Thursday, July 23, 2009


Last week, I was able to get tickets to see "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage. The sold-out play has been remarkably well received, most notably for winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Pulitzer Prize is undoubtedly prestigious. It's a fucking Pulitzer. The Drama award specifically has, in the past, gone to such plays as "You Can't Take it With You," "Our Town," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman," "Angels in America," "Rent," and- in 2008- "August: Osage County." Many of these winners, as well as the numerous others, are classics, or were incredibly groundbreaking for their time. Given this, I was very excited for the production, and was completely disappointed. Not only was "Ruined" not Pulitzer-worthy, I wouldn't even call it good.

The production itself was part of the problem. The direction was muddled, with many scenes dragging to the point of absolute boredom. Those that were not boring generally had much of the cast dancing on stage while characters talked, which was fairly distracting (had what the characters were saying been more interesting, perhaps this would have worked.) The performances were mostly not even worth mentioning. Even the strong performances (to me, the only two performances that warranted this description were those for the characters of Mama and Salima) seemed hindered somehow. The actors were clearly strong, but were unable to rise above the production.

But my main problem was with the script itself- the Pulitzer Prize winning script. The play is about a whorehouse called Mama Nadi's in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country infamous for currently being one of the most dangerous in the world. Mama, the head of the establishment, begins serving two opposing military leaders- the guerilla rebel Jerome Kisembe and the government licensed army commander Osembenga. As she juggles keeping both herself and her employees safe amidst the conflict, she has to keep the two men apart, as neither can know that she serves the other. Were they to know that she'd not chosen "their side," it would mean almost certain death for anyone connected to the establishment. With Mama's story, we also learn the story of Sophie, a young girl who is sold to Mama's by her uncle Christian, a professor and salesman who frequently sells goods to Mama, but never partakes in the services offered. Sophie is simply a worker, however, not a prostitute. She has been 'ruined' by soldiers who pillaged her town, referring to the issue of dangerous female circumcision often practised in the DR Congo. The thing about these stories is that THEY COULD HAVE BEEN REALLY AMAZING STORIES! The conflict in the DR Congo is a terrifying one that not enough people are aware of. Female circumcision too is a very prevalent topic which more material should be published on. So, what went wrong?

Well, what went wrong was that the playwright, Lynn Nottage, seemed unable to treat these topics with the respect they deserve. There is nothing other than a program note to identify the play as taking place in the DR Congo. This could have been any troubled African country from the way the play was written, and had the names been different, it could have been a troubled country anywhere (think Serbia.) As for female circumcision, this topic was not even addressed. Were one to know anything about these topics before seeing the play, they would have learned nothing more. And, had they known nothing about these topics, they would have left having gained nothing out of watching the play, and still not know anything about these issues. Perhaps saying they'd not know anything is a bit harsh- they would be able to gather at the very least that members of rebel militia terrorist groups are mean. Mean and disrespectful to women.

Rather than focusing on these promising topics, Nottage chooses to spend the majority of the play focusing on the romance of Mama and Christian. When they embrace in the final scene, I was left dumbfounded. Have none of these characters learned anything? These characters have just been held at gunpoint, the play's name comes from female circumcision, a village has been burnt down, and Nottage still feels the need to give the play a traditional Hollywood ending? This is not only implausible, it's unsatisfying.

When the Pulitzer was awarded to "Angels in America" in 1993, it shed light on the growing concern over AIDS, as well as the growing homophobia in this country that accompanied the disease's rise. To award the Pulitzer to a play dealing with an important issue at this time makes sense. But "Ruined" is about the DR Congo conflict and female circumcision in theory alone. In the end, it's simply a fairly mediocre love story. It provides no insight, or anything to make it stand out. The Pulitzer Prize, in my mind, dropped the ball this year. My only hope is that the award for the play has managed to give people reason to do further reasearch on these crucial topics- research that I wish Ms. Nottage had done herself.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Happened to That Hummable Showtune?

It's surprising to me that I've now written two posts about musicals- I'm generally more of a fan of straight plays- but I've noticed an interesting trend in terms of musicals that I've been wanting to discuss- the evolution of the musical.

In the recent musical "The Drowsy Chaperone," the main character, Man in Chair, opens the show by speaking to the audience in pitch black, discussing what it used to mean to go to a Broadway musical, mentioning that it used to be exciting- an escape into a new world. You left the theater humming a song from the show. These have become instant classics that any theater buff knows, at least by name. I'm talking about "A Chorus Line," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago" etc. Man in Chair goes on to compare these days of musical yore to the present, where he says the main thought of any theatergoer is "Dear God, Elton John, must we continue this charade?"

This comment is funny because of its truth- it seems like Broadway has become a breeding ground for commercialization. This means that very few original musicals are actually original. "Billy Elliot," the Tony winner for best musical and practically everything else as well, is inspired by a movie of the same name. The same goes for the cavalcade of musicals produced by Disney ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Mary Poppins.") Even the undisputed best of these Disney shows, "The Lion King," leaves a feeling of remorse. Yes, it's beautiful (thanks to Julie Taymor) but it's still Disney. And this trend of Disney musicals has expanded outside of Disney now. Other producers have jumped on the idea- hence "Shrek the Musical" has come into existence, and "Coraline" has started an off-broadway run. For the grown-ups, most of the choices may have original stories, but unoriginal music. "Mamma Mia," "9 to 5," and "All Shook Up" are just examples of the many shows based on the music written by popular musicians. While these can be fun, especially for the fans of that music, these often come across as disjointed in plot, as their sole purpose is to showcase the music. This makes the shows feel more like concerts than actual theatre, certainly not original, and usually not good (as evidenced by the recent atrocity "Rock of Ages.")

The only original musicals in recent years have also been unconventional. For example, you'd never have seen "Avenue Q" back in Broadway's glory days. This past year, the only really original musical (under my qualifications) nominated for best new musical was "Next to Normal," featuring an all rock score and pretty bleak subject matter. "Next to Normal" is about SPOILER ALERT a woman with a mental illness who believes her dead son is still alive. The whole musical is bleak- the mother undergoes electroshock therapy, the daughter develops a drug addiction, etc. This is a far cry from the day when "Oklahoma" premiered and was thought to be too dark because a character was killed (the first time in theater history.) That's right- audiences thought "Oklahoma" was too bleak. With its fucking fields of wheat.

All of this is fine, but there is one real problem, and that's the real point of this article (finally.) These "new Broadway musical" conditions will never produce a classic, like the ones mentioned earlier in the post. The hottest show of the past few years was undoubtedly "Spring Awakening," which, while hated by many, was absolutelt idolized by even more- and managed to create the closest Broadway has come to a sensation in quite some time. Even "Spring Awakening," with its centuries old text may not be considered new, but with the score, cast, and overall energy of the production, I feel it can't help but be indicative of this wave of "new musical." Despite "Spring Awakening"'s immense popularity, I highly doubt we will ever see this show revived. The script and music are simply not appealing enough to justify it. In these new musicals, what everyone goes to see is the production itself, and that is something that can't be recreated in years to come. The shows that we now see as fun and spoofy, such as "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" will also possibly lose their edge and originality if they were to be revived on Broadway too many years into the future. "Rent," for example, was being referred to as dated only five years after its premiere. Compare these to "Guys and Dolls," which has been revived just this past year. Granted, the production has received very poor reviews, but nobody really cares. They go to it to see a Broadway classic, and that's what they get.

This age of the Broadway musical is not really a bad thing, but I worry that it's not something that will ever live on as previous musicals have. I long for those hummable showtunes we used to have- the kind that people will want to see and hear again and again, many years into the future.

To expound upon a recent, surprisingly common debate

So lately I really really feel like I'm starting to hate Broadway. Like, hate everything about it and don't want to go near it. And I don't think I'm alone in this.

And yet, how can it be avoided? New York is slowly exerting a very powerful pull on me when I try to think seriously about post-graduate plans - it's just one of THOSE places for someone looking to go into theatre. So much going on, so many options. And once you're there you want to shoot for the top, right? And what's higher than Broadway? I have a lot of anxieties about the conflict between artistic integrity regardless of finances and the necessity of living expenses (and I'm REALLY bad at living frugally) looming its head in my near future. Broadway is a business. Some people get lucky I guess but they still have to cater to what's ultimately going to make them money.

The thing is, this thing sort of stretches to all theatre when you think about it - well, almost all. But there's a difference, say, between Arena Stage or Woolly Mammoth and the folks who brought The Little Mermaid to the stage. (Don't get me wrong, I loved that flick as a kid, but ... really???)

Anyway, I didn't even mean to go on for this long - I really wanted to open this one up to general discussion, because I'd love to hear anybody else's thoughts on this conundrum.

"Who's Harold Pinter?"

The back story:
While on campus as an RA for the Kenyon Review's Young Writer program for high school age students, the alumni magazine began photo shoots for various 'Kenyon legends'. One of them was the rumor that the Great Hall was runner-up for filming the Harry Potter movies (a very fitting rumor for today, too). They needed eight models, and there just happened to be eight RA's for Young Writers -- and we're all English majors -- perfect! They dressed us up and we had to do different poses at every table in the Great Hall, which will later be photoshopped together into an amazing picture of Hogwarts-at-Kenyon (read your next alumni magazine). Anyway, I decided to channel a different author at each table for my poses. Towards the end, I announced to my very literary comrades that at this table, I was Harold Pinter. In reply, the most hipster-literary one turns to me and asks "Who's Harold Pinter?"

My question to you, bloggers, is how can an American college English major not know who Pinter is, but a British anything-major can name his three most famous works?

Okay, I'm not a Harold Pinter fan. Why am I defending the man? Because I respect how he changed not only theater, but literature. Yes, he's British. Of course the Brits know more about him. But the man won the Nobel Prize recently and also died in the past year with a big hullabaloo from the press. I hadn't realized that it was possible for a Kenyon student to have not heard of him. Can we claim to be a literary college if people are graduating without hearing the name of Harold Pinter once? It's high-time those reading list windows in Peirce got updated.

I don't mean to be presumptuous about this, but if Kenyon students haven't heard of Pinter... what does that say about the rest of America? Are we out of touch? Perhaps the British are just infinitely more cultured than us. Although, fascinatingly, there are major American authors their unviersity students have never heard of either ("Who's Kurt Vonnegut?"). But at least their American Lit classes include Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And most of them have heard of Edward Albee. That still leaves out other American landmarks like August Wilson -- but hey, most Americans haven't heard of him yet.

There's talk that the only reason we have "classic" American authors now is because someone wrote a book and said that Hawthorne and Melville were geniuses and we should read them. One person reached into two hundred years of early-American writing and picked out a handful of people to call quintessentially American. Today, we have a jumble of consistently-mediocre authors and one-hit wonders. Is it time for another shortlist of American Lit for the people to read?


Here's my shortlist of 5 American playwrights (I won't even get into the British). Who's on yours?

Edward Albee
Arthur Miller
Thornton Wilder
August Wilson
Tony Kushner
--- honorary mention: Suzan-Lori Parks, Tracy Letts

And, just for kicks, 10 American authors I love:

Edgar Allan Poe
Richard Wright
Kurt Vonnegut
T.S. Eliot
Carl Sandburg
Robert Penn Warren
Mark Twain
Shel Silverstein
Tim O'Brien
James Baldwin

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fun on a Shoestring: The Genius of John Rando

Last night, I had the privilege of watching "The Toxic Avenger," a musical based on the cult classic camp movies from, I believe, the 70's. I'd check, but the point is, frankly, irrelevant. "The Toxic Avenger" seemed doomed right from the start. This is, rather inexplicably, the third time a musical has been mounted based on the D-List horror movies, and neither of the previous two productions have been successful either commercially or critically. Granted, this version had some strong people behind it. The rock score is written by David Bryan, one of the founding members of the band Bon Jovi. The cast too (mostly relative unknowns) has one veteran: Nancy Opel, best known for her powerhouse performance as Mrs. Pennywise in the original cast of "Urinetown." Also from "Urinetown" is the director, John Rando, and it is chiefly because of Mr. Rando that this show was one of the most enjoyable nights at the theatre I've had since, well, since "Urinetown."

John Rando has become a fairly established director, despite a relatively short career. He has directed a few plays, such as the ill-fated "A Thousand Clowns" starring Tom Selleck in 2001. But his forte is undoubtedly the "stupid musical." This strength lies in Rando's ability to go all out. "Toxic" has some scenes that could come off as trashy had they not been exhaggerated to such a comic effect. For example, the ingenue is blind, and often delivers soliloquoys to the scenery, or even off the stage altogether. Another scene where she serves the title superfreak breakfast in bed becmes a whipped cream doused romp that you can't help but love. The production reinforces the idea that, if those involved in a production are enjoying being a part of it, the audience will enjoy watching. Nothing is more present on stage than unintentional tension. In "The Toxic Avenger," the characters are all having so much fun, you can't help but be sucked into their world.

Even better is when Rando has very little budget. Rando is able to effectively utilize the cheapness of his productions. For example, in "Urinetown," if a ghost of a character were to speak, there would always be a visible arm of a stage hand holding a spray can. Rather than try to pull off an effect that he knows would never work, Rando works with what he has, to tremendous comic effect. The small theater at The New Stages, where "Toxic" is being performed has limited lighting space, and a spotlight is provided by a cop holding a flashlight in one scene.

A third strength of Rando's (by no means his last strength, but at the very least, the final one to be mentioned in this post) is that he makes the band/orchestra present in a musical. Too often, the musicians in musicals are completely hidden, occasionally not even present whatsoever. Watching this music being produced, however, gives the audience a deeper appreciation of the music. Take "The Fantasticks" for example- the longest-running musical in the world, and longest running production in the United States period. The music, entirely played on piano and harp, is so integral to the play, that it is inconceivable to imagine a production where the pianist and harpist were not on stage. In "The Toxic Avenger" the band is onstage the entire time, often interacting with the performers (the aforementioned Mrs. Opel makes out with the guitarist after a powerful rock ballad.) They were even costumed appropriately to match the performance.

"The Toxic Avenger" is loads of fun for several reasons, but more than that, it is an exhibition of directing at its finest. Rando has managed to work with a script that will never win a Pulitzer, and managed to turn it into fine theater. His ability to find every moment he can, and make sure that nothing falls flat is incredibly admirable. And you don't need to be a slimy green toxic monster vigilante to realize that.