Friday, December 3, 2010
What's that up in the air? Is it Spider-man from Turn Off The Dark?! Be careful of your wrists! Oh..no...it's just Andrew Jackson's horse hanging from the fairy light rafters of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre West 45th Street. Be careful of your fetlocks! It's a splendid performance - a worthy follow up to his star turn in Sam Shepard's Kicking a Dead Horse.
Ben Brantley raved about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson when it was at the Public. That quite possibly could have been a different show than I saw last night which was a cross between Schoolhouse Rock and South Park.
I slipped in to see the seventh President of the United States and his dead horse before BBAJ closes after the Christmas run on Broadway. There are many interesting parallels between Jackson and current political events, but they are obscured by an unremarkable score and remarkable fairy lights.
Benjamin Walker, as has been mentioned many times in many medias, has a breakout role as Jackson the Indian Killer, but it was really Bryce Pinkham (below) who helped me keep my annoyance in check, both at what was happening onstage and off - the person seated to my right laughed uproariously at every joke.
Pinkham's portrayal of Black Fox, the ahistorical amalgam of many Native American elders with whom Jackson bargained and ultimately conquered, saved me from the wretchedness of situations like the Wellesley lesbo-historian in the wheelchair (didn't I see this narrator in a wheelchair before in The History Boys AND Rocky Horror done with better jokes?). Facing the onset of the Trail of Tears, Pinkham's character inhabits quiet, sincerely emotional scenes in the midst of raging faux-emo chaos. He doesn't have to say a word to get his point across. The other characters? A few million nonsensical words will do.
Pinkham, Walker, the musicians, the antler chandeliers, the opening number, these make up the best moments of BBAJ. A low moment? The Founding Fathers inexplicably dressed with ruff collars, popular some two centuries prior to Jackson. Henry Clay (also Pinkham) has some kind of fetish about mink. Why quibble about collars, ruff or fur, when the whole show is anachronistic? Look at John Calhoun, Jackson's Vice-President. Do you really need to dress him in silly clothes to make him funnier?
Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, written and directed by Alex Timbers with music by Michael Friedman, will be running until January 2.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
First published on blogcritics.org
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Noël Coward and The Philadelphia Story—not bad comparisons for a playwright's first fully-produced work.
The characters that wander in and gather at the aforementioned English Country Estate may seem standard: the divorced Lord Hightower (Jacques Roy) and Lady Hightower (Elizabeth Neptune) visit their Great House with their children, dysfunctional no doubt from all that inbreeding going on within the British upper class.
One daughter, Evelyn (Alyssa Lott), is quite bookish, and, in the kind of social jibe that keeps Weekend contemporary and off the dusty shelf, is not allowed to call her mother and father Mum or Dad because they prefer to be her friends, not parents.
Another daughter, Athena, is not domesticated. We might even call her feral, in fact; the character seems to have wandered in from the vividly satirical imagination of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. Athena is played with great physical comedy by the playwright herself; it is a physical performance because, with a delightful irony, Athena is mute, stricken by an unfortunate Pomeranian incident long ago. The playwright who has no words is just the kind of subtle joke that elevates Weekend beyond the average farce.
We also have the Lord and Lady's Significant Others: Veronica (Madeleine Maby) and Charles (Charlie Wilson), beautiful young things who have an agenda toward remarriage and its money. Love and lust are in the air as surely as the scent of the beautifully maintained English country garden.
Veronica has a hanger-on, Damon of the hooded eyes (Joe Stipek,) who is the morose foil to all the champagne-induced exuberance around him, and just in case the playwright hasn't poked fun at artistic ambitions enough, let's make him a poet because poets are such an easy target for laughs, and rightfully so, because Damon rhymes Veronica with harmonica.
To accentuate the Upstairs, Downstairs motif, there is Maddox, the communist butler (Mick Lauer), and Mary, the wise Irish maid (Julia Moss), who are the comic Greek chorus, commenting on the melee around them.
Sara Montgomery acknowledges her debt to Coward and to P.G. Wodehouse as well; she doesn't mention The Importance of Being Earnest, perhaps to be modest. It may be unseemly to reference the greatest drawing room comedy of all time, but I will bring it up as one of the reasons why the casting seemed so natural—two of the actors here, Jacques Roy and Madeleine Maby, had been in last year's very fresh and funny Earnest at the Counting Squares Theatre. They, along with Elizabeth Neptune who seemed to be channeling all the best comic timing of Bette Davis, brought the comic tension between the old-timey, as Montgomery calls it, and the absurd, and this is where laughter comes in.
And speaking of laughter, I hadn't heard that much laughter in the theatre in a long time; granted I have just finished up a stint as a juror for an Irish Theatre festival, Irish theatre, generally speaking, being a bit on the serious side, but from the very first line, when Mary opens with "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight," the audience was obviously delighted. From the first line to the standing ovation, Weekend at an English Country Estate was endearing entertainment. We even laughed when a silver strappy sandal, thrown dramatically across the room, took an unexpected bounce and sailed uncomfortably close to our seats. If the shoe hits, laugh at it.
The Ateh Theatre Group presents Weekend at an English Country Estate, directed by Paul Urcioli, playing at the Access Theatre through October 31st.
First published on blogcritics.org
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The Great Unknown, having nothing to do with Donald Rumsfeld's foreign policy tenets, is a sweetly earnest history-musical reminiscent of Big River or Shenandoah. With a book by William Hauptman, who incidentally won a Tony for Big River, and music by Jim Wann, who originated the role of Jim in the Tony-nominated Pump Boys and Dinettes, The Great Unknown evokes the nostalgic days of what the American musical was like during those days of the pump boys and the dinettes.
Much like Big River's trip down the Mississippi, The Great Unknown takes a river journey, this time down the Colorado, led by John Wesley Powell, the first modern American geologist and explorer of the Grand Canyon. Tom Hewitt is the distinguished Major Powell, and although there are moments when Mr. Hewitt is over-mic'ed as was most of the cast in the small Theatre at St. Clements performance space, even without a mike, Mr. Hewitt would have the gravitas to be a convincing natural leader.
Powell lost an arm in the war between the states, and there is a continuing theme in the story of compensating for the loss of command over his Union troops. The makeshift company Powell builds for his journey becomes a de facto military unit, even though the explorers are representative of the warring factions from Powell's past – the rebel Missouri Rhodes (the perfectly cast Thomas Wesley Stewart) and freed slave Somers (Bobby Dare).
There are also familial reasons for "running away" down the river. Powell had a difficult brother, Walter, who also needed healing from his war: Walter suffers from "invisible wounds" from his Andersonville imprisonment. As Walter, Dan Amboyer has a resonant voice and his character was one of the most fully-sketched of the evening; but, as with many of the allusions in the story of the Powell expedition, the horrors of Andersonville are not fully conveyed. The Colorado River may have been explored, but Walter's emotional burdens are not.
Powell's wife, Emma, assertively played by the charming Kristin Maloney, may deserve a musical of her own. Within the story, Emma is Powell's distant guiding star, but the reality is, or at least reality according to PBS, Emma Powell accompanied her husband on many of his expeditions.
The Great Unknown's music is stronger than its book with lines like "I think he (Powell) might be a great man" or "Who says that God doesn't have a sense of humor." The music is conventional, the strongest number being the opener "Take Me Down the River." Other numbers such as "Natural Man," about the need for soap, are begging for an edit. "Memory Hill" – the showstopper sung by Bobby Dare – might have served better at the top of the evening to establish this lightly sketched character better.
Directed by Don Stephenson, The Great Unknown is worthwhile testimony and a poignant metaphor for a larger story of life no matter what historical period, but the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon. You can't get away from the need for landscape in this narrative, and that is a very hard thing to bring to life on stage. As many times as the characters can tell us that they are overawed by the walls of the Grand Canyon, we have to take their word for it. Perhaps a multi-media approach could help The Great Unknown emerge from its dated feeling. With dancing women with voluminous white petticoats as the Colorado rapids, the choreography brings energy, but not enough to lift the production out of some of its silliness. The show advertises itself as "A New American Musical," but with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson deconstructing the heroic portrait down the street, The Great Unknown doesn't seem new at all.
The Great Unknown, part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, closed October 16. An illustrious feature on the New York City theatre front, this year's NYMF featured 30 productions. One of its alums, Next to Normal, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. NYMF runs through October 17th.
Additional cast: Edmund Bagnell (Oramel Howland), Steven Beckingham (Bill Dunn), Kelli Gautreau (Rachel), Colin Campbell McAdoo (Jacob Hamblin), Joanna Parson (Mother Sara), Celia Mei Rubin (Vashti), Eli Zoller (Risdon Adams). Photographs by Matthew Murphy
First published on blogcritics.org
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Sounding the Award Knell for Treme and Steve Earle who was nominated for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The odds look good for Mr. Earle. The competition is underwhelming with various tunes from Family Guy, Monk, How I Met Your Mother, Rescue Me, and SNL.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Photo by cajunzydecophotos: The Pine Leaf Boys film a scene for the HBO Series "Treme" at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, April 30, 1010: shown are Jon Bertrand (guitar), Thomas David (bass), Wilson Savoy (accordion), Drew Simon (not show, drums and vocals), Lucia Micarelli as Annie (violin) and Courtney Granger (fiddle).
Thursday, July 1, 2010
The blog Watching Treme, under the guidance of Venetian Blond (I wish I had thought of that moniker), passed on the Versatile Blogger Title to the humble Death Knell.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
I asked actor Sean Gormley about his own expectations in going to New Orleans and making what is now an iconic Treme scene between outspoken NOLA resident Creighton Bernette and the BBC reporter. Looking back on the past ten episodes, it is this standoff that epitomizes the whole series so far, a situation that motivated New Orleans viewers of the season preview to stand up and cheer. The reporter challenges the frazzled Bernette as to what exactly is worth saving in rebuilding New Orleans, voicing many Americans opinions, from the outside looking in, about why poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward should be rescued and rebuilt.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
"I heard you twice the first time." - Delmond
After a two-week hiatus, during which a real-time Gulf Coast catastrophe continues to dominate the news, Treme returned last night with “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” HBO offers a synopsis of each episode of Treme “in case you missed something.” Missed something? “All On a Mardi Gras Day” is such a spectacle of sight and sound, a veracious depiction of the real thing, not only does the viewer miss something, he or she misses most things. As you would were you a tourist standing on the corner of Canal and Basin.
Late in Treme’s previous episode, “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” the series took a turn toward the compelling storytelling we’ve come to expect from Team Simon and Overmyer. Toni and Ladonna drove into the complex of trailers that serve as makeshift morgues for the unburied, unclaimed casualties of Katrina, and from that moment on, Treme paid off its audience’s patience. Despite the title, there was no peace in the haunted stares of Ladonna contemplating her brother’s death, Toni witnessing Ladonna's pain and her own husband’s depression, and Creighton staring at his blank screen (a particularly disturbing scene for a writer). Even Davis, peering into the dark windows of his sometime lover’s failed restaurant, stops and suffers.
These emotional moments continue in "All On a Mardi Gras Day,” almost six months to the day from Katrina. It is an episode devoted to the exuberance of the parade, but still it finds moments of mournfulness. New Orleans is not the same since Katrina. Nor could it be.
Ladonna struggles to hold her composure while grieving for her brother. As big an admirer as I am of her work in Simon’s mini-series The Corner, it is truly remarkable what she is doing in Treme. Her asymmetric gaze looks into the abyss, but her body remains strong (for the most part, except when Antoine plays her like his musical instrument). She has responsibilities: her aging mother, her husband, her children, her business. She must stay determined, but how affecting were her bowed shoulders. With a lilt in my voice, I say "I feel an Emmy coming" for Ms. Alexander.
Creighton and Sofia stop by Lake Pontchartrain’s south coast to bear witness to the not-so-ancient ruins of the lake's venerable seafood restaurants. This has a poignancy that no one could have anticipated. The defeat of Jaeger’s, Fitzgerald’s, Bruning’s, and Sid-Mar’s has even more significance than when this episode was originally filmed. Sid-Mar’s reopened this past January in Metairie, a northern suburb of New Orleans, and now as we all know, Sid-Mar’s is facing yet another catastrophe - the ongoing BP disaster and the impact it will have on the Gulf seafood industry.
One of the reasons why Chef Janette and the struggles of her restaurant weigh in so heavily into Treme’s storyline is to illustrate the importance of food to the unique New Orleans culture. The oil spill looms large over the seafood in Janette’s guerilla cooking whether Janette knows it or not. The spill will affect oysters, shrimp, fish, all integral aspects to the New Orleans cuisine. And it is not just seafood. New Orleans was in such a delicate state of recovery as it stood. As Susan Spicer, a New Orleans chef and restaurateur who serves as a consultant and basis for the Janette character, says: “The normal little things that you take for granted were just that much harder. We still don't have enough grocery stores.”
Last night, Chief Albert’s Indians continued working on their costumes, but the Chief remains locked in after his punch-up with the NOPD. In the hands of other television writers, the Chief would have received a last-minute reprieve and been able to march on Mardi Gras. Not here in Simon’s world. This is what makes Simon and Overmyer such notable writers. No cliches or convention.
The Indian Chief remains behind bars and without drama. With his father absent, son Delmond has the opportunity, the freedom, to experience Mardi Gras without his father’s large shadow. Delmond's about face is set up rather obviously by his too-honest puzzlement: “Why not put all that time, energy, money into fixing up the place.” What Delmond manages to understand by the end of the episode, with the help of some sex and alcohol Mardi Gras style, is that time, energy, and money is being put into fixing up the place via the parades.
Toni, continuing her saintly ways, which now include knitting, (she is a domestic goddess as well as a civil rights deity,) gives us what I believe is the first indicator that Creighton is not a native New Orleanian whereas she is. In discussing the night parades, she shudders at the “antebellum” aspect of these particular parades: “masked riders on horseback with pointy hoods? HELLO!”
Yes, hello, Creighton. You have a writer’s studio on a professor’s salary. What do you have to be depressed about?! But I digress. Writer's block is no joking matter. Creighton defends the old line carnival stuff. Toni responds in one of the most telling dialogues of the episode, that the parades, even in their carpe diem fun, are emblematic of something much more complicated: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” It would be a fascinating turn of events for Toni, the native daughter of New Orleans, to have to nurse her husband through his breakdown over the breakdown of his adopted city. Toni knits on.
In an episode where the characters are supposedly putting their lives on hold for the parade, there is plenty of development. Creighton slips further into ennui. In contrast, Annie begins to wake up to how crippling her relationship with Sonny is. Her platonic hook-up with Davis for the day was perfectly charming. Well, it was more Jean Lafitte than Prince Charming, but it does Davis good to play a different role. The mask suits him. Notice the interesting parallelism of Davis not realizing the slave trader history of Lafitte and Creighton not acknowledging that some of the old school carnivals, particularly the night parades in Toni's opinion, have a similar inglorious background.
Wednesday's hangover must now be faced. Lenten suffering commences. Thank God for St. Joseph's Day.
I have to go. I have to mix up some Jameson and Cokes, but before I leave, here are some items up for discussion:
Why does Toni continually insist on feeding Creighton to offset his depression? It’s understandable, but not in his best interest. Lots of media moments have been made of John Goodman’s girth, including some great roles, but the last thing he needs is gumbo. There were moments in “All On a Mardi Gras Day” when I thought that Creighton was suffering from a heart attack, or at least an severe episode of gout, rather than depression.
A further installment in the campaign for Jacques the sous chef here. It’s not professional, but my informal campaign to expand Jacques’ character continues, if not for the actor’s incredible performance, then for the singular viewpoint of a recent immigrant into the depleted city. When Davis asks Janette if she needs him for Mardi Gras, and she responds no, that she has Jacques, we cheer.
The love for a city: the distant camera shots of New Orleans at dawn Mardi Gras day are reminiscent of season two of The Wire’s Baltimore seen from its port waters. Beautiful and affecting cinematography by Ivan Strasburg. And speaking of The Wire, as I must every week, isn’t Antoine living Bunk’s dream life?
We’re less than two months away from the season premiere of Mad Men, time to point out that the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park was built in the late 1920s, near the site of the Milneburg entertainment district, by the family of Bryan Batt, Mad Men's Sal Romano. Here's hoping he returns for season four.
As always, I recommend reading Dave Walker’s “Treme Explained” for everything that cannot be taken in on one viewing of Treme. One pleasant fact I learned from Mr. Walker's column: the French Quarter apartment where Janette begins her Mardi Gras partying and does such a great Elvis impersonation belongs to director Anthony Hemingway. How fun is that? Thank you. Thank you very much.
Originally published on blogcritics.org
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Part of the cottage industry known as Lost analyzers, the east coast edition, met at New York City’s Paley Center for Media Saturday to discuss the Lost television series and its final episode airing Sunday night on ABC. To a sold-out audience, forum panelists including writers from Time, New York Magazine, and Hitfix and moderated by Ryan McGee, gathered to discuss, dissect, and celebrate a television series on the eve of its finale.
The atmosphere of the forum had the fanaticism of a convention, and although there may not have been the fun of dressing up like your favorite Vulcan or hobbit, there were plenty of Dharma hoodies in the house. Fans, as in fanatics, were made obvious by the ready answers to arcane trivia in games leading up the panel conference. It was some fun before the seriousness of larger topics to be discussed such as just what does this television series mean, why does it warrant such enthusiasm, and, as Emily Nussbaum from New York Magazine pointed out, why do so many of the strong female characters end up as arm candy.
The afternoon's audience was a microcosm of a larger group of viewers that both feeds off the show's mythology, and, at the same time, provides the show with an enormously creative and responsive congregation — one that pressures the writers to think quickly on their feet. In 2005 at a similar Paley Center Panel, clips of which were rerun on Saturday, co-creator J.J. Abrams commented on a viewer’s theory that the island could really be Purgatory: “It isn’t literally what it is, but the fans of the show are so smart, and so sharp, and the things that we’ve read are so often in sync with what we are doing (which gets us very excited) or they are better!”
It is this give and take with its audience that places Lost in a unique position of being the first television show intrinsically part of the DVR/Internet/DVD age as explained by Dan Manu, site director of Television Without Pity. Because of its technological time and place, and because the show was able to take advantage of its community, it evolved from a mystery show about plane crash survivors to being the television event that it will be on Sunday.
The pilot episode, which the Paley Center replayed in an enhanced format, holds up well after six years. Although the two-part opening, the most expensive television pilot ever made, appears to be more Jurassic Park than the Lost we know now, with the Smoke Monster moving trees and having footsteps, the characterizations that ultimately engaged Lost's audience are instantly present. Now Kate appears to be wearing too much eye makeup after having been in a plane crash and Sawyer may be too much the Clint Eastwood persona, but as written and portrayed, they are roles that viewers immediately either like or like to dislike. Or love, judging by the sniffling in the theatre during the Jin and Sun scenes. The ultimate fates of the two Korean lovers were very much on the audience's mind.
It has been a groundbreaking television series, demanding much of its viewers ("television with footnotes" as Time's James Poniewozik calls it), with an audience aspect that the networks have been trying to repeat with varying degrees of success: V, Fringe, and FlashForward, which has been recently canceled. Even Lost cannot duplicate the success of Lost. Although the viewership is expected to be high on Sunday, there is doubt it will reach the 23 million mark that the premiere of its second season enjoyed. Television itself has changed drastically in those four short years with on demand cable and especially Internet television cutting in those audience numbers.
The ultimate question now is: can this show be resolved in such a way that its fans don't storm the castle with pitchforks? The panelists disagreed in part about what they wanted to see resolved, but they were in consensus that they trusted the writers who have so far taken them for an enjoyable ride, as long, said TV critic Alan Sepinwall, "we find out what happened to the people. Abstract good and evil is fine, but we need to find out what happened to the people."
Originally published on blogcritics