About Me

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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Language Archive

By Julia Cho
@ the Laura Pels Theater through Dec. 19th
Click here for more information.

The Language Archive by Julia Cho is a breathtaking tale of the overwhelming power and complexity of language: how it creates and defines not only ourselves but our relationships with others, and how somehow, simultaneously, it is woefully insufficient.

It tells the story of George (Matt Letscher) whose marriage is falling apart. His wife Mary (Heidi Schreck) is deeply dissatisfied, she cries all the time, she is leaving him. And George cannot seem to find the words that will make her stay. Ironic, because George's entire life is devoted to the study of words. He is a linguist who studies, records and catalogues dying languages in his "language archive," thus saving them from total extinction.

George's professional life hits a snag just as his personal life is falling apart: the day his wife leaves him is the same day an old married couple are flown in to George's lab. They are the last remaining speakers of a language called Elloway, and they are there to be recorded speaking in their native tongue. Trouble is, the couple is in the middle of a heated spat and refuse to speak to one another in Elloway. English, they insist, is a much better language for anger.

Language means everything to George, and his wife cannot understand it. She is baffled at his capacity for sorrow at the death of a language when he seems incapable of expressing any kind of grief at the death of a human being, even a loved one. But, as George explains to us, with the death of a language comes the death of an entire world: its memories, its traditions, its stories, everything.

George is talking about worlds in a broader, anthropological sense, but he may as well be talking about the world of his marriage. They cannot understand each other anymore, the common language they once had between them is dying. "I'm sorry, George," Mary tells her husband sadly, "I've never understood what you were saying."

By contrast Alta and Resten, the elderly Ellowen couple played with endearing vivacity by Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton, have a mutual language that is as alive as their native tongue is moribund. On top of this, Cho adds another fascinating dynamic to their relationship: because they are the last remaining speakers of Elloway, they bear between the two of them all the collective knowledge of their vanished people. Their world-of-two is private and specifically theirs, but also, at times, encompasses the entire Ellowen world. The lines between what belongs to Elloway and what belongs to just them become delightfully blurred.

Now, add to the mix Emma (Betty Gilpin), George's lovelorn assistant who is secretly learning Esperanto (a passion of George's) as another - better - way to communicate with her beloved employer. But she's blocked, she can't seem to get the knack of it. Her teacher (also played by Jayne Houdyshell) an imposing German woman, cautions her that learning a language opens doors to new worlds. So, if she's unable to learn the language, she should think to herself, what door is she afraid of stepping through?

This is staggeringly intricate and utterly heart-wrenching scene the play sets. It examines delicate interplay between language and relationships: how at times language defines the relationship, and at others, the relationship defines the language.

Language is all these characters have to fill the space between one another. And yet, somehow, it is also insufficient. Alta tells George that although he thinks that a world dies because the language does, it's the other way around. If a language is dying it is because the world is already dead. There is something else to our experiences, our relationships, that is ineffable. Something neither created nor contained by language and perhaps we all die a little for our inability to express it.

Mary ultimately escapes the language barrier with her husband, and her husband himself by opening a bakery. The bread she bakes there is almost magical the way it holds one in its thrall. The sublime sight, smell, and taste of the bread taps into something visceral, a need and a pleasure knowable only in experience and inexpressable in words. The exchange George has with a woman outside the bakery says it best. Baffled and dejected, he stands outside knowing he has seen her for the last time when a woman approaches him. "What is that amazing smell?" she says. "Bread," he responds simply. "Where did you get it?" "There." And she walks away. There is nothing more to be said, for either of them.

And yet, there is truth to what Emma's Esperanto teacher has to say. There is power in word. The simple act of uttering things aloud can call them into being. And if language does have the power to open doors to worlds, what does it mean, then, that George never tells his wife he loves her? When she first tells him she's leaving, he says his whole body screams, "Don't leave," but he doesn't say it. He records a tape of a hundred voices saying in a hundred dead languages, "I love you," but none of the voices is his. Because he doesn't say it, it is at once more true and less.

In my favorite moment of the play, Cho sums up the depth and richness of our knowledge of love, loss and language with hearbreaking simplicity: Alta explains to Emma that, in Elloway, "I love you" translates directly as "Don't leave me." "Because that is what 'I love you' means to us," she says. "I never want to be left by you. I never want to be without you."

Despite how enamoured I am with this play, I found myself less than satisfied with the production. Other than Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton, who were consistent bright spots in every role they took on, the performances were inconsistent with the material and somewhat jarring. It felt as though the actors flew through their own lines, neither listening what had been said, nor considering their own response. This not only lead to unbelievable, two dimensional portrayals of what should have been vibrant characters, but also felt especially inappropriate given the nature of the material. For people who claimed to exalt the notion of language, they appeared completely unaware of their own.

It is entirely possibly that this was a choice; if it was, though, it was the wrong one. All of Cho's characters understand and appreciate language. Even those who ultimate reject it (Mary) and those who cannot seem to bend it to their will (George, Emma) are aware of it. These characters were not. I won't criticize the cast too harshly, though, because this misstep might not be their doing. I honestly can't say for sure whether the error was in the acting or in the directing (by Roundabout favorite Mark Brokaw). But I will say that given how uniformly dissatisfying the majority of the performances were, I can easily believe that they were the result of specific direction.

In the end it doesn't matter which. The play was what it was: a somewhat disappointing production of a touching and thought-provoking new work. Ms. Cho has me sold; I intend to follow her work for a long time to come.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Saturday Night Saloon

It was a good theater-going week for me. First, I saw The Language Archive by Julia Cho, presented by Roundabout Theatre Co. at the Laura Pels Theater. It was fantastic. Beautiful in that heart-in-throat, holy sh*t, blown-away kind of a way that only happens every once in a wonderful while.

That's all I'm going to say about it for the time being; I'm still mulling over all the pieces, formulating an articulate review of both the play and the performance.

That was Wednesday. Then, Saturday, I went to see a little thing called The Saturday Saloon that I'd been reading about on a couple of blogs lately. The show was produced by the Vampire Cowboys, a name which, when mentioned, pretty guarantees my interest is piqued. I've followed the Vampire Cowboys ever since I happened to stumble upon their play, Men of Steel, a of years ago and found it a brilliant, thoughtful and thoroughly dead-on satire.

The great thing about the Vampire Cowboys, too, is that my appreciation is totally pure, untainted by any of the bitterness or envy that often accompanies great works for me. No, "Oh god, why can't I be doing stuff like that?" No, "God, why can't I be WORKING with these people?" Because the stuff they do - or at least the stuff I've seen - works within a specific genre so precisely, it takes an understanding of this geeky, sci-fi/fantasy/comic fandom (and I use these terms in the most reverent way possible) that I appreciate, but do not possess.

This is what I find so brilliant about the Vampire Cowboys: they spoof the genre so accurately, yet so lovingly, it's at once a parody and an homage. It's kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque in that respect. And anyone who knows me well can say that, from me, that's a compliment of the highest order. Add to that the incisive social and political their plays often contain, and I'm pretty much a fan for life.

That's why I made my way all the way out to Brooklyn last Saturday night, and I was not disappointed. The Saloon featured short installments of on-going serials by six different authors. I jumped on board for part two of the production, and I'm going to try my damndest now to see the next installment on November 20th.

This is not a review of the show, because, not having seen the beginning or the end of any of the pieces, I don't think that's fair. So, this post is mostly to say I saw a show, it was fun, I had fun.

I missed the first piece. I was late; I didn't look carefully at the information before leaving my apartment, and didn't notice that the show was ALL THE WAY OUT THERE in Brooklyn. I got there just in time to catch the second piece, "Control Room" by Mac Rogers. It was awesome. Space travel, crazy sci-fi mythology, hostel enemies in strange galaxies, and wise-cracking protagonists. Yup. I'm on board. Next was "Death Valley" by Adam Scott Mazer. Cowboy-western zombies. ALSO on board. "Starboat" by James Comtois (one of the bloggers who brought the show to my attention) had a killer cliffhanger - I have to admit, this one is the show that makes me most catch part three.

The next two were also great. Clever, fast-paced and original, I laughed out loud watching both. But, in comparison with the other three, I had a much harder time following these two. I'm going to blame it on a combination of starting to get a little sleepy (what? It was past my bedtime.) and not having seen part one. The first, "Jack O'Hanrahan and the One-Sided Window," by Brent Cox was a weirdly hilarious spy-spoof. The second, "Killer High," by Crystal Skillman featured a bizarre alternate-reality of elementary-schoolers playing a real life-and-death war game. I read about Ms. Skillman recently on Zack Calhoon's blog and was especially interested in seeing her work. Very weird and very cool.

The only downside, other than having to trek into Brooklyn (hey - I live in Harlem, folks. Brooklyn is a fur piece.) was having to stand the entire time. By the time I got there, the term "standing room only," was an understatement. The place was PACKED. Which is awesome for the production. Not so awesome for my feetsies. But other than that, I give the evening an A.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I Care About The Simpsons for the First Time in 10 Years.

So, this is the first post of mine that isn't strictly theater or New York related, but it's still firmly in the arts realm, plus it's just too strange not to discuss, so I'm going for it.

I'm talking about the opening sequence of The Simpsons done by UK graffiti artist Banksy.

Now, in the interest of total honesty, I haven't watched The Simpsons in a decade. The truth? The joke got old for me around age 16. It's difficult to explain. Although the subject matter continues to be socially relevant, its brand of humor somehow... isn't. Its satirical style, starting with its interpretation of the prototypical American family, seems dated now. It's not edgy anymore, it doesn't shock or challenge; the show has somehow gone soft.

Feel free to disagree with me there. I know the argument, "I can't explain it, but it's just not edgy," is totally airtight and not vague AT ALL.

That is, by the way, a total digression, as the sequence in question is, if nothing else, certainly edgy and socially relevant.

But to continue. I also had no idea who Banksy was until this opening sequence was brought to my attention via the remarkable power of the interwebs, so I'll immediately concede that I am maybe not the most informed person to be declaring her opinions on the matter. But this does spark in me some major opinions, so I'm going to vocalize them anyway. Maybe even create a dialogue here.

First of all, here's the sequence to which I am referring. Embedding a video within a blog post is still out of my range of capabilities, so click here to see it on Hulu.

As I understand it, Fox/The Simpsons allegedly outsources much of its merchandising to South Korea. I say allegedly because I'm not sure if these are simply allegations or an undisputed fact. In any case, the sequence is obviously a response to that subject.

My first question is, if this was created in response, then by whom? Obviously, the sequence was directed by Banksy, but it was certainly realized by the creative team behind The Simpsons. So, why? What kind of response is this? It doesn't refute the allegations, or paint The Simpsons or Fox in a particularly positive light.

Or does it? The images in the sequence become so increasing absurd that by the time we arrive at the scenes of workers killing kittens to stuff Bart Simpson dolls or abusing unicorns to manufacture DVD's they are laughable. But are we supposed to laugh? I don't feel much like laughing. The tone of the sequence is eerie and dark; it evokes an ethos of horror and tragedy rather than humor. And even if the tone were more overtly satirical, the issue of sweatshops and the exploitation of foreign workers is a serious issue and I'm not quite sure why it should be lampooned, especially be an organization accused of contributing to it.

What exactly is the message here? Is it, "Hey, exactly what kind of hell do you imagine in these South Korean sweatshops? Do you think we're killing kittens and unicorns over there? Everybody just chill out." I certainly hope not, but... it kind of seems that way?

Or maybe this is a secret form of protest by the socially conscious artists behind The Simpsons? An effort bring awareness to a business practice they disapprove of on the part of the organization that produces them? That would actually be pretty cool. And hey, it's gotten me talking, it's gotten my Facebook page a-buzzing on subject about which I was hitherto entirely ignorant. It's even gotten me a vaguely indignant - a feat in my generation of glorified indifference.

Still, as far as I can tell, it's supposed to be humorous, but it's funny for all the wrong reasons. Not in the "that's-so-wrong-I-can't-believe-I'm-laughing," sense, but in the sense that the humor seems to tear down the argument that (if you land on the side of human decency) it should be building up.

I just can't figure it out.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Odds and Ends.

The reading for Suite for Summer went well. I was a little disappointed that I couldn't bring in more of a crowd - the audience was solid, but only two were my doing. But, publicity has never really been my strong suit. Can't seem to get those butts in seats. Oh well, my two made up for it by being active, intelligent and appropriate participants in the talk-back. The talk-back also went well; it seems everybody in the room left satisfied with what was heard and discussed.

And then there's also this.

I'm pretty excited about this. Man, I love The Civilians. Gone Missing is one of the most hilarious, enjoyable, poignant and profound few hours I have ever spent in the theater. Maybe I identified in particular because everything in my life does eventually go missing? I don't know. All I know is, I loved it. I loved how it interwove the trivial - the little pieces, the shoes, the wallets, the letters, that we leave behind as we go on with business of living - with the more significant items we lose and must somehow learn to cope with the loss. It was silly, and sad, and sometimes both and the exact same time. A brilliant and beautiful exploration of nostalgia and memory that shed a light how we love and how we grieve. And seriously? How did they do it? How did they take all these diverse, frenetic, true accounts and turn them into real story, with real structure, with such depth and meaning? It's the kind of thing that makes me inspired and bitterly jealous at the same time.

I really wish I had seen This Beautiful City. Not only do I love The Civilians, but I love religious discussion AND I love Colorado Springs. As the city of my grandparents and several sets of aunts, uncles and cousins, I think of it as a second home. I would have loved to see a show that investigated the dynamic of a city so dear to me. Why did I miss it? How did I let myself miss it? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

So anyway, I am NOT missing this one.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Suite for Summer

I'm directing a reading tonight. It's the first thing I've done since March, so that's good. Well, I should say it's the first performance that I've done, because I HAVE been working as diligently as possible on both my project with Johanna and the resurrection of 8 Women: A Karaoke Murder Mystery, even though neither of those projects have any performances in the foreseeable future.

(I don't believe I've blogged about 8 Women, have I? Yikes. The show, which was at the epicenter of my theater life for so long, has faded so far into the background it hasn't even been worth mentioning since I started this blog. I suppose it's for the best. We all needed a break from the thing, I think, to come back at it with renewed vigor. Which we are doing now. More on that later.)

So, the reading. First of all, it's tonight. (And it's free, so come!) Here's the info: 7:30, A.R.T./NY at 520 8th Ave, 3rd floor, Bruce Mitchell Room. The play is called Suite for Summer, by a woman named Robyn Burland. I actually worked with Robyn on the very first show I did in the city - a play of hers called Greater Buffalo. I was the stage manager and assistant director - I mostly, as she reminded me last night, mopped fake blood off the stage. It's been great to come back around and work with her again. She's enormously talented; she, and her plays, have such a weird, warped sense of humor.

Rehearsal was last night, I think it went well. I think I made as many small adjustments as I could for the time frame within which I was working. Directing readings is always such a weird thing for me. I don't make hasty choices in life, or in directing. I like to consider, process, marinate before I give a direction, an impulse I have to work against in the rehearsal setting for a reading. When you have four hours - as we did last night - to realize the performance, if you see something you want to work differently, you better speak up because you might not come back to it again.

This is pretty antithetical to my own approach. I like to watch, see where the actors are going with something, even if I don't like it at first, because they might take it somewhere I didn't expect and like even better than what I was planning. Of course, none of this is relevant in the hyper-accelerated reading process. Everything is what it is, it has no room to change or grow, and you just have to say what you like and change what you don't. I've gotten better at it, though. I'm starting to get the hang of it. There were definitely a few directions that I wish I had given to the actors sooner, but, for the most part, the rehearsal went well. I'm looking forward to the performance tonight.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Collaboration II (The Johanna Project)

We've made some excellent progress this week on what I am fondly calling The Johanna Project: we wrote the first scene. It's obviously not a final draft; and it's short; and it doesn't do much but set the scene, in fact it doesn't really go anywhere at all. But COULD go somewhere from here. And it works, for the most part. The characters talk like themselves and talk about the things we want them to talk about.

I think this is a huge breakthrough.

We wrote the scene by switching off line by line - at first with me writing the lines of the mother and she writing the lines of the son. But then with the introduction of the third character, the waitress, we both sort of alternated between the three, as it was appropriate.

We'd done a similar sort of role-playing before, months ago, before we gave the project up, but I thought that one went poorly. That time, she wrote the mother and I wrote the son; I think I made the son overly childish and petulant, and rashly emotional. She fared a bit better with the mother, but she still seemed a bit tied to the 1950's housewife stereotype that we used as a jumping-off point for her character. We also got unnecessarily distracted with an argument about whether or not the deceased father let the son keep a dog as a child.

Why did it work so much better this time? I can't speak for Johanna, but I, for one, am much better acquainted with the characters. All of our talking around in circles, as frustrated as we've been with not moving forward, has definitely given us a much deeper understanding of the characters - and why they're sitting in a room together. We started, logically, with the opening scene and we've been over and through what brings them to this meeting point and what they ultimately hope to get from it, that it was easy to mutually imagine how their initial interaction would go.

All this is great; it makes me feel like we're on the right track.

Upcoming for our next meeting: we're going to read and evaluate the scene we just wrote on our own this week. Then, when we meet, we'll discuss and edit the scene together and then talk about what we believe we're setting up and where we imagine it's going from here. We'll discuss what we hope will happen in the next beat-or-so and then we'll switch off, line by line, again.