Arguendo – Woolly Mammoth #13

Arguendo: A Latin term meaning “in arguing” or “for the sake of argument.”
Jurisprudence: The study, knowledge or science of law.
Dictum: An opinion by a court on a question that is not essential to its decision in the case at hand, even though…

arguendo03When your play bill includes a glossary of terms and cites legal precedents you know this is not going to be a typical night of theater. This was my week of seeing shows by visiting theater companies. First Kneehigh Theatre’s charming production of Brief Encounter (did I mention I loved that show) and now Elevator Repair Service’s (ERS) original production of Arguendo.

I think this show may be the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Non-fiction Theater. In most cases shows are “inspired by,” or “based on” other works. What ERS has done here is take the actual transcript of a Supreme Court case and perform it for you verbatim. Yeah, that doesn’t exactly sound like an enjoyable evening does it? The topic at least is kind of interesting; the court case reviewed is a 1990’s suit between the state of Indiana and a local strip club. Indian passed a law banning full nude performances at strip clubs, which is an extension of their no public nudity law, and a local club sued on the grounds that is was a first amendment violation of their right to freedom of expression. The law suit goes back and forth first one side winning then the other until it landed on steps of the Supreme Court.

arguendo01Now the text of the court case has a certain ironic humor to it as you hear this august body question the difference between nudity in a strip club and nudity in an opera or uttering the words g-string and pasty and what strippers are attempting to “express” with their nude dancing that is inhibited by the aforementioned g-stings and pasties. However, a lot of the language starts to get dense and sometime incomprehensible to me as the legalese starts to overwhelm the dialog. After all they are speaking in jargon specific to their profession. To keep the audience engaged when the language turns to the talk of “tautologies” (I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary but even I had to go look up some of these terms) the cast engages in a pretty elaborate chair and podium ballet.

Three actors play the roles of all three judges and they start on a raised dais and roll their chairs from one spot to the other as they depict the different judges but pretty soon they’re rolling down ramps to the lower stage and engage in a round robin of questioning while they roll ‘round the attorney who endeavors to keep facing the judges but not excluding the audiences and all while taking his wheeled podium where 'ere he goes. It does a fair job or keeping the audience engaged in what would be otherwise pretty dry dialog. This does have a limited shelf life however; by about halfway through (it only runs about 70 minutes) the shtick starts to get a little repetitive and acknowledging this they ramp up the on stage chaos during the defense attorney's comments and it devolves into on stage pandemonium with the defense attorney shouting his lines and gyrating on stage in nothing but his microphone pack (I assume that is en embellishment added to the court proceedings) while the Justices whirl about in their chairs tossing briefs (legal documents not underwear) into the air.

arguendo02That’s a long way of saying they almost pull it off and I totally get what the point they were making with the gold lame g-string and eventually the Full Monty but by the end it just felt like a desperate gag to keep the audience engaged. I didn’t dislike the play at all, I appreciated the effort and it was definitely interesting from an intellectual stand point. In the end the Court’s decision, upholding Indiana’s ban on nude dancing, seemed to have nothing to do with any great Constitutional insight but a rather arbitrary statement that “Eh, we’ve always limited this sort of behavior so why stop now.” It tied in nicely with a depiction they had on stage of the Justices playing Rochambeau to decide the case (biggest laugh of the night.)

The play is at Woolly Mammoth ‘til April 27, if you go you may want to take a lawyer with you. One they can help explain everything to you and two they might really enjoy it. Next up at Woolly Mammoth - The Totalitarians, stay tuned.

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Cabaret Sneak Peek!

Cabaret_Rehearsal06_605x329Tonight on the Tonight Show Alan Cumming and the cast of Cabaret are going to be performing the opening number from Cabaret! If you want a sneak peek tune in! I myself am a bit torn, I am staying away reviews and opinions on the show which is in previews now and will be opening shortly; it's a personal preference, i really don't want other peoples opinions impacting my enjoyment of the show in the moment. If I had any concerns that Mr. Cumming was going to be anything less than awesome the recent rehearsal photos allayed most of them.  Even with his natural gray and in a t-shirt he easily embodies the MC. I am now a scant 6 weeks away from Broadway Show-stravaganza 2014 and I'm very excited! More on that the other shows besides Cabaret I'm seeing.


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Math - I'm not so good at


A little house keeping, I skipped a number in my sequence of shows. I know how theater lovers are sticklers for numerical accuracy! So the last two shows have been renumbered. Lucky show #13 is Arguendo at Woolly Mammoth that review will be posted next week. Up coming show #14 it Henry IV Part I at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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Brief Encounter - STC #12

brief-encounter2Lucky show #13 12. This show was one of those spur of the moment additions to my schedule of shows and I’m really glad that I did. The show (produced by the Kneehigh Theater Company in England) is based on Noel Coward's 1938 play Still Life and the 1940’s movie it inspired, Brief Encounter. The play is just delightful; I really can’t come up with a better word to describe it; it was a wonderful afternoon of theater and I walked out feeling happy. The show was sweet and funny and sad and thoughtful and dramatic and poignant and musical and...did I leave anything out. Really what more can you ask for?

The play is about three different pairs of lovers that cross paths in a London train station. The main love story centers on Laura and Alec who have a “meet-cute” thanks to an errant speck of dust that Alec removes from Laura’s eye. Their attraction is immediate and in short time it is obvious they were meant for each other; if only they weren’t already married…to other people. So commences the bittersweet love story of two entirely decent people who try and walk a careful line between passion and responsibility. Their story is bookended by two other love stories, one between Beryl and Stanley, two young lovers with no impediments to their passion and Myrtle and Albert with too much of their life passed by to allow time to steal any more of it. It nicely highlights the limits of Laura and Alec’s love affair as they are hampered by their mid-life obligations to others.

brief encounter 04The show, designed as an homage to the 1940’s film, somehow manages manages the neat trick of perfectly capturing the feel of the 1940's and yet still making the show feel fresh and entirely modern.  The acting style of the production is straight out of that 1940’s era of movies but they intertwined it with a multi-media combination of  black and white movie sequences, imagery, silent movement and musical interludes that manage to flow seamlessly together into an entertaining and engaging performance; they had me from the opening scene and kept me rapt for the whole show (90min, no intermission.)

Actually to be honest they started sucking me in even before the show because not only are the actors the on stage band/singers/dancers for the on stage musical numbers (but don’t confuse this with a musical) but they are the pre-show entertainment. They were performing in the lobby before the show then moved into the theater prior to the curtain going up. It really helped set the mood for the rest of the show.

brief encounter 03I can’t stop without giving serious kudos to the cast; they all had great chemistry on stage and fluidity of the performance was fantastic. Almost all the actors played more than one role; most often the transition was intentionally rough, bringing in the audience in on the joke. I will mention that the actor who played Fred (Laura’s husband) and Albert (Myrtle’s love interest) transformed from one character  to the other so completely that it did not occur to me that it was the same actor until after the curtain call. Not that there was a radical change of appearance, no wigs, no fake noses, just a simple costume change and the transformation of demeanor and character was total. That my friends, is ACTING.

The show is only her for one more week but if you’re looking for something just fun to see I can’t recommend this show enough.

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Camp David - Arena Stage #11

camp davidThere is a poignant moment in your life when you realize that what to you are memories are in fact significant historical events of sufficient age and import to merit being memorialized, in this case, in the form of a play. Then you realize that there are people in the audience watching the play to whom the subject matter is entirely new…they weren't even born…then you realize these people aren't even terribly young…they can drink and everything! Sigh.

But I digress, or in the case of this play regress, back to 1978 and the events that lead to the historic signing of the Camp David Accords, an event I distinctly recall, in that 1970’s grainy non-techni-color way, watching on TV. The play, commission by Arena Stage, attempts to recreate the political, religious, cultural, socioeconomic and personal and emotional hurdles that had to be overcome to win this small but historically significant foothold for peace.

One of the things that’s really cool about this play is that it brand new, never been seen before and is so fresh that the ink is barely dry. It is so new that when I saw it they were still adding scenes and dialog to the show. It is so new that they were still working out Jimmy Carter’s hair (devils in the details after all.) The play is billed at 90 minutes (no intermission) but it was closer to two hours. Not that I minded.

The short review is, I enjoyed the paly; it is a good balance between intellect, drama and humor. Perhaps a little too well balanced between the three? It seemed like every deep dramatic moment had almost a 1 for 1 humorous break, which has primarily Rosalyn’s role in the play. Serving tea and chiding the men that “Making peace, it’s such hard work.” Or “That’s what happens when you leave Billy in charge of the farm.” Not to belittle her character, you do get a sense that she really did act as a touch stone for Jimmy in all parts of life.

camp david 01The author, Lawrence Wright, is a journalist, which I think was good, because if you’re going to write a play about people who are still alive and can correct your work, you want to have your facts straight. What I really took away from the play was that this was a very personal mission for Jimmy Carter and was accomplished by sheer force of will. The other players in the process, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin arrive clearly viewing this as a futile effort, a pro-forma attempt at peace. The former came with a proposal so outlandish it would be rejected out of hand and the latter came with nothing all. Both were there simply because, you don’t say no to the President when an invitation like this is issued. There’s a great joke (which I hope is true) told in the play that involves calling God and America, which highlights the perception of American power in the world. It doesn’t work out of context; you’ll have to go see the play. There’s also a prescient moment in the play where Sadat casually noted that if he’s going to be killed it will not be for “half measures.” In making this peace Sadat did in effect sign his own death warrant.

The actors were all really great; this is a Broadway caliber cast and it shows. Richard Thomas does a pretty good Jimmy Carter, although I think his southern drawl tended to veer into Clinton territory pretty regularly. Hallie Foote (daughter of playwright Horton Foote) is about perfect as Rosalyn. The cast is rounded out with Ron Rifkin as Begin and Khaled Nabawy as Sadat and both are excellent. I like that they cast actors from all the faiths that the play portrays, I think it adds depth to the performances. The cultural and religious conflicts represented in the play haven’t changed much in 35 years. There’s a great scene in the play that starts with Sadat praying and segues to Begin praying, then Carter; it highlighted for me that as the Muslim Sabbath ends the Jewish Sabbath is beginning and as the Jewish Sabbath ends the Christian begins.

camp david 04Special kudos has to go to the make-up artist that transformed the prototypical tall dark and handsome, modern Omar Sharif (he's actually a big star in Egypt) Mr. Nabawy into Anwar Sadat. That’s quite a transformation, really!

Camp DavidFinally little shout-out to the set design. The woods of Camp David are represented by large tree trunks that are raised and lowered to create the different setting. It’s a not so subtle metaphor for these men trying to find their way out of the woods and into a meaningful peace. At least I assume that was intentional.

The show was interesting enough that I’m tempted to see it again just to see how it’s changed. Because, really I’m not seeing enough theater right now.  It plays through May 4th at Arena Stage.

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Musical to Movie Trend Continues

So I see this article in today bout Broadway musicals being translated to film and well...I'm simultaneously excited and dismayed. Some I knew about, some are news to me but here are some highlights and more importantly my opinion on them.

Opening this year:

Jersey Boys - Won't go see, I'm still holding a grudge. Don't ask.

quvenzaAnnie - Might go see it just be cause they've cast Quvenzhane Wallis (freaking adorable) but I'm so over Annie. Maybe I'll take the nieces/nephews to see it.

Into the Woods - I'm enjoying the tradition of having a musical movie at Christmas time + Christine Baranski this I will definitely go see.

Of things in development:

My Fair Lady - with Colin Firth and Carey Mulligan AND screen play by Emma Thompson. This I would see but the last update was 2011 so I'm not holding my breath.

Guys and Dolls - Not really a favorite musical then you go and cast Channing Tatum? Really? I'm not sure the co-casting of Joseph-Gordon Levitt is enough to overcome that for me.

Gypsy - Directed and staring Barbara Streisand - I'm pretty sure I would be obligated to see this. We don't like to be on Mrs. Brolin's bad side, and really that's kind of perfect casting.

Jekyll & Hyde - A pretty bad musical but if they cast David Hasselhoff again, I'd pay money to see that! I love a comedy.

hughjackmanOkay, here's a big teaser again, they better no be jerking me around on this one. A new movie version of South Pacific starring Hugh Jackman. That is really, really good casting, I always had issues with darling Mr. Jackman as Valjean but I think he would make an awesome Emil De Becque, it's a much better vocal range for him. Of course...of course then they have to go and propose Justin Timberlake as Lt. Cable, really? How about the oh so talented and adorable Aaron Tevit, tell me he wouldn't be a great Cable?!?

Other notable possibilities include In the Heights, Wicked and Spring Awakening, three great shows I pray they don't screw up! Click on the link for the full article.

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Wolverine! Les Musicales

I could not resist posting this! It is too too too funny and yet another reason I adore the adorable Mr. Jackman.

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Hexagon - March Madness # 10


I have a standing rule that I will go see most any show some asks me to, if I’m able to and assuming it’s not Jersey Boys. (It’s a grudge, don’t ask) Sometimes this serves me well, it’s how I discovered Synetic Theater, other times you end up in a camp ground theater at night watching a play about the Donner party while things rustle and go bump in the woods. It’s one method I use to ensure that I don’t get too set in my theatrical selections; I want good variety. This is the long way of telling you I didn’t pick this particular performance. I should also mention that this is not a professional production; it’s not even a community theater production. Hexagon is a not for profit, all volunteer, organization that produces an annual musical revue and the proceeds from the show go to charity.

I really can’t review a production like this, it’s an entirely amateur production and it just wouldn’t be fair to expect the same level of production and performance value you get from a seasoned theatrical company or even community theater. The best way to describe the show is think Capital Steps (topical political humor) but instead of putting lyrics to popular songs they write their own music.

I am impressed by the amount of time and effort and love goes into putting together a show like this and the obviously unfettered enthusiasm of the not un-voluminous cast. It is really a labor of love and a chance for people who have no other opportunity to get on stage and give performance a whirl. So no critiques but there were a couple nice of highlights in the 2-1/2 hour show. The kick line number prior to intermission was pretty good and very precise. There was also a pretty decent tap number somewhere in the second act. My favorite number was “These Aren’t Those Days,” it’s a cute song and was well performed. Several times throughout the show they had a faux news break and each performance has a different professional guest news announcer. For this performance it was Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard from WTOP and I was really quite impressed with how a professional can make even some pretty sketchy jokes work.

The show runs through next weekend if you feel like making a donation.

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Hamlet…the rest is silence – Synetic Theater #9

hamlet01Synetic Theater’s latest offering is a reprise of their very first production of what has become their hallmark, wordless productions of Shakespeare. I have for years regretted having missed this show and was really, really excited to see that they were going to revisit it this spring. The problem with anticipation and expectations is that you’re setting yourself up a little bit; I’ve heard this performance lauded so often that I had certain perceptions of what I would see. It’s like when I finally got around to seeing Lion King, a decade after it had opened, after hearing so many people and critics rave about “The best show I’ve ever seen!” I went to see Lion King and my reaction was at best tepid. “Oh, well that was fine.” That’s kind of where I find myself with this production of Hamlet, not that it wasn’t a perfectly entertaining evening of theater, it really was enjoyable, and for those who are not familiar with their body of work it would likely be revelatory. (or you would hate it entirely, I acknowledge it will not be to everyone's tastes) It’s just that I’ve seen so much of what they have done since this production first debuted and in my opinion most their of current work surpasses this show.

I guess it is a testament to how far they’ve progresses in their medium, which is one of their own invention; I’ve never seen anything quite like it and am quite fond of their performances. I think they have become much more adept at distilling the verbosity of Shakespeare’s stories to provide a streamlined tale that is true to the spirit of the play without feeling that they have to adhere strictly to the sequence of the narrative. I can’t even imagine trying to pare down the 4 hours of Hamlet to a pithy 90 minute performance.

hamlet02While this is a bare bones production of Hamlet they have kept the meat of the story intact; although there are some parts I would have liked to see more of and other things I would have edited. I found myself missing Horatio, in the play he is the thin thread that ties Hamlet to some semblance of reason and he is the alpha and omega of the narrative. Throughout this performance Hamlet floats about friendless and unanchored. I would have gotten rid of the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; it was a little abrupt and arbitrary, they showed up, they didn’t interact with Hamlet at all and they died. I would have liked to see them spend a little more time with Hamlet's feigned or otherwise descent into madness. Alex Mills does madness so well (remember Jeckyll & Hyde?) why not take advantage?

I did really enjoy Irina Kavsadze’s hauntingly mad Ophelia, I assume her red hair being the only real color in the production was and intentional decision, she was the one bright spot in Hamlet existence that he unintentionally snuffs out. The depiction of Gertrude played by Irina Tsikurishvili (always wonderful) had distinct shades of Lady Macbeth, she was represented as a willing, at least after the fact, accomplice to the murder of her husband rather than simply a weak woman bent to the will of the men in her life. It does provide a contrast to our tragically broken Ophelia, though in the end her strength serves her no better than Ophelia's weakness.

The overall feel of the production was all atmosphere, there is very little set design and most everything is accomplished with a few props, smoke, lights and yes even mirrors and the cast themselves. I felt that this was a much more low energy, sometimes even somnolent, production, which at the end of a work day and after a couple cocktails can be a little yawn inducing. (That is more my problem than their’s) The one dissonant note that bugged me throughout was the casting of Hamlet’s Ghost. Not to say that Philip Fletcher did in anyway a bad job but physically he appeared much younger and slighter than how I imagine the most “warlike” Hamlet and, in comparison to Irakli Kavsadze’s visceral and commanding Claudius, seemed to be the younger less impressive brother when it is supposed to be the reverse.

1415SeasonI am glad to have seen the show and for those not familiar with Synetic I can't recommend them enough. I am very eager to see next season’s shows, they look really interesting! And…and most exciting of all…Paata Tsikurishvili is going to return and perform in at least two of the shows! I have not seen him perform in years! That may make me pull the trigger on a season ticket. Click on the thumbnail to see the 2014-15 seasons offerings. I'm not sure what Hunting Cockroaches is, but I want to see it just because of the title.

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#7 Coriolanus – NT Live Screening

I am catching up on show posts, I saw this two shows ago (#8 is the Show with the really really long tittle) but I wanted to get this out before I go see show numbers 9 and 10 this weekend, so bear with me.

Coriolanus-NTlive-03Coriolanus is not an often preformed or well-known play but this is the third time I’ve seen it performed and it has moved steadily up on my list of favorite Shakespeare plays (admit it, you have a list too.) I’d put it somewhere in the vicinity of Hamlet and Macbeth, for straight dramas. For Shakespeare it’s actually a pretty tightly written play with nary a meandering sojourn into excessive classical hyperbole, random characters or plays with plays.

Coriolanus is the story of a highly decorated and lauded soldier who has been raised by his mother to have such pride in himself and his not inconsiderable skills that he is incapable of compromise even for his own benefit. I believe it’s based on the ancient Roman folk song “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Monomaniacal Soldiers with a Distorted Sense of Honor and Mommy Issues” (That may have been the working title.)

Coriolanus-NTlive-05Produced at the Donmar Warehouse, I really enjoyed the performance. While Coriolanus is indeed haughty, prideful, arrogant and intractable with no respect for the plebeian population, it is not that difficult to understand his perspective. As they are depicted in the play the plebiscites are ill mannered, easily angered, easily mollified and as easily lead as children with candy. (That sounds disturbingly familiar even these days doesn't it?) It is the classic story class conflicts, power mongering and of why great soldiers rarely make great politicians. For Coriolanus there is no compromise on the battle field, there is no backwards and such things are the meat that politicians live on. He was nurtured by a mother who would rather have a dead son than one who returns from war un-victorious and who prizes his scars as highly as accolades.

Tom Hiddleston, in the title role, does a wonderful job, and yes he’s the primary reason I went to see the show. I could see how he would bring the right kind of intensity to the performance and that he did with little intensity left to spare. I also appreciated his light touch in bringing humor and compassion to the character. There is no doubt that despite his pride and anger he has great love for his family and the two combined are really his downfall.

Coriolanus-NTliveThis production is a great example of how great actors can possess a stage and little in the way of stage props are required to provide a stellar experience. I do have to give major props to the make-up artists that created Coriolanus’ bruised and battered body, even on a movie screen the site of them made me wince.

If you have not had a chance to go to any of these NTLive screenings I highly recommend them. The next scheduled one showing here in the US is War Horse; I don’t think it’s even touring in the US anymore so take the opportunity to see it if you can. Look for dates in near you here.

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