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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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some More Really Good Theater

The Directors' Lab has begun, and after just two days, I am already exhausted, terrified, excited and inspired. But more on that later.

Before I my head goes completely below water, though, I need to mention a few things that have happened.

First, Captain Moonbeam closed on Sunday. I've already gushed way too much about this show, and I think at a point enough is just enough. So I'll keep it brief. I loved working on this show. I am really going to miss it. The people I collaborated with on Captain Moonbeam are some of the most talented, most fun people I've worked with since moving to New York, and the sense of community I felt working on this production is something that I've been missing terribly. I'm really looking forward to having the chance to work with James, Ben, or any of the other folks from Nosedive, or the cast and crew of Savior again in the future.

I'm pretty pleased with the way the show turned out. I ended up using a lot more multimedia, like sound and slides, than I ever have in the past, due in large part to what James called for in the script. And I think the end result looked quite nice.


All of the actors gave wonderful performances, too, which was really rewarding to watch as a director. They put a lot of effort into this project and were fantastic for their parts. This was one of those projects where I found out I was directing it and then found it had to be cast within the next 48 hours. I feel really happy and grateful that I know such talented and hard-working people that I can call on for projects like this. Last-minute casting can be a total disaster, but all four of these actors, including Mr. Playwright himself, who graciously stepped in as an actor, just killed it in their parts.

Of course, it goes without saying that James Comtois wrote an amazing script. And Ben! Lord, do not get me started on the amazing talents of Mr. Ben Vandenboom. He made simultaneously producing, stage managing, designing props, costumes, and sound, and running the show from the booth look EASY.

Okay, I'm starting to gush now, and it's getting gross. I'm moving on. Oh, but one more thing - James also had some really nice words to say about the Captain Moonbeam experience in his blog, so check that out too, if you get a chance.

Now I'm done.

I've also seen some really good theater recently. I saw The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World at Playwrights' Horizons and it was every bit as good as everyone's been saying it is. I won't write a full review, partially because I don't have time, and partially because there's not much I can say that's already been said: the performances are amazing, the story is so compelling and so sad, and the score finds a strange, lovely balance between the music they wanted to make and the music they actually made. It was wonderful; poppy, catchy and somehow profound. It captured all the hope that this sound represented to the girls, their father, and to American culture. And yet it still managed to echo the melancholy of the truth - the reality of their music and their situation. The score strikes the same sad chord somewhere between hope and failure that, I think, their original does. Or does, at least, for me.

In an interview that was distributed after the show, Joy Gregory, one of the creators, also said something about pop music that really resounded with me. It probably goes a little way toward explaining why the score of The Shaggs was so sensitive and so meaningful, but more importantly, it communicates perfectly what I think we were trying to do with the pop music in 8 Women for so long, so I thought I wanted to share it:

I'm super passionate about what a lot of people would call crappy music. I will cry to ABBA. And it's not my generation's default-irony mode. I uncritically love it for its immediate emotional availability. It connects me to a deep place of memory and feeling.

Yes, Joy Gregory!!! EXACTLY!

In any case, it was a really good show.

You know what another really good show was? Nosedive Productions' Blood Brothers present... Freaks from the Morgue. And I'm not just saying that because, you know, I worked with Nosedive on Captain Moonbeam. It. was. freaking. awesome. So creepy, so much fun. I'm always saying I like "shows that know what they are." And - if you don't know what that means, I'm sorry, but I can't explain it today. I've got a Directors' Lab to get to in twenty minutes, you know. Maybe that's a post for another day. But anyway, Blood Brothers knew exactly what it was, and was it with unrestrained, incredibly disturbing glee. I expected to enjoy the show, but I definitely did not expect to leave going, "HELL YEAH! THAT WAS AWESOME!" And I totally did.

Blood Brothers has TWO MORE performances, so go! You really won't regret it.

That's it for me. See you all on the other side.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ajax In Iraq

Flux Theater Ensemble's Ajax in Iraq closes on June 25th, so you still have time to catch this earnest, provocative and visually stunning play.

Ajax in Iraq tells the parallel stories of the eponymous Greek hero of Sophocles' tragedy Ajax and a young female soldier in Iraq named AJ. Ajax, gripped by jealousy and anger and driven mad by the goddess Athena, slaughters a herd of livestock in a violent rage. Meanwhile, in contemporary Iraq, AJ experiences horrors that begin to wage another internal war against her own mind. The two stories weave in an out of one another as both Ajax and AJ lose their grip on their sanity and then their struggle to come to terms with what that loss means.

Themes of our inherent, animal desire for cruelty and brutality as well as the frailty of the line that divides attacker, victim and passive bystander pervade the play. Athena, played with force and charisma by Raushanah Simmons, narrates the play and is the driving force behind it. A force, we discover rather quickly, not to be messed with. Equal parts vicious cunning and disturbing volatility, she is gleeful of her colossal power and ready to turn (against you) on a dime. Here, Athena represents the mind in all its immense power and terrifying vulnerability - its capacity for trickery, treachery, and devious second-guessing. The only thing that stands between us and the disturbing portraits of inexplicable violence we're watching, Athena warns us, is her. That is - the luck and happenstance that has thus far allowed us to keep our frail minds intact.

The play is directed with expertise by August Schulenburg, who maintains an evocative and striking aesthetic from start to finish. Story aside, the play is thrilling to watch for its gorgeous visual tableaus and dynamic uses of sound, rhythm, movement and space. But moreover, Schulenburg builds a lively and compelling momentum that persists even through apparently tangential scenes. One of the most haunting moments of the play is as an unnamed soldier recounts an incident of incredible brutality. The scene is beautifully staged; his confusion and disorientation by the rush of adrenaline and fear, the cover of night, and the distortion of the night-vision goggles are viscerally felt. Because of the strength of this moment, in the fury of the unnamed soldier we understand better the turmoil of both Ajax and AJ.

For the most part, the ancient Greek narrative and its contemporary counterpart work well together. With testimonials from modern-day soldiers in Iraq and the use of direct address, McLaughlin crafts a structure that echoes and evokes the Greek chorus of the original story.

The device of the parallel stories, however, begins to lag as the story progresses. The audience can see from the very beginning that AJ's story will mimic the Greek hero's, so the fun (if you can call such a grisly story "fun") becomes watching the particulars of why and how AJ's undoing will unfold in the context of the modern world.

Problematically, though, the play is too heavy with, well, just a lot of other stuff. There is the concurrent Greek tragedy to contend with, as well as certain unnecessarily political non-sequitors (a prime example: after Ajax/AJ's penultimate moment, the action cuts jarringly to a PSA for a shelter for homeless veterans). The result is that we only meet AJ and come to understand her struggle superficially, perfunctorily. Because the audience spends so little time with her, the horrors she endures feel more like devices, means to a forgone end, than a real journey. AJ is the heart of the play, and she is to often brushed aside.

The play meets further trouble in the way the two stories ultimately play out. In the end, AJ's story is just too similar to Ajax's. It left me wondering, as the two collided at the play's climax, why I needed to see the same story presented to me twice. The play would be stronger if the stories ran apart from one another a bit more - enough to appreciate their differences as well as their similarities. Or, if the conceit of the dual story were dropped altogether and the play instead focused on simply a modern retelling of Ajax. (Although I would be very sorry to see Ajax's side of the story go - Athena is by far the most exciting character in the play, and the dialogue in Ajax's scenes some of the most beautiful, leaving me with a very profound appreciation for playwright Ellen McLaughlin's poetic command of language.)

Still, despite the room for improvement, Ajax in Iraq is a passionate, genuine, and innovative examination of the atrocities of war - a story that needs to be told. Furthermore, the story is brought to justice with an immensely talented cast. In addition to Simmons, there were notable performances by Tiffany Clementi as a distraught wife of a solider suffering from PTSD, and Christina Shipp, in a sensitive and vulnerable portrayal of AJ.

With haunting eloquence, Ajax in Iraq somehow links past and present, tormentor and tormented, and pulls us from our comfortable chairs a little closer to the sting of the desert and the terror of battle. You'll leave rattled a little and questioning a lot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We're Going Up

Today at 3 we'll tech for Captain Moonbeam & Lynchpin, and tomorrow we open.

I'm really excited. Like, REALLY excited. I can't wait for all of the exciting things we've been exploring in rehearsal to come together, for the actors to finally have an audience, and for people to see what we've been working on.

And I don't want to get all gross and gushy here, but I don't think I've been this excited to open a show since maybe high school. Something... feels very high school about this. In a good way! Not in terms of the quality - James has written a fantastic show, and the cast and crew (and by crew I mean our multi-talented producer/stage manager/designer/generally all-around awesome guy, Ben) have been doing amazing things. I mean that there's been something communal, passionate and energetic in the room with these people that feels almost young. The kind of zeal that usually accompanies the novelty of being a part of something so legitimately awesome as a play for the first time. Or maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just the fact that I haven't had so much fun working on something AND been so proud of the result in a long time. I've had a lot of fun working on shows. And I've been very proud of shows I've been a part of. But not BOTH, at the SAME TIME. Not like this.

In any case, I'm all a-twitter about tomorrow's show. I feel like parents should be bringing flowers! SOMEONE BRING ME FLOWERS! Just kidding. Not really. Okay, just kidding.

And there's more good news! The theater company Vampire Cowboys has asked James if we'd like to perform an excerpt of Captain Moonbeam for their upcoming show on Saturday. The show is a farewell to their rehearsal/performance space The Battle Ranch, which they've had for the past four years. (Although that's not good news. That's pretty sad news.) I know I've sung the praises of Vampire Cowboys here before, but I'll say it again: they're amazing.

I first became aware of the Vampire Cowboys three, maybe four years ago when I went to see their play, Men of Steel (also about comic books, coincidentally enough). My friend and frequent playgoing companion Teresa and I sort of stumbled upon it, completely accidentally and incredibly serendipitously. At the time we had resolved to see more theater, and had been meeting up once a week to see a play together. Or, we had in theory. In practice, it hadn't been working out. This was, I believe, our third week of trying, and every time so far for one reason or another (sold out tickets, we got the wrong time, etc.) our theater plans had been thwarted. When we met that day, we had an entirely different play picked out and, for the THIRD time in a row, for some reason, it didn't work out. At that point, our attitude was more or less, HELL NO! We are SEEING a show TONIGHT. It doesn't even matter what, our only criteria is that a theater is involved. No, not even that. As long as somebody, at some point, called it a play, it sounds like a winner. Our asses WILL be in seats this evening.

So we flipped open the Village Voice and pointed to the first show we could find in a price range we could afford with a curtain time we thought we could make. It was Vampire Cowboy's Men of Steel. We walked in with almost no idea what to expect. I remember at some point we were at the Times Square tourist information center (don't ask, weird things just sort of happened to Teresa and I during this theatergoing period) and I think the guy there thought we were poor, helpless Midwestern tourists about to stumble into some raunchy adult entertainment thinking we were going to a "Broadway show." He kept asking us if we were SURE Men of Steel was what we wanted to see.

Anyway, Men of Steel turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and inspiring evenings of theater I've had in New York City. It gave me a whole new perspective of how inventive, original, and exciting New York theater can be. I've been an avid Vampire Cowboys fan ever since, and I've always held them up as a standard of excellence for downtown theater and theater in general. Their work has been something I aspire to for almost as long as I've been working in New York.

And while a part of me knows that Nosedive is quite friendly with Vampire Cowboys, and that James, and the rest of us by proxy, are doing this as a favor between friends, another part of me is going: OH MY GOD. A VAMPIRE COWBOYS SHOW. Work that I directed is going to be in a Vampire Cowboys show. It's kind of amazing, and incredibly gratifying, and a little part of me is squeeeing on the inside right now.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Nothing But Filler

In Boston this weekend, while visiting with old friends, one of them asked me jokingly about my blog, "Do you ever begin posts with the line, 'Sorry I haven't posted in a while...'?"

"I have to curb that urge all the time," I told him. "It's like, who am I apologizing to? Who is out there with bated breath, expectantly awaiting regular updates from Leigh's theater blog? Who is so shocked and disappointed to discover that I've missed a week?" It's so silly, really. But the urge is totally there.

So, sorry I haven't pos..... nooooadsfk,xdiueahriesdfoxijkkghresreszd

No. I'll resist.

Though, really, this entire post is a big long "sorry, I haven't posted," because instead of actually writing, I'm just going to talk about all the awesome things I'm GOING to write about.

I haven't written a review in a while because, frankly, reviews are HARD. I don't know if this is true for others (does Ben Brantley have this trouble?) but reviews are by far the longest and most laborious posts I write. I pore over the details; I want to make sure I've communicated the spirit of the show and my interpretation of it absolutely precisely. And since I've been so involved with Captain Moonbeam (which you're going to come see, right?), I've let quite a few shows slip by without comment.

But that's all going to change! I have a TON of shows that I'll be seeing in the next couple of weeks. And then I'm going to write about them. Because it's been too long. And seriously, guys, I'm sorry I haven't posted in -

Just kidding. Among the shows I'm seriously excited about catching soon are:

Nosedive's Blood Brothers Present... Freaks from the Morgue (obviously)

Flux's Ajax in Iraq

Blue Coyote Theater Group's Standards of Decency 3: 300 Vaginas Before Breakfast - because with a name like that, why would I *not* go?

The Shaggs Philosophy of the World at Playwright's Horizons. The premise to this show is utterly fascinating and every review I've read of it so far has been positive. I'm into it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Because it's my birthday week and I wanna see Harry Potter sing and dance.

I'm sure there's more, but those are the ones I skimmed off the top of my head. Thoughts? Suggestions? Any others I should see during this theater whirlwind?