The Big Snapple

Some of you know my longstanding feeling about New York City.

It wasn’t kind.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed visiting there. In fact, I’ve probably enjoyed it too much. My last significant visit for vacation, I was in my mid-twenties. It was me, a financial aid check, and every bar in Manhattan. Not to mention the shopping. I bought shoes, bags, a cheap fake watch and sunglasses in Chinatown. Whatever I couldn’t wear, I drank. And whatever I didn’t drink, I ate. It was a five-day loop of that, of waking up around noon, fuzzy-headed and warmed by the July sun spilling in through the windows of my friend’s Brooklyn flat. It was strange men in bars. It was spontaneous trips to Pommes Frites, to walk by The Cock and hear scandalous stories of its backroom (but not going in).

In fact, the happiest thing this side of love happened to me in New York: I was name-checked–loudly–by Reb Livingston as I exited the Prada store on 5th Avenue. It was like a dream. Except in the dream I have a black AmEx and a poolboy named Brody Jenner.

Possibly I loved New York too much and knew if I lived there, I wouldn’t be living long.

But that’s not all of it. Tall cities are dark, depressing. Oppressive. I hate the streets like long corridors with oversized walls. The smells. Oh, the smells. If the air doesn’t smell like something edible, it smells like things that used to be edible, or were eaten and then, you know, returned to the earth, so to speak. Not to mention there’s a higher than normal incidence of body odor among people within Manhattan itself. I don’t know if there’s any correlation.

On previous trips to Manhattan, I felt like everyone around me was thin, smoking a cigarette I wasn’t able to smoke myself, and wearing black. It was like the entire city was populated by semioticians! Many of the people I met were either artists or bankers. I remember meeting a young woman–let’s call her Amanda–who mixed drinks at a bar that only had red lighting in it. It was like having a martini in a Soviet propaganda ad. She had a boyfriend, she said, but sometimes liked to make out with girls. I don’t know why that’s such a strong memory. She was blond; her hair was the color of blood in the light.

This time, here’s what I noticed:
> Manhattan men are having a fashion crisis
> It really does smell like I remembered
> It’s really fun

Beau and I hit the Guggenheim and I loved the exhibits. The permanent collection, with its Renoirs and Gauguins and Degas…es, was a treat, but my favorite exhibition was the Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist, whose cubist/abstract paintings were like Mondrian on psychotropic mushrooms. The current exhibition, Haunted, featured some really intriguing pieces too. Some were a miss for me. But it was such a great space in which to view art.

We bustled over to meet a friend of Beau’s for coffee. At her salon, while we waited, I had my first real honest-to-god non-literary real famous person sighting: Sigourney Weaver. I did a good job of not staring, although perhaps it was obvious I was trying desperately not to stare. Still–and not that you care or it matters–she is a normal looking person and she was very warm and kind with the staff at the salon. I like a nice famous person. I also like supermegapowerbitches too (Blair Waldorf), but only when they’ve earned it. I didn’t see one of those.

After a nice coffee break, we dove into The Strand, which was crawling with people. The only thing I wanted? A t-shirt to replace the one I spilled food on. They didn’t have my size. They DID have a big sign by one of the shirts with Dan Humphrey on it that said AS SEEN ON GOSSIP GIRL, which made it sting even more.

We walked about 800 blocks back to our hotel and then changed to go see American Idiot, the musical based on the Green Day album of the same name. We were really early. I won’t lie. We were wearing the same thing we wore to the Lammys. (Reduce, reuse, rewear!) Just about everyone else going to the show looked like Jesse James: jeans, West Coast Choppers t-shirts. Some people went fancy with a long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of Wranglers. The show itself was great. I knew most of the music really well. The set is astounding–it goes up and up and up. At the top of a fire escape that goes almost the entire height of the stage, a lone violinist sat playing her music. I felt for her. Being up that high would have made me dizzy and nauseated.

The choreography was what I’d call “masculine,” meaning it was minimal and mostly punching and stomping. Some performances were great, some…seemed like they couldn’t sing very well. As you know, I’ve often said musical theatre is neither musical nor theatre, but I make exceptions when the source material is non-traditional (American Idiot, Mamma Mia! or transgressive in some way (Spring Awakening, Jesus Christ Superstar).

Afterwards, we sauntered back to the hotel, fell asleep, and then woke up early to get on our BoltBus back to DC. A quick trip! But, possibly the best kind.

Angels in America

I caught part II of Angels in America at Forum Theatre this weekend, and collectively, the two parts of the show represent the best theatre I’ve seen so far in DC. The acting was really, really phenomenal almost without exception, and the set and costume work was spare, interesting, innovative.

I think it’s such an interesting piece of theatre. What I love about what Kushner did–and what I strive to do in my own work when appropriate–is that he doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the issues in the play. Of course, Roy Cohn is as close to an Iago as you’ll get this side of Shakespeare and he seems to have few if any redeeming qualities (witness his duping of Ethel Rosenberg just before he dies, and then his delight at duping her). But Roy Cohn is also a character with a clear and consistent moral compass.

It would have been easy to write Joe, Harper, and Hannah Pitt off as fruity Mormon stereotypes, but I think he really gets into the struggle in Joe’s coming out. But Hannah Pitt is a tougher character. Becaue Kushner was pushing an agenda in the show, and because Hannah really stood outside of the agenda, he could have written her as a real unfeeling villain. But he gets inside her skin, understands what her values are and why she believes what she does (without judging the beliefs, as she so sternly reminds Prior Walter not to do when he criticizes her).

It’s a really long show. But I’ll tell you, it moves so quickly and doesn’t have 1 extra word in it, 1 extra gesture. It needs to be six hours long. It’s doing something. And it does it perfectly.

The Surprisingly Intricate Art of Scenic Painting

Beau and I were in New York (not city) in part to go visit one of his former instructors at a place called Cobalt Studios, an arts and education organization that both creates backdrops for professional theatres and also trains scenic painters in the art.

We got a tour of the rustic facility, which is located on a roughly 150-year-old farm house in White Lake. Students who study scenic painting there live in a–well, rustic–farm house on the property and study in another building–maybe a barn?–on the property. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense trees and visited by deer throughout the morning and evening. It was truly an idyllic place to visit and spend time.

In the summer, they run an intensive scenic painting program that really pushes students’ skills as far as they can go. The things they created really shocked me for both their elegance and their false-realness. And that might be the paradox of scenic painting–those artists are tasked with creating realistic-seeming facsimiles of real things, or to evoke the essence of a time and place, often creating three-dimensional images that are flat, filled with approximated shadows and textures.

I saw shockingly real-looking hand-painted portraits of hanging drapes, of marble carvings, of piers with seagalls flying overhead.

I told Beau later, I didn’t realize this was like, a thing.

He asked, How did you think it worked?

I said, I thought they were printed. By machines. They always look so real.

He said, That’s the art.

So I was humbled by their talents and vision. We had the chance to chat with some of the current summer students, who were kind and hilarious, and also very talented.

The next time you’re at the theatre, I hope you’ll consider the careful hands who painted the intricate set pieces and backdrops.


Credit: John Groseclose

Phoenix’s Stray Cat Theatre is at it again, putting cutting-edge shows on stage affordably but with exceptional quality. Their current show, columbinus, is a haunting docudrama that blends The Laramie Project with elements of The Real World.

Credit: John Groseclose

Without seeming glib, columbinus begins simply, bringing together 8 high school students for a typical day of classes, gossip, lunch, and turmoil. Each cast member walks out on stage, strips down to their underwear, and then goes to sleep, only to then start their day all over, putting on the familiar clothing of the archetypes they represent: the jock, the popular girl, the religious girl, the prep, the freak, the nerd, etc. For the next hour, these unnamed archetypes circle each other like sharks, preying on the weaker and butting chests with the stronger.

Although it has bearing on the second half of the show, the way columbins begins was too vague for me. I hope I don’t seem jaded, but the play seemed to state the obvious (that everyone in high school has life-threatening problems/fears/concerns), and then it stated it over and over again. This is really a problem of scripting rather than performance. The strength in the opening was the poetically-crafted dialogue, acting as a sort of Greek chorus of voices who pop and sizzle individually, then snap together percussively.

The actors were all exceptionally made over into teenagers, both looking and acting like crazed hormonally-charged weirdoes. I especially liked “the bad girl,” whose anger was always barely contained–but likewise her vulnerability.

Credit: John Groseclose

By the end of the first act, two of the archetypes morph seamlessly in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers. It’s a powerful moment, one that asks the audience to consider just how easily any of these students could have snapped and become like them; it asks the audience to consider our own part in fostering violence and intolerance.

The second half of the show is much, much stronger. We watch Harris and Klebold plot, prepare, and then attack their school. The playwright smartly backs out of this sequence, letting historical documents and survivor testimony stand in for crafted dialogue. Survivors describe their terror blankly, focusing events more than feelings. We hear of heads exploding, legs torn to shreds by gunfire, the way a body feels as it stops breathing. We watch our friends die, we play dead, we beg, we profess our belief in God, we are shot.

It’s an almost indescribable sequence, staged flawlessly by Ron May and his cast. The rhythm, the lighting, the staging, the sound effects, and the performances are all top-notch, lacking both irony and pathos. The real strengh of columbinus is its resistance of editorial, putting before us the evidence, then asking us who we are.

Jesus Christ! (Superstar)

In a move that shows you’re never too old to play Jesus, Ted Neeley showed up in DC this week starring as Jesus in the touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I caught last night’s show–my first time seeing it on stage, since I love the film version so much. I didn’t outright love it, although Beau kind of did.

One of the best parts about the film is that it uses anachronism to comment on today/yesterday through the lens of the passion. Guns in the temple, hippies celebrating free love, etc, are all integral parts of the film. The stage version is much more Bible-y: traditional dress even as Jesus’ followers are chanting “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening!”

In the touring show, the stand out was Herod, whose role affords him the most latitude in performance. This show’s Herod sang a Calypso version of his solo, with four Carmen Miranda-like back up singers. My only reservation is that the actor played Herod as a kind of mincing bitchy queen–and the last thing the gays need right now is to be connected to the crucifixion of Jesus, if you ask me. But he was funny, and he incorporated the most anachronism into his brief moment on stage, combining a divaness with the kind of critcal rancor usually reserved for restaurant reviews and NPR film reviews.

The letdown was Judas. But how can anyone live up to Carl Anderson’s portrayal in the film? It’s amazing, impassionated, and truly demonstrates the conflict between loving Jesus and wanting to do “what’s right”–one of the most important commentaries the show makes about contemporary society. The stage Judas sounded frequently off-key, had difficulty conveying passion that wasn’t mechanical and premeditated. He did turn it out for his Vegas-style final number, though.

The other standout was Mary, who had a gorgeous voice, although her entire performance was pretty understated, kind of as it should be.

Ted Neeley’s getting a little too old to play Jesus. I think one of the interesting aspects of this show is that Jesus is a rock star, a young, handsome, charismatic rock star who collects groupies and takes them to Jerusalem. The film is 36 years old now, and Neeley’s performance then was excellent (if a little stiff). The stiffness is mostly gone now, replaced with a holy arrogance, and his voice is blissfully unchanged. But he looked a little waxy under the lights. I’d like to see a younger, hotter Jesus next time around.

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

While I was in Chicago, Beau and I went to see Too Much Light Make the Baby Go Blind (TMLMTBGB), a show by the Neo-Futurist collective. TMLMTBGB is a randomized spectacle of “30 plays in 60 minutes” and it was pretty fantastic. A cast of six actors act out a 30 short-shorts that feature audience participation, stand-up comedy, dancing and singing, monologues, dramatic monologues. Some are very funny. Some are poignant or sad. Collectively, it was a crazy fun show.

Audience members are made to shout out numbers printed out and hung over the stage. On the back of the number is the title of the play. A cast member jumps up to grab the number, announces the title, and then the cast quickly take their places to begin. The play concludes when a cast member says, “Curtain,” cuing the audience to shout out more numbers and start the show. All the while, a darkroom clock ticks backward from 60 and the cast and audience are tasked with getting through all the plays…

Of the ones we saw there were many standouts. “Revenge of a Theatre Major” was a one-liner in which a cast member stood there and, in the face of her now-laid off colleagues from college, “Well, I’ve still got my job!” “Neo-Gay PSA” began with an apology from the cast to “all the gay people in the world” who had been mistreated by America. Gays were asked to stand up to be recognized. Festive music began to play and cast members ran around hugging all the gays and saying, “You’re gay–that’s great!” Someone brought out a tray of candy and snacks and gave them to the gays. They wheeled out a cooler full of soda and water and offered it to us. You know, it actually did feel kind of nice to be gay for a minute.

Another good one was “Insult/Dance/Repeat,” in which one cast member asked an audience member questions like, “Are you a mother?” And when an affirmative answer was given, two cast members ran out while the lights flashed, one sitting on the shoulders of the other, shrieking like banshees, and proceeded to shout something really atrocious at the audience member. In this case, it was something I’m not even comfortable typing out, but I almost peed my pants it was so awful and funny. This went on for some time.

The Neo-Futurists are “committed to randomness.” To pay for the show, you pay $9, plus the roll of a die. (So, $10-15 depending.) The shows are run in a random order, and at the end of the show on Fridays and Sundays, one audience member is asked to roll a die. The total of the two rolls (Fri and Sun) is the number of plays the cast has to write and learn by the next week (2-12). After three weeks, you can potentially almost an entirely fresh show with that kind of schedule.