Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pizza Theater

Carter Gill as Pulcinella in Commedia dell'Artichoke. Photo credit: Jacob J Goldberg Photo.
Commedia dell'Artichoke is based on commedia dell'arte, a form of theater from 16th century Italy characterized by masks and improvisation, but it may also have invented a new genre--pizza theater. At the Gene Frankel Theatre, where the show is playing through February 6, every audience member is given a slice of pizza from Artichoke Basille's Pizza. If Artichoke decides to sponsor more theater in the future, I don't think anyone would complain.

Shannon Marie Sullivan as Smeraldina.
Photo credit: Jacob J Goldberg Photo. 
The pizza isn't just incentive to see the show. There's a theatrical reason too. The play takes place in Pulcinella's pizza shop and he must find a way to pay his increase in rent or face eviction. Before the start of the performance, we were told to just have fun and not think too much, but it seemed at times like the creators did want us to think about issues like capitalism and misogyny. Due to the nature of commedia dell'arte, most of these are tangents and not explored in depth enough to be thought provoking.

The play was conceived by Frances Black, Carter Gill, Tommy Russell, directed by Devin Brain, and created/performed by Gill, Russell, Alexandra Henrikson, and Shannon Marie Sullivan. They've really committed to the authenticity--bringing on Christopher Bayes as commedia consultant and wearing appropriately grotesque and expressive masks by Emilia Buescher, Den, Jordan Allen-Dutton, and Mister Face. It's hard to know who contributed what, especially because the cast is so skilled at improvising that it all seems like part of the script. I didn't look closely at my program before the show, so I was sure there were six to eight actors performing. It was only during the curtain call that I realized there were only four. Well, five if you count Robert Cowie, the composer who spends the evening at the piano, providing almost a second show.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Few Thoughts On Why BroadwayCon Was A Success, At Least From This Fan/Journalist's Perspective

Here are three words I never expected to type when I arrived at the New York Hilton Midtown on Friday afternoon: I loved BroadwayCon. At the first Broadway fan convention, I got to hear Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyle about an unfortunate captioning incident. I got to see cut footage from my beloved Smash while showrunner Joshua Safran provided commentary. I got to hear from company managers about how they dealt with Winter Storm Jonas when all matinee shows were cancelled less than an hour before curtain. But all that was after my first few minutes at the con, during which I wanted to turn around and leave.

After an easy check in, I made my way up the escalator and was met with what was either a line or a mob. The doors to the MainStage, where the opening performance was going to take place, hadn't opened yet. People were waiting to get in and it was chaotic because nobody knew where they were supposed to go, including, it seemed, the volunteers. I don't deal well with crowds, so I escaped to the marketplace area and found space to breathe. That's when a Twitter friend who I had never met in person recognized me and introduced herself. I later went back with her and we were able to find seats for the opening performance--near the back, but close to a screen.

I feel like this post needs a picture, but I was so preoccupied that the only picture I ended up taking was this terrible one of the Hamilton cast. Oops.
In between the opening and the Hamilton panel, some cosplayers were invited onto the stage. One of them said her dream role is the Leading Player in Pippin. Ben Vereen happened to be in the audience and he went up to meet her. Another said she knew all the lyrics to "Guns and Ships" and rapped it as the audience joined in. Moments like these were the highlights for me--getting to watch the fans. I am lucky enough to live in New York and see shows all the time. I interview actors and see them walking around the theater district, so it's not that big a deal to me to see a Broadway star up close. But I remember what it was like growing up in California, where I could only hear Broadway actors on cast recordings. A lot of the attendees were from out of town and probably hadn't had a chance to see Hamilton, but you can bet they listen to the cast recording on repeat and have watched all the Ham4Ham shows. And here were those actors, right in front of them. All weekend, I kept thinking about Neil Patrick Harris singing in the 2013 Tony Awards opening number (penned by Miranda): "There's a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there, living for Tony performances singin' and flippin' along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses. So we might reassure that kid and do something to spur that kid. Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight. We were that kid." At the end of the Hamilton panel, as the recording of "The Schuyler Sisters" played and everyone in the audience sang along as the actors filmed on their phones, we were all that kid.

I joked that they should have called it HamilCon, but it wasn't only about that musical. The programming was impressive. You didn't just hear from actors, but stage managers, company managers, and others who do crucial work we rarely hear about. Also, as much as the weekend was a celebration of Broadway, many panels offered discussions about the problems in the industry. At "Your Fave is Problematic," panelists addressed presenting classic work that is offensive today and how to get more diverse voices on Broadway. They didn't come up with all the answers in 50 minutes, but at least they got a dialogue going. At a panel on making theater accessible, the panelists admitted that they still had a long way to go in terms of making captioned, ASL-interpreted, audio-described, and other accessible performances more readily available.

After those first two events on Friday, as far as I could tell, you could wander into the MainStage without waiting in line and always find a seat. Part of that could be the blizzard kept people away, but I think there was also more going on to space out the crowds. I was worried that it would be hard to attend panels in each time slot because they would get out at 10 til with a new one starting on the hour. This summer, I went to D23, the Disney fan convention, where you would have to pick and choose a few things to do each day because of all the time required to wait in line to get into things. But at BroadwayCon, it seemed that everyone would go from one panel to another, which prevented having to line up early. My biggest problem ended up being that there were usually multiple panels I wanted to attend at the same time.

BroadwayCon wasn't perfect. There's always room to improve. Obviously, the weather was unfortunate. A lot of scheduled guests had to cancel. I left early on Saturday after finding out that my evening show was canceled and that certain areas of my subway route were being shut down. From what I read on Twitter, it seemed that the rest of Saturday was a lot of impromptu panels, but I think they tried their best to make sure to keep the attendees entertained and if you had to be stranded somewhere, that was probably a good place to be. There should have been more volunteers, especially on the first day. There could have been more booths in the marketplace. But I'm sure they'll implement changes next year. And maybe hold it in July.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Harry Potter, This Time With More Hufflepuffs!

If you love Harry Potter, but think the secondary characters are way more interesting than the whiny Boy Who Lived, get yourself to the P.I.T. for Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic. Even if you like the character of Harry, you'll still enjoy all seven books told from the perspective of Hufflepuffs (with enough details changed so writer Matt Cox doesn't get sued).
Cox parodied anime with the three-part epic Kapow-i GoGo and again he sets himself apart from other parody writers by writing funny jokes for the fans while creating three-dimensional characters that you can care about despite your level of fandom. This time, his protagonist is Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon), a boy from New Mexico who finds out he's a wizard and goes off to wizarding school in England where he gets sorted into Puffs. Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin have hilariously and accurately been changed to Brave, Smart, and of course, Snakes. Wayne becomes friends with fellow Puffs Oliver (Langston Belton), who is good at math and terrible at magic, and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), whose attempts to be a badass can't hide her greatest desire--to have friends, and their adventures parallel a certain other trio. The few Hufflepuffs that J.K. Rowling mentions by name are also here, including the most famous, dreamy Cedric Diggory (Evan Maltby).

There's a lot packed into these "80-ish minutes"--after all, it took eight movies to cover the same events--and director Kristin McCarthy Parker keeps the action from becoming too chaotic. Like the Harry Potter series, this play has plenty of magic, snogging, fighting, and friends bonding. Those who have read the books and seen the movies will find the most to laugh at, such as when they get to year five and Wayne says, "Apparently we don't have to wear uniforms anymore. You can just wear regular clothes now," but anyone can relate to these characters who don't get any breaks and aren't worshipped as heroes.

Tickets for January are sold out online (you can try to get in at the door). The show has been extended until the end of February, so I suggest you get on booking those $10 tickets now. That's less than what you'll pay to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.