Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Art, Artists and Outtakes.

In Tracy Letts’ ‘August: Osage County,’ the writer has inserted many sly references to things outside the mechanics of the action. Nevertheless, they are a big part of what makes the play exciting to a critic. Unfortunately, doing justice to this invisible dimension would throw the review out of balance and deprive readers of the rewards of their own discovery.

Fortunately, citing such connections – whether vertent or inad – falls perfectly within the odd parameters of this column. There is nothing inadvertent about Letts’ efforts, however. (Though some of these sightings likely ripple beyond his intentions.)

The fun begins with the first scene, in which blocked poet Beverly Weston conducts a one-sided interview of the Native American woman he hires as his housekeeper. It continues through the last tearful lines, wept by his widow into the lap of this housekeeper. The first scene ends with“Here we go ‘round the prickly pear,” which begins the fifth and final section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men.’ The last scene, and with it the play, ends with “This is the way it ends,” a slight alteration of the last lines of 'Hollow Men.' The actual line is “This is the way the world ends," and continues with the oft-quoted “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

This bookending underscores some of Letts' key points: the importance of poetry as a vehicle to embrace and encapsulate; the concept of hollow men, who seem to populate the play exclusively; encouragement to the audience to project the Westons' situation onto the larger social canvas; and certain parallels between the Westons and the Eliots.

Parallel lines. Letts chose to name Beverly's wife Violet, and abbreviate it as Vi, to invoke T.S. Eliot’s wife. Vivien, Viv. suffered from mental illness, tormenting "Tom" to the point that he "disappeared." He first went to America but eventually returned to London, never telling Viv he was alive. Eventually she made contact at a public engagement, but they never reconnected and she died in a sanitorium. That is the reason Letts chose "Vi." But that prompts the question, did Bev choose to marry a woman with such a name because his adoration of Eliot was turning to emulation? And, in that case, was Violet’s downward psychological spiral, shall we say, not discouraged by a man seeking the trappings of the timeless poet?

For art’s sake, forsake the artist. In the first scene Bev makes a passing reference to differentiating art from the person behind it."Gapping" the creative process this way, between source and product, is something alluded to in that same fifth section of 'The Hollow Men': "Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow." (While this is not quoted, the line that follows it, "Life is very long," is.)

This important distinction is not a new concept. The first time I heard it was about 30 years ago. The reference was to Ezra Pound, from a friend old enough to have been his contemporary. Pound the artist was a seminal poet, an indispensable part of 20th Century literature. As a man, however, he made statements supporting anti-semitism and fascism. My friend, who was both an intellectual and a Jew, had to separate his awe of Pound’s poetry from his revulsion at his public person. Not an easy thing to do.

Though Pound – as I recall – is not mentioned in the play, it is safe to conjure him up when reflecting on Weston’s opening remark. Not only was he very important to Eliot, Pound was descended from the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through his mother’s family – the Westons.

Writer’s Block is a Fatal Dis-ease. Two other poets are alluded to in 'Osage County': John Berryman and Conrad Aiken. Aiken is there in the family name of Violet’s brother-in-law, Charlie Aiken. Berryman is discussed at length in the opening speeches. These are also signposts to Letts’ core concerns.

Berryman’s father shot himself, as did Aiken’s. The latter, however, did so after murdering his wife. Aiken, a lifelong friend of Eliot’s, attempted suicide, but survived to die naturally at 83. Berryman killed himself by jumping off a Minnesota bridge at age 57. Eliot died peacefully in 1965. There is much more to savor what Letts has written, and what he has let lie between the lines. What the character of Johnna, the Cheyenne housekeeper, represents is enormous. But a final note here regarding that year 1965. It may be a coincidence, but the year Eliot died was the year Beverly Weston stopped writing. It was also the year Tracy Letts was born.

There is much more, of course. Any other ideas?

Above – Robert J. Saferstein's photo of Jon DeVries and DeLanna Studi, with portraits of Berryman, Eliot and Pound

Monday, July 13, 2009

Brimming with Pride

by Regina Taylor, directed by Israel Hicks
Pasadena Playhouse • July 10-August 16, 2009 (Opened, rev'd 7/12)

Regina Taylor’s 2002 play ‘Crowns,’ a loving tribute to African-American women based on the Michael Cunningham-Craig Marberry book of the same name, is now rattling the Pasadena Playhouse rafters in a spirited staging by Israel Hicks, artistic director of L.A.’s new Ebony Repertory Theater, which is co-producer. Taylor conveys the emotional essence of the book, subtitled “Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats,” which is that the self-bestowed “crowns” of these “hat queens” sent a message: we are fashionable, we are devout, we are united, and we have arrived.

Taylor incorporates many direct quotes from the book’s 50 subjects into the play, which is further enlivened with a couple dozen church songs delivered with soaring, take-me-now-Jesus conviction by the six-woman, one-man cast.

“Crowns” has been a huge success in its many mountings and inspired one of its past directors, Charles Randolph-Wright, to adapt another Marberry book for the stage. ‘Cuttin’ Up,’ the book of interviews with African-American men that looked at their lives through the communal setting of neighborhood barbershops, became ‘Cuttin’ Up’ the play, staged here in March 2007. Coincidentally, Randolph-Wright’s 2008 play ‘The Night is a Child’ will follow ‘Crowns’ at the Playhouse.

We can now see that the imitator substantially improved on its inspiration. Where “Crowns” puts us on a pew for a two-hour revival meeting filled with great singing and personalities, “Cuttin’ Up” lets us sit against the barbershop wall to eavesdrop on serious stories with a deep weave and darker resonance. Which is not to say that men inherently have more to say.

Wearing hats to church is a subject rich with dramatic potential. As a character points out early in the play, it carries on an African tradition as it celebrates the only place slaves and freed slaves were allowed to assemble. Taylor has come up with a thin storyline, of a teen awakening to her heritage, upon which to hang her hats, but it isn’t developed enough to shake off the source material’s intrinsic gallery feeling. While the program indicates that the actresses all have single characters, with two exceptions they do not become clear and consistent individuals. Instead, the show works its way through a half-dozen chapters based on church functions (baptism, funeral, etc.) into which characters pop with the randomness of a breeze rifling the pages of a book.

Taylor has given her story another important wrinkle, that traditions such as these (hat-wearing, church-going, community-embracing) persist for a reason, and the resistant younger generation would do well to get on board. The new generation is represented by Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk), a nascent Nuyorican Poetess displaced to South Carolina to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (the great Paula Kelly in a triumphant return from retirement), following the death of a brother. Although passing the hat tradition to Yolanda seems unlikely to succeed, the writing is on the wall, given the way she proudly clings to an oversized baseball cap.

That Taylor’s script skips over potential dramatic treasure is revealed in a couple of exchanges that briefly offer passage to deeper worlds. Early on, Mother Shaw sings directly to her grandchild. It’s a rare opportunity for eye contact between actors and Hicks, Polk and Kelly make the most of it. Later, Yolanda is caught up in an especially exuberant gospel choir. When she stumbles free from the seething circle of singing she seems imbued with insight, questions, and answers. Rather than plumbing that moment, however, the opportunity to delve into what’s going on with these characters is dropped in favor of continuing the parade of anecdotes from the women in the book, with Polk relegated to watching it like a kid on a curb.

But it’s a helluva a parade, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. This cast – all making their Playhouse debuts – is excellent. In addition to Polk and Kelly, the other women are Sharon Catherine Blanks, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Suzzanne Douglas and Ann Weldon, with Clinton Derricks-Carroll playing all the men. Derricks-Carroll has a slight advantage, since his characters are recognizable by their function: fathers, husbands and preachers. It seems as though all his numbers are stand outs, with “That’s All Right” being the first one to raise the Playhouse roof. By the end of the two-hour, intermissionless production, the ceiling will settle back down. But, through August 16, it will stay at a rakish angle, giving the California landmark's roofline the dip of a flirtatious fedora over a come-hither smile.

WITH Sharon Catherine Blanks, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Suzzanne Douglas, Paula Kelly, Angela Wildflower Polk, Ann Weldon MUSICIANS Eric Scott Reed (piano); Derf Reklaw (percussion), Trevor Ware (bass) PRODUCTION Edward E. Haynes, Jr., set; Dana Rebecca Woods, costumes; Lap Chi Chu, lights; Cricket S. Myers, sound; Linda Twine/David Pleasant, arrangements; Eric Scott Reed, musical direction/additional arrangements; Keith Young, choreography; Gwendolyn M. Gilliam/Lea Chazin, stage management

Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, co-produced with Ebony Repertory Theatre

PHOTO: Vanessa Bell Calloway, Ann Weldon, Angela Wildflower Polk, Paula Kelly, Suzzanne Douglas, Sharon Catherine Blanks and Clinton Derricks-Carroll, foreground. (Craig Schwartz)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let’s Play Hardball

‘Farragut North' by Beau Willimon, directed by Doug Hughes
Geffen Playhouse • June 16–July 26 (Opened 6/24, rev’d 6/25)

Among the intrigues in Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, a winning backroom drama about high-stakes political campaigns and the operatives who play them, is whether an upbeat “love of the game” or a weary cynicism will ultimately own the play’s tone.

Giving buoyancy to the more optimistic option is last year’s Presidential contest. For many, certainly the majority watching the Geffen Playhouse staging (through July 26), the election of Obama was an episode of mold-breaking that promised a new era of integrity at the top. That backdrop provides subliminal updraft to an early confession by communications manager Steve Bellamy (Chris Pine). This time, he says, he really believes in his candidate's potential for good. Though Farragut is not about Obama, his election has leavened the playing field enough to allow that Steve may be expressing inner insights and not self-delusion, and not just blowing smoke.

Farragut North arrives in Westwood as an intact import from New York’s Atlantic Theater, except for four new cast members, including Pine. Pine not only adds huge marquee value – he's Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ universally praised new Star Trek series prequel – he is a solid lead returning to the Geffen after appearing in the first casting round of the West Coast premiere of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.

The arena for Willimon’s five political operatives – who include wannabes, wunderkindern, interns and hardened vets – is Des Moines, Iowa before the Presidential Caucuses. What were, in the earlier eras Farragut recalls, smoky backrooms and arm-twisting contests, are now, thanks to wireless communications, anywhere and everywhere. David Korins creates the restrained unit set of lounge booths, bar tables and hotel beds, shifting to a barrage of projected video collage by Joshua White & Bec Stupak. Those oppressive clips of TV reporters remind us that what we're seeing is not what we get: the public is at the end of the information food chain.

Willimon keeps us guessing about these characters throughout act one. That a solid 70 minutes of talking heads kept a full house coughless and riveted attests both to his skill at dialogue and suspense and director Doug Hughes' sure hand with pacing and tone. That the stage proscenium’s aspect ratio seems destined to be one-upped by the big screen is confirmed in his bio. He is currently adapting Farragut to film.

Part of the magic of the rising arc of act one is Willimon’s ability to make every character equally suspect without making them seem the same. Whether it is New York Times reporter Ida (Mia Barron), lowly staffer-on-the-make Molly (Olivia Thirlby), campaign manager Paul (Chris Noth), opposition campaign manager Tom (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), spokesman Steve, or press director-in-waiting Ben (Dan Bittner), all are utterly contemporary, but with a touch of the Bard's big-theme flaws to give the play even deeper resonance. Steve’s travails amount to over-ambition undermined by over-confidence, up-ending the adage that “you can’t shit a shitter.” It seems more likely that he who lives by the spin may not realize someone has him in full pirouette until he lands flat on his ass.

To close the play, a communications representative addresses the audience with a prepared statement that puts a public face on the outcome of all the wrangling we’ve just witnessed. We suddenly realize that these are the first words of the play that would have reached the public. It's Willimon's final word on the matter: We do not know what's really going on and how complicit the media is in the packaging process. The spokesperson's statement is, in a word, crap.

Set, match. Cynicism wins.

WITH Mia Barron, Dan Bittner, Chris Noth, Chris Pine, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (u/s – Troian Bellisario, Robyn Cohen, Thomas Fiscella, Peter Swander) PRODUCTION David Korins, set; Catherine Zuber, costumes; Paul Gallo, lights; David Van Tiegham/Walter Trarbach, sound; Van Tiegham, music; Joshua White/Bec Stupac, video; James T. McDermott/Jennifer Brienen, stage management An Atlantic Theater production.
Photo: Chris Noth, Chris Pine, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Michael Lamont)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

'Touch the Water' (Cornerstone Theater Company)

For the fourth play in its four-year, six-production cycle of original work exploring how laws impact contemporary American life, Cornerstone Theater Company is premiering Julie Hébert’s Touch the Water, a river play (through June 21). After plays on immigration, reproductive rights and penal retribution, the “Justice Cycle” turns to law and the environment.

Touch the Water delivers its environmental message in an environmental staging by Director Julliette Carrillo. The audience bleachers face a found-art set by Darcy Scanlin sitting beside a rare stretch of Los Angeles River where water and vegetation have reclaimed it from the concrete. The “River,” a 50-mile channel that travels from the western San Fernando Valley through the Glendale Narrows and L.A. Basin to Long Beach, serves as the central flood control system for (and punch line for jokes about) metropolitan L.A.'s unnatural landscape.

The overarching tone of Hébert’s script is one of loss, with the concrete trough as a symbol of man's break with nature and lack of vision for an urban landmark that would bring L.A. beauty, recreation, and civic pride in the way the Seine serves Paris. However, the play is itself a lost opportunity. While Carrillo’s design and technical team have given the play a wondrous world for its premiere, with a compliant moon joining Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s award-worthy lighting design on opening-night, Touch the Water, like a walk along the broken channel floor, proves an uneven ramble.

According to the playbill, the Justice Cycle explores “how justice functions in society.” But there’s more of ‘cycles’ than ‘justice’ to Touch the Water: natural cycles of rain, run off, and reclamation; human cycles of spiritual rebirth and social responsibility; a real meandering subplot about cycles of violence; and, most importantly, the life-cycle of cement: “Snakes shed their skin and are reborn,” one character says. “Rivers are snakes.”

Although the play's heavy nativist tone and anthropomorphizing may undercut the aspects that are factual, a redevelopment plan exists to make the L.A. River a real waterway that retains its flood-control functions while returning it to a natural habitat and adding recreation benefits.

Admirably, Carrillo dives in after Hébert, investing the proceedings with sincerity and reverence. These Cornerstone plays are the product of careful real-world participation, going to the community members for their expertise, and in some cases to draft cast members. While nice on paper – particularly grant applications – from a purely theatrical standpoint, non-actors can compromise the impact. While Someday (reproductive rights) and For All Time (retribution) did not suffer from their expanded cast, the drop off in Touch is more noticeable.

Cornerstone's mission is a two-way street: giving voice to urgent issues and unheard communities through theater, and promoting back to those communities and their extended publics renewed appreciation for the power of this art form. Touch the Water's dual responsibility is to inspire its audiences to appreciate the majesty of nature and the magic of theater. Real actors are alchemists who need protection, too. Fortunately, two of Cornerstone's real magicians – Shishir Kurup and Page Leong – are here to share their considerable talents, and break up the non-actor speeches that recall the skit portion of a seminar.

While Hébert's script may be trying to satisfy too many constituencies, her lyrics – co-written with composer Kurup – are a solid contribution, delivered on a sound system that, despite mic'ing all the actors, never draws attention to itself. Costumer Soojin Lee creates a fantastic menagerie of river wildlife by recycling everything from flattened aluminum cans to coat hangers. And, without benefit of spot operators. Alcaraz employs a warm palette that always bathes its actors with pinpoint, flattering light – even when they are on the opposite bank of the river. Quite an achievement. Kudos, too, to stage manager Marisa Fritzemeier and her board operator.

Touch the Water, a river play, by Julie Hebert, directed by Juliette Carrillo; music by Shishir Kurup; lyrics by Kurup & Hébert; Cornerstone Theater Company • May 28-June 21, 2009 (Opened, rev’d 6/4) World Premiere

WITH Neetu S. Badham, Lane Barden, Matt Borel, Ceci Dominguez, Ricky Dominguez, Ben Fitch, Richard Fultineer, Rachel Garcia, Liebe Gray, Ubaldo Hernandez, Joel Jimenez, Shishir Kurup, Page Leong, Joe Linton, Lewis MacAdams, Laural Meade, Pat Payne, Gezel Remy, Jennifer Villalobos, Terry Young, and Laural Meade & Rachel Garcia, puppeteers MUSICIANS Danny Moynahan, Ben Fitch, Richard Fultineer, Marcos Nájera, Shishir Kurup, Neetu S. Badhan PRODUCTION Darcy Scanlin, set; Soojin Lee, costumes; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, lights; Benajah Cobb, sound; Danny Moynahan, music direction; Marisa Fritzemeier, stage management

Photo Illustration: Against L.A. River backdrop, Lewis MacAdams (Roger Vadim), Page Leong (Isa Pino, Shishir Kurup (Luis Otcho-o Authermont), Rachel Garcia (Ardea, a Great Blue Heron). Show photos by John Luker; L.A. River by Timo Elliott (Wikipedia)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Hunger Signs?

The kind of serial coincidences that are recalled in this column's head may not connect or be meaningful, but the experience of stumbling upon them is always fun. So, in that spirit, her's the most recent.

This week, within a 24-hour period, a synchronistic triptych occurred. On Thursday morning, I was watching a Layers Magazine video podcast about the Adobe website design product, Dreamweaver. Perhaps because I had not eaten breakfast, when Rafael “RC” Concepcion tossed off an aside of ‘bacon and eggs,’ it slid across the pate, then back again. “You can name your site anything you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. Name it ‘bacon and egss,’ if you want.”

My mind made a substitution, as I preferred ‘chorizo and eggs,’ a favorite I had not subjected myself to in quite some time. By the time I returned my attention to the podcast, I needed to scroll back to where I derailed.

Ten hours later I was sitting in bleachers along an Atwater Village section of the Los Angeles River for opening night of Cornerstone Theater Company’s ‘Touch the Water,’ a play about the Rio de Los Angeles State Park Bowtie Parcel. I was reading through the bios when I heard the four musicians begin to take the stage. Apparently one was lagging behind and, after being chided by the others, made his way out, providing the first lines from the stage, an adlib’d “I needed to get my bacon and eggs scarf!” I looked up to see Marcos Najera carrying a long scarf with a couple of attached circles of fabric that looked like sunny-side-up eggs.

I smiled thinking it odd to have these first words of the evening touch back on the most memorable words of the morning.

On Friday morning, making my way back to the mountains from where I’d spent the night in West L.A., I stopped at a Trader Joe’s in Rancho Cucamonga. It was the first time I’d found this location; the first time I’d been off the 210 at this exit. But the nice clean TJ was comfortingly familiar. I joined several other morning shoppers, silently navigating our carts around the aisles. We all seemed to be shaking off drowsiness. I thought I’d see about a cup of coffee from the testing station at the rear of the store, where I'd seen columns of insulated paper cups. As I headed over, another shopper came out of another aisle. Breaking the store silence, the woman behind the counter asked the approaching shopper is she “would like to sample some chorizo and eggs?”

That was sufficient to wake me up, and I dispensed with the search for coffee and turned my cart for the check-out islands.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Anybody listening?

The old stumper about whether or not a tree makes noise when it falls unheard by people gained new applications for me while watching Robert Redford’s ‘Lions for Lambs.’ Commercially, this Socratic-method look at personal responsibility in the era of Bush’s War on Terror, had fallen on deaf ears. Despite above-the-title stars Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Redford (acting and directing) – audiences quickly cooled to the November 2007 release, leaving it with $15 million in domestic business. Fortunately, foreign sales were triple that and the film brought in nearly double its $36 million production budget.

More damning was the response. Websites Yahoo and boxofficemojo averaged the grade from movie critics at C+ and the audience’s at D+.

I found the dialectics gave the Hollywood film a rare stage intimacy. The isometrics of muscular intellects going at each other from opposing views requires precision and power. Unfortunately, film critics were as disinterested in these onscreen dramatic face-offs as society is of their theatrical counterparts. Los Angeles Times Critic Carina Chocano put it clearly, "...looks like a stage play and plays like a policy debate."

Interestingly, buried within Redford’s quiet message was a tribute to the silent sacrifices of Americans who fall out of earshot on the battlefield. In the climatic scene, two GIs are cut down on a frozen Afghan peak. They are alone after Taliban fighters ambushed a U.S. helicopter before it could drop off the first platoon of a new, smaller-unit invasion. The shot-up chopper gets away, but not before one soldier is jostled out an open door, followed by his enlistment partner, who jumps to help him. As the enemy circle tightens around them, the men appear to the military personnel watching a satellite transmission, as little more than blackened rice kernels on the snowy screen. Unprotected and unheard, the soldiers gather their strength to stand and face their executioners. Their final words of commitment, like their futures, are lost.

The hour of Afghan night in which this happens is the late-morning hour in Washington when Cruise’s hawkish Senator announces the campaign to Streep’s Cable News reporter. It is also the morning hour in Los Angeles that Redford’s university professor tries to re-ignite the passion for political science a gifted young student has lost.

As their hour winds down, the student, played by Andrew Garfield, confounds his mentor by asking what the difference is between the lack of political involvement of a soldier killed at 19 and a student who does not participate.

Redford’s character is speechless, but his film answers osmotically. The difference lies beneath the surface, beyond sight or sound, in purpose. The soldiers – former students of Redford’s character – had had a political and social agenda that began with Afghanistan. Their lives had purpose, even if no one was listening. Like them, the film has purpose, even if the majority of audiences turn a deaf ear. Finally, the art form of theater that is recalled here in its truest, most articulate form, survives despite continuing to slide under America’s popular culture radar. Because it has a passionate purpose, it succeeds, whether people listen, and whether those listening actually hear it for what it is.

Photo: Michael Peña, Derek Luke take the fall in 'Lions for Lambs'

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Entertaining Notions on the Borders

My preparation for a March interview with playwright Theresa Rebeck came the morning after a dramatic prime time news show about Narco violence. Something about the CNN Special Report, which covered the murder of a Texas lawman by Mexican drug traffickers, resonated as I learned of Rebeck’s ‘Our House,' opening at Playwrights Horizons on June 9.

The subject at hand was ‘Mauritius,’ her most popular play to date, at the Pasadena Playhouse. But reading that ‘Our House,’ which premiered in January 2008 at Denver Center Theatre, asks, “Are news and entertainment interchangeable?” recalled my reaction to the Anderson Cooper program. Not being a regular viewer, I had been surprised by the level to which he and his team wrapped their coverage with a clear, though muted, sensationalism. While this kind of 'news' is not news, the preference for the language and imagery of violence – shrouded corpses, shadowy identity-protected interviewees – and disinterest in reasoned discussion of the issues behind it, was stunning. Brief, perfunctory moments of talking head stats were allotted to how America's voracious appetite for drugs fuels the international drug economy. That message would fall to Secretary Clinton the following week, and President Obama this month, to make.

Entertainment is a useful addition to any communication. Try plowing through academic writing if you disagree. In reporting, however, it’s best kept as sweetener. Junk journalism on television is as dangerous to American health as junk food in school cafeterias.

Much of Rebeck's work aims to strike the right balance: “I’m trying to create art that entertains.” While finding that dividing line is up to each artist and viewer, the breaking point between the two lies somewhere along the stretch where meaning is lost in fluff. It isn't that art has to be true. Far from it. Novelist John Barth suggested art can be truer than fact. He once had a character describe his stories as “too important to be lies. Fictions, maybe – but truer than fact.”

The popularity of theater and journalism are both being tested in the current economy. Television, where a majority of people get both their entertainment and their news, offers entertainment masquerading as "reality," and real news blurred by theatricality. The preference for this altered state may have more to do with the rising death count of newspapers than the free home delivery offered by the Internet. The Internet, which offers more opinion that anything, is just picking up where television started.

And, that, getting back to Rebeck's concerns in 'Our House,' rewards reporters who are showmen rather than ‘regulators.’ The defanging of financial regulators is much more reversable than will be the grind of keeping City Halls, school boards, and legislators in check through regular news coverage. The current ‘Atlantic’ suggests that “the Internet trains readers to consume news in ever-smaller bites. This is a disaster for newspapers and magazines. If you're not covering your state delegation in D.C., or the state legislature back home, or the city council, bad things are going to happen, undiscovered.”

But as Cooper's tone and Rebeck's play reveal, these things have already happened. News is entertainment. Want something more insidious? Try news as religion. We can already see this creeping in at the borders of TV's reporter-punditry. FOX news, which Charlie Brooker jokes “generally leans more to the right than a man who’s just had his right leg blown off,” has a number of these "news anchors" putting both bully and pulpit in their nightly “bully pulpit.” TIME Magazine's James Poniewozik cited Glenn Beck as a key voice in the shouting match.

“Beck embraces fear," he wrote of Beck's appeal. "Fear of what? Take your pick. . . . That fat cats and bureaucratic 'bloodsuckers' are plundering your future. That Mexico will collapse and chaos will pour over the border. That America believes too little in God and too much in global warming.”

Here's to keeping our house in order: leave the news to journalists, the drama to dramatists, and the fire and brimstone to the preachers.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION. Molly Ward, center, as Jennifer in the Denver Center Theatre Company world premiere production of Our House (Terry Shapiro), surrounded by Anderson Cooper, Julie Chen on 'Big Brother,' Final front page in Denver, Glenn Beck.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Cold Case of Frostbite

The year after the Bicentennial commemorated America’s declaration to fight off British monarchy, another historic Anglo-American face-off took place. This time, a single Brit would confront the American who had attempted to reign as ‘Imperial President.’

British television interviewer David Frost had paid Richard Nixon $1 million for a dozen interview sessions that would be broadcast over a week in shows sure to be heard around the world. While some clarification of history was inevitable, both men were primarily concerned with improving public sentiment towards them.

As we have seen in subsequent Presidential over-stepping such as the Iran-Contra Affair and the misuse of intelligence gathering to deceive the public about the urgency of invading Iraq, a sense of supreme self-righteousness permeated the Nixon Presidency. It was not seen as criminal for government employees to leak damaging lies about the other party’s front-runners in order to have them withdraw in disgrace and make way for less viable candidates. Or, for them to attempt electronic surveillance of the Democratic National Committee leadership so they could learn the opposition's tactics in time to sabotage them. These activities were not seen as illegal because they were sanctioned by a President who, in their eyes, was as sovereign as King George III.

The surveillance of the DNC never happened because the men sent to break in to its Watergate Hotel offices in June 1972 were caught by the night watchman. From then on, the former President continued to barricade himself behind executive privilege and fallen bodies of sacrificed staffers. He held his ground through his landslide re-election, but by August 1974, with impeachment a certainty, he handed the reign to Gerald Ford.

CONTINUATION FROM 'NOTEBOOK' BEGINS HERE: In August 2006 Peter Morgan's dramatization of Frost’s interviews with Nixon premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Frost/Nixon came to America in 2007 and within a year was a film version was on its way to several Academy Award nominations including best picture, director, and actor for Frank Langella as Nixon. This week the play opens its West Coast premiere (with Stacy Keach as Nixon) at the Ahmanson Theatre.

For most theater reviews, rather than enter a play with preconceptions affected by inevitably interpretative marketing and publicity materials, I prefer to listen to what the play has to say for itself. However, in the case of semi-documentaries, preparation is necessary. Here, the work of the playwright and actors is not rooted in the realm of imagination but in the real world. To gauge how their artistry enhances the recreation, we must freshly re-gather as accurate as possible a picture of what happened.

A short cut to this is provided by the recollections of Frost and two research assistants: reporters James Reston Jr. and Robert Zelnick (both of whom are also characterized in the play).

"It is a curious feeling to go to the theater and watch yourself onstage," Frost writes in Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes. "I attended a preview of Frost/Nixon two or three nights before the play opened in August 2006. I thought it was brilliantly written, directed and acted. There were more fictionalizations than I would have preferred, although one such piece of fictionalization – Nixon's phone call to me on the eve of Watergate – was, I thought, a masterpiece.”

Last year, prompted by the film, an enterprising reporter at Boston University's student paper, interviewed Zelnick, who said he had not seen the film, “but I’ve seen the play."

“It was great theater,” he said, “and the overall account is reasonably accurate. But there was poetic license taken for the stage that was somewhat in excess of what I was comfortable with.

"The character of Frost as portrayed on stage presents him as the kind of guy who rose to the occasion one time in his life. I don’t think that’s true. . . . [Whether it was once in his lifetime or more] he should be applauded for doing that. A lot of people have the opportunity and don’t rise to the occasion."

“I was not so sure about some of the other fictionalizations," Frost continues. "Why was Watergate now the twelfth of twelve sessions and not – as actually happened – two sessions in the middle? Why did James Reston's discoveries from the Watergate tapes only reach me on the morning of the Watergate session and not eight months earlier, as had actually been the case? Why did the early sessions, which contained a lot of good material, have to be depicted so negatively?. . . . Whenever I made these points to Peter [Morgan], he would simply sigh and say, 'David, you've got to remember this is a play, not a documentary.' However, aware of my concern, he thoughtfully added an author's note to the program, making the point that he had sometimes found it irresistible to let his imagination take over."

That note has not made it to the Ahmanson program. (Ironically, the description of this as "a new play" has survived from the original Donmar production.) However, the folks at Center Theater Group have honored Morgan's promise by incorporating the caveat in a question asked of director Michael Grandage in a program Q&A entitled "The Fact and Fiction of Frost/Nixon."

Ahmanson audiences will now weigh how theater has used language to balance reality and myth in depicting how one fallen leader used language to navigate around fact and fiction. It should be a fascinating battle between the imaginative and the impeachable, in the state whose only native son to become President was the only one to resign.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Spring Forward

Of the many pleasures in the Geffen Playhouse world premiere of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (through March 15) one is finally having due cause to write about Anna Gunn. She plays the play’s lead, a photographer named Sarah. I had seen her onstage once before in the first reading of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, during the 2005 Pacific Playwrights Festival at my alma mater, South Coast Repertory.

Gunn made an indelible impression in the lead role of Becca, half a couple dealing with the death of their little boy. Late in the play, the poor teenage driver who had hit the child seeks some healing by dedicating a curious science fiction story about time travel, rabbit and worm holes, and parallel universes with Becca. Though I would see three subsequent productions, something set Gunn’s reading of the part – with Kevin Kilner, Sarah Rafferty, Lynn Milgrim and Philip Vaden – apart.

I touched on the phenomenon in "One Degree of Separation," a blog prompted by Amy Ryan's excellent performance in the Geffen's West Coast premiere. The title hints at how an incident can create a huge, undetectable gulf within a person. It also refers to how one undetectable element in a performance can distinguish it from all others.

When I diplomatically asked the playwright if my impressions had any merit, Lindsey-Abaire diplomatically responded, “Yes, I was blessed by those PPF actors who understood the material implicitly and got it across to that audience so wonderfully.”

Jump from NOTEBOOK begins here . . . I had worked with Alastair Duncan, Gunn’s husband, when he, Lynnda Ferguson, Cindy Katz and François Giroday were in SCR’s production of Private Lives, winner of five L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards including one for Duncan. I had met her with Alastair at a Gregg Henry concert at L.A.'s Genghis Cohen. (Henry, a great singer, rarely has time to perform his music, though coincidentally he had a show shortly after we saw Time Stands Still last Saturday.)

In my review I interpreted Margulies’ title as ironic. He wants us – I presumed – to take the phrase at face value when the play begins, and apply it to the ability of photography to capture an event for our understanding. But two hours later we are to question that acceptance. Reality is beyond the grasp of cameras, reporters, and even playwrights. What we get is something else: the mirror, according to Shakespeare. Our reliance on these as more than mere representations is dangerously self-deluding. Not only will time not stand still for a photo, it’s constantly changing our lives and relationships as it carries us in its floodwater.

A few days after posting the review I received a press release that on Saturday L.A. TheaterWorks would air its recording of Margulies’ Sight Unseen – with Gunn in the cast, along with Randy Oglesby from SCR's world premiere, Adam Arkin and Jordan Baker). That was the final prompt to write something about Gunn and the Rabbit Hole that did not make sense in Monday’s review. Anyway, it was raining all that day in Lake Arrowhead.

First, however, I decided to hit the treadmill. Before I could get started the doorbell rang. A dark wet shroud filled the doorway. Within the over-sized cowl my neighbor was smiling as the DVD he had offered to loan me earlier in the week emerged from the slit in his slicker.

I had seen bits of What the Bleep do We Know? on cable a year or so ago and had been keen to watch the whole thing. I started the film and the jog together. A handful of experts explain quantum physics while a photographer played by Marlee Matlin goes bumping and bruising through life in anecdotal applications of the theory.

According to the scientists, with quantum physics – or mechanics – time can just as easily move backwards as forward. Hmmm, I thought as I jogged (my bounding in place now feeling suspiciously like time standing still), maybe this is what Margulies’ title was on about.

Roughly 19 minutes into the film, I was stopped in my tracks – or would have been if my track hadn’t been moving of its own accord – by a statement by Dr. David Albert, Director of Columbia University's Philosophical Foundations of Physics and a specialist in how quantum mechanics impacts the “philosophy of space and time.”

“There’s a great mystery called the mystery of the direction of time," said the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience and Time and Chance. "There’s a certain sense in which the fundamental laws of physics that we have don’t make any interesting distinction, say, between past and future. For example, it’s a puzzle from the standpoint of the fundamental laws of physics why we should be able to remember the past and not have the same kind of epistemic access to the future. It’s a puzzle from the standpoint of these laws why we should think something like by acting now we can affect the future but not the past. These things – that we have a different kind of epistemic access to the past than the future; that we have kind of control by acting out over the future than we do over the past – are so fundamental to the way that we experience the world that it seems to me, not to be curious about them, is to be three-quarters of the way to being dead.”

Once off the treadmill, I went online to find out more about the film and discovered a wonderland of additional information, including news that a 3-DVD Director’s Cut, called Down the Rabbit Hole, was now available.

'Time Stands Still’ continues at the Geffen Playhouse through March 15, and there are tickets still available. Saturday's radio broadcast of 'Sight Unseen' will also be available online for the following week following the March 7 broadcast. For more information on "What the Bleep Do We Know," visit its website.

Photo Illustration: Anna Gunn in 'Time' (Michael Lamont), Marlee Matlin on the ‘Bleep’ dust jacket; the wild hare himself by John Tenniel

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kings and Creativity

There was an echo in the house the last week of January. My house. On Sunday evening, January 25, I’d seen ‘Pippin’ pop-open at the Mark Taper Forum. The co-production with Deaf West Theatre – which literally halved the title character for a House of Sight & Sound – left me reverbeatin’ with those feelings of the late-late ‘60s. (When they’d become the early ‘70s.)

Pippin is a variation on Pepin, the powerful father and ineffectual son of Charlemagne, or Charles I. The original show opened on Broadway weeks before Richard Nixon’s re-election, in 1972 which means it came at the tail end of the most subverted Presidential election in American history. (As far as we know.)

Nixon’s pursuit of ‘Imperial Presidency’ – the title of the Arthur Schlessinger wake-up tome published the following year – led many artists to compare him to kings. Paul Conrad did it in his amazing string of 'L.A. Times' editorial cartoons, Steely Dan and Jefferson Airplane did it in rock songs, and Stephen Schwartz certainly was ready for the tie-in when he wrote music and lyrics for ‘Pippin.’ In contrast to folks like Charles (and Richard), who crave Kingdomination, ‘Pippin’s' second act offered representatives of the ordinary life. The woman who becomes 'Kid' Charlemagne’s true love, describes herself as “your average ordinary kind of woman, competent and neat, making life a treat.”

The lyrics may not be Fagin and Becker (who that year released, in ‘Kings,’ with expectant lines like “We’ve seen the last of Good King Richard; ring out the past his name lives on; roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher”), but it makes its point about being satisfied with one's even share.

Two nights after ‘Pippin’ opened, the echo came while listening to PBS’ NewsHour. In tribute to writer John Updike, who had died that day at age 76, portions of an interview conducted by Jeffrey Brown were replayed. The conversation had been part of Updike’s 2003 promotional of a new collection of short stories.

Brown asked, “In the Foreword, when you’re describing writing short stories, you write, ‘My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due.’
What does that mean, ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due?’”

“I worked hard at that sentence,” Updike said, “‘cause I was trying, you know, having challenged myself to say what did I think I was doing, I then had to find the phases for it. But I’ve always had, I think, even before I began to publish, this notion that the ordinary, middle class life, was enough to write about. That there was enough drama, interest, relevance, importance, poetry in it.”

“You didn’t need the grand, epic,” Brown assumed.

“I was stuck for my own limits, really, with middle class life, or the mundane let’s call,” Updike responded. “And so I was trying to serve my story, encapsulate some aspect of life as I was experiencing it, or observing that this was a time when the American way of life was coming in for a lot of hard knocks, some of them deserved, but nevertheless, I thought that somebody should be bearing witness to the kind of ordinary life that was going on.”

He was speaking of that same era which, like failed joke tellers always say, you had to be there to appreciate. Much too much rhapsodizing has been made of it. Those who were there still have it in their bones. While it couldn’t make the morrow, it still salts the marrow.

How beautiful that Center Theatre Group will now present the real end of King Richard’s public performance, in ‘Frost/Nixon,’ opening weeks after this weekend’s Academy Awards will bestow – according to most critics including TIME’s Richard Corliss – an Oscar upon theater’s own Frank Langella.

Looking forward to more echoes at the March 12 opening of that production, starring Stacy Keach and Alan Cox.