Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

No Child

November 29, 2007

Have you ever gone to see a performance that received a standing ovation? Usually there is some hesitation. First you wonder, “is somebody going to stand up?” Then you wonder, “is everybody going to stand up?” Well, have you ever seen a show where there was no doubt, and everybody jumped to their feet at the end? Last night’s opening of “No Child” at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the no-doubt kind. It was a first for me, I think.

“No Child” is a one-woman show by Nilaja Sun. It is a fictionalized account of Sun’s experience teaching theater at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx—sort of a modern-day, female “To Sir, With Love.” Sun plays all the characters, from the children to the Principal to the parents and the janitor. She switches from role to role in an amazing rapid-fire Robin-Williamsesque style. But unlike Robin Williams, each character takes over Sun’s entire body. You can tell who is talking from his or her posture and body language alone.

The performance was astonishing. I’m glad I saw it. I’m going to cherish it like a trophy. I’ve always been envious that my father actually saw Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady on Broadway. Well, I saw Nilaja Sun in “No Child.” Yeah, that was awesome.

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Veiled Monologues

October 17, 2007

veiled10-500x249.jpgI saw The Veiled Monologues at the Zero Arrow Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts last night. It is billed as “a vital, surprising, and poetic portrait of love and relationships in the Islamic community” in Holland. It seemed to me more of a relentless and depressing portrait of female oppression. From Death of a Princess to Not Without my Daughter to Reading Lolita in Tehran, we see plenty of this narrative (“doesn’t the old world suck?”). I was kind of hoping for something different.

This American Life Unveiled

February 28, 2007

glass2.jpgI had a surreal experience last night: watching Ira Glass and company performing an episode of their radio show, This American Life, live at the Boston Opera House. This American Life is on tour to promote the upcoming television version of the show (premiering March 22 at 10:30 PM on ShowTime).

In a fascinating segment that won’t be heard on radio, Glass and his director, Chris Wilcha, showed some clips and outtakes from the TV show and recounted their struggle to translate the appeal of This American Life to video.

My vote: the TV show is just as brainy and hip as the radio show. The cinematography is way cool. However, it totally lacks the meditative, contemplative quality of radio. To me, the quintessential This American Life experience is catching it in the car on Saturday and ending up parked at my destination, sitting in a trance for 20 minutes to hear the show finish. The TV version is not like that.

There used to be a TV show that had a similar effect on me. It was CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. Sunday Morning had two things This American Life does not: long, silent nature shots and a Sunday morning (pajamas/bagels/coffee) time slot. Perhaps I will Tivo This American Life and watch it on Sunday.

Play by David Schrag

January 16, 2007

David Schrag, friend and IT professional extraordinaire, has written a short play, “Life Savings,” that will be performed as part of a theater festival in Middleboro, Massachusetts, February 9. See this post on David’s blog.

Much Ado About Microphones

January 7, 2007

singer21.jpgUPI reports that Andrew Lloyd Weber has warned the British government that its plan to sell off part of the wireless spectrum will spell the end of wireless microphones in theaters and therefore “the end of musicals” in the U.K.

I only bring it up because I have always hated amplified music and singing in the theater—unless it’s rock & roll. When a voice is electronically amplified, it usually doesn’t sound as if it is coming from the person on the stage. It comes from all around. It also sounds larger than life—and life is the whole point of live performance. There is magic in a live voice or violin or drum, for that matter. For heaven’s sake, why do they even stick mics right up to the drums?

Every main-stage musical is amplified nowadays. Whenever I see one, invariably I wonder what it would sound like without the mics. I took the kids to Beauty and the Beast over the holidays, and I guarantee you Deborah Lew has the pipes to be heard at the back of the rear mezzanine without a mic.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the past. Perhaps microphones make it possible for singers to save their voices and do more shows. Perhaps mics have been a boon to the hearing-impaired. But “unplugged” has been such a popular fad—even for rock & roll acts. I’m wondering if there isn’t a market for more than one measly Broadway Unplugged show per year?

The Onion Cellar

January 1, 2007

One of the highlights my vacation was seeing three live shows in the space of eight days—a record, I think, since having kids.

The best of the three by far was The Onion Cellar—an experimental collaboration between The Dresden Dolls (a rock duo), and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The point of the experiment is to produce a cathartic emotional experience for the audience.

There is no main plot in The Onion Cellar—only a handful of short dramatic vignettes. But that is okay. It is basically the Dresden Dolls’ regular “brechtian punk cabaret” show, plus a bit of story and some world-class acting talent.

The music combined with the dramatic vignettes definitely add up to a more powerful whole than the sum of the individual parts. Bottom line: the experiment works.

onion01.jpg

Now through January 13, Zero Arrow Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tickets $15 (student rush) – $50

Lost in Translation

December 11, 2006

Last night I saw a stage adaptation of the classic 1983 film A Christmas Story. There were strong performances from the actors playing Mrs. Parker, The Old Man (Mr. Parker) and Ralphie. However, the narration that works so well in the film did not work at all on stage. Seeing this live narrator over and over ruined my willing suspension of disbelief. It kept yanking me out of the story and reminding me it is all a play.

Writing guru, Robert McKee, believes narration in film should only be used if it is not needed (as counterpoint). I’m thinking the rule on stage should be: never.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

November 13, 2006

The theater business has been wringing its hands for decades wondering, “How can we get the bums back in the seats on Broadway?” I saw one terrific answer last weekend: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Reviewers have said plenty about this Tony award-winning show. I will only add a few thoughts: One is how little it takes in terms of effects, sets, lighting, and costumes to make so much entertainment. If every show could return so much on so little, Broadway would be a gold mine.

The structure of the show is ingenious. Since the whole story takes place at a spelling bee inside a high-school gym, practically no set is required. The upright-piano-plus-three orchestra is perfectly appropriate to the setting as well. The spelling bee provides a built-in narrative arc for the story to ride on. The real story is the human problems of the show’s nine main characters.

It fascinated me how the show incorporated the audience into the performance. Not only does the audience play the part of the spelling bee audience, but the show picks four audience volunteers at each performance to compete against the cast members as part of the story. This was truly interactive entertainment.

There is no “fourth wall” in Spelling Bee. This, of course, works fine for comedy. All stand-up comedians talk directly to the audience, and improv shows have long been incorporating audience members. However, Spelling Bee is no hit-or-miss improv show. It did have the whole audience laughing until we were gasping for breath, but one of the numbers—“The I Love You Song”—also had me weeping openly for the first time at a live show in years. This number is a young girl’s fantasy, triggered by her given word, “chimerical” (meaning “wildly fanciful; highly unrealistic”), that her self-centered parents might notice her and display affection. The characters’ stories deliver that all-important “meaning” to Spelling Bee that you don’t get with stand-up or improv.

Spelling Bee was an inspiration to me. It is an example of that rare thing that is so hard to achieve: interactive entertainment (albeit live) with humor, pathos and heart.