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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Design flaws bedevil Death by Design

Posted by on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 2:08 PM

★★ 1/2
NCSU TheatreFest
through June 29

Since frames and red herrings are par for the course in mystery novels, the genre’s aficionados were mostly unfazed when amateur detectives Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher were recently arrested in a coordinated sting operation. (Miss Marple’s exploits have long been immortalized in the novels of Agatha Christie; Fletcher sleuthed on TV's “Murder She Wrote.”) But thriller fans were shocked—shocked!—when the pair subsequently confessed to heading a sophisticated murder-for-money scheme over much of the last century.

“Oh, we didn’t do the first few in,” Marple said in a press conference hastily arranged by her attorney H. Rumpole. “But once we got good at solving murders, we noticed that there wasn’t exactly enough supply to keep up with our demand.”

For her part, an unrepentant Fletcher stated, “What
were the odds that two retired busybodies would happen upon a dead body—and just keep happening upon them after that? Whodunnit? Who in blue blazes do you think dunnit, you idiots?”

“It was right there in front of you,” Marple noted. “We had the motive, the opportunities. And, after those first few novels, we certainly had the means.”

After Fletcher chalked up their serial killings to “the high price of entertainment,” Marple primly observed, “You
do have to break a few eggs, dear.”

Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN - NCSU THEATREFEST
  • NCSU TheatreFest
  • Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Bridgit, the amateur detective—and maid—doesn’t kill Walter Pierce, a more off-able than affable conservative British politician in the murderous comedy DEATH BY DESIGN. (The butler didn’t do it either—there isn’t one.)

With actor JoAnne Dickinson, who has ably explored similar characters in previous TheatreFest seasons, director John McIlwee keeps the central character entirely faithful to the time-honored model of bush league skullduggery. Dickinson’s Bridgit is arch, imperious and the true ruler of the roost in the country home of Edward and Sorel Bennett (Michael Brocki and Lynda Clark). Those two are West End habitués—playwright and diva, respectively—laying low after their latest show tanked on opening night.

Playwright Rob Urbinati tries to marry Nöel Coward with Agatha Christie in this backstage whodunnit, and partially he succeeds. With the chips down, Edward and Sorel have predictably turned on one another, hurling amusing barbs along with Chinese vases and assorted glassware. For their part, Brocki and Clark handle the verbal ballistics with panache.

Elsewhere, however, the wordplay, characters and plotting turn clunky. After Pierce drops in for a botched assignation with Sorel, a poorly written student revolutionary character, a boorish modern dance doyenne (the game Sandi Sullivan) and an ill-defined late arrival mainly show up to provide more suspects. Gus Allen fares a bit better among supporting roles as stand-up chauffeur, Jack.

The production has guilty pleasures aplenty, particularly for those who enjoy backstage catfights. Knowledgeable theatergoers will be amused by the update on Shakespeare's sendup of Pyramus and Thisbe in mid-show. McIlwee’s sets and costumes, as always, are sumptuous, and Julie Florin’s introductory and intermission pianistry is tasteful and elegant. But given the labored plot mechanics, this outing lacks the zip of earlier murder mysteries in this summer series. Unfortunately, there’s a design flaw—or three—in Death By Design.

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    Despite guilty theatrical pleasures, writing and plot mechanics slow DEATH BY DESIGN.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Theater review: Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo

Posted by on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 7:57 AM

Tarantino's Yellow Speedo - PHOTO BY ALEX MANESS
  • photo by Alex Maness
  • Tarantino's Yellow Speedo
Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo
Little Green Pig at Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 7

May was a big month for Durham’s Monica Byrne. On May 20, Crown Publishing Group
 issued her speculative fiction novel The Girl in the Road, which came armed with big-time blurbs by the likes of Neil Gaiman. (See our review.) Just two days later, Byrne’s latest play, staged by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and directed by Jay O’Berski, opened at Manbites Dog Theater.

Both works are connected by the theme of polyamory, which, in the bawdy and anarchic Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo (no relation to Quentin), fuels an untidy exploration of the relationship between borders and safety. The playwright’s point about polyamory comes across a bit murky, but perhaps that’s deliberate. Even if you wholeheartedly believe monogamy to be a trap, it doesn’t make the alternatives any easier to navigate.

The spectacle revolves around an international group of Olympians—a German wrestler, a North Korean field hockey player, a Ukrainian badminton player, a Bosnian boxer and a married couple of American trapshooters—recruited by a secret organization to save the world with “sexual diplomacy.” They will do so by sleeping with each other in the hopes of making it into “the zone,” a sort of pan-amorous, non-possessive state of Zen. Those who do will be awarded the yellow speedo of the title, which was once worn by Arturo Tarantino, the vanished Italian diving champion who founded the philosophy and the organization.

If all of this sounds rather baffling—well, it is. INDY readers got a sneak peak at the outlandish scenario in a humor piece Byrne wrote in these pages in 2012, inspired by a news report of a surfeit of free condoms being distributed at the Olympics. Anyone who left the theater scratching their heads might find it clarifying. 

Though it’s initially unclear why the Olympics should be the setting for this partner-swapping roundelay, we realize that it’s an apt setting as Byrne’s concerns gradually emerge from the whirlwind of raucous dance numbers, TV doc-style video bios, surrealist set pieces and explicit assignations. The Olympics are a place where nation-states compete for finite resources across imaginary borders, in the same way that individuals do for sex and love. The difference is that love, unlike medals or minerals, is theoretically an infinite resource—why, then, do we hoard it?

This is the central question the play continually circles without quite hitting the target of an answer. Even so, some deep notes are sounded, especially in versions of the refrain “what makes you feel safe?” tolling through the script like a dark bell. Byrne’s script, well written and often funny, is full of passionate screeds against monogamy. At the same time, unhappy outcomes seem to play against the brave words. Byrne manages to condense an affecting conclusion from the pandemonium and, without spoiling anything, we can say that “the zone” is discovered to have borders of its own, separating those inside it from those without.

The most engaging performances come from the serene, likable Nicola Bullock and the high-strung Caitlin Wells—who ably portrays her character's eager, nervous energy—as the married American trapshooters, though the deck is heavily stacked in their favor. As their theoretically open marriage is tested by actual openness and the jealously that ensues—which Arturo Tarantino holds forth on in one of his ghostly appearances behind the projection screen—they shape up as the most richly, realistically drawn characters, with the clearest developmental arcs. This relatable anchor is especially welcome because the other roles, though gamely played, are all so outlandish.

Many of the international characters speak in atrocious accents (to be fair, Bullock’s Louisiana drawl is equally improbable), and they verge on milking ethnic or national stereotypes for laughs. Cameron McCallie’s lurid cross-dressing German wrestler has to stand naked on a pedestal and sing about how sexy he is over Erik Satie music. Kana Hatakeyama’s virginal North Korean field hockey player gets a video bio in the style of a propaganda film. These characters are too baroque a surface to portray the increasingly, and surprisingly, emotional payload of this play. That said, one sex scene between Jess Jones’ Bosnian boxer and LaKeisha Coffey’s Senegalese archer puts a revealing twist on the concept of borders, showing how they reside in privilege and class, as expressed by clothing, as well as love and war.

By the end of the play, we do get an explanation for Tarantino’s antipathy toward borders, but the clarification of his motivations doesn’t extend to whatever the play is trying to show us. As if acknowledging this, Byrne has multiple characters ask the instructors how their methods will accomplish their ends, never receiving satisfactory answers. All the ideation and excitement seems to conceal a somewhat unformed core. “Love must flow in its proper channels or it will destroy society,” Tarantino proclaims with confidence. But what are they? We don't get much of a clue, only multiple troublesome options.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are your last chances to discern for yourself, and while you might leave confused, we promise you won’t be bored. 
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    Monica Byrne’s peculiar polyamorous play at Manbites Dog Theater closes this weekend

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Theater review: PlayMakers' Hold These Truths

Posted by on Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 7:59 PM

Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths - PHOTO BY LIA CHANG
  • photo by Lia Chang
  • Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths
Hold These Truths
PlayMakers at Kenan Theatre
Through April 27

PlayMakers concludes a season remarkable for its thoughtfulness on big topics, whether timely or timeless, with a PRC2 Series production. Hold These Truths spotlights a particularly sordid, shamefully little-known episode in 20th-century American history, and offers a lens through which to look at more immediate concerns.

In the nationalistic war fever after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the racism of western states toward Japanese immigrants and their American children turned rabid. It was only intensified by the U.S. government’s decision to strip Japanese-Americans in states along the Pacific coast of all their property, their livelihoods and their rights, corralling them into desolate, isolated camps.

Desperate and longing to prove their loyalty to the U.S., nearly 100,000 Issei (first generation immigrants) and Nissei (American born citizens of Japanese parents) compliantly packed their two permitted suitcases and journeyed to America’s internment camps to live under armed guard behind barbed wire. Only three Nissei fought back with legal challenges.

One was Gordon Hirabayashi. Actress Jeanne Sakata, herself of Japanese ancestry, stumbled onto his story as an adult and spent years crafting it into a one-man, one-act play, meanwhile crafting herself into a playwright. She interviewed Hirabayashi repeatedly, and researched his letters and other materials held at the University of Washington, where he had been a college student when war with Japan was declared and the infamous Executive Order 9066 was issued, allowing the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” and exclude or evacuate any persons—in reality, those of Japanese birth or ancestry.

A young man of unusually tough moral fiber, Hirabayashi believed that as an American he should not, and therefore could not, comply with this forced extirpation. So began his journey through the legal system, in defense of an American ideal that America’s own government was trampling.

Sakata’s play is deeply particular—an intimate telling of a heroic story lived by a captivating person. But its outlines fit other stories. For instance, one cannot help but think of Edward Snowden today. But that comes later, because actor Joel de la Fuente, under the direction of the remarkable Lisa Rothe (who directed last season’s powerful Penelope), fully engages your attention for a fast-moving 85 minutes.

The show was first performed in 2007 in Los Angeles, but in 2012, it had an off-Broadway New York premiere at Epic Theatre, with Rothe directing and de la Fuente creating the 30 or so characters that people Hirabayashi’s life. PlayMakers’ associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza saw it there and promptly began lobbying to include it in PRC2, where it provides a coda to the company's year-long consideration of the many forms of power madness—and the many forms of forgiveness possible, once even the shouting is over.

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    In the remarkable true story of one man's fight against WWII internment camps, actor Joel de la Fuente fully engages your attention for 85 minutes

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Theater review: a threadbare Lily at Temple Theatre

Posted by on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 3:55 PM

Betsy Henderson and David McClutchey, in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY.
  • Betsy Henderson and David McClutchey, in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Temple Theatre
through Apr. 6

All right, I’m convinced. There is an absolutely ripping yarn to be made from the convergence of the following characters. The first three are historical; the latter three, fictive:

  • Lillie Langtry, d.b.a. “The Jersey Lily,” renowned Victorian actress (and paramour to future King Edward VII),
  • her confidante, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde,
  • Abdul Karim, a controversial, enigmatic and decidedly personal Indian attendant to Queen Victoria,
  • arch-fiend Professor James Moriarty,
  • detective Sherlock Holmes, and 
  • his faithful, long-time associate, Dr. John Watson.

I only wish I was nearly as convinced that playwright Katie Forgette’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is it. Published in 2009, one year before writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss gave the beloved Doyle detective a rich new life in contemporary London in the celebrated BBC series, Forgette’s thoroughly workmanlike efforts in this occasionally comic melodrama rarely rise above the level of fan fiction.

Instead she coasts along here, relying heavily upon character conventions already well-established for Holmes, Watson and Wilde while adding precious little to them. Such paper-thin characterizations grow tiresome well before Forgette abandons logic entirely in the low-grade skulduggery of Lily's second act.

When talents of the caliber of actors David McClutchey, Betsy Henderson and Pauline Cobrda, all long-respected, familiar names in this community of practice, cannot rescue an enterprise, it can only be considered particularly ill-advised.

Certainly we will see these stalwarts again on the regional stage. When we do, we also hope to see newcomer Jeffrey McGullion, whose sharp-eyed take on the evil Moriarty entertained as well.

Temple Theatre frequently presents dramatic work well worth the trek to Sanford. Hopefully, this threadbare Lily will prove only a momentary exception to the rule.

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    Good actors can't gild low-grade skulduggery in a fanfic script in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Patrick Torres appointed artistic director at Raleigh Little Theatre

Posted by on Fri, Mar 21, 2014 at 9:00 AM

Raleigh Little Theater has announced this morning the appointment of Patrick Torres as its new artistic director. Torres will be the theater's 14th artistic director since its founding in 1936, and the first person of color chosen for that position. The selection comes on the heels of a national search, following the death of longtime artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons in May, 2013.

An award-winning arts educator and director, Torres comes to Raleigh from Austin, Texas, where he has served as middle and high school program director for Creative Action, an arts education organization, since 2011. His production of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited for Trinity Street Players was a finalist in Austin’s B. Iden Payne Awards for outstanding drama production in 2013.

Before his time in Texas, Torres worked for nine years as an arts educator in the Washington, DC area. An after-school playwriting program Torres developed as associate artistic director for the city’s Young Playwrights’ Theater was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama when it won a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2010.

In 2009, Theatre Communications Group designated Torres a Young Leader of Color for developing assessment tools to measure student learning in the arts.

During his time in Washington, Torres also served as a directing fellow and teaching artist at Shakespeare Theatre Company, after completing a Masters of Fine Arts degree in directing from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Texas State University.

Reflecting on the selection process, Raleigh Little Theatre’s executive director Charles Phaneuf noted, “We had a number of strong candidates, from around the country—and around the world, since one of our applicants was from China. But when we revised our mission statement last spring, we clarified what’s unique about our theater’s role in the Triangle: our mission to educate. I think it should be clear why he’s a great fit for us; the person we’ve picked is a really great educator.” 
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    The award-winning arts educator and director becomes the first person of color to helm the Raleigh community theater.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Theater review: LEO (The Anti-Gravity Show)

Posted by on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 5:46 PM

LEO (The Anti-Gravity Show) - HEIKO KALMBACH
  • Heiko Kalmbach
  • LEO (The Anti-Gravity Show)
LEO (The Anti-Gravity Show)
NCSU Center Stage at Titmus Theatre 
Through March 23

It’s one of those ingeniously simple concepts. Build an open-sided room, laid on its side so that a light bulb “hangs” perpendicular to the left wall. On an adjacent video screen, rotate the live action 90 degrees to the right, so that the wall becomes the ceiling and the floor, a wall. Insert one acrobatic actor/dancer into the room and, for the next hour or so, have him execute choreography that looks equally amazing, in different ways, across both screwy spatial planes. Reap the delighted laughter and astounded gasps of adults and children alike as your reward.

This is the scenario of LEO (The Anti-Gravity Show), which comes to NCSU Center Stage by way of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it deservedly captured multiple awards. Directed by Montreal’s Daniel Briére and based on an idea by Tobias Wegner, LEO was performed on Wednesday night by Julian Schulz, whose incredible physical control and slapstick grace had shades of Charlie Chaplin. In what has to be one of the most unusual roles around, he acts out much of his part on the floor, which in itself is something to see. For the hour, he’s our sole focal point outside of a couple props—a hat, a bottle of water, an increasingly magical-seeming suitcase. And he's more than enough.

Sometimes, the video, which streamed almost simultaneously with the live action (there was a very slight lag), made normal things look impossible—when the real Schulz stood on the floor, his projected doppelganger stood on the wall. Other times, it did the opposite. It was hard to understand how the actor was able to hold himself up with one hand on the floor and two feet on the wall, though in the projection, this physical feat transformed into a man leaning casually against a wall. And sometimes, the difference was split, as when the virtual Schulz, apparently standing upright, threw his hat or loosened his tie so that they flew or hung at improbable angles.

If this description all sounds arduous, it’s because our language is built for our physics, which LEO gleefully chucks out. It really has to be seen to be still-not-quite-believed. But while the action is joyously bewildering, the plot, inasmuch as there is one, is simple enough. It begins with a man trying to reach a flickering light bulb. There’s a long dance sequence set to different styles of music that seem to be emanating from the suitcase. Then the actor takes up a piece of chalk and gradually draws himself a cozy kitchen on the wall, the objects becoming real as he draws them. He sketches a rheostat for the bulb and turns it up high, and when he starts playing the harmonica, animation on the screen brings his drawings to life. A spilled fishbowl fills the room with water for a dreamy aquatic sequence, a grace note before an intense crescendo of a finale.

LEO is less of a story than an evocative run through every spatial possibility of the scenario, which is mined for humor, whimsy and wonder rather than existential angst or dark pathos—except for the actor’s almost panicky efforts to escape the now-empty room at the end. How will he get out? The answer is a final astonishment in a long series of them, and leads to a chipper encore joke we won’t spoil. Get to LEO before it closes on March 23, because we can almost guarantee that you’ve never seen anything quite like it. 

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    Space-bending wonder and astonishment in a novel piece of theater at NCSU Center Stage

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Theater review: Evita at DPAC

Posted by on Thu, Mar 13, 2014 at 6:07 PM

  • photo by Richard Termine
  • Evita
Through March 16

Evita is not your typical musical, and Eva Perón is not your typical heroine. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s mythologizing tale of the ambitious woman who rose from poverty to become Argentina’s adored first lady is more of an operatic biography than a plot-driven show, and Eva is more divisive than likeable.

This means that the touring production of Evita currently playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center is a reprieve from typical Broadway fare—it’s darker, more complex and filled with talk of morality. But, in an exposition-heavy show about political machinations and social climbing, it’s hard to find a fully sympathetic character.

In the fragmented first act, the scene shifts may be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the Peróns’ story. Eva transforms from a big-dreaming teenager in the sticks to an opportunistic seductress in a matter of minutes and a few tango steps. Similarly, director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford illustrate Juan Perón’s rise to power in a confusing, overly stylized wrestling match between political contenders.

But the power of the leads’ voices and their commitment to character help assuage any narrative bumps. In the hands of Caroline Bowman, Eva is a hard, manipulative woman addicted to winning hearts and willing to leverage her background as an actress to do just that. Bowman’s radiant looks and soaring voice help explain Eva’s ability to generate such adoration from the masses—this woman has presence.

As Eva’s husband, Juan—a man whose questionable ethics are matched only by his wife’s—Sean MacLaughlin is rich-voiced and expressive. And Josh Young’s Che, the narrator who serves as a sort of sardonic Greek chorus, dominates the stage with his lush, articulate singing and fantastic energy.

Above all, this production is slick. It’s nice to look at, with a lavish Casa Rosada set and 1940s period costumes by Christopher Oram; the music under William Waldrop’s direction is both challenging and unstoppably catchy. If at times Evita puts polish before heart, that’s forgivable—it’s what its eponym did, after all, and people loved her regardless.
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    "If at times Evita puts polish before heart, that's forgivable."

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Neal Bell on In Secret, a new film adaptation of his stage play

Posted by on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 11:18 AM

  • photo by Phil Bray
  • In Secret
After its professional New York premiere, it took almost 17 years for Neal Bell’s stage play Thérèse Raquin to make it to the big screen in the form of the recently-released In Secret, directed by Charlie Stratton and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac. But for Bell, the result was worth the wait.

“It’s exciting and strange,” says Bell, a professor of theater studies at Duke University. “I hadn’t seen the movie until it opened, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really surprised and delighted to see that it came out so well.” The film came about after Stratton directed Bell’s play for a Los Angeles production. Stratton was impressed enough with the material that he set about bringing it to the screen.

“He spent the next 15 or so years trying to put it together and then losing his actors or his funding,” Bell says. “There were all kinds of different people attached. Glenn Close was interested at one point; I think Gerard Butler was interested. And then, about two summers ago, he called me to say he’d gotten the funding, and the actors had come together at the same moment!” Bell has nothing but praise for Stratton, whom he calls “an incredibly honorable and decent guy, along with very, very talented.”

Bell’s play, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel, has an odd history of its own. He originally wrote it as the libretto for a proposed musical called The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa. “He wrote what I thought was an incredibly beautiful score, but decided he wasn’t satisfied with his work,” Bell says. “I had this orphaned libretto, and a young guy at NYU asked me if he could direct it as a senior distinction play, so I turned it back into a straight play. It got picked up by regional theaters and went on from there.”

Bell credits the play’s long run and eventual film adaptation to Zola’s original story. “It had an influence on film noir,” he says of Zola’s novel. “The Postman Always Rings Twice is almost a literal adaptation of it. It fascinated me because of how it tells the tale of what happens after the lovers commit murder and get away with it.”

Though his involvement in the production of In Secret was limited, Bell has an extensive background writing for television, including a stint under fellow Duke professor Michael Malone at daytime soap One Life to Live. Bell currently teaches a course on TV writing at Duke, where his students watch the one-season classic My So-Called Life and then plot out episodes for the second season that never was.

“I feel like we’re in the middle of a second golden age of television,” Bell says, “and that the long-form writing being done for it is as good as any playwriting that’s being done in New York right now.”

He’s remaining true to his theater roots, most recently with an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday at Little Green Pig. Still, he admits that the film of In Secret has given him some new credibility with certain people, thanks to Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton’s presence. “If I’m talking to a younger person,” he says, “that’s generally what I lead with.”
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    The Duke professor's play Thérèse Raquin is based on Émile Zola’s classic novel

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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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Friday, January 17, 2014

Forget Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin should go back to politics

Posted by on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 11:14 AM

  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Aaron Sorkin
This is an interesting moment for the playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. After months in limbo, his HBO series The Newsroom was just renewed for a third and final season. This should excite hardcore Newsroom fans, but there's another opportunity we'd like to see him pursue—his long-promised adaptation of Andrew Young's tell-all account of John Edwards' downfall, The Politician.

Sorkin acquired the rights to Young's book around the time of its publication in 2010, with the final stages of the Edwards drama—the death of Elizabeth Edwards and the besieged politician's subsequent trial for campaign finance fraud and his subsequent acquittal—yet to play out in the real world. 

Sorkin had planned to make his directorial debut with the story, but it fell victim to his success—his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, his writing for The Newsroom and his research for a planned Steve Jobs biopic started taking up all his time, along with a now-delayed film about the trial of the Chicago Seven for Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. As recently as July 2013, Sorkin said that he planned to tackle The Politician after the Steve Jobs project was done. But it seems obvious that in order for a film of The Politician to happen, Sorkin would have to clear a few things off his plate.

It might be worthwhile for Sorkin to make room in his schedule. As critical responses to his work veer from brickbats (NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) to near-universal acclaim (The Social Network) and back again (The Newsroom), The Politician is the sort of story that plays to his strengths as a writer, and could win him another Oscar if he can pull it off. 

Andrew Young's "The Politician" - COPYRIGHT ST. MARTIN'S BOOKS
  • Copyright St. Martin's Books
  • Andrew Young's "The Politician"

As someone who's read the bulk of Sorkin's work, from the Broadway non-starter The Farnsworth Invention to the early drafts of Charlie Wilson's War—which ended with the title character staring at the smoke coming from the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001—it's deeply intriguing for me to imagine Sorkin's voice adapting The Politician. It's also a thought experiment I conduct with caution, knowing how Sorkin's worst tendencies as a writer could just as easily lead the material astray.

It might sound odd to hang such caveats on one of the most acclaimed writers working today, but like all writers with a distinct voice, Sorkin has his indulgences. Seeing how those indulgences enhance or undermine each project is one of the great, fascinating parts of his work. Will the brilliance overwhelm the flaws, or will the recycled themes and ham-handed messages take over?

The Newsroom
, for example, attempted to critique the media in its first season by having its fictional cable news network get stories "right" after having the information they needed fall in their laps through some last-minute personal source. This often came off as a condescending lecture to both the audience and the real news organizations that work hard to report information.

There are countless other issues, such as Sorkin's problems with writing female characters and romantic relationships, his fondness for old-school melodramatic flourishes and pratfalls, and his reliance on straw-man antagonists to make the "good" characters seem more noble. At times, these shortcomings are downright painful—the less said about the first-season Newsroom episode exploring Gabby Giffords' shooting in a montage set to Coldplay's "Fix You," the better. 

That's why, entering the second season, there was genuine fear that Sorkin would offer sermons on Trayvon Martin and the Sandy Hook massacre (blessedly, he ignored the latter and kept the former to a minimum). The second season seemed like Sorkin battling against the tendencies that led to critics "hate-watching" the first season. An utterly flat storyline about the Romney campaign didn't bode well for the potential of a Sorkin adaptation of the campaign-trail setting of The Politician. Yet the flaws that recur in Sorkin's writing could actually work in his favor on this project. 

Young's book tells a fascinating story. Beyond the fun, for North Carolinians, of the local name-drops (Shelley Lake! Nantucket Grill!), the relationship between John Edwards and Andrew Young is the stuff of which psychology textbooks are made. Edwards comes off as almost sociopathic in how he uses his good looks, charisma and self-made story to craft a congenial surface that conceals a manipulative, entitled core. Young, meanwhile, comes off as a pathological sycophant. His fanatical, almost masochistic devotion to his employer makes him seem like an awkward high-school kid in awe of being allowed to do a popular jock's homework. 

Even Elizabeth Edwards comes across poorly for much of the book, ordering around underlings and breaking down over minor imperfections—though in fairness, she probably had other things on her mind. For all his efforts at self-effacement, Young's book has the tone of The Simpsons' Waylon Smithers deciding to finally write a tell-all on Mr. Burns.

So Young's story has the sorts of larger-than-life characters—such as the sad, strange figure of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, portrayed as a woman whose delusions of settling down with Edwards aren't far removed from Young's dreams of being his right-hand man—and situations that Oscar hopefuls are made of, balanced with more intimate moments and countless oddball campaign anecdotes.

  • Peter Smith via Wikimedia commons
  • John Edwards

Though he sometimes tends toward hyperbole, Sorkin wasn't exaggerating much when he said this story would have "lit Shakespeare up." It's a funhouse-mirror version of the kind of idealized politics that Sorkin delivered weekly on his greatest success, the long-running NBC White House drama The West Wing. While that show inspired a generation of young people to get into public service, The Politician portrays the realities that many of them likely encountered after they got to work.

A whole host of themes and scenes in The Politician feel like they could have come from The West Wing. Young's first encounter with a speech-giving Edwards is eerily like White House staffer Josh Lyman's first encounter with the future President Bartlet in The West Wing's flashback episodes. There's also an echoing of themes seen throughout Sorkin's film, TV and stage work.

The Politician deals with fathers. Young admits that in a way, Edwards was a substitute for his own father, who was also tainted by an adultery scandal. Exploring those levels—Young's projection, his estrangement from his family through his devotion to Edwards, Edwards' own betrayals as a father—has the potential to be an intriguing reversal of the recurring motifs in Sorkin's work. From A Few Good Men's Daniel Kaffee (whom local attorney Don Marcari claims is based on him, despite Sorkin's denial) to The Newsroom's Will McAvoy, Sorkin's protagonists often deal with the specters of disapproving, sometimes abusive fathers, with even the fictionalized Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network pinning his hopes for the nascent Facebook on his unseen father's approval.

The concept of devotion to unworthy father figures is one that Sorkin has mined—Sports Night and The West Wing both did stories about characters being disillusioned by the discovery that their fathers had long-term affairs. These were some of the best stories in Sorkin's work. The Newsroom greatly improved in its second season with an extended storyline about the investigation and reporting of a false scandal, though it punted much of its dramatic heft by making the story the result of an ambitious reporter sneakily editing a crucial interview.

The Social Network was a potentially problematic storyline for Sorkin, who has infamously railed against the Internet on several of his shows. Yet he managed to stay away from "the Internet is making us dumber and meaner" to tell a more intimate tale of how the building of an empire came at the expense of friendship. The accuracy of the overall tale is suspect, something the film itself admits, but as a dramatic story, it's first-rate.

Of course, the biggest question is how Sorkin would direct his own work. The Social Network worked because David Fincher went away from the Hollywood sheen of past Sorkin films such as A Few Good Men, grounding the tale in dark dorm rooms and a minimalist score by Trent Reznor. Imagine how differently the opening shots of Jesse Eisneberg skulking across Harvard's campus would have played if Fincher had gone with Sorkin's stage direction to use Paul Young's cover of "Love of the Common People" instead of Reznor's ominous ambient piano.

By applying the lessons of that film's success, Sorkin could get into self-satire, painting the glory days of the Edwards campaign in the glowing light of The West Wing before gradually curdling it into the shadowy scenes of The Social Network. Like any unmade film, the possibilities for Sorkin's The Politician are limitless until it actually gets made. But the potential is incredible—a story with rich roles, an exploration of the cult of personality surrounding Edwards in the early 2000s, a tragic tale of a flawed man who finds purpose in serving an even more flawed man.

Rather than taking a third stab at realizing The Newsroom's potential or getting bogged down in new projects, it might be worth Sorkin's while to take this uniquely North Carolinian tale of personal and political downfall and use it to explore the dark underbelly of the ideas that characterize his work. That, or he could just go back to writing the book for the Flaming Lips musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I've always had a morbid curiosity about that.

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing" - CREATIVE COMMONS
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  • President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing"

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    A third season of The Newsroom is a less exciting prospect than Sorkin adapting John Edwards expose The Politician

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