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

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

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 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: