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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Photo essay of the 2009 Arnold Classic Sports Festival Weekend

Below, a photo essay to accompany my article on the 2009 Arnold Classic (the fitness expo weekend hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger), currently published at the Broad Street Review (click here to read).
Some shots from inside the main expo hall. Try to find anyone who doesn't look physically fit.
Anywhere but the Arnold, the encounter on the top would be worth taking a picture of. At bottom, the cage that normally houses men of this size and strength.
Two photos of "average guys," hawking their products. Average for the Arnold Classic, that is.
This guy was pissed that I took his picture. Do you think it's because he knows he's one of the smallest people in the room?
By contrast, here's two shots of one of the AMATEUR bodybuilding competitors. Next to these guys, the dude on his cell phone does look a bit tiny.
Some more photos of the men's amateur bodybuilding competition.
But what about the women? Here's how they dress at the Arnold. (note how the one on the bottom still slightly resembles a "traditionally pretty" girl.
At the Arnold, I looked everywhere to find good examples of women who would count as traditionally pretty--that is, not overly-muscled, and with un-adrogenized faces (and ranked as 8 or above, looks-wise). These two are the best I could find:
These next two are moving in the opposite direction. Still attractive, but with severely musculated physiques, and yet still nowhere near the level of physical specimen on display at the Arnold:
Below, a step further. The one on top offers the perfect mix of silicone and leather; the one on the bottom has started to redefine the boundaries of the female species.
I'm not even sure what's in the next picture. But notice the "normal" girl in the bottom photo checking out the severely defined oblique muscles of the blonde.
Below, two photos from the AMATEUR Fitness competition.
And now it gets a little "freaky." Whatever the word "feminine" used to connote, it loses all traditional meaning in these next two photos of the women's AMATEUR bodybuilding competition.
But really, how is a woman supposed to look? Compare the Liv Tyler look-alike (and traditionally pretty woman in the center of the top photo) to the four "hired-guns" who surround her; then look at the three "super" models on the bottom. After a weekend saturated with a more muscled version of women, it became hard to tell what I still preferred.
Below: Beauty AND the Beast. By contrast, at bottom below is Olympic weightlifting "hottie" (and current US Bobsled Team Member) Ingrid Marcum. Is she how a woman should look?
At the Arnold, it's not much easier to discern the ideal for men. Below a very average specimen (the author) poses with former Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler, who outweighs me by about 70 lbs. At bottom, the far more athletic (and much lighter German Olympic Team member completes a very easy 375lb Clean and Jerk. Aesthetics does not always equal strength, even when it "looks better."
Of course, it's possible to take both aesthetics and strength to extremes. Below, Derek Poundstone, an incredibly fit competitor who won the 2009 Arnold Strongman Challenge. In these photos, he's hoisting over 970lbs off the floor to waist height.
Perhaps the worst part about a "body art" sport like bodybuilding is the transient nature of the finished product. Even though he's a far cry away from the anatomy lesson depicted below, 57-year old Lou Ferrigno still looks jacked.
But then, look at Frank Zane, in the photo (direct below) taken in his prime, when he won the Mr. Olympia contest (and looked carved out of marble). At bottom, he's a mere shell of his former self, as if someone had etched a scar across the Mona Lisa.
But then again, not even the Governator looks too hot anymore. I suppose, however, it's better than the two guys at bottom, a pair of "freaks" who've never had it.

The remainder of the shots consist of images I found interesting, and I'll leave you first with four of me, your fearless reporter who sided up to the "freaks" (and got fake tan all over his shirt).
Below, my two proudest moments from the Arnold. Making a 365lbs clean and jerk (for a competition personal best), and later, meeting German Gold Medal winning weightlifter Mathias Steiner.
Two photos of the ballroom dancing competition. At the Arnold, everything's a pageant.
For the first time ever, the Arnold Sports Festival weekend included an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight, this year held at the Columbus Arena. The card sucked, but two of the game's best stopped by the expo hall to sign autographs. On top, Tito Ortiz, and at bottom, possibly the truest freak of nature on hand the whole weekend, Brock Lesnar:
The various expo booths hawked a variety of products. On top, a plastic surgeon knows his customers are walking all around him. at bottom, those who can't do, make the costumes for those who can.
Speaking of products, would you visit a website if it was advertised like in the top photo? And would you get suckered into buying a product from the woman at lower right, who everyone knows didn't get to look like she does by lifting 5lb weights?