Monday, May 28, 2012

REVIEW: The Collected Rules of Gifted Camp

The Brick Theater
(download the script here)
May 16th - 26th 

The first time I went to pre-college camp, it was UCI, and I studied Forensics. My final project was a biography presentation on Osama Bin Laden, a (at that time) minor figure in Middle Eastern terrorism who at that time was wanted for the embassy bombings and the World Trade Center bombing.

In other words, what pre-college camp does is plant the seeds for the future. In ways you'd never imagine.

As is the custom of our times, The Collected Rules of Gifted Camp, which closed this weekend at The Brick Theater, is a play steeped in nostalgia and memory for a moment in our lives that it's easy to wax nostalgic for. The play takes us back to those heady times where we first ventured out into the world, where we began to explore and decide what was important to us, and where telling a girl you just met that you love them required the sort of bravery that requires physical strength.

The story brings together two girls attending a nameless pre-college camp -- Annie (Hollis Beck), a jaded camp regular, and Leila (Lena Hudson), a wide-eyed first timer. Under the stern and bubbly watch of Rose (Ryann Weir), they explore their new world -- dances, fights with peppermints, and in the case of Leila, love with a boy (Kevin, played by Andrew Butler).

With a script that runs on nostalgic memory, you can't win unless you've got some wide-eyed and honest performers. You can't do better than this ensemble. They capture an age where we've only just started to perform our emotions for the benefit of our peers, and yet despite any feigned walls or defenses our emotions are still throbbing and raw, just beneath the skin.

What's great about this is that the emotional world I just described is a great setting both for comedy and for tragedy. Comedy, because of the ridiculous disparity between how serious we think the world is and how serious it actually is (at one point, Annie says her camp goal is that she wants her mom to die; a moment later, she revises it to wanting everyone to die). Tragedy, because it takes so little to hurt these young people, and when it's done right, you can watch the bruises form (say, the moment when Kevin accidentally pre-breaks up with Leila, and Leila's deep horror slowly transforms into the haughty forced "moving on" that seems more adult).

That delicate balance is the one place where the problems seep in toward the end. For the most part, the tight-rope between comedy and tragedy is walked fantastically but at the end -- no spoilers -- the story takes a hard right turn that doesn't feel justified or necessary in comparison with everything that came before. And therefore, the audience didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, and a truly important moment bordered on the ridiculous.

In a way, throwing an actually hyperbolic event at the end of this sweet, down-to-earth production undercut that sense of an emotionally magnified reality -- it revealed the smallness of everything that came before, in a way that nearly swept the play away.

But that's one gripe in the scheme of things. The play is captivating, sharply written, and sharply directed with a tight ensemble. Where it chooses to take you may be a surprise (pleasant or unpleasant), but for a walk down memory lane, it's well done.

Friday, May 25, 2012

REVIEW: The Window

May 23rd - 29th
(on 20 minute cycles -- see below)

Firstly, you have almost no reason not to see this show. It is free, so it's not costing you money. It's short (20 minute cycles on repeat) so it's not costing you time. It's in Midtown, which means it's probably about as easy to get to as any place in New York. So just go. Just see it yourself.

To set the scene, I'm coming off my day job (no, this blog is not paying my bills thankyouverymuch), and I'm still dressed in a suit. It's the corner of 38th and 3rd Avenue, and I'm looking to see where the Romanian Cultural Institute is. And as I walk up to the store front, I can see that the street-facing rooms of the RCI have been converted -- one, into a kitschy crazy wonderland of boas, masks, and children's toys, and the other into a spare room with a video playing on a loop.

The Window is three short moments, all together 20 minutes long, on a loop. Each one consists of a short repeated dance sequence (in the room with the looping film) with Alice (Robin Johnson) and her Beau (Nick Smerkanich), and then a slice of Alice's life, performed with dance, clowning, and performative mime.


In the video above, you hear the dialogue. This is an error on the film's part. Because of the street-level glass, for those observing from outside, you can almost never tell what's being said.

Which is good. If I put my intellectual hat on for a moment, (not for long, I promise), I'd say that this performance is, on a deeper level, making fun of the form of "realist", proscenium theater as it became with Ibsen. If you were to reduce this play to its bare essentials, you'd have the schematic for a typical Ibsen play: a young lady, smothered by her family and her obligations, looks desperately for a way out.

The young lady, Alice, is on display -- literally, because she's dancing in front of an acknowledged window in front of an acknowledged audience, and metaphorically as well, because the first two moments explore how she "tries to be a good wife" and "tries to be a good daughter" before trying to be "a good Alice." Good is, after all, a performance -- an external projection of what you think other people want from you -- but those other people are present.

But this isn't the traditional theater. Alice leans on the fourth wall pretty hard (literally, in fact, since some of her dancing and performance is up against the glass), but all of the traditional theater's tools use the intimacy of the space to wend the emotional connection. Not here. You can't hear her, so her performance reaches out through exaggerated, dance-theater gestures.


Okay, intellectual hat off, I promised. Enough talking about what it was -- what did The Window achieve?

Most specifically, it achieved a beautiful sense of strange and odd. And it achieved that for a passer-by audience of gawkers who did not, in fact, intend to arrive. While I was there, I stood next to an on-his-break Dunkin Donuts employee, a gaggle of Midwestern women on their way back to a hotel ("Oh my!"), a couple of outer borough tough guys ("This is fuckin' crazy, man?" "What the fuck is this-- some kind of like theater thing?"), and more.

Of course, the connection to the gawkers and passers-by was momentary. Even though the performance was 20 minutes on repeat, with roughly 6 minutes per moment, very few of the passers-by stayed for more than a moment or two. I'd love to catch them later and hear what their moment was, and whether anything happened for them beyond the "Oh weird" initial impression -- some stayed a bit longer than that initial flash, but it's difficult to know what else they may have gleaned.


Still, the work was short and sweet. A small emotional world was crafted, from moment to moment, and well performed through the incredible performativity of the ensemble. Best was the middle section, where a sexual imp (Inés Garcia) invades married life with untoward ideas (which mostly manifest as lingerie pulled, magic-like, from every imaginable place). Some of the sharpness of work is obscured by a somewhat crowded and unfocused set design (I would have preferred it to be a more sharply curated girl room), but overall, it was a neat little package to deliver.

(No Disclaimer.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LOCAL: What OB/OOB Needs Now

Village Voice asks the question, and actually gets creative answers from creative people. My favorite:
Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges:
We gotta get with the food thing. I'm talking about the people who brine pickles and cure meat in our city and do their own butchering and cocoa-bean grinding and whiskey distilling. That's something I'd like to see: Theatermakers—maybe with a similarly hands-dirty, process-oriented aesthetic—creating events with some cool food folks.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

PRODUCING: Thus It Ever Was...

... high ticket prices edition:
And when it opens Antony and Cleopatra on October 22, tickets won't come cheap: $42 for the best seats, a new high that this season will match Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Northlight for prime weekend evening performances.
The new top ticket price puts these not-for-profits in the same league as commercial producers. While downtown touring productions of Broadway shows may charge $70 for their best seats, off-Loop commercial ventures--like Forever Plaid at the Royal George or The Irish...and How They Got That Way at the Mercury--have been typically asking less than $40.
Chicago Reader. (h/t Kris Vire, Time Out Chicago)

Monday, May 21, 2012

ARTS POLICY: League of Independent Theaters Endorses Koster for AEA Council

I'm not a member of Actor's Equity, nor does my company work with Actor's Equity actors, but for those of you who are involved, you will be interested in this note that the League sent to its members:

My name is Chris Harcum and I am writing you to voice my support of Erin Maureen Koster for Actors' Equity Council. I currently serve on the Board of Directors for the League of Independent Theater. I am also a proud member of Actors' Equity, SAG-AFTRA, Dramatists Guild, and the Newspaper Guild. I believe in strong unions. At the same time, I completely support the creation of independent theater. Actors should be able to work on contracts when they are fortunate enough to land those jobs, and be able to create their own work to hone their craft and potentially gain future employment. 
Independent theater is an important part of the NYC theater scene. It impacts the financial well-being of the city. It gives artists an invaluable chance to get their work seen in front of an audience in the best theater town in the world. It gives actors an alternative to paying for classes and auditions for industry people. It gives respect and recognition to some of our finest.  
But the restrictions of the Showcase Code make doing this difficult.  
Most showcases do not have enough time to rehearse. Frequently, word of mouth and press don't begin to drive audiences to these shows until the final weekend. Runs do not have the requisite number of performances to qualify actors for some awards. And the leap in cost to go from Showcase Code to a Mini or Off Broadway Contract has sidelined potentially successful runs of hits for many years. 
Erin Maureen Koster is running for a Stage Manager slot on the Actors' Equity Council. You can read her statement here: Her two main positions are to get more union work for stage managers and to make positive changes in the Showcase Code.  
I have already voted in support of Erin and encourage members of Actors' Equity to do the same. Voting is open until Wednesday, May 23. If you have signed up to e-vote you should have received an email with instructions. Otherwise, you should have received a paper ballot in the mail. If you want things to change for the Indie Theater community, please vote and forward this to all your theater friends to forward to all their AEA member contacts.  
Like Erin on Facebook here:
As mentioned above, I don't work with AEA actors -- in part because of the difficulties that Chris Harcum notes in the message.

The vote is underway. There are two days left. If you participate in this organization, please look into this and the issues and exercise your vote.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

RESPONSE: Quick Thought

Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. 
Sorry, Washington Post, did I miss something? I'm pretty sure David Sedaris is a comic literary stylist...

(From an article about whether David Sedaris should be in trouble for "realish" memoirs).