Friday, September 28, 2007

Somebody Stop This Guy!

Note: this is strict opinion, and I fully endorse the right of other critics to have other opinions. I also don't claim to be any better, but I am interested in getting better, so I put this out there in the hopes of sharing my own personal progress as a reviewer, theatergoer, and writer.

I have to justify it because I briefly worked with Matt Windman during the neonatal stages of the New Theater Corps, and I don't want it to seem as if there's anything behind my critique of his critiques. But come on:
Okay, Mr. Hove. We get it. You're a smart guy with intriguing ideas. Nevertheless, wouldn't it have been better to just do Moliere's "The Misanthrope"?
Can somebody explain Matt's language to me? To know that Mr. Hove is smart and that he has intriguing ideas, you need to be watching his experimental modernizations of classic works. Had Mr. Hove done a standard reproduction, a carbon copy facsimile, it would be a simple revival, as bland as any star-vehicle on Broadway (take The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial). No wonder (as was pointed out at the recent Prelude panel I attended) downtown theater has it so rough: a lot of critics are stodgy traditionalists, who refuse to look critically at anything new, and say things like "Frankly, 'The Misanthrope' doesn't need to be updated." Can we expect honest opinions from someone who attends a Shakespearian play thinking there's only one way to present it? I'm all for period pieces, formal revivals, and time-capsule productions, but I'm wide-eyed and eager for the new, too: the chance to resurrect a play, not simply revive it.

Some critics seem unwilling to rise to the challenge of avant-garde, either from a lack of seeing enough "alternative" theater to know what is still avant-garde and what isn't. (This is actually a point I'd like to explore further: how long does it take before something isn't avant-garde any more? I'd say that The Misanthrope takes enough chances that it is genuinely surprising, refreshingly new, not just to the Broadway snob but to the ten-plays-a-week enthusiast. Iphigenia 2.0, which Windman also calls avant-garde, belongs to a style of work that Mee, among others, has been doing for years now, and to call that avant-garde expresses at best a disinterest and at worst a disdain for new works out there, that is, they weren't big enough to really be doing work before, they may have broken ground ten years ago, but only now is worth mentioning that they're groundbreaking.)

What I'm saying is that it's far easier to slap the disaffecting "avant-garde" label on something and to walk away than it is to actually try to process the pros and cons of a production through the filter of accumulated theater knowledge.

Which is, of course, why any theater critic must constantly travel not just to Broadway, but to the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway stages, or even, for completists, to other cities and countries. I'm not saying that Matt can't dislike "The Misanthrope"; I'm saying that the reasons he cites are lazy and based on a personal bias. There's nothing wrong with there being a conservative audience, but a critic must write to teach and expose others, not to pander to that audience. So explain what makes some experiments succeed, and why others fail: don't just condemn an artist wholesale for trying.

Verbing Ourselves

It's official, or as official as an esteemed publication can make it. James Wood, for The New Yorker, applies everything he learned at Harvard to write the following sentence:
So here is Alter's inspired attempt to English the Hebrew:
What he's talking about is a new translation (as compared to the King James Version) of the Book of Psalms. Considering how much we bastardize our own language every day (and I'm a creative writer, so I know something about fucking one's own prose), it should be no surprise that we've now officially verbed it -- "to English" -- which is admittedly no worse than "to verb" something in the first place.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Prelude -- Not to a Kiss, but to Hot New Theater

Interested in hot, experimental theater, but don't want to shell out cool, hard cash? Then get to CUNY's Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue), and more specifically the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, because this weekend (9/26-9/29), there's a festival of readings, performances, and panels that are all about the changing theater scene. Those of you questioning the limited scope of ethnic theater out there can talk with Jason Grote at a 4:00 9/28 panel about downtown theater and racial representation. Those of you interested in PS 122's '08 season can check out early drafts of Hello Failure (by Kristen Kosmas) and the Debate Society's The Untitled Auto Play. Or you can just pick random shows by interesting sounding theater companies--Lightbox, 31 Down--or by funky names--Sherri Zahad And Her Arabian Knights or Red Fly/Blue Bottle.

Of course, my goal isn't to advertise, but rather to hype up downtown theater, especially after attending today's prelude to the Prelude, a kick-off panel about Uptown/Downtown theater, and the struggle to change the mainstream, featuring comments from Sarah Benson, Jim Nicola, Alex Timbers, Adam Bock, and David Cote (that's the artistic directors of Soho Rep, NYTW, and Les Freres Corbusier, not to mention a fine playwright, and a fine critic). Panels do tend to be pessimistic, with larger institutions having to pander to their subscribers (Benson), the instability of an unfunded market for artists (Nicola), the condescension of certain critics (Benson), and a conservative audience (Cote, quoting Anne Bogart).

Timbers' valid question is: how do we get the younger, rock-concert going audiences to move from what's considered hip at UCB or Ars Nova, and to a theater out in Brooklyn doing some odd Radiohole event, or to a Clown Festival at The Brick, &c., &c. My main concern is that you can't: concerts--music in general--is a transportable conversation machine, something that you can pop in and share with everyone, and discuss at leisure around a water cooler, bong, &c. Theater doesn't really provide that, and there isn't any hub for young audiences, even though hip spaces like New World Stages or Theater Row could easily aspire to that. In other words, does Shakespeare in the Park get audiences to buy tickets to the Public's presentation of Wooster Group's Hamlet?

Things are commercial, and for every self-sustaining group doing good work, like Elevator Repair Service, there are plenty of groups that can't work outside of limited residencies, and who never get the budgets they need to fully realize their work. Under the Radar, Mark Russell's curated event at the Public, is one way of bringing attention to deserving groups (and the Public will be bringing back The Brothers Size), but there's only so much Mr. Russell can see, only so much that Soho Rep can host, or NYTW can develop. And these are just downtown theaters: what does it take to get MTC to really take more risks? (In this case, the success of Adam Bock's The Receptionist, though we can certainly be encouraged by modern Greeks like Ruhl's Eurydice and Mee's Iphigenia 2.0.) And even here, these aren't really company imports: they're built from the commercial model (when they go to Broadway), and don't foster the creative energies from both directors and writers that allows NYTW to keep reinventing the wheel.

Cote joked that in the next twenty or thirty years, a lot of theatergoers are going to have died. But nobody really laughed. Taste changes slowly, especially if conservative audiences are afraid to sample new wares (or worse yet, sleep through young works at Roundabout), and even more so if critics are steadfast in the works that they've been schooled in, the ones they are more fluent and conversant in. There's no need to get condescending: but there is a need to adapt, which may be where more bloggers come into the mix, bringing new sensibilities and a necessary balance to a jaundiced eye. I'll keep looking for the best in plays, and I'll keep trying to convince you all to go out to them, so keep reading: and check out Prelude if you've the time!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Yes, But OPERA Still Isn't For All

I love the arts, but they can be expensive. For those in the know, there are plenty of resources out there to get cheap tickets, from butts-in-seats middlemen to theater-endorsed lotteries and/or rush tickets, not to mention old standards like TKTS (and TDF). There are also now individuals, like Roundabout's HipTix!, that play to the under-represented 18-35 demographic by using social-networking parties and discount offers to appear, appropriately, hip. Go a little younger, and you'll get the teen program, High Five!, which succeeded at least in getting me interested in the arts.

Democratically speaking, there hasn't really been anything to get people out to the opera, not en masse, that is, which is why I'm excited about New York City Opera's widening of their OPERA-FOR-ALL programming. In the interests of full disclosure, I was invited to attend their opening festivities this weekend, which kicked off with La Boheme and Don Giovanni, the latter of which I attended on Saturday, and commented on here. How pleased I was, then, to find that the audience was littered with both shy, jean-wearing first-timers and well-to-do socialites, opera-glasses in tow. Of course, this was just two days of $25 tickets, after which fans could look forward to spending upwards of $100 for decent seats, or $16 for the fourth-ring rafters (which, to be fair, would still be cheaper than gallery seats to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy). Instead, you can get exposed (for better or worse) to opera throughout the entire festival, with approximately fifty seats in the front orchestra going on sale each Monday to whoever gets them first (phone/online, too).

Now, I didn't like Don Giovanni, but the truth is that opera isn't really for everyone. It's an accumulated taste, one that runs on protracted exposition and often archaically rustic melodies to make its points. Even involving people like Hal Prince and Susan Stroman can't spark life on the stage when there's a complicated aria that requires stillness, and what you often get are overbearing sets that diminish the acting, and orchestras that drown out most of the men. Subtlety doesn't translate over the overwhelming space of New York City Opera, which leaves only the booming passages of Italian poetry (with the occasionally illuminating supertitle) to loko forward to. For some, this is their cup of tea. For me, I longed only to see Daniel Mobbs's Leporello up close, to hear Julianna Di Giacomo's indomitable Donna Elvira without the noise of squeaking sets around me, and after the first intermission, to get out of there. (Which would've been a mistake, as the second act was much more varied.)

But whether I liked the opera or not is beside the point: there will be $25 dollar tickets available this Monday for the Toni Morrison-inspired Margaret Garner (not to mention La Boheme and Don Giovanni), which rightfully puts the taste-making decision back in your court. I don't ever worry about theater, but that's because I'm hyper-exposed to it. Isn't it about time more companies started going out of their way to keep a healthy part of this population indoctrinated?