Thursday, October 01, 2009

Problems with the New Barrymore Awards: Part II

In my first article on the problems with the new Barrymore Awards voting process, I pointed out how the new system’s assignment of voters enabled clustering of awards around certain productions to a degree unseen in seasons past.

Here, I will show how the new process itself cannot fulfill its stated goal of recognizing the best performance, design element, or production over an entire season. And I would say that this holds true even if everything I wrote in the first article proves false.

First things first: I realize that the Barrymore’s do not—in name—designate the “best” anything (e.g. director), but instead give awards signifying “outstanding” sound design, “outstanding” performance by a leading actress, etc. But this circumlocution merely equivocates on a term.

Under the old system of voting, only one performance or design element received the top number of votes from the judges, and similarly, the new system yields a “highest score” from the voters. In each process, someone is (or will be) collectively regarded as the “best” of the season. Of course, people can always pretend otherwise.

However, I would argue that only the old system could legitimately recognize the best performances and design elements of a season. By contrast, the new process cannot even convey a standard of excellence, let alone reward the most outstanding anything of the season.

Who Decides and How?

This year’s new system of voting sent eight randomly assigned voters out of 62 to see each show, with each voter seeing 12 to 20 shows over the season. Their instructions encouraged them to treat each show on its own merits and rank each performance or design element on a scale of 0 to 100, with rough-and-ready categories (like “poor: 0-20”) guiding their scores.

The judging of figure skating in the Olympics attempts something similar, assigning point values to each performer taken in individual consideration. But there, the judges possess pre-determined objective criteria (difficultly of routine, number of specific movements performed) that form part of their scoring.

However, because theatre lacks any such observer-independent objective criteria, the new Barrymore system more resembles trying to determine the fastest runner by taking each competitor in isolation, letting a handful of people watch him run, and then selecting another, different batch of observers to evaluate the next sprinter. Imagine this process without a stopwatch and you understand how they determined this year’s awards.

As such, this quantifiable system can only encourage thinking about excellence, but without a frame of reference or cross-comparison, it cannot possibly measure it adequately. Like obscenity, we must trust the voters to just “know it when they see it.”

How the old system of judges solve this problem

When it comes to art, this might be the best any of us can do, and the judges of the old system operated similarly. However, unlike the judges, the voters do not see every eligible show, which, in a qualitative analysis, is the only thing that could give them a frame of reference to properly vote for the “most outstanding X of an entire season.” Instead, they cast a once-and-done fixed vote that they cannot later rescind or alter.

The old system of judges who had seen every eligible production could—no matter how flawed otherwise—at least introduce a frame of reference for cross-comparison. Yes, they also lacked “objective criteria,” but unlike runners viewed by rotating sets of observers, the judges at least possessed the advantage of seeing and evaluating every show. At the end of the year, after marshalling a continually refined set of theatre-evaluating experiences, they could then confidently cast a vote for excellence.

But now, the new system has transferred the power of the judges to an even smaller group while losing the one advantage of cross-comparison that the judges conferred. Even assuming bias on the part of all judges, that they had seen every eligible show still gave the old system a level of quality control that the new process lacks.

A sports analogy clarifies the problem

So rather than 10 to 17 judges deciding all the awards after a period of reflection, this season the first (and isolated) impressions of eight individuals decided each and every award. But because of the random distribution of the voters, not even the same group of voters made any two decisions.

To borrow another analogy from sports, the new process resembles allowing a different set of judges to decide the gold, silver, and bronze medals. Whoever thought that spreading the responsibility of choosing each award—though not any award—onto new random groups actually increased the rigor and integrity of the Barrymore process needs to take a course in qualitative analysis.

In order to rank something as “the most outstanding X” of the year, one needs a large sample, not of voters seeing isolated shows, but of total number of shows seen.

By contrast, trying to pretend that the voters should only treat a show on its merits means asking them to ignore every single show or theatre-experience any of them ever had. But each voter can only know excellence by past exposure to such. And since no one can ever ignore the totality of their experience when making judgments about excellence, why wouldn’t Silvante want to buttress the system’s ability to truly reward it by ensuring that each and every person who votes on the awards all possess the same theatre-going experiences that season?

Qualitative analysis versus quantifiable metrics

Qualitative notions like “best” and “outstanding” must involve a comparison. But the elimination of a group of judges that could make these comparisons eliminated the possibility of the new system rendering such judgments. At best, the new awards can only stipulate which performance, production, or design element earned the highest score via random assignment of a group of voters who never again voted on another production as a unit. Perhaps they should change the name of each award from “Outstanding Actor,” to “Highest Voted Upon Performance,” a meaningless moniker to signify a process that could not otherwise ensure that it rewarded the quality of excellence.

Stay tuned for Part III in this series, where I discuss the potential for using quantitative analysis to judge art.

Problems with the New Barrymore Awards: Part I

Next Monday, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia will host the 2009 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. However, the unprecedented clustering of nominations for this year's awards points out the problems with the new method of nominating. See Part II for how these problems render the Awards unable to fulfill their stated goal of recognizing excellence.

In the past five seasons (2004-2008) of the Barrymore Awards, only five productions earned 10 or more nominations.

This year alone, four productions garnered more than 10 nominations, even though a greater number of participating companies made more shows eligible than ever before. Two of them—Cinderella and Something Intangible—equaled the total of 13 given to Sweeney Todd in 2005. The Producers and Scorched scored 12 apiece, bringing the total for the top-four vote getters to 50 out of 113 possible nominations. In the musical theatre categories, two productions captured 25 nods, and five took 44 of the 51 nominations possible in this genre.

Furthermore, this clustering of nominations extended to whole award categories: the Wilma’s production of Scorched and People’s Light’s staging of the musical Cinderella each saw four female performers nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress (in a play and musical, respectively); likewise, the Arden’s production of Something Intangible raked in three best actor nods.

Something doesn’t add up. While some might contend that a handful of shows emerged as clearly superior candidates in a mediocre season (despite notable oversights like Blackbird and Hamlet, among others), I’d argue that the clustering effect around these (and a few other) productions resulted from changes implemented this year to the Barrymore Awards voting system.

Out with the Old: How the nominating used to work

To understand what happened requires some background on the Barrymore Awards’ history. Started by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia during the 1994-95 season, the Alliance first used nominators selected from the theatre community to decide the awards. In 2000, the Alliance switched from this simple system to a two-tiered approach of 40 to 50 nominators and 10 to 17 judges, the latter handpicked theatre professionals who formed a unit possessing hundreds of years of theatre-producing and theatre-going experience amongst them.

This now-discarded two-tiered system randomly assigned six nominators to see each eligible production within the first three days of its opening night. Within 24 hours, each filled out a ballot, giving either a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” for every applicable category (such as “outstanding music direction”).

If a minimum three out of the six nominators gave a thumbs-up in any one category, then that production became eligible for nomination in every category. To determine which aspects of a show (if any) should receive a nomination, all of the judges now went and viewed that particular production. At the end of the season, the judges—who had seen every eligible production—then voted on the awards. The top five ballot-getters received nominations, with the winner determined by which show/performer/designer garnered the most of the judges’ votes.

In with the New: From differential expertise to random voters

For the 2008-09 season, Margie Silvante, the Theatre Alliance’s new Executive Director, decided to eliminate the two-tiered system of nominators and judges, and replace it with a cadre of “voters”. Armed with a metrics-based standard of quantification, her new system randomly assigned 8 voters (out of a pool of 62) to see each show, with each voter weighing in upon 12 to 20 productions out of the 130 eligible for consideration.

Within 24 hours after seeing an eligible show, each voter logged onto a website to post their scores for each of the applicable awards (for instance, “outstanding actor in a play”). The website’s ballot ranged from 0-20 (poor) to 86-100 (outstanding), and each voter cast a specific number score for each possible award, using these categories like “poor” as rough-and-ready standards to guide their scoring. Under this new system, the top five scores in any award determined the nominations, with the top-point scorer ultimately winning the award (to be announced at the ceremony on October 5).

In early 2008, Silvante announced these changes at a mid-season meeting of nominators and judges and stressed her desire to reintroduce integrity into the process and eliminate the prejudice of some judges. I had witnessed this bias at an earlier meeting when then-judge Alan Blumenthal admitted to Walnut Street Theatre’s Artistic Director Bernard Havard the judges’ past prejudice against the Walnut’s productions.

Silvante hoped that her new metrics-based system would eliminate this unfairness and enable greater rigor by introducing a method of quantification that could (in theory) draw upon the commonalities of judgment from a larger and more diverse pool of voters.

Considered Judgment versus The Wow Effect

But rather than produce greater integrity and rigor, the new process instead yielded a clustering of nominations unseen in previous years. Two competing hypotheses can explain this phenomenon; neither have anything to do with artistic merit.

To understand what happened, consider the new system’s process of assigning voters. Out of 62 randomly assigned voters, the chance that any eight of them saw a single show comes to 1 in 136 trillion. The chance that any single group of eight voters reunited to see another production amounts to 1 in 1.8 x 1027 . (The actual number is slightly less because of the cap put on the possible number of shows assigned to each individual voter.)

Under the old system, the chance that any grouping of judges not only all saw the same productions but saw every eligible production: 100 percent. The judges could compare performances, and thereby ensured a level of measured reflection and quality control that this new system lacks.

The new system, by contrast, requires that each voter post a score within 24 hours, without recourse to reflection, and without the frame of reference that seeing every other eligible production affords. As such, the evaluative process each voter employs must contend with his or her first impression of a performance and whatever overwhelming emotions—both positive or negative—the production has elicited.

Because of this time constraint, I would assert that voters, taken as a whole, will tend to over-value an excellent production and fall victim to the “wow effect” just like anyone in the audience. (Other critics have cited this as the number one reason to postpone writing a review until one can fully collect his or her thoughts.)

Certain plays—those heavily indebted to spectacle, or capable of inducing powerful emotions in the audience—could take much greater advantage of this wow effect. The final unraveling of the mystery in Scorched packs an emotionally stunning revelation that few plays equal, and walking out of the theatre, and even for the next 24 hours, the show’s conclusion would still leave one reeling. But a magnificent moment doesn’t necessarily make a magnificent show. And a common error—the fallacy of division—would see voters acceding greater weight to each performance in a show that elicited that effect.

The old two-tiered system of judges and nominators could actually take advantage of this “wow factor’s” bias. The judges would see plays overvalued by the nominators, and by not having to decide the ultimate merit of each production element on the spot, could temper their observations through evaluations of other performances. For the judges, what may have appeared overwhelmingly “outstanding” after a single viewing, could, in a broader sense of what the community offered over an entire season, come into better perspective. (Don’t believe the “wow effect” exists? Judges have said to me on more than one occasion that they “can’t believe the nominators sent them to see such-and-such a show.”)

The Second Hypothesis: Mediocrity rears its non-descript head

Allowing the awards to be determined by the random distribution of voters who only see a handful of shows enables another likely–though far more invidious—possibility for the clustering of awards, which I’ll call the “mediocrity effect.”

While the new system hinges on a set of commonalities distributed evenly among 62 voters that could help quantify their choices, a rough-and-ready metric of five categories cannot eliminate personal judgments in assigning the scores.

Take any two critics seeing the same show. Presumably, Philadelphia Weekly’s J. Cooper Robb and I bring a commonality of background qualities to our roles as theatre critics. Yet, in his best of the season roundup, he called Geoff Sobelle’s performance in Hamlet the year’s best. I thought it decorated with frills that lacked a central unifying quality. In the Barrymore voting system, Robb might have scored Sobelle’s performance a 95, where I would’ve chalked up a 70.

However, under the new system of scoring, Sobelle’s unique interpretation would have lost to any performance that consistently earned a vote of 83, a score that falls below the cutoff for “outstanding.” To give another indication of how this could happened, when I was a nominator, actors (who I won’t name), told me that they had auditioned for the role they now had to vote upon, didn’t agree with the choices made by the performer who was cast, and for that reason, didn’t think it worthy of Barrymore consideration. And rather than eliminate the bias of the judges and restore integrity, this new system makes it possible for disgruntled voters to trash a performer’s rankings entirely.

Moreover, statistics predicts that most rankings will cluster around a norm. (And even if the Awards process eliminated the highest and lowest score—as the Olympics adjusts the points for diving—this would actually further encourage regression to an average score.) Unfortunately, this new system of voting actually makes it possible that this “norm” enshrines mediocrity at the expense of more superlative work.

What the new system ultimately makes possible

I don’t write these comments to discredit any of the voters, many of whose opinions I respect, but to point out what types of outcomes a particular set of boundaries will make more likely. And knowing that all systems of measurement possess flaws that mandate trade-offs, I will not pretend that all of the voters can completely avoid well-established observational biases. I would instead opt to select systems that minimize the impact of each bias in turn.

And this all goes back to the way the voters are assigned. The new system only produces a 1.8 in 1027 chance that the same 8 voters ever reunited to evaluate a show again. In all likelihood, the voters who cast their vote for Something Intangible never evaluated another show as a unit. Furthermore, the parameters of this new system encourage the “wow effect” and the “mediocrity effect” in such a way that not only makes each error possible, but exacerbates the likelihood of each of them occurring.

Because the new system lacks a method of self-correction or quality control (that the judges provided in years past), it further exacerbates the effects of each error. Hence, you get clustering: either around shows that wowed voters or that contained enough reasonably good elements as to ensure a high average, though not an outstanding one.

In either case, the less-than-24-hour reflections of 8 individuals who hadn’t seen all the contenders (and not the same 8 people for any single award) decided each and every award this year.

In a system with dual levels of quality control and far greater numbers of variables provided by the judges seeing every eligible production, this clustering effect would not be a statistical probability but would only happen for a show that was truly phenomenal. Hence, under the old system, only five shows in five years garnered 10 or more nominations, as opposed to 4 productions this year alone receiving that many. By contrast, the new system encourages the clustering of awards not out of any reason of artistic merit, but out of sheer probability alone.

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

See Parts II and III for more.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The original ending to my review of Headlong's "more."

To read the full article as edited and published by the Broad Street Review, click here.

Then come back and see the final two paragraphs, as I submitted them (and which got cut, leading to unnecessary claims that I lack knowledge of dance history).

And FYI: I don’t write the headlines or subject headings for the pieces that appear in the BSR.

A question for my cleaning lady:

"And while I don’t believe for a minute they showed what remains of dance when bodies disappear, I think the work continues to ask important questions about the boundaries of dance’s movement vocabulary. Is rearranging your own furniture art (and not merely when it’s feng shui)? The next time my maid comes over to clean, do I owe Headlong royalties? Can any movement function in a choreographer’s arsenal?

Choreographers long ago answered the latter question affirmatively. But in making an entire work out of a continual reframing and re-asking of the question, Headlong instead set up an insignificant tautology, proving only that any time dancers (or anyone) engage in movement, they’re engaging in movement. As a company, they may have needed to take an artistic leap in a piece like more. But to argue that any and all of the movement they present constitutes art in some definitional sense when disconnected from bodies, from context, and from meaning does not extend the boundaries of dance but reduces them to meaninglessness."

In other words, embrace the freedom to use whatever movement you want but integrate it into a piece, rather than fashion the act of questioning into some meta-level approach to your work.

Review of A.W.A.R.D. Show Round One

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

The "art for art’s sake" crowd rarely likes to acknowledge the huge role that financial concerns play in the creation of new works. But two shows (among many) at this year’s Fringe Festival exposed the near-inseparable connection between money and art.

Indeed, when Headlong Dance Company choreographer Amy Smith hosted the first installment of the A.W.A.R.D. Show-a dance competition with a $10,000 prize-she opened the night with a complaint, telling the audience that "The idea of a competition for dance nauseates me a little".

I guess what worked for the Ancient Greeks doesn’t suit Smith’s sensibilities. But I can sympathize with her a bit. Four local choreographers competed in the AWARD show, and the evening structured three minute intervals between each of the four pieces, giving audience members time to reflect before voting. When the lights dimmed to commence the second piece (Jenn Rose’s "Way Up High"), the audience burst into exuberant, almost overwhelming applause merely on the mention of Rose’s name.

So much for the audience not turning the evening into a popularity contest (for those paying attention, Rose’s piece won the first evening’s audience vote count). I don’t know any of the four choreographers personally, and so I will say who I voted for, even if my vote doesn’t entirely reflect the merit of the piece they presented that evening.

ROUND ONE PRESENTS:

Kate Watson-Wallace opened the evening with "dances for the recession," an excerpt from her recent Live Arts Festival full-length Store. Their heads wrapped in fabric, six dancers rose up out of piles of clothing, clutching paper bags in a consumerist post-apocalypse landscape. Small scenes played out; a couple fighting, a man stripping to reveal a dress worn underneath, then later ecstatically groping and caressing a broken television set. Her dancers sometimes moved rhythmically in unison, and an ominous sense pervaded the entire piece.

I had already seen Store earlier in the week, and found it hard to separate my experience of the full-length work from this excerpt, especially since I consider Store the best dance piece I’ve seen during the Festival. However, as an excerpt, "dances for the recession" failed in many ways that Store admirably succeeded. Without the abandoned warehouse setting, Watson-Wallace’s shorter version didn’t engender the same sense of desperation, isolation, and pathos in her characters, and couldn’t locate their activities within the same space of consumerist experience.

In short, it lacked a framework to both contextualize the mood of the piece and give it meaning. Still, for all its disembodied disconnect, I loved it.

Jenn Rose’s Oprahesque "Way Up High" blended tap and modern dance choreography in four women’s emotional struggles. Rose’s dancers started in a circle around four pair of shoes, and the mood and music (and Jessica Sentak’s excellent lighting) set a dark tone for the piece. As the women found strength and hope in each other, they donned their tap shoes, and moments of exuberance and joy began to pierce through their darkness.

Rose didn’t need to tell us afterward the meaning that her choreographic journey made readily apparent. While I found the first half overly neurotic, in both choreography and dancing, Way Up High showed the best execution of the evening.

Jumatatu Poe’s melodramatic "Alibi" played the evening’s best soundtrack, but I found his multimedia and videos unnecessary to what the piece clearly conveyed. The text and dancing capably told the story of a man who comes home to find a dead woman in his house, and the oft-frightening choreography showed the battle within one man between his innocent reason and guilty conscious. Throughout, dancer John Luna wracked his face to fashion the night’s best characterization.

Finally, Kathryn TeBordo’s "You Ain’t Gonna Get Glory If That’s What You Came Here For" blended spoken word poetry (text borrowed from Dorothea Lasky) and minimalist dance. While three dancers moved slowly about the floor, a man stood still at the back of the stage, loudly and monotonically blathering out lines like "Conceptual art is dead, representational art is also dead."

The delivery hit the piece’s humor, but I wondered what TeBordo intended as ironic, and what as mock-ironic. TeBordo set out to find "how small can movement be to still be dance, and still be seen," and her work, while enjoyable on one level, proved just how insular art can become when it only focuses on the medium and not the product. Like the famed paradoxes of Zeno, I could just as sophistically (and just as easily) ask "is the last flicker of a bonfire still part of the fire?" and the answer would only satisfy those with an iron already plunged into the flames.

SO WHO'D I VOTE FOR?

If you want to know how I voted, re-read the order of the pieces as I described them. As for my comments on merit? Ultimately, my final vote reflects which choreographer I would rather see create new work with the $10,000. With money on the line, I’m going with who I can consistently count on to create new art. It’s not fair, and probably what artists hate the most about the free-market.

Review of Applied Mechanics "It's Hard Times at the Camera Blanca"

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Applied Mechanics "It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca" presented the inescapable nature of the global economy, that other thing artists hate most about the intersection of art and economics. Here, eight circus characters (trapeze artists, clowns, a lion tamer) downed drinks at the Camera Blanca bar as they struggled with the economic uncertainty of a travelling show on the verge of financial failure. The audience moved between tables, chairs, and barstools, eavesdropping on conversations between a brother and sister as their relationship fragments over an uncertain economic future, listening to the outpourings of clowns who fear irrelevancy, and throughout, witnessing a Ringmaster ruling over all of them with a unyielding iron fist.

One moment of hope rises above the Dickensian din: a young clown arrives, hoping to reinvigorate, if not reinvent the circus (i.e., the economy, if you didn’t get it yet). "No one does that," the lion tamer tells him; "no one can do that" the Ringmaster commands.

Rebecca Wright’s text lays the metaphors on thick; however, she enlivens the dialogue by creatively borrowing from a number of other sources, providing a movie-buff’s dream script with quotes culled from Greatest Show on Earth, Trapeze, and Casablanca (hence the mnemonically mimicking "Camera Blanca" bar). I laughed in hearing the bartender and trapeze artist replaying the "Go back to Bulgaria" dialogue, just one of the moments that transcended the show’s melancholy mood.

Like several other Fringe Artists presenting works that deal with the scientific discipline of economics, I’d love to know the depth of Wright’s knowledge in this field (or at least how much research she’s done). However, unlike the two monologues Mike Daisey showcased at this year’s festival, Wright at least doesn’t dip into fantastical solutions to fix economic woes, but instead presents the valid, real concerns felt particularly by artists during an economic recession that makes the production of art a luxury and further drives the existence of artists to the margins.

Despite these financial concerns, Wright and her designer Maria Shaplin didn’t manufacture a sure-seller for the Fringe, but instead pushed at the boundaries of theatre as an art form. "Hard Times" dropped the proscenium, linear narrative, and fixed directorial focus, and forced the audience to follow characters about an awkward landscape, catching only part of the conversations at a time to piece together the evening by themselves. At times it felt a bit scatter brained, but the entire 35 minute piece repeated, allowing anyone with decent parallel processing skills (or massive ADHD) to catch every conversation and get the whole jist of her "hard times" and circus metaphor.

And while Wright may not have found any answers about the economy, her new work asked important, and theatrically rewarding questions about the dramatic nature of theatre.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of Anthony and Cleopatra at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

First published in EDGE Philadelphia:

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Anthony and Cleopatra offers a unique opportunity in the Bard’s body of work, one that goes beyond the rare staging of his mammoth locale-jumping epic. Except for his “history plays,” Shakespeare—unlike Agatha Christie and her famed inspector Poirot—didn’t serialize his characters.

Instead, he either ended their lives or married them off into banality (thereby ending their fascination), denying audiences the chance to see their favorite roles tread the boards in new adventures.

And therein lies part of the fascination with Anthony and Cleopatra. When audiences last saw Marc Anthony (here played by a very robust-looking Greg Wood), he towered as the boyish hero of Julius Caesar. Much like Prince Hal from Henry the IV, Anthony’s arduous circumstances forced him to grow up quick.

But unlike young Hal, who matures into the courageous military genius that storms the field in Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt (delivering no less a monumental speech as "Band of Brothers"), Anthony devolves from the young hero avenging his mentor’s death into the henpecked whipping boy of an aging Queen Cleopatra (Lauren Lovett).

Seduced by her beauty, Anthony neglects his duties, falters from one military blunder to the next, and grants concessions to maintain his fragile political alliance with Octavius (Jacob R. Dresch) and Lepidus (played with terrific subtlety by Wayne S. Turney). With each mistake, his confidence erodes further and he crawls back to Cleopatra in desperation.

But after watching PSF’s production, I couldn’t help but wonder why. The fault doesn’t lie with Wood’s effortless transitions. In Alexandria, he lolls about the stage, either desperately begging favors from Cleo, or wasting the nights in revelry. In Rome, he exudes masculinity and confidence, and before battle, his fury cracks the stage like a whip. Only Steve TenEyck’s lighting fails to cohere with the shifts in attitude across atmospheres. Why paint the fiery passionate realm of Alexandria in white tones and Rome’s calculating world of men in red?

Under Patrick Mulcahy’s crisp direction, the supporting cast plays solidly off Wood’s lead. Dresch’s delivers the evening’s best performance, appearing commanding while simultaneously blending a young leader’s insecure need for haughty distance with childish petulance (I could easily imagine Dresch’s Octavius maturing into Augustus, the dictator that ushered forth the Pax Romana). As Enobarbus, Tony Lawton fashions his own mini-tragedy out of a soldier’s betrayal and regret.

And then there’s Cleopatra. Lisa Zinni’s gorgeous costumes only accentuate Lovett’s beauty and spectacular physique, (PSF’s costume budget probably exceeds the seasonal revenue of many Philly companies). Even Lovett’s tattoo fits the period. But the woman who captivated me with her 2006 performance as Rosalind failed to convince me here. In pushing Anthony away, she "is cunning past man’s thoughts," but her attempts at ardor convey far less passion than her verses imply.

Displaying little charm or tenderness, Lovett only wields the rough half of the push-pull histrionics that control Anthony, and beyond her beauty, I felt surprised that he returned. By contrast, even Chris Brown must have given Rihanna a backrub once in a while.

In fairness, Shakespeare’s Anthony serves up his manhood on a platter. When Cleopatra’s fleet flies from battle, Anthony deserts his troops to follow, and before he supped in Alexandria, Anthony sat at the feet of Caesar like a dog. But in a play called Anthony AND Cleopatra, PSF’s production takes this background for granted, and unfortunately, like Shakespeare’s histories, the real tragedy must then hide in the fact that these events actually happened.

Antony and Cleopatra runs through Aug. 2 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA. For tickets or more information: 610-282-9455 or www.PaShakespeare.org.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Paul Rudd shooting a movie in my neighborhood

If you're an arts journalist, little in life beats walking out of the front door of your apartment building onto a movie set.

But that's precisely what happened to me when I had to move my car to make way for the tentatively titled rom-com "How Do You Know," a James L. Brooks film starring Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, and Owen Wilson. The movie revolves around a love triangle, with both Rudd's character, a white-collar executive, and Wilson's character, a pro baseball pitcher, trying to win over Witherspoon's character.

Though the writer had mostly set the movie in Washington, D.C., as one of the crew told me, they were shooting many of the scenes here to take advantage of Philadelphia's tax breaks for film investment (thank you Governor Rendell!).

According to sources, the cast and crew will shoot on location in Philly, including shots at Drexel University and Center City, until October. Keep your eyes peeled!

OK, you've waited long enough for the shots of Mr. Rudd:

Here he is, shooting a scene with comedienne Cathy Hahn:

Here, talking with his wife, Julie Wagner, after the shot:

Here's Paul Rudd, outside the set and making his way toward the crowd of fans:

Finally, Mr. Rudd, who graciously stopped for a picture by yours truly:

Taylor Hicks' dick move in Grease

About a week ago, I wondered why Taylor Hicks had agreed to perform in the touring production of Grease instead of promoting his new album.

On opening night, I got my answer: Grease was not the word at the Academy of Music Tuesday night. Instead, the prime attraction was a bit-part “star”— the slimy “American Idol” crooner Taylor Hicks.

After the show, Hicks pulled the ultimate dick move on his cast mates by performing a song from his new album. In one fell swoop, he eradicated the memories of the musical to which the cast had all contributed, and essentially made the evening all about his talentless self.

Like his performance in American Idol, the consummate wedding singer again ruins something that theatergoers enjoy.

To read the full article, click here.

Review of City of Nutterly Love at Philadelphia Theatre Company

First published in EDGE Philadelphia

Philadelphians aren't known for taking too kindly to people from other cities picking on our hometown. (Most of our sports fans can't even stand it when someone shows up wearing a different team's jersey.) So I'm sure many local theatergoers felt a mixture of reticent excitement and anticipation when Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) announced City of Nutterly Love, a collaborative spoof of all things Philadelphia done in conjunction with Chicago's Second City sketch comedy troupe.

Like anthropologists in the wild, Second City writers TJ Shanoff and Ed Furman descended upon Philadelphia a few months ago for research. The group of seven performers-Second City's Katie Rich, Rachel Miller, Edgar Blackmon, and accompanist/musical director Bryan Dunn; and Comedy Sportz veterans Mary Carpenter Eoin O'Shea, and David Dritsas-loaded both barrels with snowballs and Tastykakes and took aim.

And who knew our town contained so many easy targets for humor?

The Philadelphia sports fans and their teams got slaughtered (though the Charles Barkley joke seemed too retro, especially considering Iverson only left a few years ago), and the six actors mildly skewered Mummers participants (arguing over the color of their codpieces), Comcast, and local rockers Hall n Oates. Though how did Rocky Balboa escape without mention?

One particularly funny sketch had an unimpressed tour guide ragging on the museum's snooty art collection, renaming Picasso's "Three Guitars" as "Triangles Puking on Squares," and flagging the Renoir collection as "Naked Chubby Chick Age."

Throughout, the group's sharply timed delivery and quick wit impressed. During the Mummer's sketch, the mention of a "Drexel girl's panties" got a lot of screams, to which one of the troupe quickly fired "I think that girl's here tonight), and with the exception of the lackluster songs (particularly bad: the one lambasting our love-hate relationship with Donovan McNabb), I laughed until the muscles in my face hurt.

But the laughs came cheap. The writers culled almost every other skit from the Second City archives, massaging the material with Philly references so they could play here (the museum skit could rip on any city's art collection). And while I appreciated the original take on the famed Ben Franklin impersonator's horrific origin, what's a skit about a nun with a dirty record collection got to do with Philly?

Don't get me wrong, the archived material provided most of the laughs-whether ripping on cougars chasing cub-age tail while downing "Ambien and Jaeger" bombs or a completely honest job interviewee telling a prospective employer "I just want to bone your hot secretary." But the evening's most subversive piece only managed to poke polite fun at the Larry Mendte-Alycia Lane news scandal. I expected far more insightful satire from the nation's premier comedy troupe and didn't find it at PTC.

Instead, the night consisted of shoutouts (including PBR references, though not Yuengling) at local celebs (Stephen Starr) and landmarks (Boscov's?), with two words-"Phillies" followed by "repeat"-eliciting the most hoots and hollers from the audience. The rest capitalized on the resentfulness of New York's Sixth Borough for her bigger neighbor, and some Main Line snubbing ("if you move to the city, where will you park your horse?).

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, than provincialism is the mark of cheap comedy. 1812 does a much better job subverting the locals each Christmas, and none of these skits could hold a candle to the Philadelphia color infused into Patsy, Jen Childs' Shunk Street soap-boxer.

If you're never going to Chicago, see them here. At least they didn't just focus on the tourist crap.

Philadelphia Theatre Company presents City of Nutterly Love; playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. Through July 26. Tickets: $34 to $39. Information: 866-985-0420 or www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org

Monday, July 06, 2009

Grease tonight at the Academy of Music

Tonight I'm reviewing the much hyped appearance of American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, who's playing the role of Teen Angel in the touring production of Grease. I would've thought that after releasing his second album, The Distance, in March of this year, that Hicks would want to tour the country promoting his new record.

But no, instead, Philadelphia gets to welcome the contestant that Simon Cowell said "would never make it to the final round"--thanks alot votefortheworst.com--in a role once made famous by one of our native sons, Frankie Avalon.

See Hicks, below, performing "Beauty School Dropout" on Live with Regis and Kelly:

There, I just saved you a hundred bucks. Although Rizzo--that chick was my girl in high school--brings back memories.

However, I remember being far more excited about eight months ago for the touring production of Legally Blonde: The Musical, (review here) even if the similar story about a young woman's flowering seems a bit more shallow (In fairness, Grease, thanks mostly to the "hand jive" features better dance numbers).

Still, I'm missing my girl Elle Woods, especially in the fun opening number "Omigod, you guys!" (where you can't beat lyrics like "They're just like that couple from Titanic, only no one dies. Omigod you guys!").

Watch the opening number here:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of It Was a Very Good Year at Bristol Riverside

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

At the start of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current cabaret “It Was a Very Good Year,” Artistic Director Keith Baker welcomed us to the 1950’s by drawing some stark comparisons between that era and today.

“Those were very good years,” he began, playing to the audience who experienced them. Coke cost a nickel, a gallon of gas set you back 23 cents. People enjoyed romance rather than relationships, marriage lasted forever, and before a couple tied the knot, they went on dates, rather than ‘just hooking up’.”

Strangely, the set list included “Run Around Sue,” (about a girl who never hooked-up) and “Love and Marriage” a sonnet that sincerely sings the praises of marital bliss.

Sarcasm aside, in most cases, the song selection at BRT proved just how much good music the era produced. The evening opened on a medley of popular hits—from “Rock Around the Clock” and “La Bamba” to “Fever” and “Fly Me to the Moon”—before turning into an evening of mostly solo performances chosen to display the virtuosity of the four singers.

Lisa Mindelle imbued her pep-squad leader’s cute and earnest voice with a girlish charm on innocent numbers like “Where the Boys Are” and later displayed a country quality in “Tennessee Waltz.” And with his perfectly coiffed hair and Cleaver-esque good looks, John D. Smitherman reminded of the class President, one who didn’t draw any resentment in being voted “most likely to succeed.” With his voice—full of butter and honey—and masterful vocal technique, he could easily afford to ham up numbers like “It’s Now or Never,” shaking his legs wildly and curling his lip up like Elvis. Later, a commanding rendition of the Mario Lanza landmark hit “Be My Love” showed a sonorous elegance rarely seen outside of opera halls.

In stark contrast, Demetria Joyce Bailey’s chocolate-covered-cherry of a mezzo put enough seductive smoke into her numbers (“Fever”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) that I got lung cancer just listening. But hey, if you’re going to be lulled into the long sleep, what better voice to sing a lullaby, and if anything could rock you back out of it, it’s her brazen rendition of “Mambo Italiano” that kicks off Act II. Anthony D’Amato soulfulness showed incredible versatility, soaring effortlessly through Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and making “The Great Pretender” reminiscent of an 80’s power ballad.

The band matched the singers’ talents, and like an era when this happened often, even surpassed them at times. Violinist Claudia Pellegrini plucked the through line on her violin to provide the best part of a vocally uneven “Unchained Melody,” and guitarist Neil Nemetz’s strident “Pipeline” reminded why it wasn’t once uncommon to flip through radio stations and hear four minutes of instrumentals.

But while the performers all shone vocally (for the most part; some stretched their instruments a bit), the evening strung the songs together with no semblance of why one followed the next, and with one exception, imparted no sense of narrative or atmospheric mood to the evening. On “It Was a Very Good Year,” lighting designer Kate Ashton painted the stage in visual hues that shifted like the seasons through the eras of one man’s life, and Baker’s tender singing conveyed an almost Proustian recollecting, full of sorrow and longing for days gone by.

Otherwise, the program’s deceptive title played like a night of “Here’s some songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Enjoy!” And it did so while totally lacking a bandstand like atmosphere. I wondered “why am I in a theatre, rather than a hall with a dance floor?”

Similarly, except for a few individual inventions, Baker’s direction failed to structure any skits, play-acting, or interactions between the performers or audience that would make the evening seem like a cabaret. Smitherman attempted to rectify this deficit on most of this numbers, handing a handkerchief to a woman in the audience, or combing his hair as he sang. But while he went a bit overboard with the deep lunges up the steps on “Kansas City,” the other three singers not doing anything—or D’Amato often singing his songs to himself—made Smitherman’s theatrical touches into an oddity.

Except for the too thin ties, Robyn N. Watson’s costumes don’t really reflect the era; the men’s chinos and button-down shirts and simple women’s dresses look more business casual than 50’s bobby-soxer. For the most part, the audience delighted in the evening, letting out gasps and nudges of recognition that recalled hearing these songs for the first time when they came out. Thankfully, the era gave us a lot of good music to enjoy just hearing.

Bristol Riverside Theatre presents “It Was a Very Good Year.” Written and directed by Keith Baker, runs until June 28. Tickets and information at www.brtstage.org

Review of Doubt at People's Light

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

I’ll admit that when I first saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt a few years ago, I didn’t care for it very much.

Sure his play had won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best New Play, and the touring production I watched starred none other than Cherry Jones (who also won the Tony for Best Actress in the Broadway staging). At the time, I found plenty to dislike in his powerful melodrama about a foreign and corruptin institution, presented through the scrim of modern sensibilities.

But Peoples’ Light and Theatre Company’s current production gave me a whole new level of respect for the play. And for that, I have only Ceal Phelan to thank.

Set at St. Nicholas’ Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” begins as a conflict over teaching styles, with the school’s principal Sister Aloysius (Phelan) condescendingly warning the fresh-faced (and quite naïve) Sister James (Elizabeth Webster Duke) that “every easy choice hides within its consequences tomorrow.” However, after haranguing James for ten minutes, Aloysius quickly shifts to her real concern—the well being of Donald Muller, their first Negro student—who has fallen into the protective care of Father Flynn (Pete Pryor), a pastor transferred through three parishes in five years. Aloysius’ worry still persists today (witness the recent scandals of the schools in Ireland), that Father Flynn’s interests in becoming Donald’s protector hide something far more sinister.

While Sister James struggles to regain her peace of mind, doubt, suspicion, and gossip dominate the play from here. Flynn shows signs of guilt—with Pryor’s voice cracking on certain phrases—but he credibly defends himself, winning over James, and threatening Aloysius’ future. When the boy’s mother (Melanye Finister as Mrs. Muller) appears, she partially acquiesces to the alleged abuse. Already thinking her twelve year old son is gay, she only wants him to make it to June, so he can use this private-school education as a springboard to better opportunities in the highly competitive New York school system. As for the truth of the accusations, it escapes like so many feathers fluttering on the wind.

David Mamet once wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that in a good script, the language by itself should produce so much tension that the actors could just sit in chairs on the stage and entrance the audience with a reading. David Bradley’s direction of Shanley’s play seems to have taken this phrase to heart. Except in the interludes between scenes, the actors take little advantage of the staging’s wide courtyard, and everyone delivers their lines while either standing or sitting immobile, the two nuns speaking nearly all of their dialogue with their arms held tight at their sides.

As a result, Pryor appears suitably sympathetic and engaging just in delivery, but his lack of emoting can’t capture the charisma of a man whose congregation praises his sermons, and whose schoolboys look to him as a role model. More importantly, after seeing what Pryor has conveyed in much simpler roles, I wish he had brought more depth to his Father Flynn. Finister and Duke suffer similar problems; Duke’s facial expressions transmit her wracked conscious, but I would expect that a teacher warned about “being a performer for her class” would shape the language a bit more with her hands and body.

Ultimately, only Phelan’s performance truly benefits from Bradley’s directorial choices. Her measured manner of speaking turns the simple statements that “satisfaction is a vice” and “innocence is a form of laziness” into dictums worthy of Aristotle. Shanley’s script sets her up as the hated prison warden who stands between order and ruin, but while Phelan’s a block of ice, her fascinating absence of emotion moved me to profound admiration for a character that would “go outside the church even if I am damned to hell.”

Finally, I felt the moral force of this play, something helped along immensely by the Yoshi Tanokura’s set that not only frames the entire space, but also puts these four characters in an imprisoning cell where their conflicting emotions and stories confront them at every turn.

In trying to do good, Aloysius walked away from God. Still in His service, she may have even committed evil. And like the best tragedies, the battle is not fought between obvious good and clear evil, but between forces each bent on their own version of what’s right. And for 80 minutes at People’s Light, Doubt pulverizes any complacency of thought or easy emotion.

People’s Light and Theatre presents John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Directed by David Bradley, runs until June 28. www.peopleslight.org

Review of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Dear Benjamin Lloyd, cast, and crew of White Pines Productions

Re: Your recent production of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

I’m writing this review as a letter for two reasons. Due to your short production run, none of my readers can see the play. Also, as letters factor heavily in William di Canzio’s script, I wanted to pay a similar tribute to your very moving production. I hope you understand.

Di Canzio’s story probably presented some difficulties. I’m sure that even today’s worldly teenagers would find it difficult to accept not only a tale of love at first letter, but a narrative in which a reluctant and self-protecting 19 year old girl (Amanda Schoonover as Sarah) would yield her heart to the forthright, aggressive affections of Noah Drew’s 22 year old army-reservist Dan. And certainly, few outside the military would understand the impulsive need to cast an anchor in one’s own country on the eve of deployment, even if that means popping the question on a first date.

However, despite these difficulties, your direction turned the first half of Johnny into one of the most sincere, touching, and real hours of theatre I have experienced in a very long time. And as two young people struggling to better their lives with the community college education they must work forty hours a week to afford, Schoonover and Drew manage to make young love as charming as when it’s first experienced.

Schoonover turned her character’s lack of humor into an adorable attribute, making it very easy to understand not only Dan’s instinct for what’s real, but also his willingness to reach out to protect her. And though both were touched early by the tragedy of a parent’s death (and a concomitant reluctance to trust), each tinged their blossoming desires with the humor that break down those walls. Drew’s face and soothing voice painted a portrait of pure earnestness that put a smile on my face throughout act one, with his inspiring attitude in the face of deployment to Iraq keeping it there.

And while I expected a play about war to convey a measure of bombast and outrage, too often I’ve seen the political become preachy, tainting a sincere examination of war’s consequences with the shrill of oft-insincere indignation. So I appreciated the uncertain swagger of Mark Lazar’s Major Smythe when he asks Dan “what kind of life could you have with her if the homeland is not secure?” And di Canzio’s script (if not Marcia Saunder’s performance as Dan’s mother) subtly, though aptly compared the “national mistakes” of Vietnam and Iraq, while also illustrating the humble patriotism of sacrifice in a mother who ships candy and comic books to everyone in her son’s unit, and the fortitude of a wife who forestalls her dreams by dropping out of college to purchase the body armor that Halliburton price-overruns render unaffordable.

Though I can only attest to what I’ve watched on the news or read in the papers, Christopher Colucci’s sound design of choppers, gunshots, and bombings evoked the proximity of danger in a war played like a video game where cheering adolescents man the joysticks, and J. Paul Nicholas’ likable sarcasm (as the prisoner Amahl) showed the collateral damage that affects spirits as well as flesh. His comparison of the Iliad (a Western nation invading a mid-East city) conveyed an understanding of myth’s role in warfare; the wisdom in his performance impressed with the Odyssey’s notion that only on the voyage home does a soldier journey back into life as a hero.

And di Canzio’s script and your cast forced me to contemplate my least favorite example of fate, the notion that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Perhaps that’s the most horrible facet of war, that in the midst of barbarity, even an act of thoughtful compassion must engender suffering. And despite the valiant protestations of heroism, that suffering, as you showed so clearly, ripples outward in waves to wreak havoc on circles of loved ones, families, and communities—not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the towns that more than four thousand now deceased soldiers used to call home. Matt Saunders’ simple set—of paper panels hung together like a battalion of tombstones—only underscored the continuing, national-soul eroding tragedy of this war.

As a too rational atheist, I’d like to believe, what Sarah comes to understand: that loved ones can continue to take care of you after they die. Di Canzio’s referencing of the Orpheus myth coupled with Teri Rambo’s haunting vocals and Colucci’s guitar, and the straightforward sincerity of your production convinced me, if only for a moment, of the possibility.

I won’t end with “sincerely” or “truly,” because those words are rarely either sincere or true, but close by saying “Thank You” to everyone who made this beautiful production possible.

White Pines Productions presented William di Canzio’s Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier at the Adrienne Theatre. Benjamin Lloyd directed, ran from June 3 to 7, 2009.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Review of PA Ballet's La Sylphide and Barber Violin Concerto

Full article published in the Broad Street Review:

The Pennsylvania Ballet presents Auguste Bournonville’s La Sylphide and the company premiere of Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto. At the Academy of Music until June 13. www.paballet.org

The Pennsylvania Ballet looked to close their 45th Anniversary Season through a much-hyped restaging of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, last performed by the company 21 years ago. But Sylphide’s lackluster staging floundered in comparison to the brilliantly executed company premiere of Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto.

To read the full article, click here.

Watch a clip of the Pennsylvania Ballet performing La Sylphide:

Below, a clip of the Ballet performing Martins' Barber Violin Concerto:

Olive Prince's "Serenade" at the nEW Festival

Forthcoming article in the Broad Street Review (photo by Bill Hebert):

“Serenade” and “once i lived in a cardboard portal” by Olive Prince; nEW Festival 2009 Performance Program, June 3-7, 2009, at the University of the Arts Dance Theater at the Drake. http://www.newfestival.net/

When my sister and I were kids, my dad used to hold us on his knee and sing “you are my sunshine…my only sunshine” to us. Thinking about this recently, I wondered about the despair a person would feel losing someone—a child or a lover—held as their central point and reason for living.

Olive Prince’s overpowering Serenade made me feel just how devastating that loss would be.

By contrast, "once i lived in a cardboard portal" displayed one more disappointing parody of the subtle, dreary melancholy of corporate America's productive contributions derided while nonetheless being tapped to fund an artwork that mocks them.

To read the full review, click here.

Jaamil Kosoko's Virus at the nEW Festival

Forthcoming article in the Broad Street Review:

Jaamil Kosoko’s Virus, as part of the nEW Festival 2009 Performance Program, June 3-7, 2009, at the University of the Arts Dance Theater at the Drake. www.newfestival.net

For just over $20,000, Canadian-born engineer Le Trung recently built what some are calling the first viable robotic companion: Aiko, a robot who can recognize speech, voices, face, motion, objects, and solve math problems. Sensors underneath her silicone skin enable her to mimic pain while programming gives her the ability to avoid it in the future. In the videos, she looks more human than she acts (or sounds), appearing like a hybrid of human flesh built upon a factory-floor machine interior.

Judging by the dystopic feel of Jaamil Kosoko’s Virus, contemporary Homo sapiens have been such a mixture for quite some time.

To read the full review, click here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review of Born Yesterday at the Walnut Street Theatre

First published at Edge Philadelphia:

An old philosophy problem asks "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?"

Put the pair on stage and throw a woman between them and the answer is Garson Kanin’s comedy Born Yesterday, now in a very funny, if heavily caricatured production at the Walnut Street Theatre.

In Kanin’s 1946 classic, the ruthless scrap-metal magnate Harry Brock (Marco Verna) and his 100k-a-year lawyer Ed (David Hess) go to Washington. In the aftermath of WWII, Brock wants to corner the market on Europe’s scrap iron, and plans to bribe (if not outright bully) Senator Hedges (Greg Wood) to skirt the tariffs, regulations, and red tape that stand in the way.

But Brock runs headfirst into Paul Verrall (Darren Michael Hengst), an idealistic young reporter who still believes in the Constitutional underpinnings and principles of democracy even if everyone else in the nation’s capital suffers from "don’t care-ism." Initially disguising his plans in the form of a standard interview, Verrall really wants to expose the illegal activities fueling Brock’s corporation.

After the first meeting with the Senator and his wife (Susan Wilder), Brock’s idiotic chorus girl girlfriend Billie Dawn (Kate Fahrner) nearly kills the deal every time she opens her mouth, and if Brock’s going to succeed in "a town of respectable fronts," Ed suggests that he either dump her or marry her. The problem: to cover Brock’s illegal activity, the pair has bullied Billie into becoming the dummy head (literally) of most of his corporations, and he can’t give her the brush-off because "she owns more of him than he does." So the bull-headed industrialist suggests that Verrall tutors her, and in two months time, Billie’s crammed her hotel suite full of books, and traded her nasally voice for measured speech, her jazz for classical, and is thinking of trading in her irresistible capitalist for Verrall’s immovable idealism.

The Walnut’s production (and in fairness, Kanin’s play) accentuates the comedy (and tension) by relying heavily on caricatures: mobster-like businessmen clashing with fearless journalists, remorse-filled lawyers driven to drunken hobnobbing with pushover Senators, and a gun moll chorus girl delighted to be stupid so long as she has her two mink coats. And while the play’s clearly a poke at American-style corruption (in Italy, and elsewhere, the bribes really are commonplace), director Mark Clements steers clear of the class-envy and social commentary to find the straightforward laughs that Born Yesterday offers in abundance. Picture My Fair Lady meets Goodfellas, minus the showtunes and murders, and you get the idea.

And in every case but Verna’s, the caricatures hit their humorous targets. Fahrner’s simply adorable, both in her initial idiocy (who wouldn’t want to keep her around) and in her later change of heart, and Wood’s wincing reactions to her blunt outbursts mark some of the first act’s funnier moments. Hess’ drunken former District Attorney ably reflects the shifting moral balance on stage and in the audience, where even Brock’s bullying and later complaints of ingratitude found laughter and sympathy.

But while Hengst find the right balance of fearfulness and sincerity that backs up every set of untested ideals, Verna’s characterization is less interesting, and too big for the rest of the performances. In a voice that’s part Vito Corleone and part every role ever played by Al Pacino, Verna screeches his way through all of the play’s moments with a booming intensity that he never modulates. Sometimes, he’s funny, but it’s the lines he delivers ("there’s only one Mrs. Brock, and she’s dead") more than his acting that scores the laughter.

Todd Edward Ivins’ utterly magnificent hotel penthouse set recalls the grandeur of a more gilded age, where lush divans and dark wood relax the eyes even as (faux) marble columns shoot up to forty-foot ceilings and abut a spectacular windowed view looking down on the Capitol Building (and nicely representing the position Brock came to Washington to attain). In line with the caricatured characterizations, Colleen Grady bedecks Brock in forceful pinstriped suits (and a gorgeous cream colored coat), dresses Verrall in more humble plaids, and when Fahrner first walks onto the set, her gorgeous hair, makeup, and dress only completes the sense of 40’s era glamour that the Walnut’s production values create.

And as for who wins the age old question? As Verrall himself puts it, "the war leaves everything the same in DC."

Comparative review of Simpatico's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Temple Theatre's Caucasian Chalk Cirlce

In a season stuffed with new play events— 87 world or Philadelphia premieres— I was gratified to see two revivals of modern classics: Simpatico’s brilliant staging of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Temple University’s excellently staged yet overwrought production of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Between them, the pair painted thoroughly distinct (and for Brecht, thoroughly surprising) views of the family.

To read the full article, published at the Broad Street Review, click here.

Review of Road at Curio Theatre

First published in Edge Phialdelphia:

Besides loving company, misery delivers ratings, because if nothing else, it’s usually interesting to watch. And judging from the tone of newspaper editorials, congressional outrage, and talking heads on television, some people clearly delight in the current economic crisis.

They’re the same people who would enjoy Jim Cartwright’s Road, now in a stilted, uneven production at Curio Theatre Company. Cartwright penned his play during the severe depression that afflicted England in the early-to-mid-1980s, when that country’s unemployment rates hit 20%. With the playwright’s permission, director Gay Carducci transferred the setting to 2009 West Philadelphia. And while America’s current "economic crisis" hasn’t reached anything near those numbers, a sense of relevance mostly permeates Curio’s staging.

Beyond a broken street sign that juts from a corner of the stage, Paul Kuhn’s disparate set pieces appears like a graveyard of props-crumbling flophouses, littered curbsides, and sparsely furnished interiors-and show a world that’s familiar to any Philadelphian who ventures outside of Center City. Prostitutes and pushers roam the streets, petty thieves snag their loot from pockets, and young and old alike bury their heads in local taverns.

Here, a young hooligan named Scullery (Newton Buchanan) narrates through a depressing series of vignettes, drawing a perverse comparison to the similar role played by the Stage Manager in Our Town. Clare (Chelsea Bulack) whines about missing her "little office job which she loved so much," Carol (Erika Hicks) wants something different than being pawned over night after night, and the crazy Mrs. Bald (Aetna Gallagher) trades songs for cigarettes or a swig of liquor from Scullery’s bottle. A mother smokes (despite the oxygen tube under her nose), women sell their bodies to keep their kids clothed, and even in a rotten economy, people still have money enough to drink.

The former sociology Professor (Kuhn), who first came to West Philly to record the suffering, now drags his files like a cross, and Ken Opdenaker’s skinhead reminds of the ethnic hatreds that often fragment neighborhoods in tough economic times. Clearly, all of these different individuals (the cast plays more than two-dozen roles) share a lack of jobs, dwindling resources, and diminishing hope. While some characters consider alternate economic models (communism, what else?), in the best single performance of the night, Joey (Delanté G. Keys) tries to escape through a hunger strike, his starvation a protest against the failings of a mixed economy.

Despite many fine moments and a sense of relevance that might otherwise engage, the production drags for one simple reason: it’s not funny. Cartwright built plenty of moments of humor into the script; when a prostitute offers her services for ten dollars, her john counters "that’s not very much," to which she replies, "maybe I’m not very much either." I laughed, hearing the jaded sense of humor the script intends but which Carducci’s production never managed to capture. As a result, one depressing scenario leads into another, ad nauseum, lacking the rolling momentum that even bits of comedy could have easily provided to buoy one scene into the next.

I can’t blame Carducci entirely. Few in the audience laughed at anything. Most likely, seeing the misery on stage, they felt afraid to indulge the jokes that did succeed. And unlike similar characters (think Mack the Knife), Buchanan’s rascal offers little charm or charisma to make theatergoers feel at ease enough to indulge the humor.

Despite solid production values in Jon Bulack’s original score and sound design and Jared Reed’s sharp lighting, Carducci and his cast "choke on the bitterness," in the script and this "Road" offers nothing but pessimism porn at its most exemplary. Scullery tells us early on "you can’t escape." Maybe not, but I wanted to.

Review of William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead at Plays and Players

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

The real question isn’t whether John Heimbuch’s William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead (LOD) is good or bad. The real question is whether or not it deserves the frequently heard comparisons to "The Rocky Horror Show."

Judging from audience reaction at both shows, theatergoers love both plays precisely for their moments of goodness and badness - relative terms for anything camp - of which "LOD" offers many. And like the cult-classic musical, most of the crowd who showed up for "LOD" appeared in costume, sporting zombie face-paint, bite marks, and blood soaked skin and clothing (one inventive young woman came dressed as a "zombie Dorothy," complete with a stuffed flying monkey biting her neck).

And like "Rocky Horror," Heimbuch’s play offers plenty of undead creatures. Billed as "A true and accurate account of the 1599 zombie plague that spread to the Globe Playhouse," "LOD" opens in the backstage area of Shakespeare’s theatre (sharply rendered by Lance Moore’s set), moments after the premiere of "Henry V." Former company member Will Kemp (Ryan Walter) sneaks in the backdoor, hoping to join the after-party at a nearby tavern. When Shakespeare (a very whiny Daniel Student) catches him (like a cat, Kemp wears jester’s bells), they immediately begin a bitter rehash of why Shakespeare kicked the Falstaff-playing actor out of the company. The peace-making lead thespian Richard Burbage (excellently played by David Stanger) tries to quell their quarreling, but not before reigniting jealousies over his current (and Shakespeare’s former) lover Kate (a delicate Molly Casey).

Meticulously researched, "LOD" offers quite a history lesson, and its own (mostly humorous) solutions to the academic speculations on Shakespeare’s identity and who exactly wrote all of the Bard’s plays. Francis Bacon (the stellar Paul McElwee) tries to convince Shakespeare to put his name on "Falstaff in Love," to which the Bard replies "but what if later, people think that you wrote my other plays" (as some academics do). Throw in a few dozen lines from Shakespeare’s collected works (not hard to miss, and the audience can rack up points), the labored appearance of Queen Elizabeth (Tanya Lazar, mostly mimicking Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning performance, which isn’t a bad thing) and her consort Robert Cecil (Dan Higbee); but despite some well-turned jokes, the production began to teeter on the verge of boredom.

And after about twenty minutes, the audience’s wait for the zombies was palpable, and they greeted the first arrival of the undead with catcalls and cheers. Burbage quickly dispatched this member of the undead-class, but not before she turned on the crowd and doused them with a mouthful of blood (the theatre provided huge plastic sheets to cover the first three rows). As wave after wave of zombies flooded into the Globe, Shoshanna Hill and Owen Timoney’s sharp fight choreography coupled with exploding dye-packs ratcheted the level of intensity back to bloodlust, and the audience - like at any performance of "Rocky Horror"- began calling out their own responses to the lines and cries for more blood, more action, and more zombies.

But unlike "Rocky Horror," Heimbuch’s play tries to balance the horror-camp with nerdy history and linguistic debates and an agonizing second half plot. Doctor Dee (Tom Blair) wants to retrieve his liquid metaphysic (undead cure), Bacon demands that everyone stay to protect the Queen, and Shakespeare again vents about his hatred for Kemp and reasons for killing off Falstaff. And while Bill Egan’s direction captures the moments of humor (including some fun physical comedy), he can’t speed quickly enough through these intervals of tedium and get the zombies back on stage.

Because like it or not, the crowd came to get covered in fake blood while watching zombies and humans maul each other. The rest, to paraphrase the Bard, might as well have been silence, and the Elizabethan-era premise merely provides a bit of fascinating, legitimizing reason for going to the theatre.

But despite the occasional drift into near-boredom, in many ways, "LOD" deserves a comparison to "Rocky Horror," which in any production offers tedious over-camp and disbelief-breaking implausibility (like the ray-gun scene). And while "LOD" may not offer the "Time Warp," for most of the two-hours, it thrills with kick-ass fighting and sharp (if campy) humor.