30 November 2013

Kids on the Broadway Boards

Meet Kid Actors From Cat, Annie, Matilda, Drood, and Newsies
By Michael Gioia

With nearly half of Broadway shows currently on the boards populated with children under the age of 18, we sit down with a few of them to talk about what it’s like growing up on stage.

“I never remember deciding that I wanted to be an actor,” explains an 11-year-old Victoria Leigh from her dressing room at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre. “It kind of just happened.”

While her classmates at New York City’s Professional Performing Arts School were preparing for the school play, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Leigh was busy preparing for her Broadway debut as Dixie in the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. The young actress had to back out of the school play to begin rehearsals for Broadway.

Sacrificing extra-curricular activities and time for friends can play a part in an actor’s life when he or she is bound for Broadway at a young age. Jaidyn Young, the 11-year-old swing of this season’s Annie, temporarily gave up life on the West Coast for her Broadway dreams. “I sang all the Broadway songs, and I knew all the Broadway shows, but I never [thought], ‘Someday that’s going to be me,’” says Young, who moved with her mother to Manhattan for the show while her father and older sister stayed in California.

Although friends and family are hours away, nothing beats belting out the iconic Annie anthems on the Palace Theatre’s stage for thousands of New York City theatregoers. “It was very surreal,” says Young—smiling ear to ear—about making her Broadway debut. “In the bed, when we get pushed out [onto the stage], the girl who plays July was squeezing my hand so hard, I thought I was going to lose blood! Everyone was so excited for me.”

Exciting is how ten-year-old Newsies actor Jake Lucas describes his first night “Carrying the Banner” on Broadway. “It’s really, really fun being on stage and dancing with a lot of really incredible dancers—doing all their flips and turns in front of me,” says Lucas, who plays the youngest newsboy of the bunch, Les. “It’s really, really cool!”

Like Lucas, Matilda the Musical’s Jack Broderick and The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s Nicholas Barasch relish the fact that they’re sharing the stage with such talents. Broderick, who will turn 13 by the time Matilda begins previews March 4, starred as the narrator in the 2012 Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods. “It was fun,” he says, “because we had Amy Adams and Donna Murphy and Denis O’Hare, and they were really nice and welcoming.” On the other hand, Barasch, 14, admitted that he was “so nervous, especially when Chita [Rivera] walked in” on his first day of rehearsal for Edwin Drood. With greatness, however, comes great responsibility, and all five actors dish about balancing school and social lives while starring on the Great White Way. “I mean, it gets to be stressful, but you just breathe deep,” explains Broderick during a rehearsal for Matilda. A typical rehearsal for the child ensemble of the new musical consists of “school” in the morning and learning material for the show in the afternoon.

As per Actors’ Equity Association guidelines, child performers who haven’t finished high school must be provided with an accredited tutor from the production’s point of origin until one week after opening night. This applies to original cast members of Broadway shows, tours, or out-of-town tryouts.

After opening, some actors continue to be home-schooled, some return to public school, and some take part in independent studies. “I used to be in a public school when I [performed] at the Met Opera,” says Newsies’ Lucas, “and they didn’t really like me going to rehearsals all of the time, so my dad and I sat down, and we created a spreadsheet—how much time we’re spending at school—and we realized that home-schooling was a better option.”

For Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’s Leigh, being around her peers far outweighs the hectic hours of late-night shows and early-morning school days. “I went to school on Tuesday,” she says, “and I thought, ‘People my age! They exist!’”

Barasch, who plays the Deputy in the acclaimed, and extended, revival of Edwin Drood—and who has yet to begin high school—says, “I will probably go to high school in March when [the show] ends. I would definitely say I’m uneasy because everyone has already settled into the school, and I’m the newcomer. I’m sure the first week is going to be terrifying, but after that I’m sure it will be fine.”

“I do an independent study through my school district in California,” explains Annie’s Young, “so I still can do all of the homework that my friends are doing, which is cool because if I’m stuck on something I can ask them.”

Speaking of school, earnings from the actors’ Broadway careers can provide a nice foundation for a college education. New York state law requires 15 percent of a child’s gross earnings to be placed in a trust fund that can be accessed in his or her adult life.

For now, though, soaking up life on Broadway—the Mecca of theatre and stomping ground of legendary performers—is the only thing on their minds: Thunderous applause. Standing ovations. Signing autographs. Television appearances. Award ceremonies.

“For right now, I love being an actor,” says Barasch. “I still can’t believe it. Every day I think, ‘What am I doing?!’”

[This feature appeared in the February 2013 issue of Playbill.  Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia’s work also appears in the news, feature, and video sections of Playbill.com.]

*  *  *  *
by Alastair Macaulay

Bit by bit, to marvelous effect, the choreography of the Broadway musical “Matilda” becomes central to the whole production. Most of its characters are caricatures. Their movement takes that caricaturish quality and makes it vivid in terms of rhythm, gesture and formal dance steps.

During Act I Matilda’s ghastly mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita), turns “Loud,” the song in which she announces how to deal with life, into a big flashy rumba with her dance teacher, Rudolpho. Soon a wall lifts, two other rumba couples strut their stuff, and four chorines at the back are acting as judges. Rumba is a dance form that’s been wrecked by competitive dance; all that’s left is acrobatic brashness. But that’s perfect for “Loud.”

Although I’ve seen four other Broadway musicals recently, none was half so memorable in any way. “Matilda,” at the Shubert Theater, is a leading contender for the Tony Award for best choreography, to be awarded in Sunday night’s ceremony. Other contenders are “Bring It On,” now closed, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; “Kinky Boots,” choreographed by Jerry Mitchell; and “Pippin,” choreographed by Chet Walker.

The “Matilda” choreography is by Peter Darling, whose other credits include “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Sometimes he gives single dance steps to characters — and the steps transfigure them. Bertie Carvel’s performance as the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is altogether amazing, but early on in “The Hammer” he points a leg behind him in arabesque and then briefly takes flight, both legs outstretched in grand jeté. It’s so daft and so perfect to find this gorgon releasing her energies in these little balletic touches that we see whole new facets of her.

The body language of Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), likewise stays in the memory. He’s what we Britons call a spiv, a dandified minor crook, and his knees seem to stay perpetually bent, often grotesquely so.

Most of the movement in “Matilda” is carried by the children, who are tiny and wonderful; it’s with them that we’re most repeatedly aware of choreography. With rhythmic movement, more than sheer dance, they indicate their frustration, rebelliousness and hope. As they move around their classroom — sitting on desks, stomping, folding their arms — the angry pulse that accumulates is terrific.

There’s plenty of movement in “Pippin” (Music Box Theater) — the central device of Diane Paulus’s staging is that the story is told in circus terms — but Mr. Walker’s choreography, in the Bob Fosse tradition, makes even the motions of warfare horridly sexed-up. Only with Andrea Martin, as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, does the use of trapezes and acrobatics become entrancing, funny and breathtaking.

In one dance during the ballroom scene of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (Broadway Theater), Santino Fontana, as the Prince, lifts Laura Osnes’s Cinderella in a way that seems physically impossible: at the matinee I attended, it looked as if he was supporting her upside down at the end of one extended arm. If I went back, that’s the moment I’d like to check out; but otherwise Josh Rhodes’s choreography is efficient without being memorable.

And the dances in “Kinky Boots” (Al Hirschfeld Theater) aren’t as striking as their subject matter — drag queens wearing flashy footwear — deserves. Mr. Mitchell both directs and choreographs; the dances are lively, enjoyable, but without any striking detail. Still, one simple movement is haunting: the hilarious way Annaleigh Ashford, as the factory worker Lauren, puts her head to one side while opening up to the audience about her crush on her boss. She has no clue whether she stands a chance with him; she hardly knows what this new emotion is; and this funny, pensive, near-defeatist twist of the neck wins everybody’s heart.

For sheer dancing, “Motown: The Musical” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater) is better than all of these. The problem here is that the show, which tells the story of Motown Records, doesn’t release the full potential of any song. But from the first, the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams shows that Motown is full of dance energy: you see steps, rhythms, phrases from overlapping groups and from individuals. Their dances make the hits all the more infectious.

These shows demonstrate the wide variety of what Broadway choreography can include: people doing social-dance steps to popular music, a drag headmistress quickly doing a formal jump, a girl tipping her head while finding she’s falling in love, a grandmother swinging upside down from a trapeze, a prince supporting the heroine on one hand in a ballroom number. I never envy the Tony judges here.

As a Briton going to shows on Broadway, may I add what a fun surprise it is to hear, in two different productions, the British glottal stop? Lauren in “Kinky Boots” speaks of going to “I’aly”; and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda” says “Bu’ I’ve go’ a baby.” In Britain the glottal stop is never heard in polite society. In America, however, it’s an exotic thrill.

[Alastair Macauley is a dance critic for the New York Times.  This article originally appeared in section C (“The Arts”) of the New York Times on 8 June 2013.]


25 November 2013

Making Broadway Babies

[Over the past few years I’ve collected several articles, all from Allegro, that report on programs for children interested in musical theater.  (Allegro is the member magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents, among other instrumental artists, the musicians who play in theater pit orchestras.)  As regular readers of ROT know, theater education (as well as the arts in schools) is one of my most cherished causes; I have published articles, both by my own hand and borrowed from others, on this topic on this blog many times (see, for example, “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009)—and I’ll likely continue to do so as long at I put out ROT.  Obviously I encourage readers to support these efforts or those like them—and there are similar programs for theater, both musical and non-musical, in locales all over the country, some aimed at young artists and other at young audiences—but as far as ROT is concerned for now, it’s enough to learn about them and hear what they’re up to.  So, in that light, here’s a collection of articles about teaching kids to become Broadway Babies.  ~Rick]

by Bettina Covo
How do we build an appetite for live musical theatre? That's easy: teach the children

The good old summertime: economies sinking, governments defaulting, prices rising, job markets shrinking, orchestras struggling, sweltering heat – and this year, an earthquake and a hurricane! Perhaps it was a summer many of us would prefer to forget.

But for eight lucky kids, it was a summer they will always remember. They got to spend one glorious week in August at Broadway Boot Camp, hosted this year by Local 802.

The camp is a yearly summer program presented by Inside Broadway, the professional New York City-based children’s theatre company.

For five wonderful days, these children got to experience, first-hand, what it takes to put together a Broadway-style showcase.

Under the creative tutelage of program director Katie McAllister and teaching artist Abigail Jones, the kids – ranging in age from 10 to 15 – each learned a new Broadway song that challenged their vocal abilities, a monologue that taught them the subtleties of comedy, and a rather complicated group dance number they had to learn in just two hours. It was an intensive marathon of song, dance and drama.

Local 802 was proud and pleased to host the program. Michael Presser, executive director of Inside Broadway, had approached the union to see if we might donate our facilities three hours each day, culminating in a final show in the Club Room for a small audience of friends and family.

The officers and Executive Board members gave a unanimous thumbs-up to the request, which provided the kids a unique opportunity to rehearse and perform in the heart of the Theatre District.

Acting as liaison between 802 and the Inside Broadway team, I sat in on their last day of rehearsal in Room B. As I spoke to the group, I found myself talking about 802 and the challenges facing musicians on Broadway and how it’s all about "keeping it live." The kids told me how thrilled they were to be at 802 where they had the chance to sneak into the Club Room each day to hear different bands rehearsing and watch professional musicians in action. Their response was a resounding: "It was awesome!"

The campers’ final performance was attended by President Tino Gagliardi and Recording Vice President John O’Connor. Tino gave some fantastic opening remarks. The show was great and the kids had a blast.

Of equal significance was the fact that 35 proud friends and family members enjoyed the fruits of their labors while they sat in the union’s Club Room for the first time. They heard our president speak about live performance and the importance of the union to music and musicians. They witnessed their children’s accomplishments and were deeply appreciative that 802 gave these kids the opportunity to be part of a professional musical organization.

As chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee, it was particularly rewarding for me to see Local 802 host Broadway Boot Camp. Six of the eight participating children play an instrument and are part of a school band or orchestra. These are our future members, and now they can say that they’ve performed live theatre with a live pianist in the Local 802 building, the home of live music.

Hopefully, we can host next year’s camp and continue to educate children and their families about the importance of live music, while helping the folks at Inside Broadway teach and nurture the talents of these kids.

More importantly, it is my hope that we will continue to pass down the great tradition of musical theater and enable children to have fun and bask in the pure joy of live performance.

Now, I’d say that was a great summer!

[Bettina Covo is a songwriter, composer, and singer, and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board and the chair of the union’s Education Subcommittee. This and the following story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Allegro (volume 111, number 10).

[Broadway Boot Camp is a program for young people from Inside Broadway, a children’s theater company based in New York City which dedicates itself to the musical theater.  Inside Broadway (http://insidebroadway.org) has many other programs, including some directed at older theatergoers and some that run in schools.]
*  *  *  * 
by B. J. Gandolfo

Live music was an essential ingredient of Broadway Boot Camp. Local 802 member B.J. Gandolfo volunteered her time to play piano for the kids. She rehearsed and coached them in their songs and then accompanied them in the Friday showcase. She told Allegro why she said yes to this job.

When program director Katie McAllister asked me to come in and accompany their boot camp, working with her and Abigail Jones, I was very happy to do it.

As teaching artists, Katie and Abby not only know how to teach these kids all the aspects of being singing-and-dancing performers but they also make it fun and exciting.

This year, the students had some challenging songs to prepare. Some had key changes, tempo changes, or stretched their vocal ranges, but all the students worked hard on their music. With only a week to learn their songs, monologues and choreography, they did really well when it came time to perform them.

All of this was able to happen because Local 802 donated the space – for an entire week – in which the kids rehearsed and performed.

I am grateful to 802 for making that possible. I know it has made a difference to these young performers who will one day be facing the fights we face now. They will always value the summer when they performed with a live piano on the stage at Local 802.

[B. J. Gandolfo, a pianist, is a teaching artist with Inside Broadway and a member of Local 802.] 

*  *  *  *
by Bettina Covo

Kids get a taste of the magic of Broadway, thanks to innovative program

When kids get to hear live music, something magical happens. Twice a year, Inside Broadway brings children from various New York public schools to a Broadway production where they are given a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of a Broadway show. The program is called “Creating the Magic,” and I recently had the great pleasure of attending the latest production.

Inside Broadway is a not-for-profit organization whose self-stated mission is to “pass down the rich legacy of America’s musical theatre to future generations so that the magic, music, and universal themes of the genre are not lost, but rediscovered and made relevant for today’s youth.” Creating the Magic is one of the many Inside Broadway programs designed to educate schoolchildren about the importance and marvel of live performance on the Great White Way. Executive Director Michael Presser acts as the M.C. for the shows, which are produced by Nick Sala, associate producer and company manager.

The show chosen for this event was the current revival of “Annie” at the Palace Theatre. The show appeals to kids of all ages, with larger-than-life characters and classic songs like “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”

Close to 3,000 children from 25 public schools filled the theatre for both morning and afternoon shows. The excitement was palpable. When Michael Presser came out on stage to introduce the production, the roar of applause was deafening. But once the kids settled down, they were glued to their seats with rapt attention as they watched each demonstration and musical number.

The presentation was a seamless, tightly-produced 75 minutes of performances and fun-filled information that began with a brief history of the Palace Theatre. Throughout the show, representatives of the various Broadway unions were invited on stage to speak to the kids about their particular relationship to the show’s production. Presser, as well as the entire staff at Inside Broadway, are staunch union supporters. It is an important component of all their presentations – educating the next generation of children about the role of the theatrical unions, which help create the magic of live theatre.

Local 802 was proudly represented by Recording Vice President John O’Connor, who spoke at the morning show, and Financial Vice President Tom Olcott at the afternoon performance. Each addressed the audience about the importance of Local 802 and keeping the music live, as well as the wonderful efforts of Inside Broadway. They were perfect ambassadors for Local 802.

Cast members Ashley Blanchet (Lily), Jeremy Davis (Rooster), Merwin Foard (Daddy Warbucks), Liz McCartney (Miss Hannigan), Taylor Richardson (Annie) – plus “Sandy,” played by Mickey, a ten-year-old rescue dog – performed four numbers from the show. Michael Presser interviewed the actors (and of course the dog trainer, Dustin Harder) about their theatre backgrounds, allowing the audience an intimate glimpse into the lives of these thespians. At the end of the show, the kids asked questions directly to the actors, musicians and technicians – a priceless opportunity.

Peter Lawrence, the show’s production supervisor, demonstrated the innovative technology behind the sets and lighting as well as the sound and props. It was quite fascinating.

For both programs, the regular orchestra of 17 musicians was pared down to a rhythm section of Aaron Jodoin (piano), Dave Kuhn (bass) and Eric Poland (drums). The band was led by Associate Conductor Joey Chancey, who came on stage and addressed the kids directly. This was something that had been done only once before in the history of these programs, and it was much appreciated. It was refreshing to see the otherwise unknown and unseen conductor of a Broadway pit up on stage sharing the spotlight with the actors.

Chancey introduced the band as each musician played a few bars on their instrument. He then spoke briefly about the important role of the music director and described the missing orchestra instrument by instrument. It was short, to-the-point and informative and Chancey said he was thrilled to contribute to the event. “It was so exciting to be a part of what I know will be such a profound experience in so many kids’ lives,” he told Allegro.

The Creating the Magic events allow these children a rare opportunity to learn about the complexity of producing a Broadway show from the people who create it night after night. For many of these kids, this is their first time in a Broadway theatre. That alone is a powerful experience.

Michael Presser and the creative staff of Inside Broadway work hard to ensure the children have an enjoyable as well as educational experience where they learn about the organic process of live theatre. Like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy courageously reveals the man behind the curtain, these children learn that Broadway is about individual people – with their union behind them – working together to create the magic.

[This article appeared in Allegro in June 2013 (volume 113, number 6).]

*  *  *  *
by Bettina Covo

Kids learn the magic of live music at a summer theatre camp

Kids whose dream is to perform on Broadway have their own special camp every summer. Since 2010, Local 802 has hosted Inside Broadway’s Broadway Boot Camp. This year, the week-long camp – provided free of charge to the participants – arrived with some exciting changes for the attendees as this wonderful summer program develops and expands.

Executive Director Michael Presser and Program Director Katie McAllister have dreamed up a new name for the camp: Summer Stock Jr. Along with the new brand came some interesting changes in the program’s format.

Unlike earlier summers where each child would perform a solo song and monologue, this year students performed a half-hour show complete with five big production numbers that involved the entire cast.

The theme was melodrama. “Everything Old is New Again” – written, directed and choreographed by Inside Broadway’s teaching artist, Abigail Jones – included some tried and true melodramatic characters: the evil villain and her two cohorts who conspire to take over the town; the absent-minded “grandpa” who lives in the bygone days of vaudeville; the young hero and heroine who save the day; the double agent who infiltrates the show as an informant for the evil mayor; the frustrated director and choreographer who despite all odds, manage to pull off the show; the town diva; and, last but not least, the narrator of the entire show, replete with cue cards (boo, applause, etc.) to insure exuberant audience participation – of which there was plenty.

The student actors had their work cut out for them. The show involved extensive character work, singing, dancing, movement, improv and – in true melodramatic style – a lot of mugging for the audience. The entire show – including the five production numbers – had to be learned and perfected in the four short days leading up to Friday’s performance for family and friends in the Local 802 Club Room.

This year, I had the opportunity to witness the daily progress of the show (and participate as the audience, providing those crucial “boos” when prompted). It was fascinating to watch Katie and Abigail work with the students, critiquing and encouraging their talents, all while trying to create a cohesive show under very stringent time constraints.

For the first three days of Summer Stock Jr., students practiced their musical numbers to pre-recorded tracks. Then, the magic of live music arrived on Thursday when Local 802 member and pianist BJ Gandolfo arrived on the scene to play for the dress rehersal. Acting as musical director, BJ worked with the children, addressing individual vocal issues and pitch problems as well as the overall shape and quality of the musical numbers. After that, Abigail ran the entire show for the first time with BJ playing live.

The difference with live music was startling. It felt like someone turned the lights on. The kids came alive. Hesitant acting became boldly melodramatic. The dancing kicked. The songs popped. Melodrama abounded! Abigail had the freedom to change tempos and alter aspects of the show that were impossible to do using tracks. Everything flowed and moved. This could only happen with live music.

Ultimately, all the hard work and practice paid off. The show was wonderful. From start to finish, the students were visibly comfortable on stage hamming it up as BJ added just the right amount of comedic underscoring. The appropriate “boos” and “hurrays” – courtesy of our narrator – filled the club room as the actors successfully engaged the audience.

I spoke with two of the students about their camp experience. Melissa Fishman, 13, who played one of the villainous cohorts, has returned to the Inside Broadway summer camp for three consecutive years. Melissa plays the flute, piccolo, clarinet and saxophone. She excitedly told me, “I want to become a professional musician and join Local 802 as soon as I can.” Summer Stock Jr. has had a profound effect on Melissa, particularly being at Local 802. As she put it: “I want to teach the next generation of musicians all about the importance of live music.”

Ryan O’Connor, who played the role of narrator, is another 13 year-old returnee to Inside Broadway’s summer camp. Whether it’s performing on stage or working as a stage manager back stage, Ryan is interested in a career in the theatre. Ryan confessed to me, “After doing Summer Stock Jr., I am more confident. Performing in front of an audience is still scary, but it’s getting better every time I do it.”

When asked about performing with living, breathing musicians, Ryan explained, “Performing with live musicians is an important experience for me because something new happens every time I’m on stage. There is a sense of collaboration and flexibility that brings whatever I’m doing more to life.”

Through the combined efforts of Inside Broadway and their talented staff members Katie McAllister and Abigail Jones, together with Local 802, these fortunate children were given the unique opportunity to learn, rehearse and perform live musical theatre in the heart of the theatre district, in the home of live music: Local 802!

[The article above was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Allegro (volume 113, number 9).]

20 November 2013

Dispatches From Israel 3

by Helen Kaye

[My friend Helen in Tel Aviv, who, ROT readers will recall, reviews for the Jerusalem Post, has sent me three recent notices from October.  Two are classic plays, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk (sometimes spelled “Schweik,” 1923) and Bertolt Bredht’s Mother Courage (1939), and a recent play that was here in New York City in 2012, One Man, Two Guvnors (which opened in London’s West End in March 2012 and is still running there), an adaptation of another classic play, Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters (1743).  I’ll let you read her assessments of the Israeli productions of these plays, which were presented in various theaters in Tel Aviv, but I’ll preface Helen’s reviews by noting that when she sent me the copies, she remarked that these were three of “5 dud productions” she’d seen last month.  It's exhausting to see bad theater,” lamented Helen, “and even more exhausting to write the reviews.”  (Happily, Helen reports that she did see a “great production of West Side Story, [and] wrote [a] rave review” of it.  Maybe she’ll share that with us, too.)]

The Good Soldier Svejk
By Jaroslav Hasek
Adapted by Yosef El-Dror
Directed by Moshe Naor
Habima National Theatre, Tel Aviv
     (in co-production with the Haifa Theater, Haifa)

The dogs are great. One is a wee toy poodle named Rexi. Max is a lovable brown mutt. They are a sweet spark in this flabby, clumsy, monotone production that does not pretend to be other than obvious, i.e. an indictment of what the program notes call "national paranoia" and "mad patriotism".

Everybody knows Svejk, or Schweik as he's commonly called. He's the hero of Hasek's great anti-war satire written shortly after the monstrous cataclysm of World War I. Good Soldier lambasts the military, the church, patriotism, stupidity, mindless authoritarianism and above all the ghastly futility of war.

Everybody knows the story too. Schweik (Avi Kushnir) is a petty dog thief, and a "certified imbecile". He tumbles and stumbles from situation to situation, leaving havoc and the despairing Capt. Lukash (Nati Ravitz) in his wake, whether before the court, in jail, in the military or at the front, telling his irrelevant tales, seemingly imperturbable. Is he really daft, or is he having us on? Hmmm?

We know war only too well. We do satire with panache. Naor is a fine and experienced director, so how could he go so awry on a piece that has its tongue so firmly in its cheek.

There are consolations. We'll overlook Eran Atzmon's grubby white curtains – screens would have said cover-up just as well - to praise his giant backdrop of silvered file cabinets from which a great cross detaches itself to lend emphasis to the chaplain's (Uri Hochman) smarmy homily. Ofra Confino's costumes are suitably timeless with a nod to the period. There's a cute, if predictable, visual gag with luggage.

But the 'play's the thing' and this is where Good Soldier plummets. As Schweik, Kushnir mops and mows with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, his (seemingly endless) text unspooling like unbarbed wire. Ravitz can't do much to counter this, and so succumbs to keeping up as best he can. Hochman does brightly glow as the hypocrite chaplain as does Davit Gavish's Mrs. Müller. But the rest get lost in the shuffle.

And shuffle is what this Good Soldier effects. It has the snap and crackle of mushy rice crispies.

*  *  *  *
One Man, Two Guvnors
By Richard Bean
Translated by Shlomo Moscowitz
Directed by Moshe Kepten
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv

Let's see now! British comedy, the best kind of British comedy and Two Guvnors is such, is all about tone and timing. Absent these, and what remains is clunk, not comedy. This production of Two Guvnors doesn't miss a trick of tasteless, bestowing a whole new meaning on 'vulgar'.

Bean's version, set in Brighton, is adapted from Carlo Goldoni's (1707-93) The Servant of Two Masters in which ever-hungry servant Truffaldino contracts himself to two masters to be assured of a square meal. His efforts to keep the two ignorant of each other pile near-disaster on almost-catastrophe until the Happy End.

Goldoni wrote his comedy in commedia style. The largely improvisational commedia del arte exploded from the Renaissance. Bean sites his comedy in the Swinging Sixties when the UK, London and music in particular, exploded from the shabbiness and austerity of the years post World War II.

Here the servant is one Francis (Eli Yatzpan). Master #1 is petty gangster Rosco Crabbe (Dikla Hadar), who's actually Rachel dressed up as her brother, whom her lover Stanley Stubbers (Yuval Segal), and Master #2, has killed, so is in Brighton to evade the cops, but Rachel/Rosco has also arrived to collect a debt from Charlie (Shlomo Mimran), whose blond bimbo daughter Pauline (Maya Bachowski), thinking former-fiance Rosco dead, is engaged to wannabe actor Dick Dangle (Shlomi Tapiero).  Add an ancient coordinationally challenged waiter Alfi (Erez Weiss) to the mix and the pratfall possibilities go up a notch.

Indeed the rubber-limbed Weiss provides a needed bit of genuine hilarity to the three-week long one hour and 45 minute show. Yatzpan provides the other in the two (over-extended) audience interaction improvisations in the show.

For the rest, nobody, including Yatzpan, seems to be having much fun. The actors don't speak so much as recite their text. It flows from them without much variation in tone or pitch and without much change in pace or rhythm.

The show is redeemed in part by Orna Smorgonsky's period-perfect and dazzling costumes but its music provides the true high spots.

The songs, Daniel Efrat's translations, and the quartet performing them are superb. The quartet is Noam Pinhasov, Arnon Siev, Omri Shani and Yuval Adam. The bouquet please!

[I didn’t see One Man (which was nominated for several Tonys and for which actor James Corden won a best-actor Tony) when it was here, but in recent years, I have seen two productions of Goldoni’s original play, Servant of Two Masters: at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2012 and in Italian, a production of the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005.  I posted reports on them both on ROT on 9 (D.C. revival) and 29 July 2012 (LCF presentation).  Curious readers might look back at these posts for comparisons with other interpretations and presentations of this popular classic.]

*  *  *  *
Mother Courage and Her Children
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Anat Gov
Music by Paul Dessau and Yossi Ben Nun
Directed by Udi Ben Moshe
Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv

"Gotta get back to business," mutters Mother Courage (Tikki Dayan) as she pulls the shoes off her dead daughter's feet and tosses them into her wagon. It's a deliberately ghastly image, perfectly defining what the war has wrought, that ghastly becomes the norm. We follow Mother Courage through increasingly war torn Europe from 1624 – 36 as she and her canteen wagon follow the armies fighting the Thirty Year War (1618-48), changing sides from Protestant to Catholic and back when needs must.

The War makes her a living, drops people in an out of her life - like a shady chaplain (Gadi Yagil), an army cook (Rami Baruch) and camp-follower Yvette (Orli Silberschatz). And the War kills her children one by one; sweet Swiss Cheese (Udi Rothschild), brave Eilif (Yiftach Ophir) and mute Kattrin (Gloria Bess).

But the deliberately chosen 30 Year War as such isn't important. It's a vehicle, not narrative. We're meant to watch Courage who's far less brave than she is a survivor. Her quest is business and we're along for the ride, nudged also by Avi Yona Bueno's multi-hued, sensurround klieg lighting.

Brecht and the play say that neither Courage nor we are willing to acknowledge that history is human beings, not fate, that we are responsible for what we do. That's what the play's structure and songs push us toward. We're not meant to identify with the play's characters (though we do, willy-nilly), but to observe, to sit up and take notice, but here it doesn't happen.

Like the canteen wagon, this Mother Courage kind of drags along. It doesn't build. It has no punch, doesn't bite into or shake us despite Dayan in the title role. She's assertive, a whirlwind of passionate energy, grabs the role in her fists and pummels it under her skin. We simultaneously admire and despise her.

As Yvette, Silberschatz sometimes brings with her a willful wistfulness that recalls the child she was once. Rami Baruch's Cook can get gleefully seedy and an aura of hypocrisy properly invests Yagil's Chaplain – though his white robes are questionable for a protestant priest. He looks realer in his ragged pants and shirt.

There are moments of true anguish and pathos in Gloria Bess' sometimes over-the-top Kattrin, while Eilif and Swiss Cheese are mostly well served by Ophir and Rothschild.

But overall the performance never gets there. In-your-face is what's meant, and this Mother Courage isn't.

15 November 2013

Penny Arcade: Two Performances

 [Earlier this month, I posted a two-part article on the history and development of performance art.  Among the artists I named as examples or illustrations of the art form was Penny Arcade, a former actress with John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and Andy Warhol’s films who turned to solo performance in the 1970s and ’80s.  In the ’90s, Arcade started writing plays for ensemble casts and I saw two of her early efforts in 1990 and ’91.  I’m publishing my reports on them together on ROT just for the purpose of showing one person’s take on performance as an art form; as you all know, having read “Performance Art” on this blog earlier (hint, hint), performance art has no rules or prescribed format, so each example is idiosyncratic. 

[The earlier piece, Invitation To the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation To the Beginning of the End of My Career), played at The Club at La MaMa E.T.C. in November 1990; I published this review in the New York Native in December.]

(December 1990)
It is nearly impossible to describe Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (Invitation to the Beginning of the End of My Career), Penny Arcade’s new performance piece at The Club at La MaMa.  She, herself, calls it “a disjointed, fragmented, psychedelic nightmare” and a “theater piece with music.”  Together, that’s about as good a designation as any—and about as accurate as you can get.  It is also very funny, clever, surprising, insightful and, occasionally, touching. 
Performance artist Penny Arcade, whose real name is Susana Ventura, got her start in the 1960s with John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and in Andy Warhol’s films.  Invitation is her tip o’ the hat to the Playhouse, and she intends it as an “epic” in Vaccaro’s style.  Principally known for her solo work, Invitation is only Arcade’s third venture into writing for a full cast. 
It would be foolish to try to evaluate Invitation from one viewing and without knowing much about Arcade’s earlier work, and a comprehensive description of the event, itself, would be completely confounding if it were even feasible.  Not only does too much go on onstage, but the stage is not the only place you have to keep your eye on.  First, plants in the audience, such as a family from Indiana who get caught up in the action, are an integral part of the show.  Then there are video monitors on either side of the stage repeating what’s happening live onstage and in the audience and occasionally adding other images as well.  I often wished I were in a swivel chair; trying to watch all this is probably hopeless, and just as probably not expected. 
It won’t give you much to go on, but the best that can be done here is to provide snapshots from Invitation.  It starts with Arcade in a white evening gown acknowledging she’s no longer young.  Having been famous for her youth, she’s loath to give it up, and, in a way, she doesn’t: she’s joined onstage by Young Penny (Jennifer Belle).  At the end of the piece, we also meet Future Penny (Beth Dodie Bass) as she will appear at the Helmsley Room of the Downtown Trump Plaza.
The prologue, “Three Pennies in a Fountain, or The Three Penny Opera,” segues into the Playhouse-style epic, hosted by a ghoulish MC in whiteface and glitter lipstick, played with Karlovian glee by Edgar Oliver.  This gallimaufry includes a belly-dancing nun (Arlana Blue), a “member of the audience” (Christine Donnelly) who sings “The Impossible Dream” and reduces the cast to a grotesque puddle of tears, an appearance by Andy Warhol (in an uncredited but incredible likeness), a scantily clad male grind line, a gay-bashing murder by two thugs (Stephen Wolf and William Norris) singing “I’m a Fag Basher” (to the tune of “I’m a Girl Watcher”), and a send-up of every conceivable religion in a medley featuring “People (Who Need Jesus),” “If You Knew Krishna,” “How Much Is That Guru in the Window?” and a rousing finale of “Hello, Dallai!” (as in “Lama”).  Along the way, Arcade contemplates the AIDS epidemic, NEA censorship and homophobia.
All of Invitation’s ensemble is marvelous and no slight is meant by singling out these few.  The make-up and costumes (by the cast) are delightfully funky and outrageous, and Howard Thies’s lighting is appropriately psychedelic.  There’s too much more to mention; besides, with Penny Arcade, you really have to be there. 
(March 1991)
[La Miseria, Arcade’s fourth venture into ensemble playwriting and her third installment in the autobiographical trilogy that started with Based on a True Story (1990) and continued with Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World, was presented at P.S. 122 in the East Village in March 1991.  Arcade called to invite me to the performance because, she said, I might be able to explain to her what she was doing.  I was no longer reviewing for a paper, but I accepted the invitation and wrote my own report.]
The performance world is familiar with artists coming to grips with their lives in the public eye.  If you go to the theater at all, you will have encountered Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach trilogy or Spalding Gray’s continuing autobiography-in-monologue, not to mention the dozens of other artists who present their lives in various forms for our consumption.  Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura) has taken her place among these with a now-completed trilogy that began in February 1990 with Based on a True Story and continued last November with Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World, both performed at La Mama E.T.C.  Her third piece, extended at Performance Space 122 until 7 April, is La Miseria, Arcade’s “attempt to explore my feelings of growing up Italian” in America. 
Those who know Arcade’s work, beginning with her solo performances in the mid-1980’s, know that this is a simplistic characterization.  For Arcade, “growing up Italian,” includes trying to be American and untraditional against the wishes and beyond the comprehension of her immigrant mother; wanting to be an actress in a working-class family that rejects anything intellectual, artistic or different; conflicting with a Catholic Church run by celibate, middle-aged, white males, and struggling to fit into a performance world she sees as essentially middle-class. 
If you have an unquestioning fondness for Italian-Americans or a blind devotion to Catholicism, be warned: La Miseria will surely offend you.  Arcade treats her archetypical Italian-American family with almost unrelenting contempt, depicting them as undiscriminatingly xenophobic and bigoted, violently hating blacks, Jews, Puerto Ricans—anyone who isn’t Italian— attributing to them all the clichéd characteristics we recognize as discredited.  Italians, of course, have all the virtues, including the only decent music, as the family demonstrates in a rendition of “Ma Marie.”  The most unattractive character in the family is Billy, a foul-mouthed bully who resorts to vulgar shouting to eliminate discussion of anything he doesn’t like or understand—which is nearly everything anyone else says.  When a neighbor brings her current beau, a Puerto Rican gentleman, as a guest to the house, Billy and his family insult him until he bolts from the room. 
The family scenes are straightforward and unambiguous, and become quite oppressive after a while.  Arcade reserves her cleverest treatment for her stabs at the Church.  When the audience enters, we pass by a “statue” of St. Sebastian, arrows and all, and then encounter other “statues” of saintly hierarchs sited about the room and in chapel-like alcoves around its perimeter.  Before the performance proper, nuns and worshipers pray and light candles before living icons—including St. Roseanne De Barr.  At intervals during the piece, these holy images come to life and congregate in the church to await the return of Jesus.  Far from saintly, they are revealed as unthinking and shallow people elevated above their deserts.  St. Anthony, whom Arcade designates as the patron saint of lost objects, would rather be patron of casinos if the position is available.  Meanwhile, he hawks his relics: “Does anybody want to worship this shoe?”  “Has anyone lost her virginity?”  One of the female saints (not up on my Christian iconography, I couldn’t keep all this straight) takes her devotion to Jesus rather too basically, turning it into an uncontrollable lust.  St. Joseph complains of his enforced celibacy and the questions about his manhood.
Arcade’s priests and nuns—especially the nuns—are targets, too, for disparagement.  A gay priest is chastised by his lover, disowned by the very faith the priest serves, for denying his feelings and disguising his profession.  One nun takes her symbolic marriage to Christ literally, calling him her “boyfriend” and, after an archbishop has condemned the “treacherous Jews” to eternal damnation, another nun beats and drags a child Penny from the church when she insists that Jesus was a Jew.
Arcade, in fact, literally confesses her hatred for the Church, objecting to a self-protective, homophobic, anti-female dogma not supported anywhere in the Bible.  She is even pelted with mud, like a stoning, for her stance.  There is, nonetheless, an ambivalence to Arcade’s feelings for Catholicism, as she acknowledges that her first venture into playwriting was undertaken at the behest of her school’s Mother Superior who recognized in her rebelliousness a nascent theatrical talent. 
La Miseria is made up of numerous distinct scenes and elements.  In addition to the family and church scenes, there is a videotape of Arcade at her mother’s apartment; monologues by Arcade and an actress, Jennifer Belle, who has played “Young Penny” in all of the autobiographical pieces, and scenes in a psychotherapist’s office.  These last, which feature both Arcade, herself, and Young Penny, are, like the monologues, a vehicle for Arcade to expound her own thoughts directly.  The therapist, who is obsessively hung up on Robert De Niro, seems never to look directly at her patient.  She is made to seem either extremely inattentive or possibly hard of hearing, making Arcade repeat herself several times, and perhaps her constant focusing anywhere other than on Arcade is intended to indicate that she is blind as well.  Certainly, she is symbolically both deaf and blind—and clearly useless.
The video, taped in her mother’s kitchen, is a record of the artist’s attempts to reconcile with her mother.  When first shown, I wondered if this were in fact Susana Ventura’s real mother or a performance on tape.  Once I concluded it was real, I felt like a voyeur at a private encounter.  Signora Ventura seemed somewhat put off by the camera’s presence, but more so by her daughter’s work and life.  She still seems to reject what Arcade is and remains unhappy, even angry, at her daughter’s choices and decisions.  Arcade, translating her mother’s Italian for the camera, cajoles and nudges with softness and conciliation, but Signora Ventura appears little moved even in the end. 
All this sounds very heavy and not a little depressing perhaps and, to an extent, the family scenes are overlong and repetitive.  Arcade, however, has a take on life—her own and that around her—that is frequently irreverently hilarious and hilariously weird.  La Miseria lasts nearly two hours without an intermission, but despite the overheated room and hard, metal chairs, there is enough humor and theatricality to sustain the performance.  I only became acquainted with Arcade’s work with Invitation, her third piece for an ensemble, so my perspective is limited, but La Miseria is not as surprising and quirkily wacky as Invitation.  It is also more focused and cohesive, which is neither an asset nor a fault, and more serious—at least on the surface.  Since this is only the fourth attempt of a solo performer to compose for a cast, I am intrigued with where Arcade is going artistically and what she has to say about our world.  So far she seems pretty close to getting it right, for my dough.