Saturday, September 23, 2017

Back From PA

I'm back from the State College area in central Pennsylvania where Nittany Theatre at the Barn recently had a staged reading of my play Dark Night of the Soul.

The play was the winner of the theatre's 2017 Free Speech Play Contest. It tells the story of Joan of Arc, and is based in part on the actual records of her trial. You can find out more about the play at a special website I set up about it.

Laura Ann Saxe played Joan, and Dave Saxe read the part of the Earl of Warwick, the English nobleman charged with the task of discrediting and executing her. The trial was presided over by Bishop Pierre Cauchon (played by John Koch). Most of the clergy present were intent on finding Joan guilty, but one young Dominican, Brother Martin (played by Jeff Buterbaugh), clearly sympathized with her.

Though this was just a reading, it was staged with a set and lighting. Actors wore costumes with a period flair, even though they were not intended to be accurate for the 15th century. There will be more readings of the play next month at The Villages in Florida on October 26th and 27th.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Free Speech Reading Tonight!

Tonight is the reading of my play Dark Night of the Soul, the winner of the Nittany Theatre at the Barn's 2017 Free Speech Play Contest.

I saw a rehearsal last night, and the actors are terrific. Laura Ann Saxe plays Joan of Arc, and Dave Saxe plays the Earl of Warwick, the English nobleman intent on having her burned at the stake.

John Koch is wonderfully creepy as Pierre Cauchon, the bishop who presides at Joan's trial. Brother Martin, a young Dominican who wants desperately to save Joan, is played by Jeff Buterbaugh, a student at nearby Penn State.

The reading is semi-staged. The actors won't be in 15th-century costumes, but they are wearing something to give the play period flair. There will also be a minimal set and a few light cues.

If you're in Central Pennsylvania, please come out at 7:30 for the reading. Donations are suggested but not required. For more information, please click here.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Clyde Fitch

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently saw Clyde Fitch's play The Climbers at Metropolitan Playhouse.

The play is a wonderful depiction of New York social climbers at the beginning of the 20th century. A man risks and loses his entire fortune in a bid to provide for his family in the manner to which they have become accustomed. He dies, and on the day of his funeral, the family discovers they have nothing.

Fitch mines the dark comedy in this absurd situation. It is particularly delightful to watch a pair of women show up the very day of the funeral to see if they can get some bargains by buying the new gowns the family has just purchased in Paris. After all, they'll all have to go into mourning for a while, and by the time they can stop wearing black, the gowns will all be out of fashion, so why let them go to waste?

The scene is doubly funny, because the family is thinking the same thing. Now that they're left with nothing, they need to raise as much money as possible, and what better place to start than by fleecing the neighbors, overcharging them for Parisian fashions? The widow (wonderfully played by Margaret Catov) is anything but grieving during the exchange, but knows precisely which cards to play to get the best price for what she's selling.

Fitch's The Climbers premiered in 1901, three years after his play Nathan Hale about the famous American spy. Metropolitan Playhouse has produced a number of his later works, including The Truth and The City. Fitch also adapted Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, which the Metropolitan Playhouse staged in 2012. Wharton apparently didn't like the play very much, but she and Fitch became friends.

At one point, Fitch had five plays running on Broadway simultaneously. Few people have heard of him today, but the revival of The Climbers proves his works continue to fascinate. If you're interested in seeing the production, check out the theater's website here:

Metropolitan Playhouse

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen

For some time now, the spouse has been trying to get lottery tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen. Well, yesterday it finally worked, and we were given the opportunity to buy overpriced standing-room-only tickets to the sold-out musical.

And was it worth it? Absolutely. The book by Steven Levenson (who also wrote If I Forget) is provocative, and the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul can be infectious. I particularly liked the Act I closer, "You Will Be Found," which soars like an inspirational anthem even as we realize it's a complete lie.

It's the cynicism of Dear Evan Hansen that makes the play interesting. While much of the show's promotional materials have focused on how inspirational it can be, the title character is ultimately a fabulist caught in his own lies. Social media picks up on his untruths, but of course thinks they are genuine, and the absurd predictably goes viral.

The story is loosely based on something Pasek experienced in high school. A troubled teen named Connor (played wonderfully by Mike Faist), having a world of trouble and no real friends, commits suicide. Only he gains scores of virtual friends after his death, as high school students who never cared about him while he was alive jockey for position concerning who knew him best.

Dear Evan Hansen is a parable for the Facebook generation. Still, it goes beyond merely being "thoughtful" and "topical" to really probe the depths of its characters. If you're interested in learning more, check out the show's official website.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Michael Friedman

So I was going to blog today about the lovely production of The Climbers I saw last night at Metropolitan Playhouse, but unfortunately I have something much more sad I need to say. Yesterday, songwriter Michael Friedman died, and contemporary musical theater is much poorer because of it.

According to Friedman's obituary on Playbill, he was only 41. His death followed complications with HIV/AIDS, which should remind us that the epidemic is NOT over, and people are STILL dying of this disease. As the obituary notes, he was one of the founding members of The Civilians, one of my favorite companies in New York, and was most famous for writing the music to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The obituary doesn't mention one of my favorite Friedman shows, Love's Labour's Lost, which The Public Theater did at the Delacorte in 2013. Based on the Shakespeare play of the same name, the musical included both original songs and rock-music settings of poems by the Bard. Friedman's music captured the exuberance of youth, and also the melancholy undertone of the play. I recently saw a student production of the piece at Marymount Manhattan College, and by the time they got to "The Tuba Song" at the end, I was in tears.

Friedman also wrote the music and lyrics for This Beautiful City, which explores culture clashes in Colorado Springs. The Civilians, which is an investigative theater company, went out to Colorado because they wanted to do a show on Evangelical Christians, and Colorado Springs has been transformed in recent years from the most "unchurched" city in America to a center of the Evangelical movement. While they were there, news broke that Ted Haggard, leader of a Colorado Springs megachurch, had been involved in a scandal that included male prostitutes and crystal meth. Reaction to the scandal fills the second half of the play.

Though Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was the only Friedman show to make it to Broadway, he did an amazing amount of work in his short life. He wrote the songs for The Great Immensity, a show by The Civilians investigating climate change, and provided music for The Public Theater's production of The Tempest in Central Park in 2015. He also wrote and adapted songs for Paris Commune, another investigatory piece by The Civilians, this time examining a crucial but often overlooked moment in French history.

Michael Friedman will definitely be missed. I hope, however, that more theaters will produce the plays that he has left us, particularly Paris Commune and This Beautiful City. They have a lot to say that could speak to America in our present moment.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Free Kirill Serebrennikov!

Recently, many people have become concerned over the arrest of the Russian director Kirill S. Serebrennikov. Until his arrest, Serebrennikov led the Gogol Center in Moscow, which produces a lot of politically charged plays.

The recent arrest could be a prelude to an even harsher crackdown on Russian artists who criticize their government. According to the European Film Academy, "There is every reason to believe that Kirill Serebrennikov's arrest is politically motivated." The academy has respectfully called on Russian authorities to have him released and to guarantee his free movement and artistic expression.

An article about Serebrennikov by the New York Times said that authorities accused him of embezzling money meant for such things as a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a production the authorities claim never occurred. Yet the Times claims the play not only ran in 2012, but that it got rave reviews and was even nominated for awards.

You would think the reviews would be enough to derail the government's case. History can't be re-written, right? Well, apparently the government is saying all those reviews were just "fake news" and the production never happened. According to an article in The Moscow Times, prosecutors said: "In itself, a newspaper article cannot confirm that the performance took place."

Artists in Russia are rallying around Serebrennikov, but the government seems to be going ahead with its charges nonetheless. Theatre critic John Freedman has called the charges a "show trial" and accused the government of using arrests ahead of an election year as a way to scare people in prominent positions away from criticizing the government.

In addition to directing plays, Serebrennikov is also a film director, and his movie The Student won a special prize at Cannes last year. He was making a new film about the Soviet-era rock star Viktor Tsoi when authorities arrested him in St. Petersburg and took him back to Moscow for questioning.

One of the productions Serebrennikov directed that caused a great deal of criticism was a staging of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. Authorities criticized it for depicting Russian authorities as incompetent and corrupt. Umm... but isn't that exactly what Gogol wrote in the nineteenth century?

And isn't that exactly what officials are proving true with these trumped-up charges?

Perhaps some things never change.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Commedia Legacy

Traditional commedia dell'arte used stock characters performing improvised actions and dialogue. However, during the eighteenth century, this improvisational form became increasingly codified with written scripts that were based on traditional characters and scenarios.

The commedia style influenced the drama of many countries. In France, where the Comédie Italienne was one of two state-sanctioned theatres in Paris, the French author Pierre Carlet de Marivaux wrote a series of plays using commedia characters, but with written scripts rather than bare-bones scenarios. Though Marivaux had begun his career writing works for the more respectable Comédie Française, he is best remembered for the commedia-inspired works he wrote for its smaller rival.

Marivaux's most famous play, The Game of Love and Chance, uses multiple stock characters from commedia, including the servant character Arlecchino who appears as "Arlequin" in the play. However, Marivaux introduces a level of emotional complexity to his characters that was rarely seen in commedia performances of the past. The same is true of his later play The Triumph of Love, first performed in 1732. Though critics attacked the play and it closed after only six performances, Triumph of Love is now considered a classic. Marivaux's later plays became increasingly bitter. His 1744 comedy The Dispute depicts a cruel scientific experiment in which aristocrats have orphaned boys and girls placed in an Eden-like setting to see if men or women are less likely to be faithful in a state of nature. Neither gender comes off particularly well in the play.

While Marivaux was clashing with critics in Paris, Carlo Goldoni was writing commedia-inspired scripts in Italy. He actually began writing tragedies and operas, but at the request of the actor Antonio Sacchi he wrote the comedy The Servant of Two Masters. Though the play originally had sections that allowed for improvisation, Goldoni revised the play in 1753 to codify the action in a complete script. The play uses stock commedia characters, such as the old miser Pantalone and the quarrelsome innkeeper Brighella, but gives them set dialogue, eliminating much of the need for (and fun of) improvisation. Goldoni's success in Italy drew the attention of people in other countries, and in 1762 he settled in Paris, then considered the center of the theatrical world.

Goldoni took charge of the Comédie Italienne, but while audiences wanted the old tricks of traditional commedia, he wanted to move forward to a new, more realistic form of comedy. In 1763, he wrote the first version of his play The Fan, a comedy in which multiple lovers quarrel over a misunderstanding involving one of the simplest of objects, the titular fan. The self-consciously ridiculous play failed to make an impression in Paris, so Goldoni translated it into Italian and premiered the new version in Venice in 1765, where it was a hit. The play contains an attractive widow named Geltruda, who is a theatrical descendant of the many vivacious young widows played by Isabella Andreini in commedia plays during the Renaissance. Similarly, the play's apothecary, Timoteo, has elements of the learned yet foolish Dottore character from commedia.

The playwright that Goldoni most often quarreled with was Carlo Gozzi, another Italian writer, but one who wished to preserve rather than reform the conventions of commedia. Gozzi's 1761 play The Love of Three Oranges satirized Goldoni and other reformist writers, and Gozzi gave the play (along with other scripts) outright to Sacchi's struggling company of commedia performers to keep them going. Many of Gozzi's plays, including The Stag King, are based on fairy tales. His 1762 play Turandot was later turned into an opera, and in 1765 Gozzi wrote a sequel to The Love of Three Oranges called The Green Bird. Though Gozzi used commedia techniques, he also utilized Asian characters and settings to lend an element of exoticism to his plays. Thus, even in preserving commedia, he aided in its gradual evolution.