this was a preview, I’d say give it some time to cook), but the protagonist’s father (Paul Ritter) is heartbreakingly convincing – tender, frustrated, angry, loving, despairing. Luke Treadaway as Christopher doesn’t quite feel natural enough, but holds the stage well and in no way appears to overplay his character’s disabilities.

There is so much to say about how much I enjoyed this and all of the reasons why, but I don’t want to take away from the enjoyment so many people are going to have watching this show by telling too much. There are three coups de theatre that left me laughing with joy (before the interval), gasping with surprise, then finally crying (with joy again); I kind of think the director and design team deserve a special prize for making a crusty old burnout like me feel so excited to be seeing a show again. I left feeling high as a kite in the special way I only get when I see something new and wonderful at the very beginning; if nothing else, I was able to thank Nicholas Hynter personally for making this show happen. It’s sold out for the entire run so it may be hard to get a ticket: but it’s utterly worth the risk of day seating and of course regularly refreshing your browser in the hopes of returns, for this show must be seen and it must be seen in the Cottlesloe while it is possible, before it transfers (which it will) and while you can still enjoy the wonderful creation the National team has made for us in its lovely, intimate, black box environment. It will, of course, play in other houses, for this is a play I feel has a long future ahead of it. But in this place, with this design work and this cast, on that beautiful summer night, and in seat 43, I feel so damned lucky I got to see this.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012. It continues through October 27th. I may just go see it again but I’d feel guilty taking a seat from someone else who hasn’t.)

Review – The Suit – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at the Young Vic

May 28, 2012

I’m a horrible one for remembering names, but I am a fan of director Peter Brook. His “Empty Space” aesthetic suits me as a fan of theater that tells rather than shows, that allows the user to fill in the detail with their imagination. (It’s the total opposite of the video screen theory of set design, which not only shows you everything you need to see but does it in a way that sucks the viewer’s creative powers.) So I was very excited to see a brand new show by his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord come to The Young VicThe Suit, based on a story by South African author Can Themba.

The premise of the show was simple (per the Young Vic’s website): “a young worker returns home to find his wife in bed with her lover. The lover escapes, leaving behind his suit. In revenge, the husband instructs his wife to treat the suit as an honored guest” – not just for dinner, but every day. It sounded like classic absurdist/surrealist theater, and I wondered what sort of wild extremes they would go to as the story unfolded. I imagined her bathing the suit, putting it to bed every night, taking it to the zoo, et cetera.

The reality, however, was much less than I had hoped for. The suit is sat down for just one meal, and, while supposedly it gets a spot in their bed (I think), it didn’t seem to happen night after night like I expected. In fact, after the first day, the suit doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the lives of Philemon and Matilda except for one humiliating Sunday walk. It comes to life (as it were) when Matilda pretends to dance with it; but otherwise it seems to fall away from the main story.

And what the main story is, well, I don’t know. It seems to be about Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) coming into her own and finding her value as a woman in something more than entertaining herself with young hotties; but it also seems to be about celebrating the life of blacks in a South Africa that was about to be destroyed (referred to in the play but not seen). People go to work on horribly crowded buses; they drink and dance in shebeens; they deal with racism on a daily basis but live in strong communities where women organize self-education groups through their churches. This second bit was my strongest takeaway from the show, the feeling of seeing bits of a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed; and it was lovely.

This, however, must have been an aside, for surely we were meant to be focusing on Philemon (William Nadylam) and his wife, and their journey toward forgiveness/reconciliation or whatever other ending the playwright might have chosen (madness, death, murder, the introduction of a dress – I didn’t know what was going to happen so don’t want to spoil it). But somehow they came to seem like an aside, like a ten minute story that didn’t have the ending that Albee or Sarte would have given it, as they worked it toward an intense exploration of the human psyche. It left me feeling dissatisfied – and unhappy that I’d gotten bored in a play that was only supposed to be 70 minutes long. I sat through 1:50 of Master and Margarita without once losing my focus … why wasn’t this play able to hold me for even two thirds of that time? While I was happy to see another play done in the wonderful Brook style, I’m afraid this one won’t be one I recommend to other people – it was just too slight.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 18th, 2012. It continues through June 16th.)

Review – Master and Margarita – Complicite at the Barbican

March 20, 2012

How do you adapt a novel with no less than four different story lines going simultaneously? Worse, how do you do this when you’re dealing with a novel that commonly is chosen as one of the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century? That’s the challenge I knew Complicite was facing with Master and Margarita. I’d seen it performed before in Seattle, in an enjoyable production by Theater Simple. However, I didn’t know the work at all at the time (mutterings of “cult like following” and “classic” were heard), so I was mystified by what Jesus had to do with a giant black cat.

Over time as I started choosing non-science fiction books to read, Master and Margarita made its way into my stack. I found it really impressive – a story of a poet being beaten down by the bureaucratic realities of writing in the Soviet era, narrative breaks about Pontius Pilate’s struggles during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, a meta-narrative about the author of the story of Pilate (and told by him to the poet while they are both in an insane asylum), and another quite fantastic tale of Margarita, a woman who sells her soul to the devil to be reunited with her lover, whom is only ever called “The Master.” How do you make sense of this? I figured it would be necessary to cut, cut, cut (and was correct – I mean, after all, this was not Harry Potter fandom we were dealing with), but that still we would be left with several real challenges. After all, there are TWO decapitations in this play, and in both, the head talks afterward! And then there is the talking giant cat (still!), the devil’s ball, and the question of how you can handle having a witch fly.

But then there is the group doing the performance: Complicite, who knocked my socks off with their near “Empty Stage” approach to Shun-kin a year ago. I felt very positive going in. First, I felt they would make the right choices about what to cut. Second, because of their tendency to approach theater from a stripped-down perspective, I felt they would tell the tale in a way that engaged my imagination rather than feeding it to me with a spoon. Really, the story could easily be over-produced. But, in general, the company used minimal props (a bed, chairs, a rug) and substituted minimalist lighting effects for sets, defining rooms with delicately drawn outlines on the floor and mostly letting us add the walls in our minds’ eyes.

I have a real dislike for projections being used to crush imagination instead of setting it free, so I’d like to talk a bit about how they were used for this show, as it was quite intrinsic to the stagecraft. At some points, they were quite heavy-handed: providing a sea of bodies for a scene in a theater (with actual actors planted on stage in chairs in gaps in the pictures); showing a huge pan as if we were shooting up above the streets of Moscow (this done with a satellite photo – while overwhelming especially from own seat in the gods, I found it appropriate for a story so entwined with the actual geography of an actual city); the transformation of the floor of the stage into a sky and clouds upon which Margarita (paddling on her stomach on the stage) could fly. Despite their usefulness, I couldn’t help but feel these full-stage moving images were dictating our visual experience in a way I think belittled our abilities as an audience to take small cues and run with them.

My biggest problem with the projections was when they were used in a Katie Mitchell-esque way (i.e. Attempts on Her Life), to show people’s faces in closeups on the back of the theater as they talked in front. This to me was too much like watching TV and I seriously disliked it. That said, the projections deftly handled the issue of the decapitated heads, with (in one case) a projection of only the face an actor (who was sitting on the side of the stage with a bright light on his face) being shone onto a clay model of a head, thus letting it “talk” (via the projection) and then be smashed – not really possible with a real actor. So score one for stagecraft.

Amidst all of this, how was the story? Well, I think it was a bit difficult to get too emotionally involved in it; like the book itself, there is a lot going on and a lot to think about, but not too much to tug the heartstrings. And there is a great element of comedy and absurdity in the goings on, but also a kind of distant observation of the struggles of humankind. Pilate’s self-questioning as he deals with Yeshua seem typical of how every person deals with hard decisions, and in a way a bit of a foreshadowing of what was going to happen in Germany … and of the humanity of Yeshua’s response, that underneath it all, even when forced to do evil deeds, people are still essentially good.

Watching all of the flappings of the still-new Soviet state as it attempted to bed in Communism and figure out its relationship to the arts, though, I felt a profound sadness about the world this play depicted. Yes, people struggled to get treats like cigarettes and nice clothes, yes, people ratted on their neighbors in order to get better apartments, yes, dissidents were starting to disappear, but I could see a civil society struggling to take place, I could see people undertaking deep intellectual pursuits in a society that had time for serious literature: and all of it was on the verge of being entirely blown away, both by World War II and the Stalinist purges. I was watching a society attempt to flower just before a boot heel ground it out – and it was heartbreaking to see this work as a memory of a time that had been so thoroughly erased by history. It all could have gone so very differently.

Despite this feeling, despite what happened later, Master and Margarita is profoundly compelling both as a message in a bottle and as a beacon of the amazing powers of the human imagination. You can feel all of that spirit swelling up through Complicite’s production, even way up in the corner of the second balcony where I was perched on the edge, enjoying it all. Overall, I think this was an excellent production of a timeless work of fiction addressing universal concerns, and well worth its investment in time (195 minutes, the first act an intense 1:45 so don’t have a drink beforehand) and money (I only spent £14 but I’d rate it as worth £30 or £40). Sadly, it’s sold out for the run … but if you keep hitting F5 you may be able to get a ticket, so don’t give up.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 16th, 2012. It continues through April 7th. Contains both male and female nudity done in the best possible way to move the script forward.)

Review – Alice in Wonderland – Royal Ballet

March 3, 2011

Alice in Wonderland is not just a favourite book for me, but a favourite theme; for puppet shows, for costume parties, for clothing. It’s like Christmas fairy dust for me: sprinkle some on to whatever you’re doing, and with luck the sparkle will stick. I can’t avoid the call of the Alice any more than some people can wrestle down the attraction of the Olympics or events involving royalty. And thus, in a world in which I love ballet but my hometown team keeps tossing overly-lengthy, spirit-deadening tragedies (Manon, Mayerling) or treacley kiddy fluff (Beatrix Potter, Cinderella) at me, it was with a supernova of excitement I read that the end of winter was going to feature a Royal Ballet, NEW production of Alice. Yippie ki-yi-yay! Top notch dancers, a fat budget, brand-spanking new choreography (always something to be happy about) … my hopes were high!

As usual, I avoided all media coverage before my designated night (including the Ballet Bag girls’ stint as guest Tweeters for the Royal Opera House, although I knew it was happening), so I had no idea that the music was by Joby Talbot, creator of the amazing music that accompanied Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma, or that Simon Russell Beale was apparently doing a Dame (not the red queen thank goodness), but I did know that Chris Wheeldon, founder of Morphoses, was handling the choreography (which Twitter scuttlebutt declared an “audition” of some sort). I didn’t recall being particularly impressed by his choreography on previous outings, but … hey, Alice!

I’m not going to pussyfoot around with a lot of “this is good” and “this is bad” but just get to the meat of it: the first 70 minutes is pants, but the second “half” (50 or so minutes) spanks it six ways to Sunday, so much that it almost seems like two entirely different shows welded together by an intermission. Had, perhaps, Wheeldon spent a year working on “Alice goes to the Queen’s garden” section and completely neglected the rest of the show? The first half managed a fair amount of faith to the text, but the growing/shrinking bit played horribly (too much reliance on projections), the pre-rabbit hold set-up was dull, and Ibi and I were unable to find much in the way of dance for the entire act. Yes, a story was told, yes, there were some great costumes, but, ahem, BALLET. Please to give us the dancing and not just at the very end for the flower dance (which was actually kind of dull).

However, teases of hope were sparked by the delightful handling of the Cheshire cat (proving to me that stage magic is much better created through cardboard and imagination rather than technology) and the brilliant Mad Hatter’s tea party. Fessing up, it was Steve McRae’s tap-dancing hatter that stole the entire first act through the clicking of his hypnotic, metallic toes; I didn’t see what it had to do with the story, but suddenly we had an electric moment on stage and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was truly novel and a moment of choreographic genius; and McRae may now be the ideal of the Hatter in my eyes (even though his costume stole a bit too much from Mr. Depps incarnation).

Act Two will forever in my mind be the Dance of the Red Queen (Zenaida Yanowsky), or possibly the Red Queen pas de cinq. The brilliance of this bit is that she is being partnered by four terrified playing cards who are expecting every minute that they are going to be executed. They are afraid not to hold her hand or lift her or turn her, but at the same time they are also clearly revolted by doing so. I’ve never seen such a broadly comic dance like this; it wasn’t coarse like the ugly stepsisters are in Cinderella, but again by upturning the expectations of sweetness (a la the Rose Adagio), it made for some genuine laughs. Whatever else happens to this ballet, this scene alone is a work of genius that I hope I’ll have the opportunity to see again.

As for the rest of the ballet, well, dancing flamingos cute, hedgehog croquet fun, all of the characters chasing each other around the queen’s court dull, Beale wasted, ending returning us to modern times bizarre, Alice’s romance (with the Knave of Hearts, Sergei Polunin) absolutely not in the original and too much of a change for me to accept. Maybe if her duets with the Knave had been more exciting I would have felt differently, but as it is it seems like the romance was introduced to allow for the dances, and they were, well, forgettable. As was almost all of Alice’s dancing. And this is a shame, because Lauren Cuthbertson is no clod-hopping pig herder (stage roles aside), but she, like the production, never had much opportunity to show off her brilliant moves. Still, the second act was SO very much better we about forgave the first. Trust me Mr. Wheeldon; you must let the story take care of itself, as the secret to successful adaptations is to make a work of art that is good in the medium in which it is presented, not to be utterly faithful to the original.. Go back to it, cut and redesign, put Alice in blue and let her dance brilliantly in a shorter first act, and suddenly this ballet will become something we’ll all be cheering for.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011. The final performance of Alice will be Tuesday, Marcy 15th.)

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 – The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – 1927 at Battersea Arts Centre

January 6, 2011

Based on my experience watching 1927’s last outing (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), I wasn’t in too huge of a rush to get tickets for their latest show at the Battersea Arts Center – some animation, some acting, some people wearing vintage clothes, yawn – so I waited and waited and put it off long after The Animals and Children Took to the Streets was announced but was finally enticed by a friend of mine saying she wanted to go, and, gosh, there the BAC is just up the road from her and she’s leaving soon and I want to spend time with her and … oops, the show sold out.

This leads us to last night, when R and I were sitting in the lobby of the Battersea Arts Center about an hour and a half before showtime. Any chance of getting returns under normal circumstances was rather hamstrung by the complete brokenness of the BAC phones during the day, so being first on the list was our only hope. I was hungry – the onsite caf was only serving nachos and mac ‘n cheese – and the third member of our party, Miss Booglysticks, had finally gone from waffling (“Do I really want to go just on a hope”) to taking a cab (ouch!). BUT as I sat in a nearby kebab shop waiting for my lamb cubes to cook through, good fortune struck and three seats very magically became ours (and needed to be paid for in cash rather quickly). We (and our hot drinks) were in!

Now, for a show that is both sold out and ending in four days – wait, three – I wouldn’t normally bother doing a write-up, but because I’d gone to the earlier show, I actually really want to talk about how things have changed between this production and the last. In short – and I find this a bit difficult to say given my reputation as a surly curmudgeon who only goes to shows so she can complain about never getting her money’s worth – I found with this show that 1927 has lived up to the potential they showed two years ago. The quirky joy of Paul Barritt’s animation is now more seamlessly fused with the live acting – at times it seemed to be handling all of the lighting duties on stage, though I know it was added to at times – and the live actors also found themselves buried within the crazy collage of his work. The potential of animation to let you do the impossible – like have an actor have their head come off and be tossed around like a football, to create an elevator that goes up and up, to make a space an actor can run through block after block – was revelled in.

But there was more. First, this had a far more coherent through-story – a bizarre tale of a semi-fictional reality based in a tenement (the Bayou, though it kept sounding like the Bio) where the children have gone completely feral, much like the cockroaches. Second, the songs and music were both catchy and eerie – I remember thinking the music wasn’t fully formed before, but the singing, the lyrics, and the instrumentation (including a güiro played as if it were nails being filed) for Animals and Children worked together perfectly to accent the story and the characters. Finally, despite being forced to interact with the animation (i.e. slapping “flies” as they went past, lobbing an animated rock at a window), the actors made it all feel as effortless as any other cue they might have effected requiring standing or moving in coordination with another person or action on stage. This did not feel like a case of the performers serving the animation – 1927 really has the entire package operating as a whole now.

Most importantly to me, the performers created big, fun characters that were a treat to watch – strange curtain twitching ladies wearing leopard spotted house robes; a Robert Smith-like caretaker with dreams of escape; a sneaky, sleazy “lady” spiv and her pre-teen Stalinist daughter; a helpful young woman and her (animated only) daughter; ticket girls and bureaucrats and ice cream men. All of this was done by only three people? I am shocked. And, to top it off, the backgrounds for the scenes were done in a lovely Russian/Rodchenko style/homage that unified the show and cranked it up one more notch on the artistry thermometer. It was just really damned good.

All that, only £16, I got to take my hot chocolate in with me, and it all wrapped up by about 9 PM. To be honest, when I came out I was so excited I forgot to check my watch and was instead babbling on about the show. So go get in line, people, you’re going to be sorry you missed this one if you don’t have tickets – as near as I can tell from their website, the BAC show is the end of the line for the tour.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, January 5th, 2011. The final performance will be Saturday, January 8th. I’d say book now but it’s a little late!)

Mini-review – Shunkin – Complicite at Barbican Centre

November 13, 2010

You know what’s great about a liberal arts education? While you never learn anything particularly useful, you’ll often find you’ve learned things that make you enjoy life more. Me, I left college without having read a word of Austen, the Brontes, or Nancy Mitford (the horror!), yet I was well versed in Japanese literature. That meant the peaceful purity of Kawabata, the freak show that is Mishima, and … Tanizaki. His Makioka Sisters was one of my favorite novels, but his dark analysis of the human psyche came out much better in his short stories. I know I read his Seven Japanese Tales back in the day, but by the time 2010 rolled around, I’d completely forgotten about “A Portrait of Shunkin,” the story of a blind shamisen player and her servant/student adapted by Complicite for their current show at the Barbican (“Shun-kin”). It’s closing tonight and I wouldn’t normally spend time writing a review up this late in the game, but I loved it so much I want to make a final effort to alert anyone who might enjoy this show about what a truly stupendous work of theater it is.

First, the show is almost entirely done in Japanese. The subtitles on the sides of the stage were occasionally distracting because they required me to be constantly flicking my attention to them, causing me to miss what was happening on stage; however, this was a minor flaw. Second, while this looks like a puppet show, in fact, it’s a show in which one of the characters is occasionally portrayed by a puppet, while the other characters are all done by actual actors. Third, this show really digs into some twisted realms of the human psyche. The lightest of these moments is the bit with puppet sex (which I’ve seen before but its execution was stupendous, with the arms and legs of the puppet floating above the stage); but what it illustrates is extreme dependence, denial, and abuse. Child abandonment, attempted rape, the physical mutilation of other and self … really, it’s all quite intense and hair raising (or stomach clenching). My companion was almost speechless at the end of the night.

But what it’s all about to me is the two things I love to see most on a stage: a fantastic story and its delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old self, remembering what happened, while a third person experiences the servant’s story as he reads it in a book; a live Shamisen player is Shunkin’s teacher but then the music of Shunkin and the music played by her servant (the music plays endlessly and adds a wonderful texture to the show). Tatami mats fly around the stage to arrange themselves as the various interiors; people hold and move poles to show doors opening and closing and walls forming (and disappearing) around the actors as they move through the space. I didn’t care for the use of projections: the fluttering pieces of paper used to show birds was more effective than the animations of them on the wall; but again, this is a quibble. Similarly I didn’t care for the framing device of the woman narrating this story in modern Japan; being snapped back to this element at the end of the story, when I just wanted to bend over and cry at the brokenness of Shunkin and Sasuke and my own inevitable death, was just too harsh and unnecessary. We ended with a whimper after the bang; but oh, such a beautiful, sad bang, with the actors holding poles draped over the quiet form of Shunkin, creating perfectly the feeling of a pine tree on the side of a hill, sheltering and hiding what she and Sasuke left on earth, and leaving us with a feeling of a sadness that lasted beyond lifetimes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 12th, 2010. There are two final performances of Shunkin at the Barbican today, November 13th.)