The playbill was the least satisfying thing about the show

Here’s what I knew about YOUARENOWHERE before I saw it:

  1. Team Maxamoo praised it to the heavens. (I knew they absolutely loved it, but I didn’t actually listen to the episode in which they discussed it, so I didn’t know why.)
  2. It’s a one man show that involves a physics lecture somehow

I love the Maxamoo folks, so I went ahead and bought a ticket based on their recommendation. And now I’m in a quandary about writing a review. I have quite a bit to say, but I don’t really want to say any of it. To be honest, I’m really glad I walked in to YOUARENOWHERE knowing very little. This is a show that really benefits from going in cold, so I worry anything I say will detract from the piece itself. My official recommendation: stop here and go get a ticket (London-based readers: it’s coming to you too!) Then call me and we can discuss it.

YOUARENOWHERE (according to a NY Times article, you can read this as “You are now here” or “you are nowhere”) is a fragmented, dynamic examination of life-changing moments. Or the moment before death. Or something else that was entirely beyond me. (Unless it wasn’t. I have no idea. I need you all to go see the show so we can discuss this.)

Ugh. I can do a little better than that. Let me start again. Performance artist and designer Andrew Schneider uses light, sound, video, and his very charismatic stage presence in an hourlong performance that manages to make you think and make you feel. He’ll tell you anecdotes, he’ll describe the twelve-step program, but don’t expect a real story. I’m not entirely sure I understood a lot of it. But no matter, because this is one entertaining show, and on several levels. There’s Mr. Schneider’s rapid-fire speech and appealing persona, there’s the incredible technical achievement (including its signature device, a LED frame that blacks out an actor’s face), there are songs and dancing, there’s a bit of physics (the fun kind), and there are the moments of sheer surprise and astonishment. So many elements and it all fused together so well. How much rehearsal and preparation did this thing call for? The mind boggles.

IMG_20160318_122603611Theater doesn’t generally shock me. (To be fair, I probably don’t seek out shocking theater very often.) But my jaw actually dropped at certain moments in the show. And my first thought was: “Ok, I’m coming back to see this again.” Ten minutes later: “Maybe I’ll come see this again twice.” At the end of the show, Mr. Schneider encouraged everyone to stay for a beer and hang out. I hadn’t planned to, but by this point I was ready to do whatever he said. So I stayed for a beer.

At $25, I can’t think of a better deal as far as theater goes. Congratulations to Andrew Schneider. You, sir, have created something beautiful. I hope to go back next week.

>Running Time: 60 minutes
My Grade: A+
Ticket price: $25
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos

IMG_20160306_082912172I doubt I would have had any interest in seeing The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos had it not been for Hamilton. As I said last year, I had never realized the dramatic possibilities of hip hop until seeing the Founding Fathers rap. So when I was offered press tickets (Hey, press tickets! A first for Show Me Shows!), I thought “Hey, why not? I love theater rap! And free tickets!”

The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is exactly as advertised: an hourlong, mostly rapped show about the world’s greatest crisis. (Think An Inconvenient Truth, basically, in hip hop form.) It’s written and performed by Baba Brinkman, a Canadian white dude who (according to the bio) has written several other Rap Guides (on evolution and religion, for example) and has legit environmental cred: he has planted over a million trees!

And he’s also an impressive performer. Now I don’t know from raps, but he certainly packs in wit, intelligence and scads of information into each of the show’s 24 songs. Throughout, there’s a projection screen behind him with video clips to explain and clarify his arguments. The show is chock full of references to hip hop artists and albums, but all of this would have flown over my head without the helpful projections (Example: “Ok, so he must be making a reference to 2Pac” I thought, as an album cover flashed on the screen). More relevant to Brinkman’s point, though, are the charts and graphs that illustrate what he’s saying. I didn’t understand all of them, but got the gist of it: things aren’t looking good for the planet.

So it’s dense, it’s lively, it’s passionate, it’s interesting. But did I like it? Well, yes and no. Mr. Brinkman’s energy kept me intrigued throughout, but The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is more lecture than theater. It would be a great way to teach kids about climate change, but it does feel a little bit like homework at times.

And despite the fact that facts and figures are so densely packed into this Rap Guide, I actually didn’t particularly feel like it taught me a lot that I didn’t know. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, right? Baba Brinkman clearly knows a ton about climate change, and this show is nothing if not informative. I feel like I must be lying when I say I didn’t learn anything. It could be just the preaching-to-the-choir feel of the thing. More likely, I just didn’t retain all that much. With this type of thing, I understand it better with Al Gore’s methodical and thorough powerpoint (with sad polar bears on ice floes), or a Radiolab back-and-forth conversation, rather than a full-on sensory assault such as Mr. Brinkman’s. At one point, Mr. Brinkman stopped rapping to engage directly with the audience, and I felt a little relieved. It gave me a chance to take things in a bit.

A sidebar: this was also one of the more interesting moments in the show for me personally. Brinkman asks the audience members to give suggestions about other climate change-related issues he should incorporate into the show. One lady said ordering fewer things online would be one way to go. Brinkman dismissed this idea out of hand, calling this sort of sacrifice “moral masturbation.” Government solutions are the only way to really solve anything, he argued. I get his point, but come now. That’s a little harsh! You could make the same argument about voting. (As a vegan, I am probably oversensitive to the accusation of moral masturbation. Oh dear.)

In any case, A Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is compelling, though not exactly memorable. But does it need to be? It certainly has me reengaged with the topic. I have been thinking about climate change frequently in the days since I saw the show. Climate change is tough: it’s such a major issue that it demands consideration, but so daunting that it’s tempting to deal with it later. Easiest just to ignore it and keep ordering stuff off Amazon.

My Grade: B-
Running time: A little over an hour
Ticket price: Free for me.
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: I forgot. I think so?

Review: Blackbird

IMG_20160216_161720757There’s a shocking contrast between the gorgeous interior of the Belasco and the scenery onstage. The recently-refurbished Belasco is dark and ornate, with lush stained glass lighting. Onstage, we see a harsh, cold office setting, with gray walls, fluorescent lighting and frosted windows. I took one look at the set for Blackbird and thought “Ugh. A work play.”

But that’s ridiculous. Blackbird is no office drama. (And I already knew that, anyway.) It’s inspired by the story of Toby Studebaker, a man who groomed, then ran off with a 12-year-old girl in 2003. In Blackbird, the now-grown young woman (Michelle Williams as Una) finds, then confronts fiftysomething Ray (a wonderful Jeff Daniels) fifteen years after he molested her at age 12. He has moved several hours away, changed his name, and started a new life. Lucky guy. His victim wasn’t able to do any of that.

But this isn’t an entirely straightforward story of a predatory pedophile. Both Una and Ray found their three-month flirtation and affair the central emotional experience of their lives; their tough facades crack and then shatter as the play goes on. It’s a harsh, difficult play, with an unflinching approach towards its subject. Its characters speaking in halting, uncertain sentences, full of meaning and tension.

It’s an impressive piece of writing. I didn’t like it much.

Blackbird, written by David Harrower, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005, then won the 2007 Olivier for Best Play. Its New York debut was also in 2007, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Mr. Daniels and Alison Pill as Una. The director then was Joe Mantello, who has also directed the production I saw last night. (I believe, but don’t know for certain, that the staging was a recreation of his original direction. The 2007 production looks just the same in the photos.)

To be honest, I’d probably have liked it better had I seen it then. The first reason is obvious: a play like this would fit perfectly in an intimate — even claustrophobic– space. (It started at the Edinburgh Fringe, for crying out loud.) The Belasco isn’t huge, but it’s not a 300 seater, either. My seat was far enough away for some of that tension to dissolve.

And the second reason: Michelle Williams. She’s a committed performer, and I really did want to like her. But I just wasn’t convinced. Every line she spoke seemed soaked in pathos. Or more bluntly: she overacts. Now, her character has been through a lot, and her line readings were convincing on an individual basis. But on the whole her performance felt out of sync with the fragile character she was portraying. Now, this is an early preview, and I hope that her performance smooths out as time goes on. Still, though, I wish I’d seen Alison Pill. Jeff Daniels was utterly convincing, and the script was impressive, and the direction was clear and dynamic. But without a strong leading lady, the whole thing fell apart a bit.

Even in the best possible production, though, I’d imagine Blackbird is never really a play you enjoy. (I’d say it’s a play you simply survive, but that sounds a little catty, I suppose.) On the other hand, I went home thinking about the sex offender registry and how people might move on after this kind of abuse. So maybe even though I didn’t have fun watching it, it was a thought-provoking and worthwhile play, full of shades of gray. But I have to admit I preferred Spotlight, which is far more black and white in its treatment of pedophilia.

My Grade: C+
Running Time: 90 minutes
Ticket price: $45 (TDF)
Worth it: Iffy
Standing Ovation Watch: In the orchestra

Review: Allegiance

IMG_20151203_124622783“I don’t want to see this show,” I suddenly realized as the curtain went up at Allegiance. I’d had a long and tumultuous day, and seeing (what I assumed would be) a heavy-but-ultimately-uplifting story about the Japanese internment camps of World War II sounded like a dreadful idea. This is not the way you want to feel at a Broadway show, and if any other critic admitted such a thing at the beginning of a review, I’d be skeptical of what kind of review he or she would write.

So there’s my caveat. But guess what? I was right. Allegiance was just as I feared. I applaud its ambition and its terrific cast, but unfortunately, this is a musical that doesn’t contain the craft it would need to tell the story it wants to tell. At least not in a believable, moving, entertaining way.

Allegiance is loosely based on the life story of George Takei, and the scope of its story is enormous. The family drama: A (mostly) happy Japanese family is sent to a camp after Pearl Harbor, igniting latent father-son conflicts. The commentary on America: the United States cruelly confined hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans during World War II, forced them to live in squalid camps, and sent off its Japanese-American soldiers on senselessly dangerous missions. And the meet-cute romance: both daughter and son have stereotypical musical theater love stories.

You’d need a spectacularly well-crafted show to switch gears between these elements. But Allegiance is a mess. It’s one of those musicals that drives me crazy: full of corny power ballads, awkward plot contrivances, and comedic songs that aren’t funny. (I kept thinking: “This is what people who hate musicals think musicals are like! Aaargh!”)

Need a bright side? The cast is wonderful. George Takei is totally adorable and appealing in his double role: he briefly appears as the older Sammy, but spends most of his time onstage as the mischievous Grandpa character Ojii-chan. Lea Salonga is — as ever — in fabulous voice as Kei, though I’m not sure her character gives her much to work with. Finally, Telly Leung is very winning and charismatic as Kei’s brother Sammy, who later becomes a heroic soldier.

True confession time: I wrote this post a month ago, immediately after seeing Allegiance, but felt guilty about its negativity and kept postponing publishing it. I kept thinking maybe I should soften my criticism, and even now I’m still not sure I should hit publish. But on the other hand, I’m overdue for a post. And anyway I haven’t changed my mind. You want to be a Les Miz, you’ve got to execute like Les Miz does. Allegiance doesn’t.

My Grade: C-
Ticket price: $51.00
Worth it: No
Running Time: 2:20
Standing Ovation Watch: Oh, probably. But to be honest I don’t recall for certain. I need to start writing this stuff down.

Review: A View From the Bridge

Fabulous Retro Playbill

This may be a little briefer than usual. I’m going for a no-frills review of a no-frills show. Director Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, direct from London’s Young Vic, strips the play down to its essentials: actors walk around barefoot, in costumes that don’t look particularly period-specific, without props, without furniture, in a simple white box of a set. You’re left with a pure, searing drama. And boy, is it powerful.

It’s been on Broadway numerous times but the plot, set in 1950s Brooklyn, was new to me. It’s a family drama: Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) adores his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). So much that it’s disturbing, actually. When two illegal immigrant cousins come to stay at his place, Catherine falls for one of them. This is a problem: for Eddie, for Eddie’s relationship with Catherine, for Eddie’s relationship with his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker), even for Eddie’s relationship with the neighborhood.

It’s an outstanding piece of writing from Miller, that’s for sure. It was written as a two-act drama, but this production is an intermissionless piece that runs just under two hours. Scenes transition nearly instantly, with one conversation turning into another in a flash. Sounds confusing but in fact it’s easy to follow. The production feels like it’s had all the fat cut out of it, and you’re left with something lean, filling, and tasty.*

Perhaps if I’d been more familiar with the piece, I’d have more to say on the smart directorial choices Van Hove has made, or the excellent cast, or the cuts to Miller’s original. As it is, I don’t have too much to say, except that it’s all terrific. In fact, my biggest problem was probably just the venue. Now, I love Broadway theaters as much as the next obsessive theater blogger, but you’ve got to imagine the production is far more powerful in an intimate setting. (As I recall, the Young Vic is a lot smaller?) They should have blackboxed the heck out of this production, as far as I’m concerned. Something about the distance of a Broadway theater kept me a little at bay. There are seats available onstage, and perhaps that’s the ideal way to experience this Bridge. But that’s annoying. Isn’t it a bad thing if only a small percentage of an audience experiences the production the way it was meant to be? If you have a decent mezzanine seat, as I did, and feel like you’re missing out, then there’s something wrong here.

Nevertheless, it’s a great show, and I’m glad I saw it. Those wonderful Brits**. Don’t you love it when they take an American classic and show us how it’s done?

My Grade: A-
Ticket Price: $34.50
Worth it: Yes
Running Time: 1 Hour, 55 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes (orchestra and stage) and No (Mezzanine)

* EWWWWW. Is that a meat reference? Gross. I can’t believe I put a meat reference into my review. Obviously I’m still a vegan. Tofu forever!

** Actually Ivo Van Hove is Dutch, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my point. The production is British, anyway.

Review: Thérèse Raquin

Therese RaquinBoy was I deflated when the usher at Thérèse Raquin told me the show was a solid 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 20 minute intermission. Say what? My first thought: Ugh, I won’t be getting home until midnight. My second thought: This is a very good excuse for buying myself and my friend Jessica drinks at intermission. If I’m going to sit through a long, dark, heavy play, at least I could do it with a beverage in hand, right?

As it turns out, though, neither of us felt the need to ply ourselves with alcohol. Thérèse Raquin was compelling, haunting, and overall a very entertaining evening. Nice performances; fascinating story; impressive production. We were both glad we’d seen it. I had seen it years ago (in London) but didn’t remember much about it. Before I forget the plot again, here’s what it’s about: Keira Knightley stars as Thérèse, a passionate young woman caught between desire and duty in nineteenth-century Paris. She and her lover, Laurent, conspire against her annoying ninny of a husband, Camille. Violence, death, madness and revenge all follow. Cue the ominous music, right?

Actually there was a lot of melodramatic music during the show. It feels more like a modern psychological thriller than a 19th century tragedy. The adaptation, by Helen Edmundson, is a sparse, taut retelling of the Zola story, with lots of telling pauses and knowing glances. It’s cinematic, too, in that there are lots of jumps and short scenes. To be honest, chunks of it lacked subtlety. The plot requires Therese and Laurent to be overcome with guilt in the second act, so Madame Raquin turns from an overbearing, domineering woman in the first act into a saintly, self-sacrificing one in the second act.Thérèse desires Laurent, so Thérèse visibly leans towards Laurent. Thérèse is lonely, so she stares out the window and barely responds to the world around her. (She seems a little aspy in the first half of the play, actually.)

That’s basically how Keira Knightley plays it. In the past, I’ve generally liked her performances, but she does bring a bit of a sameness to many of the roles she portrays, and Thérèse is no different. If you have seen her in Pride and Prejudice, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or Anna Karenina, you probably have the general idea of what her performance is like. That said, she does carry the show fairly well, and perhaps I would have sensed more texture in her performance if I had been sitting a little closer. (We were in the center of the mezzanine, and Studio 54 is a large theater. I always feel like intimate dramas such as this should be in smaller performance spaces.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent: Gabriel Ebert is perfectly irritating as Camille, Judith Light is phenomenal as Madame Raquin, and Matt Ryan is charming-but-deadly as Laurent.

And the physical production was excellent, too. Now I’m not sure if it was necessary to turn the back half of the stage into a pool, or to have such an intricate household set flying in from the rafters, but it certainly made for beautiful and impressive visuals. (Just looked it up: Beowulf Borritt, of Act One fame, was the designer. No surprise there, then! That man’s a genius.) I do wish the lighting had been a little brighter, however. There’s a difference between “atmospheric” and “hard to see.”

And the show ended at 10:38 (seven minutes ahead of schedule)! So all in all it was a successful evening and a play worth seeing. If you like it dark.

My Grade: B+
Ticket price: Jessica bought them (thank you Jess!)
Worth it: Ask Jess, but I think so
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 70%

Review: King Charles III

CAM01531Obviously I was going to buy a ticket for King Charles III. London’s 2015 Best Play winner? About the Royals? IN BLANK VERSE? Yes please!

A show with stature! Playwright Mike Bartlett has written “a future history play” about what could happen after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Prince Charles is now King Charles, and the plot hinges on his refusal to sign a law that has already been approved by parliament. It’s a ceremonial duty of the monarch, and no king or queen has refused to sign anything for centuries. As you might guess, pandemonium ensues when Charles stands his ground.

Sounds like a pretty exciting drama, right? And the production is wonderful and — as expected — full of stature. In my book, a play with stature should have:

  • choral singing in latin (with a live cellist and oboeist, if at all possible)
  • a large and impressive cast
  • beautiful scenic design
  • plenty of intellect and intrigue
  • Shakespearian characters
  • incredible textual depth

Check, check, check, check, check, check. Let me expand upon a few of those checklist items. First of all, the language. Mr. Bartlett has written something ambitious on a scale I haven’t seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s in blank verse, so the characters sound modern and timeless all at once. You’ll occasionally hear that backward phrasing that we all recognize from exposure to Shakespeare. I found its use of blank verse absolutely brilliant, an incredibly smart way of constructing a contemporary work that feels like one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It really does make the show feel epic.

And those characters. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Charles feels like a Shakespearian figure, a man of conscience trapped between his morals, his duty, and his unbelievably popular son William. Harry, meanwhile, is equally trapped, though for him it’s more of an I-don’t-fit-in-with-the-Royals malaise. Harry’s plotline is a little more predictable than Charles’s: he falls in love with a penniless art student who opposes the monarchy altogether. Seems like fodder for a romantic comedy, right? Nevertheless, both Mr. Pigott-Smith and Richard Goulding as Harry are phenomenal, forming the emotional center of the show. (Mr. Goulding also reminded me of a guy I used to date, which probably won him extra points to be honest.)

Anyway, as you may have noticed, I keep referring to King Charles III as “a show with stature” and “a wonderful production.” That’s because I’m avoiding the truth. I found it boring. I loved seeing Kate Middleton as a kind of Lady MacBeth; I loved the mixture of modern language and old phrasing; I loved the concept of a play about Charles III. But I simply didn’t love the end result.

Now, why not? Perhaps it’s that I found the play to have a thrilling premise, but for some reason I failed to really buy into what happened after. I was constantly either thinking “this is so farfetched” or “it’s so ridiculous that the Brits even have a monarchy at all” Or I’d think: “Boy, am I glad this monarchy stuff isn’t my problem.” (Now what Anglophile in her right mind would think THAT?)

There’s also the fact that despite all its brilliance in many areas, King Charles III has quite a few plot holes. I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let me just say that the last twist felt a little unwarranted. And Harry’s reaction to that twist also seemed out of step with everything the character had been up to that point.

Or perhaps it’s even a little simpler than that: King Charles III is fascinating in premise, boring in execution. Beautiful language, problematic plot structure. I’m not someone opposed to a nice, long, meaty play, but I imagine this one would really pack a suckerpunch if it had a more intense 90 minute piece. On the other hand — and I always have an other hand, don’t I? — I was certainly exhausted when I saw the show. A two and a half hour history play was probably too ambitious for a Cardinals fan in mourning. I’ll do better next time. Or the play will. Or the Cardinals will.

My Grade: B-
Ticket price: $45
Worth it: Not really
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95% yes