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Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Love's Infrastructure, a striking theatrical collaboration of Torry Bend and Bombadil

Posted by on Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 5:45 PM

Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • Torry Bend with the members of Bombadil: (from left): Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson
Love's Infrastructure

Duke Performances
@ PSI Theatre,  Durham Arts Council
Closed Jan. 26

Let’s start with the most striking thing about Love’s Infrastructure, the new collaboration between puppeteer Torry Bend and pop-folk trio Bombadil: how the show works. Imagine watching The Muppet Show while simultaneously seeing all the hubbub behind the scenes. While Bombadil plays music, Bend’s crew of designers, managers and puppeteers creates a complex puppet show, projecting the results at the center of the stage, while the “making of”—sets, puppetry, cameras and computers—spills out behind the screen.

The delightful opening scene, for example, shows the sun—a round bit of tin foil discreetly held in a puppeteer’s hand—rising over a green countryside. We descend to a bird’s-eye view of a country road, with cars zipping around verdant curves, and then level off to the driver’s perspective as cookie-cutter neighborhoods—rows of cardboard houses glued to a wheel—churn by. At last, a whole city springs into view when a puppeteer swings its set into place behind the others.

This mode of performance, though not unheard of, is novel enough that audiences will find more than enough to keep their interest. In fact, Love’s Infrastructure is so visually stimulating that it’s possible to forget that Bombadil is playing live, which is a pity, since the band more than holds up its end of the show. Bombadil’s songs go down easily but lean toward being anthems, sung in lilting tenor voices and played in perfect sync over heartbeat rhythms.

The story-songs float over the narrative of Love’s Infrastructure, a quirky modern romance between a commuter and a tollbooth agent. Somehow, I fell behind on the plot, catching the twists dreamily and belatedly. A scene where two puppets’ hands pass sparkly gewgaws back and forth, sometimes pausing to hold them to the light, struck me as a pretty metaphor for courtship and attraction. Only later did I realize that the commuter was actually giving these little objects to the tollbooth agent in lieu of coin, getting her fired and setting the stage for a heroic act.

I think I lost the thread because I was swept up in another story entirely: the story of the puppeteers. I often found myself watching them instead of the screen, rapt by this one’s intricate sheaf of braids, that one’s smile of concentration, another’s lean and muscled back as he hunched over the scene he was filming, or the strong and graceful hands with which a fourth crew member maneuvered a puppet. Their silent, cooperative struggles and triumphs were more engaging to me than the sweet but rather anemic central romance.

Following the puppeteers meant feeling stressed for them, because on opening night, Bend and her company seemed to be uncomfortably pushing the limits of their abilities. Take, for example, the scene where the puppet-hero escapes his confines in order to save his crush. He leaps onto the screen—now recorded rather than visibly manipulated from backstage—and, projected onto the white-clad body of a puppeteer, enters the real world. The image is poetic in theory, but the puppeteer found it difficult to keep the projection on his body. At any rate, the shallow space of PSI Theatre makes the illusions nearly impossible to maintain in all seats.

Still, imagine this scene with me for a moment, from a different vantage: What if it’s not so much about the puppet rising from determinism into free will, but more about the puppeteer abandoning power for vulnerability? He becomes a visible body rather than an invisible pair of hands. This brings us back to the title, Love’s Infrastructure. What vast systems move under the apparent world? Who makes our lives and amours possible, and what do we make possible? What do we work for and what does it cost us?

All puppetry proposes invisible causes, but by making the causes visible, Love’s Infrastructure foregrounds these philosophical questions without quite plumbing them. That’s why I’d call this show a launch rather than a landing for Bend and Bombadil.
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    Love’s Infrastructure foregrounds philosophical questions without quite plumbing them.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

The most amazing season, eh? A closer look at DPAC's new Broadway line-up

Posted by on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 at 1:23 PM

The Book of Mormon comes to Durham Feb. 11-23, 2014.

To summarize the lineup of touring Broadway shows coming through the Durham Performing Arts Center’s new season as succinctly as possible: Hope you like Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Sir Andrew’s work may be found in three of the seven new shows announced at DPAC’s SunTrust Broadway Preview Event on Friday, specifically the touring version of the recently-closed revival of Evita, the 2011 West End musical version of The Wizard of Oz film with new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and a whole concert featuring songs from Lloyd Webber’s extensive oeuvre, including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.

If you’re not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC’s Broadway series, you might be in trouble.

The other new shows are a strange mix. I’m most excited about the touring productions of two recent Tony winners, The Book of Mormon and the minimalist stage adaptation of the film Once. I’m less enthused by a musical of the Patrick Swayze film Ghost that flopped after 136 performances on Broadway last year, or by a new musical of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though the Grinch costume shown to us is less trauma-inducing than the Jim Carrey film from a decade back.

Mind you, my cynicism wasn't shared by the DPAC members who swarmed the auditorium on Friday for the announcement (at least 1,200 were present, based on the number of raffle tickets submitted to the event organizers), who cheered loudly at the announcements. One patron told me that he was pleased that the lineup features shows with more “broad appeal,” claiming DPAC’s recent showing of Jekyll and Hyde with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis was “too dark.")

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    If you're not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC's Broadway series, you might be in trouble.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Some assembly required? Meow Meow in Beyond Glamour at PSI Theatre

Posted by on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 2:54 PM

Caburlesque performer Meow Meow
  • Karl Giant
  • Caburlesque performer Meow Meow
Meow Meow
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council
Through Feb. 14

It doesn’t always look that way, I know. But critics usually don’t go to a show for the purpose of basking in their own smugness and perceived superiority over the material, the genre, the company or the audience. (At least, they shouldn’t. When one does—and occasionally it happens, even here—little more is served than their own ego.)

But what do we make of a performance in which the performer appears to be doing this instead? That is the riddle posed by one Melissa Madden Gray, whose caburlesque performance under the stage name Meow Meow, Beyond Glamour, closes this evening in PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council.

By themselves, the 15 songs in this cabaret-concert-with-a-twist take us on a willfully eclectic trip. After an opening out of the American songbook, Gray quickly goes continental, mixing multiple selections by Edith Piaf and Astor Piazzolla with works by Bertolt Brecht and Monique Serf, best known during the 1960s as the single-name French songstress, Barbara. (Over half of the songs sung in this performance are in their original tongues; translations are provided for some, but not all.) These are interspersed with fashionably downbeat numbers by Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin (with an ostensible cameo by John Cage in the midst).

But, as Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it’s all in the delivery. Unfortunately, Gray’s renditions of these works evokes more question marks at times than exclamation points.

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    As Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it's all in the delivery.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mary Poppins is witty and colorful, if not supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Posted by on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Madeline Trumble and Con OShea-Creal as Mary Poppins and Bert
  • Kyle Froman
  • Madeline Trumble and Con O'Shea-Creal as Mary Poppins and Bert
* * * 1/2 stars
Through Feb. 17
Durham Performing Arts Center

The touring production of the stage musical version of Disney's Mary Poppins, co-created by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera hitmaker Cameron Mackintosh and appearing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17, is an odd experience, depending on which version of Mary Poppins you know. If you're mostly familiar with the 1964 film with Julie Andrews, this version jettisons many of the songs, scenes and plot points, creates a completely different conflict for the second act and adds a handful of new characters, including a nemesis for the titular magic nanny. If you're familiar with the movie version's source material though, the stage show is a mixed but sometimes fascinating attempt to find a middle ground between the fantastic-but-deadpan tone of the original Mary Poppins books and the more sweetness-filled film.

A history lesson: As a kid, I had all the Mary Poppins books by Pamela "P.L." Travers, in which the children Jane and Michael Banks are naughty and incorrigible, and Mary Poppins herself is a satire of a stereotypical uptight British nanny, guiding her charges on fantastic adventures without betraying a moment of excitement or interest with the wonders they encounter. (When they meet the Man in the Moon, Mary Poppins is mostly irate he's planning to make some cocoa and take a nap instead of doing his job.) Though Walt Disney himself campaigned mightily to make a film of Travers' work (soon to be the subject of its own film, Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers), Travers herself was deeply disappointed with the resulting film, even though its success brought renewed interest to her work. (The full story is chronicled in this fascinating New Yorker article from a few years back.)

Pamela P.L. Travers

All this backstory is important because the stage version of Mary Poppins takes most of its cues from the original book. The settings (a combination of physical sets and rear-projection) are designed heavily in the style of Mary Rogers' illustrations of the original books, with the Banks household first appearing as a flat picture that folds out to reveal its interior like a pop-up book. The play also borrows from other books in the series, incorporating the character of a living statue of the Greek demigod Neleus (Leeds Hill) and Mary Poppins' (Madeline Trumble's) various methods of arrival and departure from the different books.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Cirque du Soleil's athletic prowess compensates for show's flaws

Posted by on Fri, Aug 17, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Cirque du Soleil's Dralion - Images by Independent Weekly

* * * stars
PNC Arena
Through Aug. 19

Cirque du Soleil is a global juggernaut, but it's still a surprisingly youthful institution. In contrast to, say, those 19th-century animal drivers Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque is a babe. Officially dating to 1984, the Montreal-based troupe exploded in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the troupe developed an Eastern-themed show called Dralion. The show focused on Chinese acrobatics and became a huge hit, running for about 13 years.

In 2010, the show was revived for arena tours, and that's what audiences see this week at PNC Arena. We caught the show Wednesday night at Raleigh's PNC Arena. We can report that the show is filled with dancers, singers, tumblers, trampoliners, aerialists and an impossibly ripped guy who does this thing with a "crossed wheel" routine. The latter comes early in the show, as Jonathan Morin tumbles onto the stage in his self-invented device of two steel circles, intersecting in the shape of an egg. Morin does a variety of spins, cartwheels and flips with the device. It's amazing, inventive stuff, the sort of thing people come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. However, the routine goes on for a couple minutes too long—and it's not the first time in the evening that we have that feeling.

You wouldn't know from watching the show, but Morin is playing a character called Kala, who is described thusly on the Cirque website: "Kala is the heart of the wheel that represents time and the infinite cycle. He is the internal propulsion of the wheel that makes time evolve. It is the ongoing circle of life."

There's a lot of this "ongoing circle of life" stuff in this production. A group of dancers and singers establish what seems to be a narrative framework, although we can't understand the invented language the trio of singers sing ("an invented language to which only Cirque du Soleil holds the key. Their mysterious accents echo down through time").

Nor do we know exactly what is meant by the character called The Little Buddha, who steps forward at the beginning of the show (after the clowns have warmed up the crowd) and meaningfully brandishes an oversized sand hourglass. Our lives are finite, I suppose. Time is running out in this circle of life. For those interested, the website helpfully tells us that the "Little Buddha is the chosen child. Although it possesses special powers that will allow it to eventually become an Âme-Force, it dreams of being just a regular child."

What's an Âme-Force? "L'Âme-Force symbolises ultimate harmony between the four elements."

OK, it's best not to peer too deeply into the story of Dralion, when it's really just a mostly solid evening of human tricks and stunts, topped off with some gorgeous, death-defying aerial dances over center ring, and a thrilling wall trampoline routine at the rear of the stage (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many ex-Olympians, especially gymnasts, divers and synchronized swimmers, find work with Cirque du Soleil.)

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    Too often, when I wanted to get lost in the phenomenal athleticism of the performers, I kept being reminded that we were in a hockey arena.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chicago brings the razzle-dazzle, but not the Brinkley

Posted by on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 9:19 AM

Too bad Christie (above) is sick, but cmon... Bianca Marroquin is covering for her.
3.5 stars (out of five)
@Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Aug. 5

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I missed Christie Brinkley last night.

A buzz of disappointment ran through the opening-night crowd for the brash and bawdy musical Chicago at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Supermodel Brinkley, due to play murderous ingénue Roxie Hart, would not appear due to illness. She may return later this week. (DPAC announced this morning that Brinkley will not perform in Durham.)

But Bianca Marroquin, who's playing the lead in the current Broadway incarnation, hopped a plane from New York to stand in for the cover girl, and knocked her performance onto Waveland Avenue.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Brinkley bringing but a fraction of the pizzazz to Roxie that Marroquin does. Combining a muscular sexiness with the jerky slapstick sensibility of Cheri Oteri, Marroquin gave Roxie rich layers of innocence and libido. The Mexican actress knows this role, for she's been playing it on and off since she made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in 2002.

Marroquin wasn’t the only stand-in for a principal. Kecia Lewis-Evans stepped into the role of Matron “Mama” Morton, garnering some of the loudest cheers of the evening for belting out her character’s signature tune “When You’re Good to Mama” and providing the only voice in the cast to fill the cavernous DPAC.

Bianca Marroquin (left) and, as Velma Kelly, Amra-Faye Wright

Amra-Faye Wright is brassy and hilarious in the other lead role of Velma Kelly and Tony Yazbeck’s slick-and-sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn glues the evening together with a solid, steady performance amid the burlesque hysteria of almost incessant musical numbers.

The one thing lacking from the performance was the title character itself. The city of Jazz-Age Chicago, land of speakeasys and feverish promiscuity, fails to make a real appearance in the production. The staging couldn’t be more spare, as the orchestra occupies the majority of the performance floor in a three-level riser that images a nightclub. This leaves a surprisingly narrow area between the riser and the lip of the stage for the cast to perform in, which presented occasional challenges Tuesday night. Marroquin’s nose was nearly taken off by a chorus dancer skidding in for the final ta-da to “We Both Reached for the Gun.” If anything, it gives the numbers a dangerous edge.

But the absenteeism of the City of the Broad Shoulders is hardly the fault of the cast, who top to bikini-briefs-clad bottom blasts the audience with enthusiasm. Chicago stays fun and fast throughout, with or without a supermodel in the mix.

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    Frankly, it's hard to imagine Brinkley bringing but a fraction of the pizzazz to Roxie that Bianca Marroquin does.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Boneshaker author Cherie Priest talks steampunk at ConTemporal in Chapel Hill

Posted by on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 9:47 AM

Why should you head to ConTemporal, the Chapel Hill-based science fiction convention that focuses heavily on the retro-futuristic concept of steampunk? We’ll let the con’s literary guest of honor Cherie Priest tell you why.

Steampunk, for those not in the know, is a branch of science fiction that postulates what would have happened if modern or futuristic technology had been created in the past, using the technology and materials available at that time, e.g. steam engines, zeppelins and the like. It’s become a particularly popular subset of science fiction fandom, with many fans creating steampunk-themed outfits and crafts sold online and at shows.

Priest has become one of the most popular authors of steampunk in her “Clockwork Century” series, which began in her award-winning bestseller Boneshaker, about how a massive steam-powered drill unleashes a zombie plague in Civil War-era Seattle.

Priest says that steampunk’s appeal comes from a “perfect storm of pop culture” where people embrace the sense of design and functionality in the old-fashioned technology, as opposed to the sleek, compact style found in Apple-style products. “In that school of design, everything is this sort of pristine, inscrutable box where if you don’t know where to touch it or how to react to it, it might as well be a brick,” Priest says.

“The Victorians, God bless ‘em, thought their technology should be beautiful as well as functional. And we seem to have lost that in the streamlining efforts to make everything look futuristic. I think in one regard, Steampunk is a reaction to that, a way of saying, ‘No, we don’t want something that looks like what everybody else has, that’s flat and inscrutable.’"

So are the fans wearing homemade goggles and railroad pocket watches giving the finger to the iPad?

“I’ll put it this way: If the Victorians made a giant death-ray killing machine, it would look like a giant death-ray killing machine,” Priest says. “It would fill an entire room and have gears and brass and engraving, and would be this enormous, powerful, beautiful-looking thing. If Apple made a giant death ray killing machine, it would look like a button. And I think there’s a sense that something has been lost, and steampunk’s trying to reclaim that a bit.”

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    "I'm talking to you on an iPhone, and I can use it to see myself from space, but God help me if I drop it in the bathtub."

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

It's wrestling, but is it art? Food trucks and smackdowns tonight in Raleigh

Posted by on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 1:24 PM

A superstar from the late ’90s Southern Championship Wrestling scene
  • Shonna Greenwell
  • A superstar from the late ’90s Southern Championship Wrestling scene
There’s art to be found in men beating the crap out of each other. There is also wholesome, family entertainment located there too.

Just ask Rebus Works owner Shonna Greenwell. Today, the men of local wrestling outfit GOUGE Wrestling will be smashing and bashing outside her arts and crafts gallery, entertaining spectators as they take part in another one of Rebus Works’s Food Truck Rodeo.

So, just how did an art gallery owner hook up with a bunch of tights-wearing bruisers? Well, for starters, she lived next to one for years.

“Count Grog was my neighbor,” says Greenwell, referring to the wrestling manager and GOUGE commissioner. She got invited to one of their shows back when they were performing over at the Berkeley Café. Greenwell, who was dabbling in photography at the time, found them to be the perfect photo subjects.

“These guys, or men and women, would completely go into this other ego or other personality, and it was always your classic, like, good vs. evil,” she says. “And they would get the crowd riled up, and you could get all your frustrations and everything out. You could yell whatever you want and basically cheer for whoever you wanted as well.”

Greenwell got the GOUGE crew to perform outside Rebus Works for one paid event, but it turned to be, in Greenwell’s words, a “borderline disaster.” She forgot that because Rebus Works is located below the Boylan Street Bridge, passersby could watch the action from the bridge and not pay a dime.

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    So, just how did an art gallery owner hook up with a bunch of tights-wearing bruisers?

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Love never dies, but many terrible musicals have: Sitting through Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel.

Posted by on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 4:12 PM

This past Christmas, I received two books on the history of Broadway flops, Not Since Carrie and Second Act Trouble. They’re fascinating reads, both illuminating some hidden treasures of the theater and in recounting the brazen excesses that doom many a Broadway flop to its fate.

A review of the adaptation of Carrie, the musical version of Stephen King’s classic revenge story, which inspired the title of Not Since Carrie. A recent revival dumped the camp and was excoriated for NOT providing the insane spectacle the audience anticipated.

This is on my mind when I recently attended a Fathom Events screening of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated follow-up to his seminal The Phantom of the Opera. Phantom is, of course, now the longest-running show ever on Broadway, but Love Never Dies never even made it to the Great White Way after a disastrous West End run.

Trailer for the Melbourne production of Love Never Dies, the version released to theaters and DVD.

A revised Melbourne production was better-received, though, and it’s this version I’m catching at my editor’s behest (it came out on DVD May 29). My schadenfreude is hoping for some sort of epic so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Lloyd Webber is known for excess, and musical sequels are a dangerous game. Ever heard of Bring Back Birdie, Annie Warbucks or A Doll’s Life, the musical sequel to A Doll’s House? My point exactly.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baby steps: Learning to love anime at Animazement

Posted by on Tue, May 29, 2012 at 4:32 PM

The scene at the 2010 Animazement convention
Stuck in the doorway outside the Raleigh Convention Center on a rainy Sunday, I'm at least treated to the spectacle of a small army of middle school-to-college-aged individuals communing in makeup, corsets and the odd Pokemon hat. It's the last day of Animazement, the popular Raleigh event that attracts thousands of fans of Japanese animation or "anime," and I'm on a mission—to join in on their fandom.

Anime represents a blind spot in my nerdity, but its sense of community and wide variety of colorful series have long piqued my interest. Despite its apparent overlap with the comic books and SF/Fantasy that make up an uncomfortable part of my psyche, there's almost a separate-but-equal vibe to these worlds. Just as I complain about not knowing who any of these characters are at Animazement, one bunny-hatted girl complains to me that she had no idea who any of the superhero characters were at a New York convention I attended and enjoyed last fall.

While I am still taking furtive steps into the medium of anime, the combination of Netflix Instant, Hulu and a Roku device has allowed me to blast through a few complete series over the last few months, and where better a place to find out about quality series than a massive gathering of anime fans? Through some chit-chat, I find a number of names occur over and over.

Combined with my own experiences, here's the first episodes of 10 different anime shows that are available in the entirely for free on Hulu. I had certain grounds for inclusion: Nothing based on a card game, a bare minimum of giant robots and no schoolgirls and/or tentacles. Yes, this limited the playing field. Yes, there's still plenty of good stuff.

Gurren Lagann is a more recent series that combines many an archtypical anime trope (big robots, scantily clad girl, rebellious teenage protagonist, post-apocalyptic wasteland), but transcends them with a healthy dose of self-awareness and strong characterization. Its tale of a couple of "bros" who find a battling robot head and use it to find similarly-armed mutants on the Earth's surface takes some surprising turns, with major characters dying and a poignant ending, combined with a punkish exuberance. If you must watch one giant robot show, let this be it.

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    Anime represents a blind spot in my nerdity, but its sense of community and wide variety of colorful series have long piqued my interest.

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