A five-day spree:

November 12 – The Royal Family

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family, based on having seen the 1976 national touring company (fresh from Broadway) in Boston. My somewhat jejune review -- as an acting-school student and baby critic for Gay Community News -- was: 

The Royal Family is a delightful play about the most theatrical subject of all time – theatre people. Loosely based on America’s first family of aristocratic artists, the Barrymores, the 1927 dramatic comedy paints a bittersweet portrait of those who toil in one of the world’s oldest occupations, struggling to find both success and happiness in their work. Fanny Cavendish was married between the matinee and evening performances of She Stoops to Conquer, and the offspring of that union, Tony and Julie, inherited the family fetish for the footlights, as did Julie’s daughter Gwen, and the three generations of 'the royal family Cavendish' make for a zany household indeed, with talk of nothing but roadshow tours, rehearsals, motion picture deals, and the like. But the thespian life has its kinks, and one by one the family members threaten to swear off acting. Fanny’s health may proscribe another tour, young Gwen’s beau pales at the idea of becoming a stage husband, temperamental Tony returns from Hollywood after punching out his director, and darling Julie, at the height of a 20-year career, wonders if she shouldn’t settle down with her girlhood flame, now a secure, patronizing millionaire. But theatre is in their blood, and they can’t keep away from the stage anymore than a dieter can resist Baby Watson’s cheesecake. 

“Under Ellis Rabb’s Tony-winning direction, The Royal Family played to raves on Broadway, and Boston is privileged to host the start of its national tour. The wildly talented cast is headed by three knockout actors – the legendary Eva Le Gallienne, who is every bit the devoted trouper that her Fanny Cavendish is; Carole Shelley, splendidly expansive as Julie; and Leonard Frey, who practically blows the house down with his rampaging performance as Tony. No complaints about the other actors either [the cast included Sam Levene and, as the butler, today’s busy director Nicholas Martin] – to a person, their playing is refined, lively, endearing. Rarely does a comedy as elegant, heartwarming, and irresistible as The Royal Family bounce the boards in Boston.”

Of Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, directed by Doug Hughes, I can say that I doubt that even starry-eyed theater students will be remembering it fondly years from now. The cast seems impeccable on paper: Rosemary Harris as Fanny, Jan Maxwell as Julie, Reg Rogers as Tony, Tony Roberts as their avuncular manager, John Glover as Fanny’s pathetically untalented playwright brother Bert, Ana Gasteyer as his obnoxious wife (a part played by Mary Louise Wilson in Ellis Rabb’s production). Just the fact that the first two people you see onstage are Joe the butler and Della the maid, played by two spectacular downtown performers (David Greenspan and Caroline Stefanie Clay), bodes well. And yet…the show falls flat. Not really fun, not really funny. Puzzling. I think part of the problem is the Biltmore Theatre. Since MTC rebuilt and occupied it, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a show that really worked there. The wide proscenium may have seemed like a good idea, but it completely kills a sense of intimacy, either the actors with one another or the actors with the audience. The energy just doesn’t make it past the footlights. There are of course a few moments, but the best performances are way underplayed – Tony Roberts and Larry Pine as Julie’s suitor. Jan Maxwell has been building a huge reputation as a great Broadway actress, and I’m rooting for her too, but I haven’t seen anything she’s done that’s as good as her work in Jules Feiffer’s A Bad Friend at Lincoln Center. 

November 13 – Auf den Tisch!
Improv is always a high-wire act, whether it’s dance or theater or comedy, and Meg Stuart really amped up the stakes with her performance Auf den Tisch! (At the Table!), which had its US premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of the Performa 09 Festival. Stuart, who began her career as a dancer in New York but really solidified her reputation in Europe after she moved to Brussels in 1994, conceived this piece as a kind of improv conference where the audience and a handful of invited artists would gather around a giant table the size of a dance floor. What happens then is up for grabs. 
The New York shows (Nov. 13-14) featured a motley array of artists: choreographer Trajal Harrell, composer/musician Hahn Rowe, costumer Jean-Paul Lespagnard, dancers David Thomson, Anja Muller, and Vania Rovisco, and a passel of performer-creator-provocateurs: Keith Hennessy (above), Yvonne Meier, George Emilio Sanchez, and Janez Jansa (the Slovenian artist formerly known as Emil Hrvatin, and one of three Slovenian prankster-artists who officially took the name of the recent, now-former prime minister). There was a constant tension throughout the nearly two-hour performance, or more accurately a string of tensions: what was semi-prepared vs. what was made up on the spot, talking vs. moving, interpersonal disputes that were part intellectual discourse and part sheer drama, process vs. performance, solo turns vs. collaboration, collaboration vs. competition, active audience vs. passive audience. 

Some moments I remember: David Thomson (above) doing a thuggish skulk around the audience before the show officially, his face obscured by his hoodie; Meg and Yvonne getting a little testy with one another; Yvonne sitting on Jean-Paul, saying, “This is the costume designer who wanted me to bring in high heels and different colored underwear”; Anja (a hefty gal and a riveting presence) doing a hoochie-coochie dance while sitting on top of Keith; Meg doing a laborious process of going all the way around the table showing her hands to the people in the front row; some good outright dance improv by David, Keith, and Vania; several attempts to sustain an edgy dialogue about race, one of which morphed into Keith questioning Vania about her identity as a South African white person, which turns into a wordless interrogation-as-abuse scenario; Vania and George playing dead for a very long time and Anya plunking down next to Vania’s body with her head back in a wordless wail in a way that conjures (for me) the famous picture from the Kent State massacre; Keith in a full-body floral catsuit; Jean-Paul showing up offstage in two different pair of American Apparel colored briefs with funny eyeglasses or headgear… Janez doesn’t appear for a very long time, and then he climbs up into the balcony and launches a challenge by referring to a Living Theatre performance where Richard Schechner got naked in the audience. Janez tries to get David to identify a Schechner surrogate in the audience who would repeat this performance. This seems pretty lame, besides which Janez in his imperfect English is getting the words wrong – the Living Theater actors were doing a riff on oppression and liberation by saying things like “I’m not allowed to take off my clothes,” which Janez kept recalling as “I can’t put off my clothes.” In any case, lots of people in this room have taken their clothes off in public, so it’s not so liberating in this historical moment. There’s some racially edged banter between Janez and David. George steps in and tries a different kind of taboo-breaking by having people in the audience tear up dollar bills – also a little passé, but the bits of currency get swept into a shoe and the whole episode veers off unexpectedly. 

One of the pleasures/agonies of improv is witnessing the raw act of creation: watching an impulse emerge out of nowhere, get developed or not, and then die out. It’s a little exhausting, a little exhilarating, though finally it’s an exercise more than anything else. Finding an ending is always difficult, and this one limps to a close. Luckily, afterwards Flanders House hosted a reception with good Belgian beer and snacks, which enabled me to meet and bond with Iris Flugel, a German artist and chef who discovered we have a bunch of mutual friends. A pretty interesting audience all round, attentive and respectful and tuned-in. Familiar faces include Ishmael Houston-Jones (below, with his friend Sam), Elizabeth Zimmer, Robert Greskovic, Ellen Jacobs, and Roselee Goldberg. 

November 14 – The Lily’s Revenge

Wow! Taylor Mac’s play The Lily’s Revenge is a mini-festival all to itself: a five-part, five-hour extravaganza with singing, dancing, storytelling, amazing costumes and makeup, film and video, and lively interactive intermission activities supervised by a vaudevillean MC played by World Famous *Bob*. I was a little daunted by the running time but once I surrendered to it, the time flew by. The whole adventure is conceived so broadly and so generously that surrendering to it yields definite rewards. It begins immediately with the Card Girl MC coaxing the audience into embracing the intention “to be present as part of a community as it is being created.” A crucial part of that experiment involved refraining from using cel phones for calling or texting or anything during the first two of three intermissions, which clearly challenged many participants but did indeed foster an environment of “We’re all in this together.” 
There’s more to say about this show than I have time to relay. There are so many ways to talk about it: as a play, as an experience, as a piece of performance history, as a political statement. I’ve never seen Taylor Mac’s work before, but the pieces I’ve heard about have been primarily solo pieces. This was so far in the opposite direction – five acts (with a structure inspired by Noh theater), each one with a different director and a different literary form, with a cast of 40, with dozens of trippy amazing costumes (by Machine Dazzle, who is the not-so-secret star of the show). At each intermission, the audience leaves and the space is completely transformed and the seating rearranged. The play itself is a fable about a lily (Taylor Mac, above) who starts out wanting to become a man so he can marry The Bride and ends up realizing the limits of gender-role conformity and choosing instead to put on a day-long play and contemplating marrying everyone in sight. You could say it’s a playfully earnest critique of the current fixation in gay culture on legalizing marriage by questioning the narrative that says getting married is the greatest good (an interpretation that begs to be debated). And you could say that Taylor Mac is channeling Tony Kushner (or Charles Busch or Harry Kondoleon) by way of Ethyl Eichelberger to create a show that’s halfway between a Renaissance Faire, a good night at San Francisco's Tranny Shack, and a “no-talent show,” the Radical Faerie version of anybody-can- do-it community theater. Some of the writing is dazzling, some of it is dumb. Some of the performances are Mickey-and-Judy-in-the-backyard-on-LSD, and some of them are superb. The cast includes some downtown veterans (Tina Shepard and Ellen Maddow of Talking Band and Muriel Miguel from Spiderwoman, brought along by Paul Zimet, director the first act), a number of luminaries from the energetic burlesque scene (many of them have great hilarious stage names: Salty Brine, Darlinda Just Darlinda, James Tigger! Ferguson, Miss Bianca Leigh), and performers I hope to see more of, including Kristine Haruna Lee, Philip Taratula, and Amelia Zirin-Brown aka Lady Rizo, who gets to sing a lovely song called “Teetering on the Edge of Too Little, Too Late.” The play, which is subtitled “a flowergory manifold,” is self-consciously a legend in the making and a hippie-dippie lovefest, and none the worse for either aspiration. One of my favorite things about the show is the video (below) on display in the cafe (which you have to listen to through headphones) which tells the orgy-by-orgy surviving-the-AIDS-epidemic personal history that led to the creation of The Lily's Revenge

November 15 – The Brother/Sister Plays: In the Red and Brown Water

I’ve been curious about the young gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s work for a couple of years, and In the Red and Brown Water was my first exposure. It’s the Sister play of the double-bill at the Public Theater (which began life earlier this year at the McCarter Theater in Princeton). I admired it with a lot of reservations. I liked the interplay of human and mythological figures (characters are named after Yoruban orishas Shango, Elegba, Ogun, Egungun, etc.) but ultimately the story is a small one about a girl (Oya, played by Kianne Muschett) from a poor family who has a chance at becoming a championship runner but winds up fixated on clinging to the most traditional female roles of wife and mother. I liked Tina Landau’s evocative, fluid, theatrical staging, which let the scenes flow from one to another through lighting and music (most of it created live by the actors singing, chanting, and drumming). But I disliked her choice to have the actors speak the stage directions aloud – it’s completely unnecessary as a Brechtian device in an already stylized staging, and because the actors immediately enact exactly what the stage directions say, it’s almost stultifyingly redundant. I have only praise for the company, who accomplish their various tasks with grace and verve. I especially enjoyed Kimberly Hebert Gregory, who plays Oya’s auntie-ex-machina Elegua.

November 16 – Fela!
Weirdly, Fela! turns out to combine key aspects of both The Lily’s Revenge and In The Red and Brown Water – like McCraney’s play, it explicitly conjures the pantheon of Yoruban deities, and like Taylor Mac’s work it’s a composite of concert, play, dance event, and history lesson. I liked it a lot from the minute I walked in the door, heard the hot hot hot band already cooking, and saw the cool, splashy, enveloping environment that set and costume designer Marina Draghici has transformed the Eugene O’Neill Theatre into (former home of Spring Awakening). The show, which had a hit run at 37 Arts last year, tells the true story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian pop superstar who became a folk hero through his charismatic personality, his super-funky Afrobeat music, and his relentlessly political agitation attacking the corruption and brutality of the military dictatorships in his and other African nations. Happily, the show veers almost completely away from standard narrative structure. Director and choreographer Bill T. Jones has created a happening that evokes the Shrine, the nightclub in Lagos that served as Fela’s headquarters. The book that Jones has created with Jim Lewis conveys to the audience much of Fela’s biography – his illustrious family, his run-ins with the police, his jailings and beatings, his nine wives, his rise to musical fame, his political career, the outrageous invasion of his housing compound that culminated in the murder of his equally charismatic mother, Funmilayo – but in scraps and fragments of dramatic scenes mixed with terrific visual storytelling (an ever-morphing score of live video, documentary footage, animation, and sheer dazzle) and ritualistic dancing. (A curious factual omission is that Fela died of AIDS in 1997.) The first act is almost nonstop music, and it’s fantastic. The second act gets a little more self-conscious about trying to shape a dramatic arc. The producers got the fabulous Lillias White to play Funmilayo – but that might have been a mistake. Fela’s mother deserves her own play, and this one gives her virtually nothing to do except be her son’s hero and inspiration. And then of course because you’ve got Lillias White, you have to give her a big number in the second act, but rather than stopping the show, it just kills the momentum. Who knows, I saw a preview, maybe it’ll all change by the time it opens in two weeks. There are two actors alternating in the title role. I saw the matinee Fela, Kevin Mambo, who was perfectly fine. But I’m definitely going to go back to see Sahr Ngauiah, who played the entire Off-Broadway run and is supposed to be incredible. I don’t want to oversell this show, because that always creates expectations that engender nothing but disappointment. But I will say that Fela! has the hottest music I’ve heard on Broadway in years, and it’s as strong, dark, and unconventional a Broadway musical as its predecessor at the Eugene O’Neill. Mr. David Zinn (below) was resistant at first to the sight of white people having fun in the audience but eventually succumbed to the theatrical madness on display.

see previous entry here