Theater Archives

March 5, 2013

Hands On a Hardbody

Hands On a Hardbody

One of my favorite documentaries of all time is 1997's Hands On a Hard Body, which tells the story of an East Texas car dealership's publicity stunt of giving away a tricked-out Nissan pickup truck to the contestant who can keep one hand on the truck the longest. It goes on for many days. These kinds of contests aren't unusual, at least in Texas, but this documentary is the best kind of human drama--the stakes are high, the competition is physically and psychologically agonizing, and the contestants represent a wonderful cross-section of real-life Americans that I don't think the world's best casting director could have improved.

So of course I had to see the new Broadway musical Hands On a Hardbody, which is in previews. When you look at this production, it looks pretty weird: the book is by Doug Wright, who is most famous for winning a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, about a transgendered woman in Nazi Germany. BUT: Wright is from East Texas, so there you go. The music is by Trey Anastasio from Phish. I was a little worried about how jam band noodlings would work in a Broadway musical, but the songs are very catchy and represent a great range of American music: rock, country, soul, and gospel. I think it's going to do well--reviews come out in a couple of weeks.

One of the best things about the musical is that it adapts the fragmentary documentary into a narrative structure, and ties the contestants together into a coherent group, all driven by one thing: economic desperation. These people don't just think it would be nice to have a fancy truck, they really, really need this truck. There are stories of unemployment, families falling apart, and how much it sucks to be poor and stuck in a crappy little town. It's like if you take the original documentary and filter it through A Chorus Line, you'd get this musical.

Steven Soderbergh recently said that he's hoping to direct some theater now that he's stepping back from movies. This is just the kind of thing I think he'd be great at, if he decides to go big and commercial instead of doing oblique little Off-Broadway stuff. Lately his movies have been all about money and what people will do to get it. We don't often see poor, desperate people in big Broadway musicals, but maybe this will inspire him.

My main hope for this musical is that it will finally bring a proper DVD release for the documentary. Right now, used VHS seems to be the only way to see it (DVDs are selling for over $100!) It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, either. But if the show's a hit, maybe more people will get to experience the original in all its glory.

NY Magazine has an interesting explanation of the onstage truck, which the cast members move all over the stage with remarkable ease. It's a 2001 Nissan with the engine removed, on invisible rolling casters. Cool.

July 11, 2012

Janis Joplin biopic surges boozily back to life

Janis Joplin and Nina Arianda

There have been Janis Joplin biopics in development for the last 12 or 20 years, with all kinds of problems related to rights to songs and biographies preventing such a movie from actually getting made. There's also been the problem of finding an actress to play Janis. If you're going to create a credible movie version of Janis Joplin, you've got to find someone who can sing, has magnetic charisma and bold sexual swagger, combined with agonizing vulnerability and self-doubt. (See the great Vanity Fair feature on Janis and the early San Francisco hippie scene.)

And, most of all, she can't be pretty in a conventional Hollywood kind of way. Clearly, this last point has been the toughest, stickiest point for producers. This isn't the 70's, when Sissy Spacek could pull off Coal Miner's Daughter, win an Oscar, and bring in loads of money at the box office. Now if you need an actress to play a real-life person who wasn't beautiful, you cast Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman, and if you need someone to play the dorky, not-pretty girl on TV, you choose Lea Michele or Zooey Deschanel.

Deschanel was one of the many actresses briefly attached to a Janis Joplin movie over the years. Here are some others:

Britney Spears
Scarlett Johansson
Lindsay Lohan (in retrospect, maybe a smart choice?)
Renee Zellweger (in a rival project that was going to be called Piece of My Heart)
Lili Taylor
Brittany Murphy

The wrongest candidate to date: Amy Adams.

And maybe the best candidate to date: Pink. Pink had the flamboyant grit, gutsy voice, and appropriate unattractiveness to be a compelling Janis, but dropped out in 2006 when the project floundered. Clearly, casting for this movie has always been more about popularity than getting the right person for the role. Pink said at the time, "They're trying to turn it into some circus pop contest - who's the 'it' girl who wants to play Janis."

Today's it girl is apparently Nina Arianda (above), who in yet another iteration of this tired old story, got cast in a movie called Joplin. BUT: this one sounds good. It has a producer, a budget, and even a director--Sean Durkin, who did last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene--and might actually get made.

Arianda has only done a few movies (a small role in Midnight in Paris as Michael Sheen's wife, and a better role in Higher Ground as Vera Farmiga's drug dealing sister) but her real claim to fame is her freaking super-humanly amazingly sexy and incredible performance in Venus in Fur, which was on Broadway until last month. In this play, she goes from desperate to absurd to funny to seductive to ferociously powerful to actual human embodiment of a Greek god in 90 minutes.

She's really unlike any actor I've ever seen on stage, and she is gonna play the shit out of Janis Joplin. But can she sing? Of course she can! She can do anything! The New Yorker says she grew up singing both the male and female arias in Rigoletto, and it's just a tiny baby step from opera to ballsy Texan Southern Comfort-soaked blues, so, there you go.

Just one thing: couldn't we get a better title than Joplin for this movie? Something like, say, "Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jormp-Jomp Story"?

June 27, 2012

Cannibalism comes to the theater


The last few weeks have given us an alarming number of cannibalism stories in the news, so what better time to launch a new production that brings this trend disgustingly to life, onstage in the theater?

Horror director Stuart Gordon, who also made 1985's outstanding mad scientist classic Re-Animator (above), will direct a new play called Taste, which is based on the story of Armin Meiwes, the German man who killed and ate a guy he met online, and videotaped the whole thing in some extreme instance of sadomasochism, so he claimed.

Stuart Gordon is a guy who clearly understands the comedy of horror--his last play (which opened in LA, like Taste will) was Re-Animator: The Musical, because the only way you could make that movie more gleeful and sick is to add some "cheerfully perverse" song-and-dance numbers, to use Gordon's own phrase. The audience in the first few rows get totally covered in blood. It's coming to New York in July!

Taste will be one of many artistic interpretations of Armin Meiwes: several European metal bands have written songs based on his story (including the excellent "Mein Teil" by Rammstein, which has a phenomenally disturbing video) and Keri Russell starred in a movie called Grimm Love where she studies a Meiwes-like cannibal in Germany for her graduate thesis. Meiwes delayed the release of the movie in Germany when he sued, claiming the movie used his private story without permission. Eventually the German court decided he didn't have much of a privacy claim because he'd done loads of interviews and signed a marketing contract with a production company after his arrest.

I'm sure this will be a fun, gross-out, freaky kind of play, but how about if after this we all decide to put the brakes on eating each other for a while, OK?

March 15, 2012

Death of a Salesman. (Spoiler alert! He dies.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman

I'm going to be honest here. I think Death of a Salesman might be the worst Great American Play. Sure, it's sad and tragic, and we can all agree that the American Dream often fails to bring any happiness or satisfaction to people who chase it. But the story of Willy Loman is told with zero nuance or depth, and the themes are made obvious by the characters reciting them, repeatedly, in actual lines of dialogue. When a play has lines like, "Willy doesn't know who he is", "I get so lonely", and "The only thing you've got in this world is what you can sell," and they're repeated over and over, it seems like more of a reading comprehension exercise in a 9th grade English textbook than a great work of literature. This is what wins Pulitzers?

But for some reason, it's on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. They do a pretty good job with limited material. The acting is mostly great, especially (of course) PSH at Willy Loman and Linda Emond, who plays his wife Linda. Willy Loman is a small man, but PSH has made a huge performance out of him. Linda Emond is more restrained than the other actors, and conveys the quiet desperation that I think is a good overall tone for a play this ham-handed.

The thing is, really high quality performances almost amplify the mediocrity of the script. I kept wishing I could see all these believable, compelling characters in a better play. The whole production seems to try to make up for the bad script by simply turning up the volume--there's a LOT of yelling, and lesser actors like Andrew Garfield fall into the trap of mistaking loud talking for acting.

But seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on stage is a wonderful thing. Willy Loman is maybe the least cool character in literature, and PSH doesn't hold back with the unlikeable blowhard bravado, or with the disillusionment, self-loathing, and shame. He's amazing to watch, but he's so in control that sometimes I lost sight of how out of control Willy is. Maybe there's just no way to do a good job with a play this bad. The play opens tonight, so we'll see what the real critics think.

You know what would be nice? If Philip Seymour Hoffman got to do some more comedies. Remember how hilarious he is in The Big Lebowski showing Jeff Bridges around the house? Wow.

October 13, 2011

Farmers, Cowboys, and Karen O

Karen O

I thought about using the photo above of Karen O, singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and legendary hellion of live performer, as a Who'dat?™ last week, because I never would have recognized her with that new, New York Times-photo-shoot-appropriate haircut and sensible makeup, and without beer poured all over herself.

But now she's back in the news: she recorded a cover of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", a song I really love. Her minimalist version is sort of atmospheric and spooky with that cracking voice of hers, and it's good.

The odd thing is that she recorded it for Chipotle, which uses it in a video connected to its new foundation, Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, that's going to give money to sustainable agriculture and healthy eating organizations and The Nature Conservancy and groups like that. Which is nice enough, I guess.

They released a beautifully shot video to go with the Karen O song, about three kids who break into an old abandoned farm house at night and walk around tearing stuff up and jumping on the beds before it dawns on them that this used to be somebody's home, and family farms are closing, industrial agriculture is bad for America, maybe we should read more of Mark Bittman's columns even when they involve confusing dissections of the Farm Bill, etc. It was made by David Altobelli, who also made some good videos for School of Seven Bells and M83.

Here's the video:

Does anyone else see a problem here? Using a song about cowboys to support farmers? Do the people at Chipotle not possess even a passing familiarity with the Great American Songbook, or at least popular high school musicals? As is clearly described in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends" from Oklahoma!, farmers and cowboys hate each other's guts [video]! During this number in the musical, a huge dance-fight breaks out between farmers and cowboys that stops only when Aunt Eller fires a gun in the air and then forces each warring Oklahoman faction to sing cordially to each other at gunpoint.

Farmers and Cowmen in Oklahoma!

Despite the Oklahoma! indiscretion, the Karen O song is nice, and if you go to Chipotle in costume on Halloween you can get $2 burritos and make a contribution to Farm Aid.

June 13, 2011

Neil Patrick Harris can do anything

Neil Patrick Harris hosting the 2011 Tonys

I only caught the last 45 minutes or so of the Tonys last night, but did you see this rap that host Neil Patrick Harris did during the closing credits that recapped the entire show? It's good.

Doing the recap was NPH's idea, but it was written by two of the creators of "In the Heights", who wrote it really fast in the basement of the theater while the show was happening, throwing in references to the big winners and the funny, spontaneous stuff that had been happening throughout night. Then NPH learned it, while also keeping the show moving, then performed it like he'd been doing this kind of thing his whole life.

Can we get NPH to host every awards show from now on? He made the Tonys more fun than any Oscars I can remember.

April 2, 2011

Clair Huxtable vs. Billy Crudup

Clair HuxtableBilly Crudup

I'm still disappointed at how un-transcendent the new Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is, and I've been thinking of things that might have made it better and more fun to watch.

Here's one. There's a scene when Billy Crudup, playing a sort of manic literature professor and Byron scholar, recites the opening lines of "She Walks in Beauty", in order to emphasize Lord Byron's genius and the immortality of his words. But the way he says them is weirdly halting and raggedy, which totally overwhelms the language and the subtle rhythm of the lines.

Compare that to the first time a lot of my generation probably heard those words: as spoken by Clair Huxtable in a funny episode of The Cosby Show, "The Card Game". You can watch her smoothly and, I'm just going to say it, sexily recite the first stanza in the first two minutes of this episode here, starting at 1:45.

Did you realize Phylicia Rashad was that hot?

March 17, 2011

Arcadia back on Broadway

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Raul Esparza and Lia Williams

I went to see Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia last night, on the final night of previews before the critics review it tonight. I'd seen it once before during its first run in London in 1994, back when I was a hardcore theater nerd, and at that time it was the best, most perfect play I'd ever seen. It was complicated and cool, funny and touching, an unabashed adoration of poetry that also made math and quantum physics into something accessible and neat.

The revival production is pretty good, and there are some wonderful moments and a few stand-out performances, but it didn't have the same magical spark that it had for me back in 1994. A theme that unites the two parts of the play, one set in 1809 and one in the present day, is the second law of thermodynamics, the idea that the flow of heat and energy only moves in one direction. When you throw a ball through a window, even if you gather up all the glass and put the pieces back together, you can never regain the energy that was released when the glass shattered into pieces. It's gone.

In the physical world, this is the same thing as entropy: once the milk is in the coffee, you can't stir it back out again. Once you've had your mind blown by one production of Arcadia, you can't unblow your mind and walk into a theater in 2011 expecting the same thing to happen again.

Still, there's some great stuff in this play. Both literature and physics are held up as the things that make life meaningful, and dismissed as esoteric nonsense. Billy Crudup, an arrogant and unbalanced Byron scholar, says: "I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars, big bang, black hole -- who gives a shit?" [you can listen to it on today's NPR story] There's a beautiful explanation of chaos theory by Raul Esparza (in the photo above), a stage actor I'd never seen before but who is totally phenomenal and great.

All this theatrical science reminds me a class my college offered that was popular among terrified English majors: Physics For Poets, a course that's been part of Patton Oswalt's routine. Hope Arcadia's on the syllabus.

Mostly, this play made me really want Tom Stoppard to write another one, already. He does a lot of rewrites and punch-ups of big Hollywood movie scripts, usually uncredited. I dug around a little, and Tom Stoppard contributed to the following movies, not necessarily what you'd expect from such an eggheady playwright:

Sleepy Hollow: he added Ichabod Crane's squeamishness, which is a lot of what made it funny.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Steven Spielberg brought him in at the last minute to rewrite the script (Stoppard also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.) Spielberg says "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue."

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas brought him in to redo dialogue (maybe not the greatest testament to Stoppard's chops.)

The Bourne Ultimatum: He did a draft of the script, but acknowledges that there's not a lot of his dialogue in the final version. Not much of anybody's dialogue, really.

UPDATE: Emily pointed out to me that Fermat's Last Theorem, which is a topic of heated discussion in Arcadia, also appears in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Higher math is very hot right now! I've seen a few mathematically-oriented discussions of the GWPWF treatment of it, which suggest that Stieg Larsson maybe didn't have the greatest understanding of math and what proving theorems is all about (in reality it's not at all like solving a puzzle, apparently.)

While Stoppard was writing Arcadia, a lot was going on in the real world regarding Fermat's Last Theorem: it was actually solved in 1994, while the play was still running. The 13 year-old probable genius, Thomasina, posits that the Theorem was a joke created by Fermat to drive future mathematicians nuts. That reference probably went over better when we all thought it was still unsolvable.

Here's a full list of references to the Theorem in literature.

March 6, 2011

The Book of Mormon is really, really nice

The Book of Mormon on Broadway

The "South Park" guys' musical, The Book of Mormon, is still in previews, but when this thing opens, it's going to be a gigantic hit. These guys know how to write songs that are breathtakingly vulgar, and as light and catchy as the best stuff Rodgers and Hart ever did. They're funny, they're shocking, and they have a chorus you'll be singing (very, very quietly) all week. People are going to be doing these songs at karaoke bars by this summer.

So is it offensive? I'd seen the "All About the Mormons?" episode of "South Park" [video] from a few years back that actually was pretty mean-spirited. So I was a little concerned that all that unfunny, mean "dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb" kind of stuff from that episode would work its way into the Broadway show, and I'd come out of it feeling like a jerk.

The show is like the opposite of that "South Park" episode. I don't know if they changed their approach in order to have a successful show that people would genuinely love, or if they realized that, as Parker said, "A show that just bashes Mormons for two hours wouldn't be fun."

Sure, there are some aspects of Mormon beliefs that are odd and questionable and easy to make fun of, but what religion doesn't have those? The play includes all that stuff, but it's good-natured and, as many early reports are calling it, sweet. A brave Mormon family who attended the first performance found Matt Stone afterwards to tell him they loved it.

So, OK, one Mormon family thought it was good--we'll see if what happens once Glenn Beck decides to see how it measures up to "Spider-Man".

It's obscene and vulgar and totally profane, but the core value of Mormonism that's referred to over and over again is that you should always be really nice to everyone. As the creators say, it's a pro-faith, traditional, big Broadway musical, with a singing, dancing Johnnie Cochran. By the end it's sincerely devout, in its way. If you want to see it, it's probably a good idea to get your tickets now before all the gushing reviews come out.

February 15, 2011

Boxing Scots, with Underworld

Beautiful Burnout, Frantic Assembly

An awesomely intense-sounding play is coming to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn later this month -- Beautiful Burnout, an import from the National Theatre of Scotland by production company Frantic Assembly. It's not every day you hear about a play where the actors spend months getting in shape, but this one's like that, and I'm psyched for it.

Another cool thing: the soundtrack is all Underworld. In the play's trailer, we hear "Kittens" from their album Beaucoup Fish, a pounding, energetic track that, according to me, is one of the greatest dance tracks ever blasted out of a set of speakers. Another video of the actors training features "Mo Move", the opening track from A Hundred Days Off. And the play's title is taken from a song of the same name from Oblivion With Bells.

Though this is definitely a play with a kick-ass soundtrack, and not a musical, the use of music by a single group makes me wonder what a full-on Underworld jukebox musical would be like. We've already gotten productions based on the music of Johnny Cash, ABBA, Queen, Billy Joel, and Green Day. It's only a matter of time before my generation demands an electronic jukebox musical to relive those wild, drug-fueled club days of the late '90s from $140 seats in orchestra center. Plus, Underworld's songs almost always include vocals.

So why not? Imagine the storyline: an innocent boy arrives in London, meets a sexy cowgirl waitress who's into swimming in the ocean and hard psychedelics. The two of them and a transvestite calling herself Dirty Numb Angel immerse themselves in the underground club scene, where they experience color-drenched hallucinations, transcendental confabs with Albert Einstein, and epic marathons of Bruce Lee movies, all awash in blistering techno. The audience joins in chants of "lager! lager! lager!" during the big finale, while being showered in thousands of pills.

Here's a great video about what the actors went through to get into shape for the play. I love hearing them talk about how they had to "jess keep pooshin' yehself" to "become a buhx-ah". The play was apparently inspired by Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, but the setting has clearly been moved to Glasgow.

January 27, 2011

Spidey: That's what $65 million looks like

Spider-Man on Broadway

I went to see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark last night with our old friend and former contributor Emily. We found some discounted tickets, and figured it was our cultural duty to bear witness to the most ambitious, bloated, beleaguered, and expensive theatrical production in Broadway history.

While some theater critics are trying, with growing annoyance, to follow the preview convention and not review the show until it officially opens (at last report, on March 15--are the producers cursing their own show?) other people, like Glenn Beck, have happily shared their critiques. Unlike Glenn Beck, I think we'd all be better off skipping the show and keeping both our kidneys.

Beck says that the reason he liked the show, and others didn't, is that there's "too much action and flying around." Not quite. The only good parts of the show were the action and the flying around, and there wasn't anywhere near enough.

Here's how you'd make this show good: More Flying Around. Cut the first 45 minutes of exposition and talking. Get Peter Parker and Norman Osborn to transform into their superhero/supervillain alter-egos in the first 5 minutes. Then get to the scene where the main actors all fly through the air, literally using all the space in the theater in a way no other show I've ever seen has done. There's one fantastic moment when you in the audience feel like you're on top of the Chrysler Building looking down at the traffic below, and it's awesome.

Other than the flying around, which there isn't enough of, scenes were good if they looked like rock concerts. Specifically: a scene right out of Lady Gaga's last tour with a chorus of taut, sinewy soldier dancers wearing militaristic leg-warmers and hot pants. A scene of super-villains vamping down a runway with cool exploding costumes made out of armor and lizard skin and pretend bees, which Em thought looked just like a Misfits concert. And a scene of a mythical Spider-woman hovering ghost-like over a sleeping Peter Parker and whisper-singing a creepy, dreamy song, like something out of a Tori Amos video.

Another way to make the show good: More The Edge-Style Guitars. The music is forgettable and weak, except for a few song intros that had that big, arena-filling, shimmery, delay-heavy guitar sound that, considering it was written by U2, I though we'd hear more often. A brief piano-lounge rendition of "We'll Have Manhattan" by the Green Goblin got the biggest laugh of the night.

This show looks like what you get when you spend most of your $65 million budget on insurance.

June 18, 2010

Maybe this Al Pacino is a decent actor

Al Pacino as Shylock

I went to see The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park last night, with Al Pacino as Shylock. I've heard it's been brutal trying to get tickets, and the show is still in previews (opens June 30), but I highly recommend it if you can go, it's one great production. It's like the best psychological thriller about contract law you've ever seen.

This is a tricky play--it often gets branded as anti-Semitic, what with every Christian character hurling non-stop abuse and hatred at Shylock and spitting the word "Jew" like it's a derogatory term. But it's really a play about anti-Semitism (and racism, and sexism) and this production shows all of that while staying true to the language and structure.

Characters are dressed in Victorian-era morning coats, and the set looks like a 19th century London trading company with a cool old ticker-tape machine and guys wearing visors. Shylock looks pretty much exactly like the old men who lumber along West 47th Street in the diamond district today, so I was glad they didn't go for anything too cartoonish. Pacino plays Shylock as a pragmatic, successful businessman who's sitting on an ocean of bitterness at being socially rejected from mainstream Christian society. He's not ashamed of who he is, he's just sick of living in an unfair, racist world.

It's not too hard to make Shylock a sympathetic character, but Pacino doesn't hold back on the anger and frustration that make him so bloodthirsty. The amazing thing is that he doesn't do any of the scenery chewing or hooah'ing that's made him into a caricature of himself in movies lately. Venice is basically an apartheid society, using its legal structure to keep people like Shylock down, so when he gets the chance to use the law to his advantage, he grabs on and won't let go. He wants that pound of flesh, not because he's a sadist killer, but because it's legally his.

But, of course, things don't go so well for old Shylock--the moral of the story seems to be Live by the contract, Die by the contract. Shakespeare structures the story as a rejection of rigid adherence to law and other pronouncements from on high that have little to do with people's actual lives, a theme that comes up in other plays like Measure For Measure.

The height of the action in the trial scene is really great and tense, with loads of moral ambiguity and really uncomfortable stuff about religious self-righteousness that makes Christians and Jews and pretty much everybody look like monsters. For a supposed romantic comedy, this is not at all a date play.

The play doesn't stress this too heavily, but the other big theme is how men unfairly control women's lives. Portia is the smartest person on the stage, but it's only when she's disguised as a man that anyone listens to her. She's played by Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe) and was clever and sassy without being self-righteous.

Al Pacino is the only huge star in the show, but there's also Law & Order's Jesse Martin and Mitch from "Modern Family" as the hilarious and campy comic relief.

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