Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fela! Is All About The Music, But Where's The Book?

I missed Fela! when it played at 37 Arts last year. It was always sold out when I tried to get tickets. I had heard great things about it, so I was excited about finally seeing it when it transferred to Broadway. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed. I almost felt bad for feeling this way--was I missing something? Is this musical just too original for me? Perhaps, but I think a show needs to have somewhat of a coherent book, even an unconventional one, to work, and that was missing here, though everything else was as fantastic as promised.

Fela! essentially started when we entered the theater, transformed by Marina Draghici to look like the Shrine nightclub in Lagos. The band Antibalas was already onstage, not warming up, but playing as people found their seats. If this sounds more like Fela Kuti concert than a musical, that's exactly what the show is meant to recreate.

Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician credited with founding Afrobeat music and known for his political activism. The show takes place on an evening after the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Lillias White). In between numbers, Fela (played by Sahr Ngaujah on the evening I attended) reveals bits of historical information. It is here that the show loses its footing. It's hard to place the biographical sections in context as there is little background for when they occurred. Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh) appears as an American lover of Fela's who turns him on to the black-power movement, but her presence is so short it's hard to understand the significance.

The evening is mostly about the music, and it was a joy to be immersed in the sounds of Afrobeat, especially by such talented musicians. Ngaujah becomes Fela Kuti, which means the lyrics are hard to understand, but they are helpfully shown on a screen. If you can take your eyes off Ngaujah, the dancers are just as electric, performing Bill T. Jones' hip-swiveling choreography in Draghici's vibrant costumes. (For those weary of audience participation, be warned, you will be asked to dance along.)

After the curtain call on the night we attended, we were treated to a bonus--Bill T. Jones joined Ngaujah onstage for a dance. I left the theater feeling energized and knowing more about Fela Kuti than I had before, but wishing I had learned just a little bit more.

Note: So I don't get in trouble with the FTC, I will start noting when I was invited to a show, as was the case here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Let's Spend The Night Together

Loaded is the first play Elliot Ramon Potts has ever written and his inexperience shows, but its being given an impressive production under the direction of Michael Unger. The play opened yesterday at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row where it is running through January 23.

The plot is simple--Jude (Scott Kerns) is spending the night at Patrick's (Kevin Spirtas), his much older lover, for the first time. They've been having sex "nonstop for three meals" (not shown onstage, though there is full-frontal nudity) and, to Patrick's dismay, are giving it a rest to get to know each other better. A few of the topics they debate are marriage equality, AIDS (both are HIV-positive), children, and lesbians. The conversation reveals generational differences--Jude is optimistic and occasionally reckless, whereas Patrick has the cynicism of one who has watched many of his friends die from AIDS.

Potts has a lot of potential as a playwright. Although sometimes the language seems a little too verbose for post-coital conversation, the dialogue often rings true. The arguments go around in circles as Patrick and Jude leave topics, only to bring them back up again, and never resolve them. This may be frustrating for thye characters and audience, which makes it believable. Also to his credit, Potts avoids becoming preachy or picking a side, but where the play suffers is that it becomes an evening of debating every issue of importance to the gay community and we lose sight of the characters, who occasionally run the risk of becoming cliches. Kerns and Spirtas, two charismatic actors with great chemistry, do make their characters as three-dimensional as possible, but it's still hard to avoid seeing them as sounding boards.

Adam Koch, who cleverly used not much more than a door for Rooms: A Rock Romance, takes a more realistic approach here, but one that is no less effective. The set makes you feel as though you've stepped into a Manhattan studio with the kitchen connected to the bedroom, an appropriate amount of clutter and take-out containers, and art (by Geoff Chadsey) adorning the walls. It certainly gives the audience more than enough to look at if the dialogue becomes too loaded.
Photo credit: David Morgan

Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking About Race Without Talking About Race

A month ago, I attended an exclusive blogger event for Superior Donuts. Last week, Jeffrey Richards Associates held a similar event for David Mamet's Race, featuring David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas, and James Spader. This time, the event was set up like a press conference rather than having the actors move from table to table. The main difference was that in the case of Superior Donuts, we had an idea of the plot and the characters each actor was playing, but the plot of Race has been so heavily guarded that the cast were limited in what they could say. Richard Thomas said, "It's difficult to talk about a play you can't talk about really." But he went on to make a good point, that talking about a play in terms of plot can be reductive.

As it is Mamet, we can also draw conclusions about the language and style of the play. Of course, there will be a lot of cursing, though Thomas lamented that he only has one "fuck." Thomas compared Race to Oleanna in that it will get people talking. "I think it is provocative. I don't think it's shocking for the sake of being shocking," Thomas said.

Mamet is also directing the production. None of the actors have worked with the playwright before, but they are glad to have him as a director, especially because the playwright and director aren't at odds with each other.

This play promises to spark debate. "I think it's hard to know what someone will think or ask when they are leaving because a lot of it will depend on who they identify with--what gets triggered for them, what do they relate to, what stands out to them, where do they see themselves, where do they hear things they never thought of before-- and that will be different for every single person," Washington said. I hope they follow in Oleanna's footsteps and implement a talkback series.

Race begins previews on November 16 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and officially opens on December 6. Click here to listen to a podcast of the event.

Better Late Than Never

The 39 Steps is one of those shows that I somehow hadn't seen yet until Tuesday night, even though it's been open for almost two years. I was finally able to see what I was missing at the 700th performance, a remarkable accomplishment for a play with no major stars or many awards (it was nominated for a best play Tony and didn't win, but it did win best lighting and sound design). By the time the play closes on January 10, it will be the longest-running play on Broadway in seven years. It has outlasted Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County and has survived two changes of theater (it initially played the American Airlines before transferring to the Cort until finally making it to the Helen Hayes). There is unconfirmed talk of a transfer to off-Broadway.

The play is, as you probably know, a spoof of the Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, and there are Hitchcock references for both the casual and die-hard fans. Richard Hannay's (Sean Mahon) boring life is changed when he goes to the theater, meets spy Annabella Schmidt (Jill Paice), and gets caught up with a mysterious organizations called The 39 Steps. Paice also plays two other woman Hannay meets in his adventure, Pamela and Margaret. Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn, the true stars of this production, play everyone else. The humor comes from their rapid changing of characters, accents, and costumes (a change of hat can signal a new character) as well as the use of minimal props to recreate iconic scenes like the chase on top of a train. Maria Aitken directs the fast-paced action to look spontaneous despite the fact that it is well-choreographed (Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes are credited with original and additional movement). All this makes for a zany night of theater that may not be life-changing, but it sure is fun.

The performance was followed by a talkback, part of the Talkback Tuesdays series. The talkbacks offer an added bonus of inside stories from the actors (the night I attended, humorist Kate Clinton moderated a dialogue with Mahon and Paice). Plus, as the play is not quite two hours, you can stay for the talkback and still be home at a reasonable hour.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

Sidebar: I always associate The 39 Steps with a Sesame Street Monsterpiece Theater segment. In honor of Sesame Street's 40th anniversary, enjoy this clip:

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Disappointing Dystopia

A good idea is sometimes just that--a good idea. Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street through November 21, has an intriguing premise, but one that has not been developed enough and leaves too many unanswered questions. Based on the press release, "Set in a darkening future, What Once We Felt follows a writer's journey through the political world of publishing, as her novel becomes the last print published novel," I was expecting a play about the importance of the printed word, which as a book fiend, seemed right up my alley. Instead, the play was mostly plot and little substance.

The play takes place in a future where there appear to be no men, though where they went is unclear. Society is divided into the working-class Tradepacks and the upper-class Keepers. Only Keepers can reproduce by downloading babies, but even they are only allowed one download. The Transition promises to rid society of all Tradepacks. Macy O. Blonsky (Mia Barron), a Keeper, is desperate to get her novel Terror's Peon, published. At her agent's (Ellen Parker) request, she gives up her one download to ensure its publication as the last print novel. She didn't count on an editor (Opal Alladin) who may not have read the book or a manipulative line editor (Marsha Stephanie Blake) changing the ending to fit her own agenda.

Another plot focuses on a couple, Benita (Lynn Hawley) and Yarrow (Parker), trying to download a baby. Benita receives an error message and they can either accept the "error" or cancel, but they decide to go through with it because it's their only chance for a child. If Yarrow is also a Keeper, why can't she use her one download instead? Not that everything has to be spelled out, but Healy hasn't fully established the rules for the world she has created, or if she has, she hasn't made them clear to the audience.

Kris Stones's futuristic sets are appealing, but even they can't ground the audience. Director Ken Rus Schmoll hasn't helped his playwright in drawing out the bigger picture from her story. The six actors adequately maneuver through their multiple roles, but it's hard to inject life into characters who are more half-baked symbols than anything else.

What Once We Felt opens the new season of LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater's initiative to foster new playwrights and attract a young audience with $20 prices. It's a worthwhile endeavor, but this is not the play to usher in a new audience, or for that matter, any audience.

Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo
Update: This New York Magazine interview answers some of the questions I had about the play.

Granada (and I'm not talking about pomegranates)

Truth be told, I had reservations about Granada, written by Avi Glickstein, when I read it involved such characters as a bear vomiting coins and a princess hatched from a grapefruit. Though I try to be open-minded and support all theater, I prefer linear and realistic story-telling. Luckily, the play proved to be a chance to learn more about Sephardic tradition, a history that I should probably know more about (I'm Ashkenazi), with its use of Ladino (the Sephardic language) music and Sephardic folklore.

Granada, presented by Polybe & Seats, is currently playing at Access Theater Gallery through November 22. It's a great space with huge windows, and director Jessica Brater uses the entirety of the large stage to her advantage.

The main story takes place in 1992, as the King of Spain (Ari Vigoda, who try as he might, cannot seem to master the Spanish accent) officially invites the Jews back to Spain after their expulsion in 1492. A young Egyptian woman (Sarah Sakaan) claiming to be the resurrection of Jewish philosopher Maimonides tells the Prince of Spain that she wants an apology from the King to the Jewish people within 20 days, or he will die. He runs away with his aide-de-camp, Djoha (Indika Senanayake), and the story takes a more mystical turn. There is another plot about a tourist (Elaine O'Brien) backpacking through Madrid who she receives a letter asking for help and is determined to find out who it came from. Senanayake is the standout in the cast acing her multiple characters, most notably the put-upon Djoha.

Some scenes, such as when the woman is explaining how Maimonides came to be resurrected, can be a little heavy, but there are several distinctive elements that quicken the pace and lighten the tone. These include Peiyi Wong's puppetry in the form of two pairs of enlarged hands and several whimsical cutaways, such as a very funny cooking show, "Ritual Recipes With Goat" (O'Brien is hilarious as the goat).

If you want to support an experimental theater company, Granada is the perfect opportunity and the price is right. For $14 tickets, click here and enter code POLYBE. The play runs through November 22.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Better Than Doughuts For Dinner

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

There is an exchange in [title of show] where Hunter Bell is worried that his show will be doughnuts for dinner--"It sounds like a good idea, but 30 minutes later you're hungry for something a little meatier." Superior Donuts avoids this fate--I was still satisfied even half-an-hour after I left the theater. Incidentally, you can actually eat doughnuts for dinner in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre, where the show is playing. My friend said they were delicious, even at the outrageous price of $4.

Superior Donuts is Tracy Letts' follow-up to his Pulitzer and Tony prize winning August: Osage County. This play is radically different than its predecessor in scope and mood, but no less compelling.

Like August, you won't find a star's name above the title, but the name of the Chicago theater company where it originated, Steppenwolf. The company was brought over from that production. The biggest star is Michael McKean, known for roles in Laverne and Shirley and Christopher Guest films. McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, owner of a Chicago doughnut shop and former draft evader (as he describes it). His only employee recently quit, so he hires Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill). Where Arthur is reserved and broken-down, Franco is full of hope (he claims to have written the great American novel) and oozing with charisma. The two form an unlikely friendship. This seems like a formula for a classic buddy comedy, and yes, the laughs are frequent, but there are some touching moments, including a truly heartbreaking scene which had everyone in the audience audibly gasping. Though this play is definitely sentimental, it always feels honest, and that is no small feat. The only missteps are Arthur's internal monologues. This is not the fault of McKean's understated performance, and I understand that Letts wants us to know about Arthur's past and the character is unable to actually tell Franco these things, but this device breaks up the flow of the play.

James Schuette's set is a perfect approximation of an old doughnut shop, down to the missing letters on the menu. Although, it didn't make sense that the doughnuts were never adequately stocked when the only customers seem to be Randy (Kate Buddeke), a tough female cop carrying a torch for Arthur, her Star Trek-loving partner James (James Vincent Meredith), and an alcoholic named Lady Boyle (an equally hilarious and touching Jane Alderman). Tina Landau expertly directs her terrific cast. It sounds like a cliche to say it, but there is not a weak link among them. They so fully embody their characters that they never seem like they are acting.

It's hard to pick a standout among such a cast, but the real breakthrough of this play is Jon Michael Hill. He lights up the stage with his energetic performance. This is only the first of what I hope will be many Broadway performances from him.