Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review - Waiting For Waiting For Godot - Loudmouth Collective - What Are We Waiting For? - 3 stars

If the comedy title Waiting For Waiting For Godot makes you giggle, then Loudmouth Collective’s current production of that play at Open Eye Figure Theater is just the play for you.  If, like me, that title makes you roll your eyes, then it probably isn’t the play for you.  (This pains me, because I’ve liked both the other productions I’ve seen from Loudmouth - Fuddy Meers, and A Bright New Boise - a lot.  This, sadly, missed making it three in a row.)

“Why must the show go on?”

I hasten to add - there’s not a single thing wrong with Loudmouth’s production.  The cast of Sam Landman, Gabriel Murphy and Sulia Rose Altenberg are all just as good as you would expect them to be - by which I mean, very good, very gifted comic performers, who always deliver their best work no matter what project they’re in, making bad plays bearable and great plays even greater.  The same can be said of the directing skills of Matt Sciple - he always gives a script his best, any play is better off for having him at the helm.  The production team also nails it, particularly Meagan Kedrowski’s set and props, which create a perfect little backstage world littered with clothes, props, fake bits of scenery, costume renderings, old show posters and production shots that seems just like the green room environment a lot of actors spend their time waiting around in at one point or another in their careers.  (And, since it’s a riff on Waiting For Godot, I love the bare coat tree at the back of the room, a nice wink to the tree of the original.)  Megan Winter’s lights, Mary C. Woll’s costumes, Rosemary G. Hartunian Alumbaugh’s sound - all are just right, not overdoing it, but also not leaving any prime opportunity to make the show look and sound better unmined.  Since we regularly break the fourth wall here, even stage manager Elizabeth Stauble gets in on the act, in addition to her regular duties of making sure the whole thing runs smoothly.

“This is a very difficult show to do.  No one even knows what it means.”

The problem, for me, is the play.  Now, everyone around me was thoroughly enjoying themselves, so I probably just need to lighten up, turn off my brain and just let the jokes hit me.  But comedy that is dependent on either the characters being stupid, or the audience being stupid, just makes me cross. And for the most part, that’s all the comedy you get in Waiting For Waiting For Godot.  Thus, my confession at the top that this play just isn’t for me.

“Acting is easy.  They let anyone do it.”

The conceit of the piece is that there are two long-suffering, endlessly patient understudies for the two lead roles in a production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting For Godot.  Ester (Landman) and Val (Murphy) wait in the green room, in costume, in the hopes that I guess an actor will suddenly become ill, have a family emergency, get a lighting instrument dropped on their head, or just on a whim of the director they will be yanked offstage and the understudy will go on in their place for the rest of the show, which has already begun.  Periodically, the assistant stage manager Laura (Altenberg) will wander backstage to engage them in conversation.  Like the perpetually expectant but disappointed characters in the real play, these understudies have a long wait ahead of them.  And that’s the gag.  I get it.

“Do not speak to me of God.  I gave up on him years ago.”

This is probably one of those plays where non-theater people see it and think, “Boy, I’ll bet people who work in theater get an even bigger kick out of this because they get all the inside jokes.”  But if you’re actually a person who’s worked in theater in any capacity, you just sit there thinking, “No, that’s not how it works.  And that’s not how that happens either.  And that’s just perpetuating an unhelpful and misleading stereotype.  And… argh!!!!”  Or at least that was my internal monologue watching it.  In a past professional life, I spent a number of years working as a stage manager.  I’ve dealt with understudies.  There are countless actors that have been part of, and continue to pass through, my life.  They all deserve better treatment than this.

“We were dark yesterday.”
“I’m dark most days.”

Is life in the theater absurd?  Yes.  Is an understudy’s role an often thankless and little rewarded one?  Certainly.  Do artists in general and actors in particular frequently do things that are perfect fodder for comedy or satire?  Absolutely.  There is a rich vein of material, grounded in the facts and details of real life and human psychology, that could make for an exceptional comedy.  Even with this basic premise.  The playwright Dave Hanson instead goes for cheap jokes and easy targets, dumbing his characters and the play down to a level I’m sure he expects an audience can better appreciate.  But every time you make a character behave in the way a real person would never do, just to get a laugh, you insult your character, the person on which they’re based, and your audience.  So I don’t laugh.

“No one actually *goes* to Julliard.”

Again, I should probably just lighten up and enjoy Sam Landman and Gabriel Murphy doing physical comedy together.  I should revel in Landman skewering every pompous, fame-hungry actor who didn’t bother to do their homework.  I should be tickled by Sulia Rose Altenberg putting the other actors in their place, and doing her dramatic performance of calling light cues.  They’re all very good at what they do, and they’re working very hard to serve up the laughs.  If you can shut off your brain and just enjoy Waiting For Waiting For Godot for the dumb comedy it is, then more power to you.

“What kind of people wait around for a promise that doesn’t come?”

But because the play is echoing, and frankly drafting behind, a much better play, I frankly expect this play to up its own game and be better.  But it’s not.  I’m not one of those people who sits thinking, “How dare you sully Beckett’s great masterpiece!”  If you’ve got the balls to go there, by all means, have at it.  But don’t settle for being derivative.  Bring something new, your own unique perspective, to the conversation.  Writers are constantly being inspired by storytellers that came before them.  Shakespeare himself “stole” some of his best material from other sources.  But he took that raw material and made it his own, made it better.  I was waiting for something better to come along here.  It never arrived.

3 stars - Recommended

(l to r: Gabriel Murphy, Sam Landman, and Sulia Rose Altenberg in Loudmouth Collective's production of Waiting For Waiting For Godot; Justin D. Gallo Photography)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review - Dirty Story - Phoenix Theater - The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict As Sadomasochistic Love Story? - 4 stars

Right up front I just have to say I feel woefully under-qualified, under-read, and under-informed to comment on this play, and yet it’s what I signed on for when I agreed to come and see it.  So, here we go - John Patrick Shanley’s Dirty Story. You probably know Shanley better for either his Oscar-winning script for the romantic comedy film Moonstruck, or his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Doubt: A Parable.  Here, he’s tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. (And I just lost you, didn’t I?  Maybe I lost you at the title of this post.)

“You ever feel like the old tricks ain’t working?”

Aspiring writer Wanda (Mikaela Kurpierz) goes to renowned writer Brutus (Brandon Holscher) for advice, and gets a discouraging earful of it.  Not discouraged, however, sometime later she joins him for dinner at his place, a loft to which her family also has a connection.  Brutus is an equally rude host, but for some reason Wanda really gets off on the abuse, and the opportunity to hurl it back.  One thing leads to another and suddenly they’re role-playing - she’s wearing a frilly dress and flowing blond wig and tied to a ladder, he’s threatening her with a chainsaw.  Yet when her former boyfriend Frank (Christopher Kent) tries to rescue her, she’s irate and very plain about the fact that she can handle this sadomasochistic relationship without any help from him.  Just before intermission, she declares that her new name is Israel.  And things just get weirder and more allegorical from there.

“If history were about justice, we’d all be on the streets.”

Act Two just flat out places the actors and their characters in the roles of countries or populations tied up in the Middle Eastern conflict.  Wanda is now Israel, Brutus is the Palestinians, Frank is America, and his pal Watson (Andy Josephson) is the United Kingdom.  Wanda is occupying Brutus’ loft, claiming her birthright. Brutus resists being partitioned off into smaller and smaller sections of the place he calls home.  Frank and Watson keep trying to adjudicate the mess and end up making it worse.  The political satire of act two is a little easier to take than the screwy sexual politics of act one but honestly, you’re either on board with Dirty Story, or you’re not.  There’s no middle ground.  Anyone with a strong personal opinion about either side of this issue is going to find a lot to hate and love in Dirty Story.

“One day I’m going to stop apologizing, then watch out.”

Shanley didn’t write this play because it was easy.  Director Denzel Belin and his actors and the Arts Nest Fledgling Program at Phoenix Theater didn’t choose to produce this play because it was easy.  Nobody attends this play because they’re expecting it to be easy.  Dirty Story’s saving grace is that it’s uncomfortably funny.  Really uncomfortable, but still funny. 

“I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle of the world passing me by.”

The thing Dirty Story probably does best is makes one realize how very little one knows about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East.  I understand that a lot of people don’t need to feel like they have command of the facts about a situation before forming really strong opinions.  Personally, I don’t feel like I should be getting really upset about the way Dirty Story portrays anything or anyone until I understand the players involved a little better. 

“You have to care, Frank.  It’s the only thing that keeps you from being a monster.”

Don’t get me wrong, I follow the news (as much as the news follows things that happen in the Middle East).  Unlike Shanley, I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation of knowledge and research I’d need to even write an essay, much less a play, much less a comedy, about an issue this thorny.  It’s almost obscene to think of sitting here offering opinions from a position of relative peace, safety and privilege, about a situation where people are dying on a daily basis and still trying to go about the rituals of their everyday lives.  But then, of course, we’re not talking about the problem at all.  And on it goes.

“Brought to life in the blood-soaked garden of world guilt.”

Shanley’s Dirty Story is at least trying to talk about the problem.  You can quarrel with the method, but its intentions are good.  And if it gets some bewildered people in the audience (myself included) to scurry off and do some reading and engage their political representatives about the issue, then it will have done some real good.  If you want to see a group of actors throw themselves fearlessly at difficult material and wring some strange laughs out of it, then Dirty Story is your ticket. (playing Friday/Saturday 9/9 and 9/10 at 7:30pm, Sunday 9/11 at 2pm at Phoenix Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(poster for Dirty Story at Phoenix Theater - l to r: Christopher Kent, Mikaela Kurpierz, Brandon Holscher and Andy Josephson)

Review - The River - Walking Shadow - Love’s A Messy Thing - 4 stars

Walking Shadow seems to delight in producing plays that it’s almost impossible to talk about without spoiling the plot (or plot twist), and Jez Butterworth’s The River is no exception.  Still, I’ll give it a shot.  Perhaps the safest place to start is with the way Walking Shadow describes the play:

On a moonless night in August, a man brings his new girlfriend to the remote family cabin where he has come for the fly fishing since he was a boy. Will she be the perfect catch -- or the one that got away? A bewitching story about how even our most intimate moments are shaped by the ghosts of the past, from the author of Jerusalem and Mojo.

This is the second time Walking Shadow and director Amy Rummenie have gone to the Butterworth well.  His first major success, Mojo, got the Walking Shadow treatment back in 2010.  Mojo was a very different play - all male, steeped in violence.  Part of my struggle with that play at the time was that the characters were all so completely clueless about their emotions that the opportunity for growth and change was slim.  Here, in The River, you have characters so consumed by and in thrall to their emotions that they’re almost doomed from the start to being overwhelmed and swept away by them.

“I am not entirely sure what love is.”

The man of The River is Andrew Erskine Wheeler, who played the pastor in the recent Walking Shadow production of The Christians (which blew me away in a way few other pieces of theater have done this year).  Wheeler is equally good here in a very different role.  He’s matched in intensity by the two main women of the play, portrayed by Emily Grodzik and Elizabeth Efteland.  These three characters all want love so badly, it’s hard not to root for at least one of them to find it.  Who that’s going to be shifts rather radically over the course of the play’s ninety minute run time.

“Why is her face scratched out?  Why is her dress still here?”

But the play often had me nervous for reasons I’m not entirely sure either the writer or the theater might want me to be.  Blame it on popular culture if you like, but it’s hard not to worry when a man takes a woman to a remote cabin and always has a rather forbidding looking hunting knife on his person.  Toss on top of that the fact that the man always seems haunted by another woman regardless of the one he’s with at any given moment.  Then, just for perverse fun, the writer throws in a reference to Ted Hughes (not a spoiler, but see: Sylvia Plath).  It’s a good reference, and a good poem (read in its entirety I might add).  The play, and the characters,  lean pretty hard on that poem, and even harder on another by William Butler Yeats but it’s a little difficult to understand why.  The rest of the script, Butterworth’s own words, and the performances are so good, the poems hardly seem necessary.

“I always find pictures or photographs unbearably sad.”

The River is one of the better plays about love I’ve seen in a while (I was about to say specifically heterosexual love, but with the focus they have, the translation here is pretty direct across the spectrum of sexuality).  And not love as manifested in a relationship with a plot so much as just that big, unwieldy emotion of love itself - the need, the desire, the ache, the way one willingly deludes oneself into thinking you can ever fully escape your romantic past and not have it somehow taint your relationships in the present.  This isn’t generic love.  It’s quite specific, and those details matter.  The surrender involved is both intoxicating and frightening.  Can we avoid making the same mistakes over and over?  Probably only if we’re willing to identify them and own them.

“I want you to know that I am only with them because I am not with you.”

The River is (thankfully) not about a serial killer.  The River is also not a piece of science fiction.  It’s a play that, rightly, refuses to explain itself, because it’s about the unexplainable.  The human heart is a stubborn and fragile thing.  The River, better than any other play I can think of, manages to nail that terrifying but exhilarating feeling of freefall that happens when you abandon yourself to love.  If you stop and think about it, even for a second, you’d go running in the other direction.  It’s that point in a relationship where you either sign on for the wild ride, or walk away.  Neither choice is ever easy.  Neither is The River.  But it’s a play that doesn’t let you go. (runs through September 17, 2016 at Open Eye Figure Theater)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo by Dan Norman; Emily Grodzik and Andrew Erskine Wheeler in The River)