Wit at the Samuel J Friedman Theater (Broadway; Manhattan Theater Club)

Margaret Edson’s 1998 play Wit (or, for the Mega Nerds, W;t), is a terribly important piece of theater. Edson, #1 Baller as far as I’m concerned, wrote the play, won a Pulitzer, and then quietly went back to her life teaching 6th grade – a job she still holds today. As we say in the Bear Apartment: “CASUAL.” The play, about a brilliant professor specializing in the poetry of John Donne who, oh yeah, also happens to be dying of stage 4 ovarian cancer, is moving and deep, and is performed everywhere, has won a billion awards, is often shown to med students as a part of their clinical education, was made into an amazing TV movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson in 2001 (this one), and pretty much rules.  Much can and should be said on it.

But, I’m not going to go there at all.

Instead, I am going to take a moment to have a huge bitch fest.

Broadway, man.

Freaking Broadway.

I have had the great privilege of having spent a lot of my childhood living in the tri-state area (and thats NY/NJ/CT, you philly-fools), with a family that had a healthy interest in Culture, and thus have very exciting memories of getting to see Broadway shows on birthdays and special occasions. A trip into The City meant a fancy, kinda boring dinner followed by a blur of spectacle, bright lights, loud, catchy music and other delights. For most of my youth, Broadway was the epitome of everything wonderful, exciting, and perfect about theater. Spectacle – and I mean, bright lights, great costumes, Beautiful People and Big Sets Spectacle – is disarmingly appealing, especially if you’re a kid who happens to love melodrama (that was me, crying at SPCA commercials from a young age…one of my many paradoxes if you remember my  previous rant on maudlin crap).

It wasn’t until I went to college and, primarily through the Philly theater scene, and then, in France, at the Avignon Theater Festival, that I realized theater could be so, so very different from the bright lights and smiles of the The Great White Way. A realization I came to embarrassingly late, I know, especially given my subsequent devotion to theater in general. It took a few years of great theater of all kinds: poor, political, small, urgent, experimental, weird, quiet, loud, etc., to realize that the form was so, so, delightfully big.

I saw an 8 hour play in the South of France where, four hours in, the cast left the stage, changed into their day clothes, and took an hour to serve us dinner. I saw a 45 minute monologue delivered on a darkened rooftop by a man with only a spotlight on his face. I saw this, this, and this. While this is starting to read like a laundry list of Brags No One Else Cares About, it’s not meant to be. It’s simply meant to say that, since falling in love with theater, I’ve sought out a lot of stuff – and in many cases, a lot of WEIRD stuff.

Trips back to NYC (and now, living here), has meant the occasional chance to see a Broadway show again, and re-visiting my childhood dream theaters is definitely a different experience. It’s not the shows themselves that strike me in a different way – now, I see them at one (admittedly important) end of a Commercial — Nonprofit spectrum.  And lets be real, like all theater, some Broadway is terrible and tedious while other Broadway can be profound and thrilling. No, it’s not that the shows are suddenly a disappointment. It’s the audience.

The motherfucking Broadway audience.

I try not to be The Worst, The Most Pretentious, The Most Snobby…and sometimes I succeed. I certainly berate myself when I feel like I don’t, if it’s any consolation to you judgers out there. I know I have a tendency towards it — let’s face it, going to a Liberal Arts school wherein I wrote my thesis on French Feminist Theater probably doomed me forever to a life of pretension, but I feel like being aware of the danger of pretentiousness often saves me from the worst of it. But something about going to a motherfucking Broadway show and being surrounded by that motherfucking Broadway audience brings out the absolute worst in me. There is some crossover between a Broadway audience and the audience of, erm, every other theater in the country/world. But not damn much. Let’s face it – Broadway is a commercial venture. It’s a tourist attraction. It’s a Commodity in the strictest sense, and while that doesn’t doom it to eternal tediousness, it does ensure a specific type of crowd.

yup. that's the thing i'm talking about.

Tickets to Broadway shows are expensive. Atrociously so. I know the economics aren’t so cut-and-dry, and I would never presume to turn this into anything as simple as a “Make Our Art Accessible” rant — that’s not really Broadway’s purpose. There’s great, small, accessible non profit theater for that – although, admittedly, a lot less than in other countries. I know the point of Broadway is to make money, but somehow that doesn’t quite take the sting out of the new-ish concept of Premium Seats — wherein a theater blocks off the first few rows of the house and charges $300 and up a ticket — because, you know, $120 – $180 a ticket just isn’t QUITE enough.

There are solutions, of course – many theaters offer student rush and lotteries, and TDF (theater development fund – those lovely folks that run the TKTS booth), has a GREAT membership service open to students, teachers, and union members that is pretty much the only reason I can afford any Broadway these days ($30 – $40 tickets to a LOT of shows…seriously JOIN if you’re eligible and interested).

However, despite all of these solutions, the barrier to entry for Broadway is fucking high. And, like so much else in our fantastic, capitalist culture (no no, not about to start a rant on capitalism, don’t worry), it ensures that the bulk of Broadway theater goers are of a certain Type.

My friends who have been to shows with me have already heard this rant, and since the likelihood is that they’re the only people actually reading this, it’s probably a moot story to re-tell. But I’m going to go for it anyway and describe one stupid thing that drives me 100% INSANE.

As anyone who’s ever walked through the theater district knows, about a half an hour before a show starts, a line of patrons forms. This is the line for people waiting to enter the theater — most of the houses in broadway shows have 500 seats, and many have more, so there’s a bottlenecking that will inevitably occur when trying to get 500 people through 3 normal sized doorways into their 500 seats. That is physics, people. There is no other way to fill a Broadway house with FIVE HUNDRED seats than to have the audience line up, wait their turn, and have their tickets checked by ushers as they go through the THREE DOORWAYS into the theater.

And yet, AND YET, a guarantee at literally every show I’ve ever been to is the following:

Situation – I am standing on line. It is a half an hour before the show. Like a reasonable human being, I am waiting my turn to get into the theater.

A person – usually a woman, usually wearing fur, usually from the suburbs – arrives behind me. She looks first quizzically, then with rising annoyance, at the line. She looks pointedly at her ticket. She looks around to see if anyone has noticed that She Has A Ticket. No one takes the bait. So she asks, to the universe, I suppose, “Is this the line for people with tickets?”

And I sigh, and I turn, and I say something along the lines of “Yup”. The level of bitchiness in my voice varies proportionately to the amount of patience I have that day. She looks at me, disappointed. Then back at her ticket. She can’t believe it. So she asks again, “But what if you have a ticket??”

At which point, I have to disengage, so I smile politely and turn around. So she appeals to her friends, or others on line. Those as privileged as she can’t stomach that they have to wait on line, either. General frustration is emerging — she has paid Good Money for this ticket, so some part of her can’t quite believe that she could be made to suffer the indignity of waiting on a line. (AND YET: see my rant about physics, above).

Finally, she sighs, disappointed in me and those around her who have not pointed out the Secret Entrance for those folks Rich Enough To Never Have To Wait On Line, and announces with much affected, world weariness that she is going to “go check”.

She leaves.

She returns.

She has been told it is, indeed, the line for people who have tickets.

And her disappointment is palpable.

If you couldn’t already tell, this maddens me. I find it also epitomizes perfectly everything about the Broadway audience that drives me nuts. There is such an expectation among the audience — (and a very small part of me can’t blame them, knowing as I do how much freaking money they’ve shelled out for the show) — for the theater to perfectly meet their expectations in every way possible. But that’s not theater. It’s just not. Theater should never meet your expectations – it should subvert them, surprise them, delight them…but “meeting” them is too small potatoes. And the success of one’s theater-going experience should certainly, certainly not depend on the amount of time one was made to suffer the indignity of waiting on a line.

I could keep going – about the people who Laugh To Show Everyone Else That They GET Something, the old men who fall asleep, the ladies who loudly whisper questions to each other and spend intermission making the bulshittiest judgements possible but at this point I’m driving MYSELF crazy with my ranting.

Cynthia Nixon does NOT want to hear your cell phone go off

Plus, I feel as though I’ve done Cynthia a disservice by titling a post about the play in which she stars and then completely ignoring it in favor of a rant. My conclusion, then, is this: I wish a lot of things for American theater, but one of the things I wish most fervently is that people supported ALL of it with the vigor and enthusiasm that they support SOME of it. I wish that people stopped equating high ticket prices with Absolute Satisfaction of the Theatrical Wants They Shouldn’t Have. And I wish that I was a better person and could appreciate when Broadway is great and didn’t let my judgmental-yness of my fellows get in the way. And of course, I wish that great stuff, like Wit, was accessible to absolutely everyone who wants to see it. If you’re a member of tdf, you can get $37 tickets (as of this morning, at least), which is pretty great considering what Broadway goes for these days. But of course, that’s still not doable for some. And that’s bullshit. Because (and here I go, despite my promise, above, otherwise…I literally can’t help it)… Great Art should be universally accessible.

Anyway, 1800 words later: Wit itself was great. Plays about Cancer are a terrifying proposition, if you ask me, but Edson’s is tight, digestible, riveting, and at times quite profound. Cynthia Nixon, who is SO MUCH MORE BADASS than her Sex and The City fame (she’s done a million awesome theatrical things, and her stage presence is phenomenal), absolutely kills it in this performance. She plays Vivian Bearing, a prominent John Donne academic who is dying of ovarian cancer — as she announces at the top of the play, she’s been given “two hours” to live. It’s should be no surprise, then, when she dies at the play’s end – and yet, for two hours, we’ve lived and breathed with this woman, with this refreshingly unsentimental woman, as she’s suffered the indignities brought on by medical deaths in this day and age – the clinicism, the fear, the sterility.

Cynthia Nixon, killin' it

The play was awesome. It was stunning. She was incredible. And yet.

And yet.

All I can think about – still – is the motherfucking Broadway audience. God, I’m sorry. I really thought I’d gotten it out my system earlier. I don’t know what it is, but unlike with the massive, stand-up-in-your-seats blockbusters like Wicked or Book of Mormon, Wit just. doesn’t. quite. feel like it belonged on the Broadway stage. Maybe it’s the commodification aspect that Broadway can’t help but impart — the play should be small, intimate, personal — its through its intimacy, I believe, that it delivers its epicness. Nixon’s performance – especially towards the end, when her character is truly losing her personhood to the pain and physical destruction of the cancer – just felt like it deserved a smaller house. It felt like an experience to be shared among a quiet, awestruck audience of 40 or 50. The audience was too big, and Nixon was too small – the point, maybe? – but still, watching her from something of a distance over the heads of hundreds of shifting, sleeping, texting people, or, Laughing Loudly at Anything at All People, felt gross. Disrespectful.

Betcha didn't think this woman could make you care about 17th C. metaphysical poetry...

I dunno. Maybe, like those fur-dressed ladies, I too have my own bullshit expectations of what a Broadway Show should be. But whereas they expect Secret Entrances, my expectations run more towards the level of spectacle/depth I think the mother-f-ing broadway audience deserves.

Listen. I never said I wasn’t a pretentious fuck.

(**An important PS Sidebar: I am from New York. I say “On line”. It does not mean “online”. It means, for those of you from other parts of the country, “in line”. I considered writing 2200 words ranting about this particular turn of phrase, and the way it has ostracized me throughout the years, but I figured I’d spare you.)

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Follies at the Marquis Theater (Broadway)

even the poster is crazy-beautiful

Alright, get ready to sweep the floor around you, because I’m about to drop some names:

Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige. And OH YEAH, Stephen Sondheim.

If these names mean nothing to you: don’t worry about it. You’re at home on your computer reading a blog: you got no one to impress.

If these names mean something to you and you’re aware that they’ve all congregated in the Broadway revival of Follies, then uhm, yeah…it was everything you’d imagine.

If these names mean something to you but you’re somehow, incredibly, bizarrely, under-a-rock-ly unaware of the show they currently all have in common, then RUN, don’t walk, (or perhaps, fly…) to L.A., where the revival is moving right about now.

Continuing in my trend of reviewing theater productions that are really, ridiculously close to closing/have already closed, JUST to ensure that if anyone is ACTUALLY reading this and ACTUALLY decides to see one of these shows, they can’t…let’s go with Follies, which closed in NYC on Jan 22nd. The show is a Sondheim classic, with dozens of fantastic parts for “mature” actresses, and this production, which features the talents of the list above along with another whole horde of crazy-talented folks, was pretty much guaranteed to succeed from the day Bernadette signed on the dotted line. (http://folliesbroadway.com/company/cast) Add to that one gorgeous design and crowd-pleasing choreography and you’ve got yourself a hit…ironic if you know anything about the plot.

…cue me talking about the plot! (TRANSITIONS, people…that’s how you do it). Follies is set in a crumbling theater, just about to be closed after a long and successful life, in good ol’ 1971. The theater’s owner is throwing one last party, to which he has invited a host of former performers – Follies Girls, as it were – to celebrate Times That Once Were and all sorts of other good, nostalgia-inducing things guaranteed to make for drama. Among the guests are Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben, two couples/former friends who…you guessed it, spend the evening bemoaning Pairings That Might Have Been or, alternately, glaring at each other with venomous jealousy over Pairings That Might Have Been. Basically, it’s a recipe for drama both quiet and loud, regrets and lost hopes, and something of a meditation on the public vs. private and real vs. performance. Throw in a few showstopping songs and you have everything that a night on Broadway should be – beautiful, sad, powerful, and epic. And on a Broadway Budget, no less.

...cue the standing ovations and Tony award nominations...

The most insane (ly awesome) moment in the show is, without a doubt, during an epic Sally/Buddy/Phyllis/Ben fight, where not only do the four begin yelling over each other, their Past Selves (also characters in the musical, used to great effect) join the fray as well. They step downstage, and a curtain lowers discreetly behind them. As the fight reaches a climax – and the shouting becomes almost inaudible in its chaos – the curtain tumbles, revealing the old stage, which had appeared as merely a musky old theater, to be completely transformed into the height of spectacle – layers of bright, gauzey flats dominate, and dozens of performers, dressed in showy regalia, begin singing of their show, the former Follies show – Loveland – to the bemusement of the lovers. The characters’ anguish is quickly overpowered by performative fluff, leaving them – and us in the audience – in a state of stilted confusion.

Now, here’s the thing about me: I’m kinda easily embarrassed by overly flowery shows of … well, anything: romance, spectacle, melodrama, etc. Everytime I’m witness to a public proposal I tend to cringe, and not out of adoration (good god: the jumbotrons at sporting events?!) When I was a little kid and was given a piece of clothing with a bow on it I pretty much threw a temper tantrum (and at the very least, immediately pulled the offensive bow off). Once, a very long time ago, a wonderful boy wrote me a love poem and instead of being flattered and feeling ooey gooey, I, like a big fat jerk, pretty much buried it under a rock and hoped it would disappear without a trace. In fact, my stomach is cramping in embarrassment just thinking about it now. People who sing love songs to their partners are, to me, some of the scariest mo-fos alive. There are many reasons why watching The Bachelor/The Bachelorette makes me want to kill myself, but the public displays of Relationship therein are certainly among them. (The private concerts? The fireworks? The inevitable Expensive Car Date where a confused crowd gathers to watch Love being found in a Rolls Royce parked awkwardly in front of a fountain or some bullshit?!!)

How does this relate to Follies? Well, the “show-within-a-show” that dominates the 2nd act of the play is essentially the physical embodiment of everything I just expressed feeling great embarrassment for. It’s a RIDICULOUS freaking show-within-a-show. Fucking Liberace would have been embarrassed. Like, I know it was written decades ago, and I know it was fictional, but would anyone in their right mind really go see a show called Loveland??? Loveland, people. It sounds like one of those Tunnel Of Love Carnival rides with midgets in diapers pretending to be cupids. To repeat: I’d rather kill myself.

So even though it was entirely fictional, and even though the rest of the show was beautiful and much simpler and quite stunning, I still found myself squirming uncomfortably during this one, the show-within-a-show with the Title That Must Not Be Named. Now God knows I love glitter, but there was a lot of it. And God knows I love feathers, but there was a lot of that, too. And God knows I love pink, but it was an excess of pink. And GOD KNOWS I love super hot men in tights wearing old fashioned sparkly British Dowager hats, but…man. was it. a lot. Not to mention the fact that the song, “Loveland”, that introduces the sequence is populated by characters named First, Second, Third, and Fourth Cavalier, and features such marvelous lyrics as:

“Time stops, hearts are young,
Only serenades are sung,
In Loveland,
Where everybody lives to love.
Raindrops never rain,
Every road is Lovers’ Lane,
In Loveland,
Where everybody loves to live,”

and a chorus of

“Loveland, Loveland…Bells ring, fountains splash,
Folks use kisses ‘stead of cash”.

Just in case you don’t have the full visual yet, it looked like this:

lots. of things. are happening. here.

I won’t lie: I had a Moment. Generally, at such moments, I immediately panic, look for a bridge to throw myself off of or some cashews to ingest (nut allergy, for those of you who don’t get the reference), then think of whatever poor schmo I am seeing the show with, and wonder in fear whether he/she is also embarrassed, and then start feeling doubly embarrassed at the fear that he or she is also feeling embarrassed, and then…well, you get it. It’s a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, in my case, my date for the evening was a solidly good sport, and, as far as I’m aware, solidly loving the spectacle. And, as I looked around the audience, (or, alternately, listened to the coos of the gentlemen behind me, who were Seriously Loving It), I realized that no one in the theater seemed to give as much of a crap as I did about the ridiculousness. The pomp. The circumstance. Things that could be described as “dandy” and “gay”.

And of course, the ridiculousness is the whole point – it’s about the juxtaposition of over-the-top spectacle and imposed performance on the genuine emotion of the performers/former performers. The lyrics to “Loveland” are supposed to ring hollow – I mean, come on, Sondheim is the guy who brought us Sweeney Todd, for shit’s sake. He’s not likely to approve of a man in snow white tights singing about a “sunny honeymoon” where “seven hundred days hath June” (woah, just threw up in my mouth a little there), unless used for dramatic/ironic impact. And in fact, a few songs later, when Bernadette brought the house down with “Losing My Mind” and the stupendous Jan Maxwell killed it with “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, I realized that fucking killer talent can always trump ridiculous 70s kitsch. And even a cynical bastard like me can’t help but be dazzled by so many sequins. (Nauseated, yes, but also dazzled through my nausea).

Never kitschy and embarrassing, of course, is the cast, who smile through their cray-cray costumes and destroy with their performances. Danny Burstein, for one, gets a special shout out from me for being the absolute master of Angry Outbursts. (Back in the good ol’ days, I considered myself something of a veteran at Angry Acting Outbursts, so I have a particular soft spot in my heart for performers talented in the like). Overall, the show is seriously a stunner, in every sense of the word, and the cast of Broadway vets ensures that at no point does their incredible talent go unnoticed.

…but still the awkward, perpetually embarrassed freak in me has to wonder, did they have to use SO many pink feathers?

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Untitled Feminist Show at Baryshnikov Arts Center (Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company)

Some genius once said that it’s not experimental theater if you’re not feeling at least a little desperately uncomfortable. Full disclosure: that “genius” was actually just me, but the statement, while slightly reductionist, effectively communicates what I find most titillating – and terrifying – about the more avant-garde productions that I see.

Terms like “experimental” and “avant garde” get thrown around a lot. Like most theater-goers, I’m not entirely sure of the precise definition of either, but would be loathe to fully cop to that fact. However, I think at their best, such productions are unique, surprising, and a little scary.  They push the boundaries of theatricality in exciting ways. At their worst, however, they are pointless spectacle that verges on the unnecessarily lewd. They quite literally create their own parodies, and are the reason theater is branded pretentious, elitist and inaccessible.

Essentially, it’s hit or miss.

However, I’m as easy a target as the next girl, so when you tell me of a feminist theater show featuring 6 naked performers, uhm…I’m in. And that is how I found myself, just last week, part of the sold-out audience at opening night of the New York premiere of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. (phew! That’s a mouthful!)

[Another full disclosure: Basically, if a show has the word “feminist” anywhere near it’s title/description, I’m pretty much predisposed to love it, but I attempted to maintain an open mind for the sake of, oh…let’s say… journalistic integrity.]

According to its website, in Untitled Feminist Show: “six charismatic stars of the downtown theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilarating, nearly wordless journey through expressions of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.” Which, had I really been paying attention, has a few serious gives that would have let me know what I was in for — see, “wordless” and “fluid”.

As in: dance. Yep, dance.

Now, quick word on my relationship with dance: I have none. Beyond a very traumatic winter-long course in Ballroom Dance in elementary school (what 5th grader wants to be told that the evening is “ladies choice”??! My choice of partners was quite literally limited to a series of bros who had inevitably flashed their boogers at me the day before), I have never attempted the art form myself. Maybe it’s my own complete and utter lack of rhythm, but I really – REALLY – struggle to make heads or tales of dance. Watching gorgeous people spin around in tandem, while aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t make me “feel” much beyond envious and befuddled. And while I hate to use the “b” word – sacrilegious, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the arts – with dance, I can easily get (yikes)…bored.

It didn’t take long for me to suspect/fear that, beyond the initial shock of 6 naked performers, Untitled Feminist Show is more straightforward dance concert than avant-garde play. In fact, the show, which runs a gaunt 55 minutes, felt at first like a dance recital, broken up by songs, where various permutations of the 6 dancers would writhe and gyrate and spin and do all those dance-y things that lovers of dance are much more poised to appreciate than uncoordinated duds like me.

However, simply and totally because of its spectacle of nakedness (and probably also, because the 6 performers in question are possessed of, although it pains me to say it, “normal”(??) bodies), Untitled Feminist Show will forever enjoy the designation of “avant garde” and “experimental”.

Now, a word on the nakedness: my fear with this kind of stuff is that it never rises above the level of “gimmick”, and although I spent a bit of time inwardly giggling behind my hand at the sight of boobies, I’ll admit that ultimately it did exactly what I imagine it was trying to – it was aggressive, confrontational, disconcerting and unabashedly beautiful.

it's EXPERIMENTAL cuz they're NAKED

But, of course, nakedness alone does not make an avant garde play. Although I spent the first 10 minutes or so of the show feeling victimized by a cruel bait-and-switch (promised: cool experimental theater, delivered: mostly conventional dance), I must now cop to being pretty darn wrong. Yes, the performance style of the show was much dancier than narrative-ier (official theater terms, by the way), but once I got my head out of my ass and stopped mentally bitching about it, it turns out that Young Jean Lee was actually saying things that even an idiot like me could digest. Yes, some of the dances went waaaaay over my head, and I recall them now only as a blur of spinning and pirouettes (not totally sure what those are, but they sound dance-y…). There are clear highlights, though.

One, about halfway through the show, involved the dancers, who made copious eye contact and often smiled warmly at us, the Super-Eager-To-Prove-How-Comfortable-We-Were-With-Nakedness audience, beginning a series of synchronized choreographed moves that, when I actually studied them, turned out to be inspired by/based on a series of traditionally “female” activities – ironing, weaning babies, cooking, cleaning, etc. Done to some sort of agonizingly awesome hip-hop song, by dancers who performed their choreography with such mother-fucking coolness, it essentially took my breath away. To me, this was reappropriation at its absolute best.

Another memorable scene, and one of the piece’s few obvious non dance-y bits, involved a single performer, who started what I can only call “militant flirtation” with certain male audience members – pointing one out and miming sexually suggestive behaviors re: said audience member’s penis, which quickly became sexually grotesque and violent suggestions.  I watched this, growing increasingly more uncomfortable along with the rest of the audience, who tended to display its discomfort by laughing more loudly and obviously. It was an interesting moment – god knows, anytime the house lights go up in a show like this EVERY audience member feels a pang of dread in his or her heart of hearts. In this case, the moment was made all-the-more unnerving by the proximity of the performer, her nakedness, and the creepy way she smiled while miming sticking her hand up an audience member’s you-know-what. The group of men in front of me were laughing so loud and with such false heartiness at this point that I really wanted to take their hands and tell them to take a deep, cleansing breath: it was going to be OK.

The “point”, from the performer’s perspective, seemed to force our discomfort as quickly and urgently as possible – the kind of shameless confrontation feminism does so well/terribly (depending on your perspective). In this case, though, the audience, which seemed to be entirely filled with theater insiders and Enlightened, Artsy Folk, responded uniquely. It was one of the stranger confrontations I’ve ever witnessed: rather than sit back and take our misogynist spanking, this audience (which perhaps wanted more credit for having found, sought out, and Behaved Completely Properly during the strange, naked show), was more-or-less unwilling to suffer such punishment. Instead, the chorus of self-aware laughter was as much a retaliation as I’ve ever heard – a vehement insistence to the performer that We Were In On It Too. Ultimately, it was a stand off: one that was one-part uncomfortable, one-part exciting, and one-part confusing: in other words, everything I could have asked for from an Avant Garde show.

There were other moments like this, too – during the show’s climax, wherein the dancers began shaking and jiggling their bodies to pounding techno music, basically shoving gyrating boobs and bellies in the faces of the closer audience members (I was not among them), the audience burst into a spontaneous round of enthusiastic applause (we were determined to get an A+ on Audiencing, it seemed). It was infectiously thrilling to be surrounded by such approval of such a primitive, aggressive confrontation with the female body.

Untitled Feminist Show was a lot of things at once: sometimes embarrassing, sometimes boring, sometimes scary, sometimes profound, sometimes ridiculous and always surprising. When it comes to Avant Garde, you really can’t ask for anything else. (Well….whatever “avant garde” means, anyway…) If you want to get your naked dancing on (that’s a lie, those of you who are stripping and running for the door — only the performers are naked in this one, I’m afraid)…run, don’t walk to the Baryshnikov Arts Center – the show only runs thru Feb. 4th.

http://www.ps122.org/performances/untitled_feminist_show.html

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Sleep No More at The Old Lincoln School (Punchdrunk Theater Co @ A.R.T)

The good news about writing a review of a performance long, long, long after you actually attended said performance is that, if it was a good one, it can be a real hedonistic rush to relive the highlights. Two days ago, when it occurred to me I was long overdue for a review of Sleep No More, the memories began, slowly, to dribble back into my active consciousness. And what a ride it has been. The uninhibited thrills I felt the night I went to Sleep No More in mid november ’09 are, to be fair, coming back as slightly-more-muted tingles and goosebumps now, but the impact of the show was so sensational that any opportunity to relieve even the smallest iota of it is brilliance is a privilege.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: GO. SEE. SLEEP NO MORE. Period. End of sentence. It is a theatrical experience that must be experienced, and as much of a bitch it is to get up to Boston (especially if, like me, you’re not exactly in a financial position to see any performance on the east coast at the drop of a hat), if you have the means, do it. I will attempt to describe my unforgettable night at the Old Lincoln School in the subsequent paragraphs, but the show is so amazingly individual-audience-member focused, and so fantastically unique, that I know already I’m engaging in a losing venture. There is, quite simply, NO WAY I can adequately do justice to Sleep No More in writing. I will do my damndest, but I know I’m going to be disappointed. It was that good. And that special.

Where to start? Sleep No More is a theatrical installation which follows a nontraditional theatrical structure. The Old Lincoln School, a humongous abandoned school in Boston, comprises the set, and the audience is invited to explore at their will. There are no seats, no programs, no acts, no intermissions. According to the A.R.T. website:

“The Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been exquisitely transformed into an installation of cinematic scenes that evoke the world of Macbeth. You, the audience, have the freedom to roam the environment and experience a sensory journey as you choose what to watch and where to go. Rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown in this unique theatrical adventure.”

The Macbeths have a friendly feast in Sleep No More

Based thematically on Macbeth and aesthetically on the films of Hitchcock, Sleep No More loosely follows the “story” of Macbeth, but don’t be surprised if, after your own three hours inside the performance, you couldn’t identify a single actor with the Macbeth character they were meant to represent. And don’t be surprised if despite absorbing not an ounce of  “story”, you enjoy the performance more than any narrative-focused piece you see this year. (And you know that got to be hard for me, the narrative-lover that I am, to admit). As I’ll explain, for the first half of the show, I had no idea what the fuck was going on. And that was OK, you ask? Yes, yes it was. Let me go ahead and walk you through my own experience at Sleep No More:

The show had three entrance times for audience – 7, 7:20 and 7:40. Not understanding what this meant, we – my mom (who once again gamely accompanied me) and I — selected the 7:40 entrance time, not realizing that that simply meant we entered an ongoing show 40 minutes in, and thus got 40 less minutes to experience the performance than those lucky 7 pm ticket holders.

Regardless, we got to the venue (and what a huge one it was!) at 7:40 pm, and were escorted in to a completely decked out, totally sweet 1930s style bar. Our escorts informed us that the bar (called the Mandalay) was something of a “home base” during the show- somewhere you could always come back to if you needed a break or a breather. (Attempting to find it when you were wandering through the three (four?) floors of performance space that awaited you beyond its doors was the unstated catch, however). In batches, we were invited to follow a guide in to the show, through the murky, darkened hallway outside of the Mandalay’s cheerful doors. My group of 7 or so hesitantly followed our smarmy, self-satisfied guide to an elevator that was to take us deep into the heart of Sleep No More. (Hey, I couldn’t really blame him — I’d probably be way more than smarmy and self-satisfied if I had a gig working with the sweetest show on the East coast.)

As we hesitantly stood in the elevator, he passed us white harlequin masks and told us that not only did we have to put them on now, we also weren’t allowed to take the off during the show. Ever. Now, I can see what a brilliant strategy this was — not only did it help the actors and crew to immediately identify audience members, it also helped audience members do the same, and finally prevented audience from obtaining “this-is-awkward” reinforcement from each other. You know how it goes: you’re at a show or a performance that’s weird — and I mean really weird — and you instinctively feel the need to lock eyes with your fellow spectators, confirming with well-placed looks and widened eyes that yes, the show is weird. Not only does this distance you from the piece itself, it’s also an exercise in cowardice. How much braver to face a performance ON YOUR OWN, away from the reassurance of an equally confused audience member. During Sleep No More, it was frankly impossible to obtain that kind of refuge from your fellow spectators. After all, they were all wearing weird masks. I realize I’ve been harping on these masks for awhile, but I still can’t really get over how brilliant they were — they basically kept the audience in a paralyzing state of permanent powerlessness, isolated from each other and unable to do anything but stop, look, and listen.

Taking our last look around, exchanging the last comfortable “what the hell” glances that we could with each other, we slipped on our masks. At first it was MEGA embarrassing, but amazingly, everyone obeyed the “don’t take them off” rule and soon it became par for the course to stumble upon a fellow audience member wearing a mask. Without further ado, the elevator door opened and we were unceremoniously dumped into Sleep No More.

It is impossible to describe the scale to which the space was installed. It was mesmerizing, walking through the perfectly installed rooms, each and every one different from the rest, it’s own perfect, detailed little world. How many rooms were there? It was impossible to know — the installation was so overwhelming that even know I can’t recall if it was 3 or 4 floors. Some rooms were perfectly installed to look like they came out of a Hitchcock film — a 30s bedroom or a twilight-zone-esque hotel lobby. One was full of fresh pine trees and smoke. Another had woodchips on the floor and shelves full of flea-market perfect junk. One had a baby crib in the center, and suspended in midair above it had to have been dozens – maybe over 100 – suspended pieces of baby dolls. (Yes, I said pieces). One was installed to look like the perfect replica of an italian garden, complete with topiaries and rock paths. The school’s auditorium had dozens of extremely large pine trees on castors, which could be rolled around to create an eerie, witch-appropriate forest or pushed against the wall to accommodate spectators watching the action on the stage (the site of the Macbeth feast). One of the first rooms I went into was full of bathtubs – it was attached to an adjoining room that was decked out to look like an old-school dormitory. As I looked into each of the bathtubs I got the shock of my life to discover one had several live eels swimming around in it. How many rooms in total? I have no idea, and frankly can’t imagine I saw all of them. 40, maybe? I’d like to imagine there were hundreds, and if I had all night I could have just kept exploring them, passing from one to another. As one reviewer stated about the show “it was like you were caught up in someone else’s dream”, and had no choice but to hold on and enjoy — or at least, experience — the ride.

Of course, at the beginning of my time in Sleep No More (and really, it feels far more appropriate to say my time “in” Sleep No More than my time “at” Sleep No More) I didn’t feel any of this wonder. I was anxious and, after the eel incident, freaked out. But also, of course, I was lost and confused. The performers, dressed primarily in 30s garb and conveniently recognizable by their lack of masks, walked through the dominating space with purpose and entirely unconcerned whether they were entirely alone or followed by a throng of  30, 40, 50 spectators. True dedication to their character and a great performance ethic, certainly, but very inconvenient if you happen to be a spectator all the way in the back of the throng with an annoying need to know what’s going on at all times. (Recall my disastrous initial attempt to understand the play Fatebook: https://theaterjunkie.wordpress.com/2009/10/24/fatebook-at-area-919-2009-live-arts-festival/) Yes, that was me. Although the first 10 minutes of my time in the show were spent walking alone through the installation, the second an actor passed by (followed by probably 20 audience members tripping over their toes to keep on her trail), I was immediately seized with the urge – nay, need – to be in that throng, to know where she was going, to “get” the story.

I didn’t particularly get anywhere, however. The first actor I followed led me down some stairs before clashing with another actor, an interaction that I missed because of how far back in the crowd I was. (Did I mention that any eerie, quiet spell the the piece cast on my as I explored those first couple rooms pretty much dissipated when I was surrounded by dozens of equally eager and pushy audience members? So much for my private moment with the tub full of eels…)  I continued to follow this first actor, and caught a bit of her next clash with another actor — that was the moment I realized Sleep No More was more of a dance performance piece on the actors part than straight theater. Their interactions were entirely dance-based, no text or dramaturgy (goodbye, dream of being a writer for Punchdrunk…), and the actors, possessed of incredible dancer capabilities, acrobatically clashed into one another, composing duets with their bodies that loosely conveyed the story of Macbeth. Not that I appreciated any of that when I saw my first interaction. Instead, I struggled to understand, interpret. “Well, that’s probably Lady Macbeth and uhm…Duncan? A servant? No, definitely Duncan”, I decided. (Not that it should come as a surprise, but I learned later that I was entirely wrong).

I continued following my actor, convinced that I’d stumbled upon Lady Macbeth, the veritable motherlode as far as I was concerned. But it was crowded, and I kept being pushed to the back of the group, all of us silently vying for a prime viewing spot. I was hot, overwhelmed, and confused, and starting to suspect that maybe she wasn’t Lady Macbeth at all. The next time she passed a different actor with a slightly smaller following, I switched to him instead, visions of the Fatebook actors telling me to “pick one actor and stick with them!” dancing in my head, warning me of such a rash action.

My next actor didn’t particularly get me much farther, though, and I was beginning to get frustrated. I had no earthly idea WHO he was meant to represent, but when he landed in a room with several other actors (it was the first time I was in a room with more actors than audience) I thought something might be about to happen, and my interest was re-piqued. This room did not disappoint; there was a big brawl between the characters in the midst of their cardgame, and I was convinced at least one of them had to be Macbeth. If I could only figure out who, I’d have the right character to follow when they eventually left the room…as the fight broke up, (it was as beautifully choreographed and effortlessly danced by those amazing physical actors as anything I saw that night), I hedged my bets with one of the actors and was prepared to follow my newly christened Macbeth when something caught my eye. The room, by this point, had rather filled up with audience, but the actor playing a servant, standing at the bar wiping a glass, was staring directly at me. Me.

And I don’t just mean casually staring at me; this servant was giving me a hard-core glare. I felt like I’d never been more startled or thrilled in my life — in the midst of the chaos of actors and audience stuffed into this tiny room, this one servant-actor had made a visual once-over of the room and landed on yours truly. I couldn’t look away. Frankly, I couldn’t even move. I mean, I’ve had actor-audience interaction in my time (I’ve been on both sides of the coin, in fact), but this felt different, weirder. More urgent. I had no idea what was going to happen. I could only stare back. She cleaned her glass, the glare getting deeper. Finally, slowly, her arm began to raise, finger outstretched. She stood there, frozen, pointing at me. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I took a step back. Her arm lowered. She broke the eye contact, nodded a bit. I’d passed the test. I looked around. The room was empty.

And suddenly, it was OK that I’d missed my potential-Macbeth leaving. Because I’d gotten so much more. I’d gotten a kick ass thrill, but most importantly, I no longer cared if I even got one iota of “story” out of my night, or understood even remotely more than I did at that moment. I was excited, exhilerated. Fucking theater, man!

There’s so much more I could tell you about Sleep No More, including some really amazing almost-everyone-involved group feast scenes, but the moment that sticks out in my mind happened later. Armed with my new, see-what-I-feel-like-explore-what-I-want attitude, I wandered the rest of the installation and very, very rarely attempted to follow specific actors or the dozens of audience members trailing them. Instead, I went into rooms that looked interesting, and suddenly I began to find scenes coming to me. I opened the door to one room to find a very bedroom, filled with clothes, letters, and knickknacks. And, oh yeah, an actor. She started when I came in, looked up at me. I looked at her.

We were alone, and I had stumbled upon Lady Macbeth in the Macbeths’ bedroom. This time, I was sure. And not only that, this was a Lady Macbeth that was just a hop skip and a jump away from total madness, I could tell that too. I’m quite positive my presence didn’t help matters. Maybe it’s just because I’ve played Lady Macbeth, but I found myself seeing the room through her eyes more than my own. You think you’ve found a moment alone to attempt to interpret all the craziness going on in your life – you convinced your husband to commit murder, and the consequences have been both great and terrifying. The guilt is starting to creep in on you when suddenly the door to your bed opens and in walks — well, Jessie Bear, in a fucking terrifying mask. I suddenly cast myself in the show, as the ghost of Banquo or one of the drunken guards; a haunting, have-to-believe-its-not-real reminder of all the harm Lady M had caused. I could see through her eyes that’s what she saw me as, staring horrified as I walked closer to her, sinking into herself and reaching desperately towards me, in search of forgiveness, redemption, or maybe just acknowledgement.

Of course, I know that the actress playing Lady Macbeth was merely reacting to the cool circumstance of one audience member coming in to her space alone. If I had been with a group of people, or if no one had come in, she would have tailored her performance accordingly, but the urgency of the moment was so. goddamn. real that I just can’t help but feel like then, we were both really and truly there. And not there in the sense of the Old Lincoln School in Boston in November ’09, but there, in the Macbeth’s bedroom.

Macbeth entered after that, followed by dozens more spectators, and the couple proceeded to have a lustful, tragic dance as everyone watched. I watched, too, but I also took a deep breath, recovering from the intensity of my more private moment before. When the Macbeths dashed out of the room, I felt absolutely no need to follow them, opting instead to sit quietly on their bed. The rest of the audience high tailed it out of there to follow the fleeting, poetic narrative, and once again I found myself alone.

And that’s when it hit me: I was alone in the Macbeth’s bedroom. I apologize in advance for the profanities, but they’re necessary to convey the excitement that surged through me in that moment: I was alone in the motherfucking Macbeths motherfucking bedroom! And once again, it wasn’t a set and I wasn’t a spectator; it was real. It was really their bedroom and by some amazing metaphysical miracle I had been transported there. Again, maybe this is just because I played Lady Macbeth (if unsuccessfully), but for me this was a particularly significant moment. I felt the need to capture it, keep it. So, naturally, I stole something.

I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and hope never to do so again, but something came over me in that moment and the only way to assuage it (besides finding an unsuspecting actor and screaming in their faces, perhaps), was to attempt to clutch this magical space and time and never let go. There was an envelope on the ground, ripped open, with the words “Lady Macbeth” typewritten on the front. It had contained her “They met me in the day of success” note. I put it in my pocket. Sacrilegious? Probably. But somehow I feel the Macbeths would approve of sacrilegious. After all, they are the most notoriously evil couple in literature.

Sleep No More was a trip. It was thrilling and scary and beautiful and chaotic and breathtaking and electrifying and wondrous and overwhelming and frantic and exquisite and enchanting. And while I could sit here and continue to list synonyms for “thrilling” that I find on thesaurus.com, I realize that will in no way help to convey the experience. Plus, after a solid three thousand one hundred fifty six words (and counting) of this review, if by any miracle there is a single reader still with me, you deserve a break anyway.

And, just as I predicted, I am disappointed in my inability to convey with words even one iota of the experience I had seeing the show. But, just like really good theater, this one was all about the moment. (Plus it’s not like you can blame me: they didn’t have any words in the show, anyway.)

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Fatebook at Area 919 (2009 Live Arts Festival)

Ugh, I know. It’s been a ridiculously long time. I find myself wondering if any of my (2? 3?) faithful readers are still out there some where. In the vain hope that you are, I present my latest review.

The whirlwind otherwise known as the 2009 Live Arts Festival now over, I find myself able to take a moment to process some of the impressively interesting performances I saw this year. Among those was Fatebook: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at A Time, presented at Area 919 in North Philly by the noted experimental theater company New Paradise Laboratories. I choose to write about Fatebook tonight not only because I think it was provocative enough to be worth it, but also because I feel like I have a decent understanding of the events of the show itself — after all, I saw it twice.

Fatebook presented by New Paradise Laboratories

Fatebook presented by New Paradise Laboratories

I know what you’re thinking: WOOOOOOW, JB, you saw it TWICE?! What an insane rarity! Well, calm down, you two — for me, it actually kinda is. Unless I’m involved with a show, I pretty much exclusively only see it once – for reasons of cost and time commitment, certainly, but also, in part, for reasons of philosophy. One of my favorite things about art is the way it captures so perfectly one of the most beautiful, astonishing, violent and tragic things about life – it’s ephemerality. Theater — good theater, that is — is like a hyper-concentrated dose of life: living breathing and dying in the blink of an eye, irrevocably over with disappointing regularity. It’s a one time deal: whatever you get out of a show when you see it, that’s what the show means.

With Fatebook, however, I felt I owed it to the show to go back for a repeat performance, because the first time around, I really did Fatebook wrong.

Once again, I know what you’re thinking: how do you do a show “wrong” — as a matter of fact, how do you “do” a show at all? Well, first some background on the experience of the show itself, then I’ll get back to ‘doing it wrong’:

The format of Fatebook was less traditional, more multi dimensional, than that of your typical play. The show, which, according to its description “explores what happens when our online relationships collide with our physical ones”, took place in a massive warehouse space, awash with music, multi media projections, and actors, all interacting with each other in a 12 minute sequence choreographed with military precision. This “sequence” was repeated five times, restarting right after it reached its climax, with audience members able to freely walk around the space and follow the actors/characters that were most appealing to them.

And once again, I know what you’re thinking: sounds chaotic. So, if you’re a show, how do you handle such a nontraditional structure without the inevitable chaos erupting? In the case of Fatebook, you make up rules. No really – as in, like, actual rules. As in, the first five minutes of the show consisted of a projection of the character of Anita, narrator-cum-referee, explicitly outlining for the audience what the rules were:

1) You won’t be able to see everything.

2) Pick specific characters and follow them.

3) Don’t try to see everything.

4) No, seriously, don’t try to see everything – pick specific characters and follow them.

And then the astonishing: after its annoyingly bossy opening, Fatebook absolutely exploded with energy: The dozens of projections of our narrator’s face disappeared from the screens throughout the space, the audience was encouraged to leave the small holding pen we had been standing in, and amidst peppy guitar music and general nervousness, we ventured forth into the playing space, where characters awaited the beginning of their sequence in front of large screens projecting their names and images.

And suddenly, I was absolutely exhilerated. Something about the combination of the influx of visual/aural stimulation and immediate active audience-member freedom (I could go where I wanted to go! I could see what I wanted to see!) created a theatrical high like I haven’t experienced in months. Yes, I found myself thinking, Hells Fucking Yes this is what theater should be. Excitement, things to do, promise of intrigue and and story and emotion, beauty and chaos at my fingertips and the agency is my own.  It’s hard to put into words the emotion going through me at the time — the best I can do is say that I felt thrillingly present. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I thought the beginning of the show was boring and, quite frankly, mildly insulting (I don’t need to hear rules. I’m a grown adult). Suddenly, the pretentious 2nd half of the play’s title was no longer an irritable distraction (Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time?? Really???). I was there, I was alive, I was loving every second of it.

It shouldn’t surprise you that my surge of emotions as the show opened up was the highlight of my Fatebook experience. I mean, how much better could you really get than that? But here’s where me breaking the rules comes in to play: although I’d heard repeated warnings not to try and see everything and to pick one character and follow him/her, frankly I was feeling too damn empowered to limit myself like that. Although each character in Fatebook tended to tell their own, mostly-isolated story, interacting primarily with multimedia elements and only occasionally with other actors (making following one actor relatively easy), most of the stories at least vaguely wound into each other, creating the “complex web” (I have a feeling the NPL people would approve of that phrase) that was the whole performance. It was maddening, really, to stick to trudging around after one actor as they walked around the space, constantly passing other actors, projections, audience members and events that always seemed imminently more appealing than your own. So, I didn’t. I half heartedly tried following one actor for about, um, twelve seconds before something “better” caught my eye – I went to follow that. When I noticed something else going on that seemed cool out of the corner of my eye, I tried to “step back” and see everything, a feat that proved, quite obviously, to be impossible. Suddenly, round one of the sequence was over and I was none the wiser about ANYTHING that had happened (I vaguely remember seeing someone sleeping in a bed, someone else walking through a store, and some girls laughing…). Narrator Anita’s face came back to taunt me with my own ignorance. As she predicted, I hadn’t caught everything, I didn’t understand what was going on. Once again, she encouraged me to pick one actor and follow them.

Once again, I ignored her. Because honestly, what did it really matter if I didn’t “understand” what was going on? I felt AWESOME, still riding the incredible emotional  high of that first moment. I wandered at will again, looking at images, people. It suddenly struck me that all these characters’ stories probably intersected in some way, and possibly understanding that would be even cooler than wandering like a jackass. Oh, Round 2 was over. Once again, Narrator Anita was back to encourage me (and the rest of the audience members, ranging from bewhildered to bored to enthralled), to keep chipping away at the story.

By the third round, I was lost. Most of my initial high was gone, and what had originally felt like thrilling artistry now just felt confusing and loud. Tons of people, most audience, some actors, moved around me and I vaguely wondered why I was even bothering to “figure this out”. Not a good thing. For an audience member, apathy is the most dangerous (and possibly only “wrong”) emotion to be feeling. Its a step away from walking out. When I start to feel apathy during a show, I do everything in my power to become compelled again. In this case, I had “done” everything but what they told me to. So, fine. I would do it their way.

So for the last 2/5 of the show, I obeyed all the rules, feeling distinctly less empowered but also distinctly less confused. I chose one character at random to follow, and suddenly a story emerged. Oh, OK – here was a guy, likes  to drink and drive, into this girl, her boyfriend’s in Afghanistan but he’s going for her anyway…etc. Of course, I only got to do this with one other character, and by the time the show was over (the sequence always ends at a party with a mysterious man shooting someone — the end of the show shows, for the first time, who that “someone” was), I was dissatisfied, but really had no one to blame but myself. Of course I didn’t “see everything, know everything, etc” — I spent the first forty minutes of the show arrogantly pacing around like a rebel. I felt like I owed it to myself to go see Fatebook again, but this time to do it right.

And oh, that wasn’t the only way I screwed up Fatebook. The second way I “did the show wrong” was by ignoring one huge component of it. Because Fatebook was about “the intersection of online and real relationships” (or whatever random thing I quoted at the top of this entry), it had a huge online element to it. All of the “characters” lived not only for 90 minutes a night for the two weeks of the performance, but also permanently in cyber space. Each had (has, probably, although I haven’t checked) their own faCebook profile, updated regularly with reactions and responses to the events that lead up to those of the performance. Theoretically, an audience member could have been following these characters for weeks before the show, posting on their walls, reading their updates and really coming to know them before ‘meeting them’ in the flesh on the night of the performance.

Although I was aware of the cyber half of Fatebook, the crazyness of September kept me from exploring this component at all, and my dissatisfaction at the end of the live performance must naturally, I assumed, be from my lack of exploration of such a key element of the show. Resolved to do Fatebook right the next time I went back, I dutifully went home and “friended” all of the characters on facebook. As soon as they friended me back (these poor actors, I found myself thinking…forced to perform in a rigorous schedule but make daily checks of facebook to accept friend requests from strangers), I explored their profiles, read their wall posts, looked at their pictures.

Or at least, I tried. After about 3 half hearted minutes on their pages, however, I found myself giving up. I’m not exactly sure why– maybe it just felt too far removed? These weren’t even my real friends, nor were they real people…they just seemed like pointless, fake profiles. And in wasting my time reading them, I realized I was giving the kind of time to theatrical characters that I just don’t like to give. A play isn’t a book– you don’t ‘get to know’ the characters for the weeks or months it takes you to ‘read’ their story. Here we are again at my favorite thing about theater – it’s the moment, the instant, really, that you experience a performance that makes it most precious to me. It’s there and it’s gone. A flash. With the Fatebook characters online for all to see and explore, they suddenly felt boring and a little stupid. I didn’t feel like I “learned” anything from their pages that helped me understand the show retroactively, or threw into relief an interesting theme or argument presented.

When I went back to see the show, I experienced a similar kind of disappointment. Gone was the incredible rush of empowerment I felt at the top of my first viewing. Instead, I dutifully picked a single character and followed him or her the entire round. Things started ‘connecting’, falling into place in the meta-story, true, but it wasn’t that cool. Not all the stories connected. Not all the characters were compelling. And quite honestly, most of the “connections” felt just plain banal. By the end of my second show, I could honestly say that I understood the characters and events of the play far better than the first time I saw it. But it felt a little like squeezing the juice out of an orange – all I was left with was a dry, pulpy mess. True, I was able to appreciate the stellar physical precision of the actors; the sheer athletic ability (and acting prowess) they demonstrated in being able to repeat a single sequence five times a night for two weeks. It was damn impressive. But over all, I left the second performance with just as bad a taste in my mouth as I had after the first. I felt like I’d stripped away the razzle dazzle of fatebook to reveal…well, nothing more than a mediocre story.

And that’s when I realized it was all my fault. If I thought, after the first show, that I’d “done Fatebook wrong”, I realize now that I was entirely correct. But it wasn’t the way that I approached the first performance that was my error, it was my resolve to “do Fatebook right” that was the biggest failure on my part. Looking back on it now, all Fatebook was really about, for me, was that single feeling of elation that I experienced at the beginning of the first performance — and that’s all it should have been about. To quote, um, myself: “It’s a one time deal: whatever you get out of a show when you see it, that’s what the show means.” And what I got out of Fatebook was everything I attempted to verbalize earlier in this entry: elation, empowerment, thrill. The energizing feeling of agency and freedom that no other show has gifted me quite so beautifully.

What an incredible experience to have, truly. When I think about it now, not only did Fatebook give me all of those things but it gave me something even better, something even more thrilling – the ultimate joyous confirmation of my theatrical philosophy, and who the hell was I to expect anything more than that. Seeing theater is not about doing prep work and following rules, it’s about taking moments and receiving emotion.

It’s funny, because I consider myself an enlightened theater-goer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong with the way I wound up treating Fatebook. And yet, despite my best efforts, I still preserve the memory of that pristine elation I felt when the music started and the audience was released into the space on my first night. It really was perfection. It was everything that theater should be, and it’s everything that pompous intellectuals like me, in our attempts to “understand” and “analyze” and “react appropriately” destroy. So really, at the end of the day, I’m left to realize that in this case, I was the pretentious one.  Me. Moi. Not the second half of Fatebook’s title.

OK, no. I take it back. It’s just a ridiculously pretentious title.

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Operetta at the Wilma Theater (2009 Live Arts Festival)

Well. After a brief respite being a theatrical performer (Preparations for Departure just closed our 7 show run at Power Plant in Old City), I am back to being a plain old theatrical go-er. As with most post-show experiences, I feel both relief and emptiness at the closing of my show, but I christened my newfound freedom (apparently the sun shines…everyday…hard to tell when you’re spending 15-20 hours in a basement for a week straight) with a trip to see Operetta, the landmark work by Witold Gombrowicz, directed by premier Polish theater director and Swarthmore Alum Michal Zadara, performing just a few blocks from my new place at the Wilma Theater.

I went into the show with zero expectations, which can be either a blessing or a curse in the world of unknown theatrical experiences. I tend to think I’m harder to please if I’m not “looking forward” to a particular aspect of a performance, but it also means it’s harder for me to be caught off guard by what a show “winds up” being. In the case of Operetta,  having no expectations was the perfect attitude to have for what wound up being one of the strangest, quirkiest shows I’ve ever seen.

Yep. That's Operetta for you.

Yep. That's Operetta for you.

I know – that’s a big statement. I’ve seen a lot of shows in my time (something I say with neither pride nor shame: just fact. As long as I live, I will spend my money seeing theater – something I accepted about myself about 5 years ago). But despite the abundance of theatrical productions on my audience resume, Operetta was something special. “Something else” as my grandfather used to say. The three act, 3.5 hour production was, (I think), ultimately a scathing, parody-filled satire of all things class relations, picking up themes of appearance, politics, performance, reality, and falsehood along the way. Of course, when I say “I think” that’s what Operetta was about, I really mean it. If you told me Operetta was a three and a half hour allegory about the benefits of eating muffins, I’d probably believe that, too. The show was so ridiculous, so unpredictable, that it had a degree of inaccessibility that was striking even to myself, a self-described theater junkie.

To be fair, I knew nothing of Gombrowicz or the play beforehand. A little study might have helped. But let’s face it: sometimes you want to study, other times you just want to be entertained. Bonus if you learn something along the way. And boy, was Operetta entertaining. Because of its length and scope, it seems a bit ridiculous to attempt to describe a “plot” here. As one friend put it “If I’d gone to the show to figure out what it was about, I would have been disappointed.”

I’m not sure when I quite realized Operetta was always going to elude me. Possibly during the opening number – a sort of muzak-esque elevator ode to a man named “Count Charm” who, entering in a full ski suit (the “upper class”, a prominent feature of Operetta, spent the first act lounging around what could only have been a ritzy ski resort), proceeded to croon about his success with women into a microphone provided by a bevy of overall-ed workers while getting repeatedly injected with drugs by his manservant. Or, I might have realized Operetta was its own special something in the second act, when, with no warning, a full-sized camel corpse was dropped from the ceiling, followed by about 10 gallons of sand. (You think that’s crazy – I spent at least 10 seconds convinced it was a REAL camel corpse. Disturbing). By the time the punk rockers rolled out a wooden coffin in the last act, I was almost nonplussed to see the topless woman burst from it and sing a song about her nudity.

Yep, that was Operetta in a nutshell.

Oh, and there was also the fact that, as a Polish transplant, the entire production was performed in Polish with English supertitles.

Sometimes I think this whole genre, which, to an uneducated theater goer feels a whole lot like “art for art’s sake” or “weirdness for weirdnesses sake”, is just a waste of time. Pretentious doesn’t even begin to describe it for me. (Don’t even get me started on Robert Wilson…) I’m almost surprised, then, by how much I enjoyed Operetta. Despite it’s inaccessibility, I wasn’t frustrated watching it. I was always entertained (I laughed out loud a whole lot more than I normally do watching a theater performance), and at times I was even made to think: there were many brilliant, thoughtful, intellectual moments.

Course, I’m trying to remember one of them right now to use as an example and all I can come up with is the hilarity of the “Professor”, who spent most of the play vomiting on his peers.

Why? No idea. But it was freaking funny, I’ll tell you that much.

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Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

Random musings at 3:14 a.m….never really a good idea, i guess. Unfortunately I’m completely wired: chalk the dearth of recent blog posts up to the opening of my own show: Preparations for Departure, created by Matchbox Theater Company, a 6 person theatrical collaborative formed just a few months ago. It has been a wild, wild, (mostly sleepless) ride, and we are now 3 performances into our 7 performance run.

Anyway, I had a really interesting experience tonight, and it made me think of what I’m doing with TheaterJunkie. Basically, my goal for this blog is to see shows, write about my reactions. Never before have I ever questioned the validity of having real (often negative) reactions to pieces of theater– That is, until today, when, for the first time, I was on the receiving end of one of those pseudo negative reactions.

Preparations for Departure has been nothing but a labor of love. I’ve never been so intimately involved in a show, not even when I wrote my thesis production, Pop Out, at the beginning of my senior year. The 6 of us have been involved in this show in every capacity, as writers, performers, producers, crew, designers, technicians: you name it. (PS – you can follow our progress at http://matchboxtheater.wordpress.com !). Sure, I’ve done theater in college. But never like this. And sure, I’ve received “bad press” in college (a couple of iffy reviews in the school newspaper, gossip, opinions shared in the cafeteria…). But never like this.

Browsing through twitterfest, the Philadelphia LiveArts/Fringe festivals collection of 10 or so tweeters who see fringe shows and write blurbs with their opinions, I came across this doozie:

“Preparations for departure: maybe overresearched. Love to see what those actors could do with something less pageanty.”

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. My first official bad press.

And, let’s put all our cards on the table: it’s really not even that bad. I mean, it sounds like she was into us as actors, at least. No mention of wanting to throw fruit. She didn’t walk out… Regardless, though, when I read this little blurb, my jaw dropped and my stomach sunk: a rush like I haven’t gotten since I rode my last rollercoaster during our Senior Week trip to six flags. I a little bit wanted to vomit, and I a little bit want to find this elusive tweeter and punch her in the face. What the fuck does she know?

However, I keep telling myself this is just an instinctive reaction. It’s ridiculous for me to be blowing up like this. For so many reasons. Just a few of them are:

1) Two months ago, I started a BLOG whose sole purpose was to critique theater. And I’ve done way worse than “overresearched” and “pageanty”.
2) I am completely and absolutely positive that the bulk of the people who see my work do not react to it as favorably as I would like. It’s insanity to assume that mystery tweeter was the first person ever to have a not-glowing opinion about something I created. So, what: just because hers is out in the open I’m going to have a conniption fit?
3) Theater=reviews. One cannot exist without the other. Every brilliant theater maker in the WORLD has had to deal with bad, lukewarm, horrible, you-name-it reviews.
4) Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

So sitting here at my computer, just twenty minutes ago, I attempted to reason with myself. Calm down, Bear, I said: not a big deal. Happens all the time. Look at you, in the big leagues now: a twitter review. 150 characters or less: you know it’s legit. Don’t let it get to you.

But then, it all came rushing back to me: the sleepless nights as we worked beyond the limits of our capacities preparing our set. My hundreds of pages and hours of writing. The tears shed in frustration. The financial hit that we’re all taking to make this production. The essentially three months of my life that I have committed, heart and soul to a project that, unavoidably, I have come to love like a family member. The image of the six of us, everyone in tears, holding hands before our first performance, unable to do more than just look each other in the eye, amazed by our own dedication to something so delicate and beautiful.

So whatever. My delicate and beautiful is someone else’s overresearched and pageanty. Life is about opinions. Hopefully there’s at least someone who found what we found in it. I’ll move on. Grow a thicker skin. Learn to really appreciate the compliments, and separate the fakeness from the sincerity.

But regardless, it felt important to post this. Because before I rush back into the crowd of critics, I want to send a shout out to anyone who’s ever made themselves vulnerable and shared their art with a crowd of strangers. Because that is love, no matter what people’s opinions on it. And as I go forth and continue to hypocritically blog about my own insignificant opinions re: other people’s work, I’m going to do it with a little more care than before. Because really: anyone can be a critic. It takes a whole lot more to be an artist.

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THYESTES at the Arcola Theater

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Family love with Caryl Churchill

And now, for a breath of fresh air, another Greek play as done by the Brits. Interesting that Greek theater is neither my personal forte, nor is it something I find particularly compelling or accessible, and so far it dominates 100% of my blog posts. My apologies, but at the end of the day, the one theatrical rule that I ALWAYS live by is that if something has Caryl Churchill’s name attached to it, I will do everything in my power to experience it. Even if that means dragging my confused American self halfway across London on the day of a massive tube strike. Even if that means having to sit through 75 minutes of one of the most disturbing spectacles I’ve ever seen. Even if that means having to convince my mother that going with me to watch one [admittedly disturbed] man kill his nephews and feed their corpses to his unsuspecting brother is, indeed, worth her time. Because let’s face it: I’m a HUGE Caryl Churchill fan.

I can’t remember when I read my first Caryl Churchill play, but it has to have been Top Girls. Churchill is everything I aspire to be as a playwright: funny, concise, ruthless, accessible, urgent and relevant. I have the ultimate school girl crush on her, and believe without question that everything she touches turns to gold. I’ll admit that part of my secret desire to see Thyestes was the insane hope that I’d see her in the audience: didn’t happen. (That’s OK, though…because really, what would I have done? “Hi, Mrs. Churchill, just wanted to let you know that I worship the ground you walk on. Will you let me touch you?” – I’ve never been good at impromptu meetings with my idols.)

Churchill’s connection to this production of Thyestes was as translator/adaptor. My mom and I spent the first hour or so of our recent trip to London scanning some City Cultural Magazine which lists all theatrical productions currently playing. On a whim, I checked to see if there were any Churchill plays running, and was delighted to discover this one. Had I heard of the Arcola theater? No. Had I ever read/heard of Thyestes? No. Had I heard of Seneca? Well…I’d heard the name…once… Did any of this matter? No. If it was Caryl Churchill, I was going to go see it.

The Arcola theater oozed that particularly pretentious brand of hipster charm, tucked away in a completely un-touristy neighborhood of London and populated by artists and artistic-types who try really hard to look like they’re not trying too hard. (OK, that might have been a little harsh. One of these days I’m just going to have to suck it up and christen myself a hipster artist along with the rest of them…) The performance was devistatingly empty – I don’t think there could have been more of 20 of us in the audience, but it was a small space so the undercrowding of the house made less of an impact. I might describe my proximity to the performance space as “chillingly intimate”. Set up like an old, dark, wet, grimy warehouse storeroom, the set was inhabited with equal discomfort by unhappy gods or the unhappy damned that they tormented throughout the piece.

Here’s your barebones version of the story before I continue: The House of Atreus is hella-cursed. Grandpa Tantalus is living in hell being tormented by Hades, but he’s taken out of his torment for a minute by some fury/demon/god thing who wants to remind him that the rest of his issue are going to be as cursed and unhappy as him. Terrific. Meanwhile, his grandson Atreus is extremely pissed at his twin brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and potentially stealing his kingdom. I wish I could tell you Atreus is “cut-Thyestes-out-of-the-will” or “don’t-send-Thyestes-a-Christmas-card-this-year” pissed, but that just doesn’t make good Greek drama. Instead, Atreus is “secretly-trick-brother-into-coming-for-a-visit-then-when-he’s-not-paying-attention-steal-his-sons-kill-them-and-feed-them-to-Thyestes” pissed. Tragedy ensues.

If you can imagine, this play was even more disturbing than it’s description. The technical elements were immaculately executed – lights flickered and images that I could have SWORN were really happening became video projections right before my eyes. As the messenger, terrifically performed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, comes on to tell the chorus how Atreus has killed his young nephews,  the space seems to react with as much anger and horror as the chorus himself. The lights cut out, leaving a terrified Chorus to cry in the dark. Several television screens, stacked arbitrarily  in a corner of the space and seemingly non-functional suddenly illuminate to black and white static. As the messenger continues to talk, the black and white static changes to blood red, and begins to literally drip OFF OF the screen to the floor below. (How did they do it? I’ve decided after weeks of speculation that most likely there was something projecting static ONTO the screens from above that could easily extend a projected image away from the screen. At the time, however, it was a terrifying visual mind fuck.)

To my delight, Caryl Churchill’s imprint was all over this production. The prose was perfectly translated with her blunt, curt slices, and I could easily hear her voice through Atreus’ demented fascination with revenge and Thyestes’ explosive horror and shock at his brother’s actions. I often feel, after reading a Caryl Churchill play, that I’ve been slapped in the face a bit by her passion, focus, and ruthlessness. And seeing Thyestes felt like far more than a slap. It was like a verbal beat down by the sickest depths of human detriment. Am I glad I saw the play? Absolutely. It was an immersive journey into a darkness I only want to visit in the theater. Unlike Phedre, Thyestes didn’t demand pity for its characters. It expected you to be as repulsed by them as they are by themselves. “Oh, you’re here to watch us?” they seem to ask as the play begins, “Well, your choice. Good luck with that.”

The good news? Thyestes ran a short 75 minutes. I don’t think any of us in the audience could have handled more.

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PHEDRE at the National Theater

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I recently had the great privilege to be in London for a few days, and when I heard that Helen Mirren (excuse me, *Dame* Helen Mirren) would be starring in a production of Phedre (the Ted Hughes translation, no less!) at the National Theater, it was with great hope (and very little expectations) that I attempted to score a ticket. Well, what are the chances that there were TWO returned tickets in the SAME row for the sold-out press night performance available at the box office at the moment my mom and I inquired about availability? Sometimes I think the universe aligns itself with perfect magic.

As I waited for the show to begin, looking at my four-pound program (cost, not weight – they CHARGE for programs in London!! wtf?), a man sat down heavily next to me. “You just got that ticket, didn’t you?” he asked. “Um…yeah,” I said, not quite sure where this was going. “I know,” he replied, “I just returned it an hour ago.” Everything about his tone implied I was RIDICULOUSLY lucky to have gotten his returned ticket, and he considered me a poor substitute for whatever companion of his was originally supposed to have the seat to his right. I would have said something back, but I couldn’t think of the right way to phrase it (“oh, did your wife/boyfriend/daughter/mate get sick or something? well that was just terrific for me, huh?”), and to be honest, he was completely right. I was ridiculously lucky to get a ticket, and I’m sure I’m a completely annoying theater companion to have. When I’m excited about the show, I don’t just watch the performance, I tend to watch the reactions of the people around me (it’s quite creepy, I imagine). I have no scruples “shh”-ing my neighbors if they’re being dicks and talking during the performance (WHO DOES THAT??! sorry…personal pet peeve), I watch a show with what must seem like bizarre focus, and I suspect (although I’ve yet to personally notice), that I’m a Loud Breather.

Anyway, nothing was different in my experience watching The National’s Phedre, which, although strikingly simplistic, offered plenty to observe. At the top of the show the stage was blocked by a “Safety Curtain” (called that even though it was clearly more “wall” than “curtain”). As the house lights dimmed (I still get goosebumps thinking about it), the “curtain” opened like a camera lens to reveal one of the most chillingly enchanting stage pictures that’s ever greeted me at the top of a show. The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is as much of a character in the production as any of the people who inhabit it – depicting a sort of hallway/balcony of Theseus’ castle emerging “naturally” from what must be a huge mass of fiercely orange rock, set against a stunning blue sky. Because this balcony is partially covered by the rock (producing an indoor/outdoor feel), lighting designer Paule Constable was able to work beautifully with shadows. Although one has the impression that Theseus’ kingdom is bathed in bright, hot, golden light, most of the characters spend the play in the decidedly darker (visually and thematically) shadowed world of this balcony.

The Gods, evoked so precisely in Hughes’ translation (they’re both there and not – constantly present in the conscience and consciousness of the characters but never “seen”; and conspicuously absent as Phedre spirals out of control) are both present and absent in this set as well. The sheer majesty of the space is enough to make one believe in the Gods of this world, but the openness and loneliness of the barren set (I can remember one, maybe two insignificant metal chairs) feels as empty and unfulfilled as so many of Racine’s characters when they fruitlessly call on the Gods for help.

If I’m spending a lot of time trying to evoke the visual impact of the stage picture at the top of the show it’s because…well…for me it was by far the best moment. It seems dismal to say it “all went downhill from there” but it kind of did. That’s not to say the show wasn’t stunning – it was – but the task placed on these actors – to fill this incredible space – was near impossible. Which is not, of course, to say that they didn’t do their darndest. It was extremely interesting for me to read the London reviews of Phedre after opening night, and, subsequently, read the New York reviews after a special filmed performance was presented in NYC last week. The Londoners were generally cruel, dissing Mirren as well as the rest of the cast, but placing most of the blame on director Nicholas Hytner (Artistic Director at the National). One reviewer even made the brassy call for Hytner’s resignation as a result of his direction. Mirren’s “restraint” was condemned, and actors were deemed “bloodless”. On the other hand, the NYTimes review of the filmed production had enough ass-kissing gushiness in it to even make me (who love love LOVES Mirren) squirm a bit. Her “majestic theatricality” was practically worshipped, as well as her veteran status and the overall production’s incredible theatrical impact.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree a bit more with the Brits than the New Yorkers. Phedre is one of the most complicated, fascinating and heartbreaking female characters in all of drama, and at times it seemed (to my horror),  like Mirren was encouraging us to laugh along with her at Phedre’s utter feminine ridiculousness. You know all of those horrible stereotypes about jealous women? It felt like Mirren’s Phedre was saying “Yeah guys, that’s me! It’s OK to laugh.” For those of you not familiar with the plot, I’ll give the bare bones version: First performed in 1677, written by the French Dramatist Jean Racine. Phedre’s husband Theseus, the King, has been missing for a while. Meanwhile, she’s desperately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus (awkward…), and doesn’t know what to do about it. She’s tried being a jerk to him (didn’t work), and sending him away (didn’t work), so now, with her husband missing and questions of succession coming up, she tries just telling him how she feels. Now, it’s a tragedy, so can you guess how that strategy works out? Correct – it doesn’t work.

What the New York Times called “majestic theatricality”, I’m inclined to call surface-level mockery, at least at its worst points. At one particularly awful moment, Phedre discovers that Hippolytus is secretly in love with Aricia, a prisoner-of-war living at the palace. First Mirren looks forlornly into the distance, then turns her back on the audience, and a moment later doubles around, literally snarling “Aricia must die!”. Around me, the audience burst into laughter, while I cringed. I’m really awkward about laughter during performances when it doesn’t come at moments where I’m convinced it should (like, say, in a comedy), and this moment, which as written has so much potential for heartbreaking patheticness, became instead a grotesque caricature of every misogynist’s idea of the “jealous woman”.

That’s not to say, of course, that Ms. Mirren is not a spectacular actress. She is. I saw it at several moments throughout the performance, most notably during her death (whoops! gave away the ending. but come on…you had to guess it), which was utterly poignant, painful, and agonizing. Crawling onto the stage, Phedre collapsed in a heap with as little dignity as her servant Oenone, who threw herself off a cliff an act earlier (one British reviewer implied the actress might as well actually have done so. Ouch). Only at this moment (granted, five minutes before the show ended), did I truly feel the impact of the force that is Helen Mirren onstage.

[The rest of the cast was good, too, but let’s face it, any production of Phedre is all about Phedre. A ridiculously petty point that I must nonetheless mention: Dominic Cooper (playing dream-boy Hippolytus) is hot. Like, H-A-W-T hawt. I had seen him a few years back in The History Boys on b-way and was generally unimpressed, but in this incarnation, wearing a black wifebeater and camo pants, he was sizzling. I realize it’s petty to judge someone based on their appearance rather than their performance (um…I think that was good, too…didn’t really notice…) but if you can’t do it with Hyppolytus (the male equivalent of a pin-up girl, as far as I’m concerned), who can you do it with? Let’s put it this way: I TOTES understood where Phedre was coming from.]

Overall, it was a night I would not have missed, and although the performance was curiously disappointing in some ways, the fact of the matter is: reliving the visual impression of that first stage picture still gives me goosebumps. I’d say that’s a good thing…

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Introduction: Hi!

Although I like my TV bad (as in, “Food Network Caters Your Wedding”/”True Life: I hate my big boobs”/”Groomer Has It” bad), I like my theater GOOD. As in, change-your-life kind of good. As our entertainment options get more and more easily, “pre-packaged” accessible, I’ll admit that it requires substantially more “effort” to get off one’s butt to spend the time and money required to see live theater. And yet some of us manage to do it.

My hope is that this blog encourages me to continue my life long quest to continually seek out and see new and exciting theatrical projects. True, I don’t need too much encouragement, but the fact remains that it’s a whole lot easier to see shows when a) they’re consistently offered to you for free and within a 5 minute walk of where you live (the case when I was in college) or b) you’re studying abroad in Avignon, France, in the midst of the largest theater festival in the world (the case when, well, I was studying abroad in Avignon, France). This blog, then, is not only an opportunity for me to share my (admittedly) subjective opinions with my (hopefully) faithful readership, it’s also a theater watching contract with myself.

Before I continue, I must of course concede the innate hypocrisy of this blog. When I read a New York Times Review and find that my opinion agrees perfectly with Mr. Brantley’s, I tend to get pretty smug. However, if I find that my opinion differs from the reviewers, I am instantly filled with at least some level of nauseatingly pretentious superiority. Who am I to receive my opinions from some self-designated “expert”? My opinions are my own, thank you very much! (I really am a snob). So for me to blog about shows I’ve seen and offer my opinions to you seems…well…kinda like a dick move. I will take this moment to establish, then, that I offer my opinions not to supplant your own, but merely as the reflections of someone who really – REALLY – loves theater and just can’t keep it to herself. One of my favorite things about theater is that everyone’s experience is his or her own – there is no such thing as an “objective” review of a performance. That I believe.

Thus, I unapologetically present to you then my *extremely* subjective opinions. I’ll try to blog every time I’ve seen something new, and I’ll try to keep this project up. My hope is that you share with me (as comments!) your own reflections and reactions – to the shows, to my thoughts, to whatever.

Love,

Jessie

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