Guest Post for RISK/REWARD 2017!

Twenty minutes is nothing, and forever.

At Risk/Reward, twenty minutes is an entire ecosystem. A planet that unfolds itself, envelops you in its particular air and quality of light, and then—with varying degrees of gentleness—spits you back out into the stars for the next planet to appear out of the darkness and pull you in. Two hours later, walking out after the last piece, I felt like examining myself for passport stamps, skinned knees, seasickness: any lingering sign that my heart and mind had just been whirled into and out of six stunning and gut-busting and gloriously difficult worlds.

read the rest over at the Risk/Reward blog!

RODNEY KING // Roger Guenveur Smith

Rodney King is the most profound solo performance I have ever seen. Roger Guenveur Smith is a jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly incredible writer and performer. Three days on I am still reaching for words that will fit the enormity and depth of the experience. I don’t know that they exist. Even if they do, my voice really doesn’t matter much in this conversation: I’m a middle-class white girl. With a show like this, with history like this, it’s my job to show up and listen.

What I can tell you is, whether you too are a middle-class white girl or not, listen to what Smith is doing, and listen hard. From the moment Smith appears, words already rolling out of his mouth at a steady, studied clip, until the last, slow-motion second as he disappears from view, he pulls the audience to him. We are, instantly, in his world. He moves, constantly and with complete control, riding out invisible shifts in the ground that are one moment waves, then a Los Angeles freeway, then the swimming pool where Rodney King was found dead, then waves again. Though his narrative meanders, it circles itself with precision: there is not a word or a motion wasted, and it is utterly mesmerizing.

The picture that starts this post contains almost every “design” element of the piece: a rectangle of white paint on the floor, surrounded by a moat of matte black, a corded microphone snaking up from below. A black baseball jersey with Los Angeles across the front, black pants, no shoes. All that’s missing is a mad collage of music and TV reportage that ushers the piece in (and, artful and helpful in equal measure, grounds it in its specific space and time), a spotlight that sometimes forms a smaller cage inside the rectangle’s limits, and the awful, blaring red and blue of police lights. Signs and symbols stripped down to the essentials, creating space for the looping, interconnected web Smith is always, always weaving.

In the end, Rodney King is about a lot of things. It’s about justice in America, and how often and horrifically our justice system falls short. It’s about three horrifying, confused days in L.A. in 1992. It’s about the deep, undeniable wounds that racism and violence have torn open (and continue to tear open) in our country. And it’s about Rodney King and his complicated humanity, and the complicated humanity of Smith, too, standing before us with only a microphone and his heart and a story that demands hearing. It is a truly remarkable thing to be present for such generosity of spirit, and I will forever be grateful to have cried and breathed and learned together with that audience.

This weekend, Rodney King comes to Netflix. I am sure it will be a different experience, because these things always are, but watch anyway. It is too important to look away.

 

 

 

Picture by Patti McGuire

YOUR NAME. // Makoto Shinkai

Mitsuha and Taki are, for all intents and purposes, normal teenagers. They have loving, complicated families. They have supportive friends who know when to crack a joke and when to reach out with comfort instead. School isn’t amazing, but isn’t wholly terrible either. Their worries are worries we have, or once had: schoolyard embarassments, menial after-school jobs, family obligations. Dreams of a different, adult life surely waiting in the next town over. And then, just as a rare comet is set to streak across the sky above them, this normal boy and girl begin waking up in each other’s bodies and living one day at a time in each other’s lives.

For Mitsuha, so bored of her quiet and traditional mountain village she’s about to burst, intermittently waking up as Taki in his life as a Toyko schoolboy is a chance to explore the world she has always wanted to belong to. Taki, set loose in a world he couldn’t imagine would hold any interest for him, develops a deep appreciation for the natural world and the traditional religious rituals preserved by Mitsuha’s grandmother.

And so there are all the charming misunderstandings and mortifications you could hope for — they scribble earnest and admonishing notes to one another to explain the rules of their lives, they learn which clothes to wear and which crushes to impress, and, though there isn’t really much critique of gendered expectations per se, they stumble their way through which gendered rules could do with some bending and breaking. Of course, as is inevitable in a story like this, they come to depend on each other, and gradually develop a close bond that overshadows the connections they have with the people physically in their lives.

So many other movies would throw in the expected, last-minute revelation, slap a kiss on the end, and then call it a day. But in Your Name., the (immensely enjoyable) fluff of the first half is merely set-up for the real heart of the story, where the cuteness and the humor fade into the background as the story instead asks a deeper question about our responsibilities to the ones we love and about the threads of time that connect us all.

The animation itself is like the best of Studio Ghibli (a tender attention to the details of otherwise ordinary objects and lives, a grounded sense of place laid out in gorgeous watercolor, a reverence for and understanding of the rhythms of the natural world) and also the best of serial anime romances (a truly wonderful title song sequence with all its non-sequitir foreshadowing, daydreams as hilarious alternate realities, crisp comedic timing that snubs the laws of physics). And it is also its own self, gentle with the desires and doubts of its characters and sympathetic to their dreams. Both the city and the countryside are illustrated with the same golden glow: both are places of goodness and beauty, if you know where to look for it. When the story takes a turn for the serious, the animation style does too — including a breathtaking sequence that calmly rewrites the visual and narrative rules of the story we’ve been seeing so far as it transports us into the fabric of time itself — giving the bigger arc of things the weight and importance it deserves.

It’s a little long — the pacing in the last act is not as sharp as it could be, especially given the spot-on rhythms of the first half of the movie — but the story and its visuals are so beautiful I almost didn’t care. These characters are so dear to us, the worlds they inhabit so welcoming, and their sweet, half-remembered longings worth cherishing.

BRIDGE OVER MUD // Verdensteatret

Bear with me, as this might make very little to no sense at all.

In the beginning of Bridge over Mud, the great mechanical mechanism that is both the evening’s skeleton and its heartbeat is largely shrouded in shadow. The house lights, too, are low. Then, without any overt markers or ceremony, a projector stutters to life and Verdensteatret’s equally evocative and inscrutable audiovisual symphony begins.

Calling it an “audiovisual symphony,” a descriptor straight from the program notes, is only the beginning; it is not the only appropriate lens through which to understand (or, barring understanding, at least engage with) the piece. The idea of there even being a single appropriate lens is anathema to the openness with which it’s constructed. All the same, thinking of it as a symphony makes a welcome amount of sense, in the way that what’s happening in projected visuals and mechanized shadow puppetry is responding to what’s happening physically and aurally, and then how their interactions create a new, continuous and combined element for individual audience members to construct meaning/feelings from, much like the interplay of melody and harmony in a string quartet.

Onstage is a mechanical universe, which both enables and is in and of itself the performance: the floor is mostly model train tracks in a vast, spidery network, in front of two staggered projection screens. There are humans in this landscape, too, mostly at its edges, though they come forward to play musical instruments, manipulate the technology onstage, and sometimes enter the shadow scenes with their bodies like giant puppets.

(Speaking of which: talking about the onstage environment as a “set” or even a “design”  feels inadequate, and though I’m tempted to call its components “characters,” that implies that there is even a “story” for them to belong to. But they do have relationships, as much as a valve has a relationship to the bell of a tuba, or the piston of a train wheel has a relationship to a railroad tie. Anyway.)

It is, if you haven’t already noticed, exceedingly difficult to talk about with any kind of coherence, or without having to create an entirely new vocabulary. Suffice it to say: what’s going on is technologically stunning, breathtakingly innovative, and formally audacious.

Like a lot of formally innovative work (or symphonies of any kind, for that matter), not all of its sections are equally compelling. But the sections that did resonate with me are still looping in my head, open visual metaphors that I find myself diving deep inside of again and again, days after the performance. The sound of a street, stuck like a skipping record on a megaphone yell as a writhing white mass crawls across the screen. An almost-face made of distorted light like little amoebas under the microscope, attempting expressions. Little plastic periscopes rising from the tracks to scan the sky and transmit their tinny messages into nothingness.

There is very little in this piece that tells you what its creators were thinking when they made it, and even less that tells you what you might want to think about that. For me, as the trains circled around to take their final approach and as essential components of the machine were finally revealed, I was left thinking about how the things that have brought us wonder have also brought us death. But I couldn’t tell you what was running through the minds of the people on either side of me. Clear as mud, maybe, but maybe that is in and of itself enough.

 

photo from Verdensteatret

HADESTOWN // Rachel Chavkin & Anaïs Mitchell

I know I’ve said it before, but I’m just going to keep saying it: Hadestown is miraculous.

The foundation of the show is the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but the folk opera retelling that director Rachel Chavkin and songwriter/writer-writer Anaïs Mitchell have so exquisitely crafted at New York Theatre Workshop reaches beyond the boy chases/gets/keeps girl plot shenanigans we often expect from love stories and creates something much deeper and more profound. But it is still a love story — it’s just that the romance in Hadestown is only a little sliver of the love that the show contains. Instead of lionizing beginnings or perseverance to agreed-upon milestones in the continuum of time, it reckons with those moments as they are: in eternal counterpoint to endings and disappointments that are equally as important to how we live our lives and love our loves, and equally as worthy of recognition for the roles they play in the shaping of our world and ourselves.

Every voice in this show knocks you flat, from the earthquake rumble of Patrick Page’s lowest register to the fierce, roof-busting roar of Amber Gray, the jaw-dropping delicacy of Damon Daunno’s falsetto and the way Nabiyah Be manages somehow to be rooted strong in the ground and soaring through the air at the same time. Jessie Shelton, Lulu Fall, and Shaina Taub bring a brilliant, beautiful clarity to harmonies that twist and tangle every which way, and all you can do is dance when Chris Sullivan’s bluesy carnival barker growl gets in under your skin. There is little separation between the actors and the (incredible, no-holds-barred virtuosic!!) band, and for good reason: the music is not merely a vehicle here, it is the very fabric of this world. Each individual performance, soaked through with personality and guts, lights up the night — as an ensemble, they set the air on fire.

Sitting very nearly in the round, under the spread-open arms of a colossal tree, the audience is given the gift of being there for one another throughout all of this. We get to see Orpheus’ idealism sweep through the crowd, we all get to groove together when Persephone says the word. Our hopes and our fears (for these two sets of fictional lovers, for our ever-changing country, for ourselves) are magnified and reflected back to us at every turn.

The way things turn out might not be golden perfection, but that doesn’t mean the hopes we held at the start aren’t worthy of celebration, or that the pathway forward isn’t worthy of us hoping once again. It may be, as Eurydice says early in Act I, that only the gods can change the world, but it is only human to try. We raise our cups, we drink them up, and we keep on singing ourselves whole.

 

(Quick disclosure: I have not even the slightest pretense of objectivity with this show! I was an intern at NYTW through its rehearsal period and on into the run. But I love it too much not to write about it — and these thoughts are, as always, strictly my own. Photo up top by Joan Marcus.)

YOUARENOWHERE // Andrew Schneider

Sound so loud it erases everything: the floor is the air is the space between your organs. Then LIGHT! at a visual volume just as overwhelming. Then SNAP we are back in the dark, adrenaline pumping, SNAP wide-eyed in the light, SNAP, waiting for a word from the man who has, somehow, at some point, materialized amid the chaos. A guide through the onslaught? Maybe, though odds are he’s just as at mercy of this chaotic world as we are. Not that those things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

(This is not really a show about sound or light, or maybe it is, not least because of performer-creator-designer-inventor Andrew Schneider’s ecstatically eclectic creative toolbox, but also because this is a show obsessed with time and our perception of it, whether we measure it in heartbeats or seconds or the speed with which objects become visible to our little, fallible, mortal human eyes.)

SNAP are we here or over there? Or not? (spoiler alert: you might be nowhere-but then again that’s not much of a spoiler, you might not be nowhere). And are we who we think we are and when exactly do we think that is? And if lightning strikes a train–the questions Schneider spins up at a breakneck pace and then just as quickly casts aside fold in on themselves in loops. The particulars of his theoretical anecdotes and explorations of quantum physics, as much as I could catch as they flew past, are interesting but not, in and of themselves, important. What is important is the rhythm they create of a painfully, wonderfully fallible human sent ricocheting between the chaotic elements of an incredible and terrifying universe, and the gradual, subtle foundation they are building that will later support something quieter and deeper and profound in the piece’s final moments.

Especially remarkable is the perfectly pitched relationship between technological wizardry and old-fashioned stage magic, a partnership that results in a series of stunning moments so simple and unexpected that they could very well have actually ripped a hole in the space-time continuum. All of that would be beside the point, though, without Schneider himself, wrought and wrung-out and charming and human. Go and be surprised, be moved, be curious about our place in our universe and in ourselves, about how everything changes, and then changes again. We are alone, and not alone. We are somewhere in the vast expanse of time, somehow.

 

photo by Maria Baranova

I just applied for grad school?

I mean, I did, it really happened. No question marks about it! I uploaded all my attachments and paid all my fees and hit ALL the submit buttons.

It’s been a weird few weeks, digging into the roots of why I want to do this and why these programs are the ones that light me up and why I want to dive back into academia at all. It’s not such a sure thing, really; a lot of it has been figuring out for real whether it actually is the right step forward or not. At the same time, the whole process has unearthed some beautiful reminders of why I love what I love.

At some level, it’s beyond logic: there’s a point past words where you just kind of have to shrug and give yourself over to the pull you feel toward a person, a place, an artform. (Bear with me, I know it sounds ridiculous and cheesy, and god knows theatre REALLY doesn’t need more romanticization, but to ignore the instinctual underpinnings of art (or romance, for that matter) would miss the point entirely.) But there are the reasons you are attracted to something, and then there are the reasons you stay and keep trying to puzzle that something out.

What I’ve discovered, in these past months of writing and rewriting, is that my ‘why’ of theatre-making comes down to how I experience my own humanity and how I understand the humanity of others. A long-time friend of mine once remarked that she was surprised I had gone into theatre when she had always thought I would be more into “saving the world,” but I realized during this process that I really never considered the two to be mutually exclusive. Theatre asks me to be my most human, to listen with my whole self and act with honesty and courage. As far as I’m considered, there is nothing more important and nothing more I’d rather spend the next three years working for.

Fingers crossed!

price & value

I, like many a theatrically-inclined child with a worn-out VHS of the Les Mis 10th Anniversary Concert and a penchant for bursting out into song (my favorite being without a doubt “There must be more than this provincial LIIIIFE!”), grew up revering Broadway. In elementary school, one of my birthday parties was a Cats-themed sleepover, where we painted little half masks and then snuggled up in front of the TV to watch the bewilderingly enduring classic. In high school, seeing my first touring Broadway show (coincidentally starring Michael Gruber, who I had first seen in that Cats movie years before) was a revelatory experience, and the discovery that Tony Awards performances were not only broadcast on national television, a clear validation of the importance I thought they deserved, but could then be FOUND on YOUTUBE (!!!) for further re-watching, memorization and general obsession meant I could get closer to that far-away world than ever before.

All this is to say–when I say I revered Broadway, I mean I worshipped it in all of its glittering, expansive (and expensive) glory. It represented the pinnacle of achievement and, perhaps more importantly for me at the time, mainstream acceptance for an art form too often forced to defend the validity and relevance of its existence. To this day, even as I burrow happily into the stranger corners of the theatre continuum, where people sometimes write paeans to sex toys and sometimes eat raw eggs onstage (more about that another time), nothing makes my heart light up like a swell of orchestration and a stageful of voices lifting together into that incomparable, luminous sound that is an ensemble at full strength.  I’m still falling hard for American musicals on the regular (at the moment: that’s right, HERCULES MULLIGAN! Just kidding, that other guy, you know, Hamilton), but now that I live a mere subway ride from the Great White Way, Broadway as an institution is leaving me cold.

It’s not just outrageous ticket prices (though they are indeed absurd, something which I am not the first person to side-eye), but what concerns me more is how that seems to lead to the the conflation of price and value in what is often seen, both inside and outside the industry, as the national standard. It’s a theatre that seems largely to be about the illusion of a guarantee: that the actors will be of top quality, that it will be impressive in scale, and, of course, that audiences will believe it is worth their time and money.

Those things are not unpromising in and of themselves, but with that mindset comes an accompanying illusion/delusion: that making a show made of individually guaranteed components is somehow a guarantee that it will be good.

It makes perfect sense from a certain perspective: risk is not usually a pleasant sensation, not least when you’re about to fork over a large amount of money for an evening out in a very expensive city. But, as any first-year acting student could tell you, risk is an integral part of making meaningful work. Whether that’s a well-considered risk or a flight of batshit insanity is an entirely different question; given the (considerable) financial difficulties of mounting a show of any size, I’m not suggesting the well-heeled financiers of today’s Broadway (or prospective audience members, for that matter) gamble away their investments on just anything.

But I will propose that there are other factors than just popular actors or lavish set pieces to consider. Just like a playtext isn’t a show and source material isn’t a story, a production that looks impressive on paper isn’t anything yet, and shouldn’t be regarded as such. Instead, support productions that ask big questions, that tackle ideas in unconventional ways, that value artistry over accolades. Marketability does not a good product make, so stop holding it up as the golden standard: aim instead for collaborations that are intriguing, people (real or fictional) you’d want to spend an evening with, artists and craftspeople challenging the form and each other to create something more than what’s come before. Invest in the foundation of theatre’s future, and good will follow.

 

 

photo from Twin Travel Concepts

TEXTS&BEHEADINGS/ELIZABETHR // Karin Coonrod

“We ‘know’ her by her iconography, proliferated in her own time to the present day, yet she remains as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa.

What happens if we bring her words to the stage (from her poems, letters, prayers, and speeches) so that we can HEAR her words?”

So proposes Karin Coonrod’s director’s note for texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, which runs from tonight through Saturday at BAM Fisher. Crucially, the Elizabeth she excavates is no distant monolith, but rather a mess of contradictions, wit, hopes, and fears–in short, a human being with remarkable gifts and outrageous challenges from the day she was born until the day she died.

For all of its formal unconventionality, the piece is actually rather straightforward. Elizabeth is played by four spectacular actresses (their individual femaleness felt like an important choice–as did the fact that they are of different nationalities, races, ages, and that they all speak the queen’s words in what I assume is their native accents), sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously. The play is structured into four thematic movements with four accompanying “games”; for each movement, one actress comes forward as the “primary” Elizabeth, while the others shift smoothly between supporting her words in joint recitation and contextualizing her remarks and relationships to the audience in modern speech. These timeline-like quips and asides are made with a refreshingly light touch, leaving the weighty, earnest proclamations for Elizabeth herself. The games, too, move at a swift and steady pace, often good-naturedly illustrating the endless snares faced by Elizabeth’s rule to humorous effect.

With Elizabeth’s portrayal thus (deservedly) complicated, the rest of the production is a unified front of insightful minimalism. The set is bare but for four thrones–golden, blood-red flecked chairs with high backs like ladders or garden lattices, perhaps subtly acknowledging Shakespeare’s endless garden metaphors for the royal family–and lines of red tape, one on the back wall of the stage and four others demarcating a closed square on the ground. The lighting perfectly supports this simplicity, elevating it especially in the red-drenched spiritual prostrations of movement 3, Prayer, and a breathtakingly gorgeous moment of coronation in movement 4, Sovereignty. The costumes, more sumptuous suggestion of Elizabethan shapes than historical reproduction, are subtle if not simple, something they share with the sound design. The queens often sing, alone and together, be it simple folk melodies or tightly interwoven madrigals, in a very effective counterpoint with subtle (recorded) atmospheric sound. In one glorious scene, one sung word transforms from an unremarkable chant into an improvisatory, gospel-inflected prayer and back again, shaping and reshaping its significance to Elizabeth then and the audience now.

In these fastidious, respectful hands, the piece reaches back across time, but it reaches forward too. It may have taken 400 years, but perhaps at last the queen’s words have the audience and understanding her wit and intelligence deserved.

 

 

photo from the Folger Theatre production this past September

TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND // The New York Neo-Futurists

I’ve been in New York for just over a month now, but the first show I’ve seen here that made me want to leap to my feet and cheer (and did actually make me stand up and dance—more on that later) was the silly/brave/ridiculous/heartfelt insanity of the New York Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

Here’s how it works! 30 numbered play titles hang from a clothesline strung across a cleared stage; on each one is a number and the title of a mini-play written by someone in the ensemble. Each audience member is given a “menu” upon entry with the numbers and corresponding titles of all of the potential plays; as for the order they’re performed in, that’s up to the audience. When someone in the eight-person ensemble member yells out “Curtain,” whichever number they hear from the audience first is the next play performed. (Fortune favors the speedy and loud, though not the insistent). 60 minutes are put on the clock, the first of many shouts of “CURTAIN!” is loosed, and we. Are. Off.

(By the way, I am way late to this rave party: according to the evening’s menu, they’ve already premiered 3,943 new works in their 552 weeks of existence, and the reason I sought them out in the first place was because of their appearance on my favorite-ever episodes of This American Life, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes. That segment can be found here.)

The plays themselves are as varied as they come: wicked sharp political satire on the news of the week played right next to a reenactment of a bison establishing dominance over his herd next to a celebration of dildos next to a poignant examination of memory by candlelight. Some are as frenetic as the changeovers between plays, as the cast scrambles to shift from one world to its polar opposite, and others operate in near-stillness. Quite a few directly involve either individual audience members or the audience as a whole, though even when there are only cast members directly in the story, there is never any pretense of a fourth wall.

(Particularly memorable on that score was THE ICE CAPS ARE MELTING, ECONOMIES ARE CRASHING, THE GRAND OLD PARTY IS FULL OF IDIOTS, BUT WE WILL DANCE TOGETHER ANYWAY, where cast members stood sheepishly onstage holding placards that read “Will you dance with me?” until members of the audience clambered onstage to dance with them. It was a brilliant example of the power of simplicity, and created a moment so unexpectedly beautiful I almost cried.*)

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first piece of New York theatre I’ve seen that felt accessible and achievable by normal human standards, as opposed to the polished spectacle of Broadway, or maybe it was just the adrenaline from the breakneck enthusiasm of it all, but I left loving this city and everyone in that tiny, sweaty theatre. It may have been week 552, but that kind of we-are-all-in-this-together still feels fresh, exciting, and the right kind of dangerous. So often, shows that ask for audience participation rely on a manufactured team spirit that feels like an insincere high school rally, where the people in charge don’t actually have any stake in whether you buy in or not, but this show is not those shows. We really do need each other, in a myriad of ways silly or serious or both, to make it through the night. What could be more worth your time?

In their own words:

www.nyneofuturists.org

*Normally I would feel conflicted, “spoiling” a moment like that, but in this case, who knows if it will make through to next week? 🙂

 

 

photo from @nyneofuturists on Instagram

 

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