Physical Festival June 2-10, 2017

This is our third year attending the festival.  It’s all the things we love to see on stage, with plot and drama created by movement, puppets, mime.  It’s a festival, so some are great, some good and some, well, just toads.

There was one spectacular performance:  Anatomy of Fear by Teatteri Metamorfoosi from Finland. It’s one actor relating his daily fears, mostly centered around work, where either he is, or is made to feel, inadequate by his manager.  The fear is represented by a slightly larger than life puppet – a doppelganger, manipulated by two superb puppeteers.  This is not done with strings; the puppet is the main character on the stage, brought to life by the puppeteers holding and working the puppet, mostly from behind, so it appears to have human movement.  Since the puppeteers are in total black (not even eyes showing) you soon forget their presence.

Misiposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych by Portmanteau of Chicago – a wonderful local puppet company.  This time the puppets are about two feet tall, rendered in beautiful detail and manipulated by four puppeteers, who also manipulate the scenery.  Again, the puppeteers totally in black so you can lose yourself in the miniature staged creation, forgetting how it is wrought.  We have now seen this group three years running and they deliver each time.

 

The Confetti Maker by Frank Wurzinger (Germany) – a one man Blue Man Group, with paper instead of blue goo.  Impossible to describe in a short paragraph, but if you are familiar with Blue Man, you get the picture - the one above is after the performance.  We loved it.  (Side note:  Blue Man Productions was recently purchased by TPG, who own Cirque de Soliel, so watch for major expansion.)

Wojtec: The Happy Warrior by The Quarter Too Ensemble (UK) – this would have rated higher because the story is fascinating, but was lost in the frenetic presentation.  It’s a true story of a Syrian brown bear adopted as a cub mascot by a Polish Armament Division stranded in the Middle East in WWII.  When they are deployed to Italy and fight in the Battle of Monte Casino, the now full-grown bear accompanies them and serves as a carrier of ammunition to the troops throughout the attack. 


Memory of Dust by Theatre de l’Ange Fou from France and Spring Green WI was an hour-long performance of modern dance/poetry performed by Steven Wasson and Corrine Soum.  Not exactly our cup of tea, but would have benefitted from more poetry, which was lovely.  The performers are easily in their 70’s with the stamina of young adults.

We also attended the evening of performances by locals learning the craft.  We were underwhelmed and hope that next year’s crop is either better pre-judged or that the organizers open the stage to a broader geographic audience of new performers.  

Overall, we enjoyed the festival and will always be there to be treated to unexpected greatness.  


 

"Hookman" , a play by Lauren Yee, produced by Steep Theater, May  2017

We saw Hookman over a month ago – mostly because we try to see everything that Steep produces, not because we were attracted to the play.  To refresh my mind, I read through several reviews, and this one from "Picture this Post" by Brent Eichoff seemed to capture an uneven night of theater, “this genre bending play jams one part drama, one part coming-of-age story, one part horror, and one part comedy into its 70-minute running time. The result is a dizzying and at times uneven, but thoroughly enjoyable play addressing such topics as the safety of young women, date rape, and survivor’s guilt."

What I remember most is the guiltless viciousness (funny as well) of the protagonist’s college friends.  Lexi, a college freshman from the Left Coast is attending an Ivy League school on the Right Coast, likely on scholarship.  A stream of frenemies keeps up a riff of indifference, boredom, malice and faux support.  Guileless Lexi finds solace in the reappearance of her West Coast BBF, who was killed in a gruesome auto accident involving Lexi.  It’s interesting that male reviewer Eichoff captured nothing of the loss of a loving friend and the reality of shallow acquaintances.  

The playwright, Lauren Yee, won multiple awards for her work, though she is just 21.  Yes, 21, and already has plays produced by The Goodman and Steep.  Imagine what the future hold for her and for us.   

“Holmes & Watson” by Jeffrey Hatcher, produced by Arizona Theatre Company

Billed as a “thrilling new Sherlock Holmes mystery”, it was more a “tongue in cheek mystery” based on Sherlock Holmes characters.  The plot is complex, as you need in a mystery, the acting was fine, the conclusion tied up all the loose ends.  It just didn’t light my fire.  Thankfully it was one long act.  Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a genre—you know what to expect.  There were several clever character reversals, and I appreciated the twists.  I would call this standard matinee fare, and we attended the matinee.  
 

"Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash", created by Richard Maltby, Jr., produced by The Arizona Theater Company

Maybe I don’t like the music of Johnny Cash as much as I thought, or maybe this wasn’t a great production.  Ring of Fire did not resonate with me, or the two fans attending with me.  It is not like the bio-pic, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that resounded with the music and personalities of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.  Ring of Fire is a vocal bibliography of most of the hits and some of the sleepers.  

The cast of ten surprised me.  Groups like Arizona Theater Company have swung away from large productions because of the cost of talent.  You not only have to hire the cast, you must pay room and board for a several months.  The cast was good.  They did not try to mimic Cash and Carter.  Some of the numbers were fun.  

Overall, a mediocre evening at the theater.  One good note is the new restaurant located next to the theater, Simplicit.  I had the poke bowl and reveled in the sushi/salad combo.   
 

“Wastwater” by Simon Stephens at Steep Theater

We’re going to see Stephens’ play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while in London, so wanted to see this 2011 collection of three dark vignettes situated in Sipson, a relic of a town in the flight path of Heathrow.  Stephens is Associate Playwright for Steep; that’s the quality of professionals this tiny theater attracts.  The vignettes are loosely connected, dealing with foster children, sexual brutality, white slavery, pedophilia and those involved.  Not so bright and sunny, good writing and fine acting, but not a significant arc of drama.  But we will continue to toad-kiss frequently at this theater. 

Physical Fest Chicago 2016

Per my friend, Wikipedia, “Physical theatre is a genre of theatrical performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means. Several performance traditions all describe themselves as "physical theatre", but the unifying aspect is a reliance on physical motion of the performers rather than or combined with speech to convey the story. In basic sense, you talk through hand gestures, body language, use of objects and many more physical features."  Mimes, sure, but so much more – puppets, masks, dance, sound effects – components that take “suspension of disbelief” to another sphere. 

Last year, my sister-in-law, Norah, and I stumbled on one night of Physical Fest 2015 and were swept away by two performances:  a one-man show “A Little Business at the Big Top” that recreates the world of circus and “Popol is Gone,” described as "a journey through madness, revolution and solitude" that is conveyed as a dialogue with the audience.  We vowed to return.

And we did, with Festival passes (not quite like Taste of Chicago or Lollapalooza passes), and dragged DBH along, though he did not much protest.  This year we attended all five productions – and wished we could have attended the workshops.  Here’s the lineup with our feedback.

Hominus Brasilis

Hominus Brasilis

Hominus Brasilis by Cia Manual (Brazil).  6o minutes of non-stop movement and a few words (mostly jibberish) that told the story of Brazil from the creation of the world to Zika virus and the Olympics.  You see the size of the “stage” in the photo.  And the movement rarely stopped on this lily pad for performance.  Magical, definitely a Prince.

Laura Simms

Laura Simms

How to Find Romania, written and performed by Laura Simms.  Simms is a storyteller, and a substitute in this lineup.  You would not normally put a verbal performer into this festival.  She’s good, sometimes really good.  But, her performance is too long, with sections that could have been easily edited out.  Score:  Toad

The Bag Lady

The Bag Lady

The Bag Lady by Malgosia Szkandera, a Spanish artist of Polish descent.  Magic with plastic bags, mostly the common white grocery kind.  Such amazing physical control of her body to provide movement for her tiny puppets. What imagination! Definitely a Prince.

Sad Songs for Bad People by Rough House Puppet Theater (Chicago).  Puppets again, mostly with dark themes and, unfortunately, dark lighting.  Instead of regular spots, they used #10 cans on poles wired for lighting.  One sequence featured “black light”, but everything was so dim you could not follow the action.  Understandably they are attempting to create an atmosphere of amateurism, but they must be a bit more appreciative of the needs of the audience to accomplish this reverse of technique.  Some of the sequences were stunning, so very sad.  Score:  Very dark Prince

Sad Songs for Bad People

Sad Songs for Bad People

Hold Onto Your Butts by Recent Cutbacks (New York).  This rocked the house.  If you have seen Return to Jurassic Park, picture the whole story told by two men and a Foley (sound effects) artist.  Raunchy, punchy, over-the-top athletic with amazing sound-effects and sight-gags.  I want to see it again and again… Score: Prince.

You can actually share a bit of their wild and crazy show on this video promo.

"Johanna Faustus" at The Hypocrites

Seldom do I urge the playwright and director to make a production longer, but this time I wrote to Sean Graney, director and co-author, suggesting that he slow it down.  The production was crammed into an hour.  Lines spoken so fast, they were unintelligible.  Funny bits lost because the actors stepped on lines and did not allow the audience to absorb the jokes.  

And, the plot was rendered unintelligible as well.  Was it really Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or just parts of the plot woven into a new take on the validity of religion?  Overall, it felt like we were being exposed to the first version of a new work with many changes to come - at least I hope they come before they perform it again.  Graney is known for his new takes on old plays.  Ed and I have been twice to enjoy the 10 hour "All Our Tragic", based on the remaining 18 Greek plays.  Loved it both times.  Score:  Toad

P.S. - Sean replied, "I hated the production".

"Guards at the Taj" wins Obie - hands down.

On a delightful trip to Los Angeles in November, 2015 - Friday the 13th to be exact, we saw Rajiv Joseph's latest play, "Guards at the Taj" at the Geffen Theater in Westwood.  We love his previous plays, especially "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo".  "Guards" carried a warning not to reveal the ending.  That's because few would want to experience the end of this play. Likely I did not review it because I was still stunned.  

Featured are two guards who must stand rigid at the entrance to the soon to be completed Taj Mahal.  A wall separates them from the glorious mosque.  No one is allowed to see the work inside.  Life is boring and routine - the first act like a "Bob and Ray" radio comedy.  But slyly, the plot reveals itself as the  character of Shah Jahan, commissioner of the Taj Mahal, and the nature of life in an absolutist political system, is revealed in the guards' exchanges.  

Seems the architect, Ustad Isa, asked the Shah if the 20,000 workers could tour their completed masterpiece.  Rather than responding with benevolence, the Shah demands that the hands of the 20,000 workers and the architect be cut off so that nothing as beautiful as the Taj could ever be constructed again.  (Note to reader:  this is fiction, not fact.)  

Act II opens with the stage, now a pool several inches deep of blood and the two guards, who have been put in charge of the hand-ectomies, nearly out of their minds at the horror of their work.  Ultimately, one guard must cut off the hands of the other - and you see this (actually very well staged) in gory detail.  

So now you know "the rest of the story".  We left the theater feeling like we had been sucker-punched.  But it was good theater.  And it does deserve the Obie. 

Score:  Bloody Prince

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"The Secretaries" and "The Few" - Toad Kissing in Chicago

We're toad-kissing again in Chicago. There is so much live theater produced in Chicago, it’s like diving into a chocolate sundae.  But, though worthy, not all of these plays are princes, and DBH and I will spend lots of time kissing toads throughout the summer.  I’ll keep you apprised of our adventures.

First up, The Few at Steep Theater. These are the folks who produce edgy, small plays that make you think.  Sort of like Steppenwolf Theater before they because such a money machine. Written by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Brad Akin, starring Peter Moore, Dana Black (looking and acting like former Steppenwolf star, Laurie Metcalf, just a bit more zaftig) and Travis Coe.  
Synopsis from the website: “Four years ago, Bryan walked away from his life, his lover, and his labor of love: a newspaper for long haul truck drivers. Now he’s back, without any answers and looking to finish what he couldn’t on the road. In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of the millennium, The Few pulls together the pieces of lives filled with loss.”

A newspaper for long haul truck drivers…really?  Yup, Bryan was a driver who saw and experienced the loneliness of the long-distance trucker and wrote about it.  Without him for four years, the paper has become pages of “seeking” ads, placed by truckers and for truckers. These play from the phone answering machine at poignant moments throughout the play. There are lots of small sub-plots artfully woven into the 90 minutes.  Overall a well-crafted, well-performed production.  Hunter won a MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant in 2014.  Good investment of their money – ours too.  Score:  Prince

Today, we grabbed last minute tickets to see The Secretaries produced by About Face Theater, a LGBTQA group.  Description from their website, “The Secretaries chronicles the initiation of Patty Johnson as she lands the job of her dreams at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. But those dreams turn into bloody nightmares when she discovers that her coworkers are chainsaw-wielding lumberjack killers!  Amidst the campy carnage, this feminist satire skewers female stereotypes of the 80s and 90s while hilariously subverting sexist ideas of femininity. And while it was written more than two decades ago, The Secretaries remains startlingly fresh with regard to how little has changed in the last 20 years.”

The Secretaries reminded me a bit of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom which Ed and I saw in a dicey area of New York City about 1985.  Today, we went to the Sunday matinee – you need to be slightly more than high to really enjoy The Secretaries.  But it did have its moments, including the tyrannical office manager, Kelli Simpkins, who is a ringer for Tilda Swinton, the ingénue, played by Erin Barlow, one of our favorites at The Hippocrates Theater ensemble. Best of all, it brought back floods of memories of my first job in the Trust Department of Lake Shore Bank, 601 N Michigan Avenue.  Where are they now:  The office manager, Evelyn Nerdowitz, the vault teller, Bonita Dufik, the secretary to the EVP of the Trust Department, Susan Schultz, the bookkeeper, Josie Mancuso?  These women formed me in ways no college ever did.  But, score for the play:  Toad.  

Fall Theater Season in Tucson 2015

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Winding Road Theater Company
Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw, adapted by Toni Press-Coffman
directed by Susan Arnold, featuring MAC-Award Winner Lucille Petty
Our first Saint Joan, and admirably performed by Winding Road, especially Lucille Petty, who seemed the embodiment of a slight, middle-class French girl.  Shaw’s plays are usually long, so Press-Coffman’s shortened adaptation was appreciated.

All Hamlet, All the Time.

This Fall, The Rogue produced Hamlet and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern
Are Dead
in rep.  And, the National Theater broadcast live a performance of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

National Theater:  Saw this production first – most lasting impressions:

  • Cumberbatch, lithe as a cat, gliding from floor to tabletop, rooftop to street.  That man moved like a ballet professional.  
  • Always impressive, the NT’s staging of the final scenes included the destroyed castle of Elsinore, complete with tons of dirt.  What a job to clean that up after each performance.
  • Polonius, always one of my favorites, played by David Calder, seemed shrunken in the role.

That National Theater Live is a great gift to the world from the U.K.

The Rogue

Hamlet by Wm. Shakespeare and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, playing in rep. 

Oh, theatrical joy!  Matt Bowdren played Hamlet.  No, he became Hamlet.  Again, in a micro-theater, you heard Shakespeare’s most quoted lines up close and personal.  The Tucson production was considerably shortened from the NT Live production (almost four hours).  But this was easily the best Shakespeare production by The Rogue – we have seen about five over the years.  

And, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – pure magic.  Tom Stoppard brought the lunacy of Beckett to the stage existence of minor characters, whose only purpose is to appear several times in Hamlet, and like everyone else, to die.  The pair create word games, bet on coin flips and doze to pass the time between appearances.  When they are “on stage”, you experience that exact scene, with the same actors, that you saw in the performance of Hamlet.  How wonderful to see the plays in tandem.  Patty Gallagher is the more dim-witted Rosencrantz; Ryan Parker Knox is Guildenstern.  They inhabited the roles.  This was the best exploitation of Gallagher’s outstanding physical theater skills ever.  

University of Arizona Repertory Theater
Ooops, we did it again.  Cabaret, starring the U of A theater students.  They nailed it!  Excellent Master of Ceremonies and a Sally who gave her all.  The band appeared to be composed of profs – and they reveled in the swinging music.  

 

 

 

 

 

reckless.jpg

Reckless by Craig Lucas – Interesting, but not great, play with a dark Christmas theme.  Most memorable for split second scene changes.  All parts well-acted, but the ending was a let-down that wrapped things up a bit too neatly.  

How Could Anyone Forget "Moby Dick"? More summer theater in Chicago

md1.jpg

Well, I did!  We "experienced" the full Moby at Lookingglass Theater on June 17th.  Lookingglass has become known for productions that combine drama with circus-type athleticism, imaginative staging and solid acting.  But reduce Moby Dick to two and a half hours?  Presenting a book as a drama is difficult enough, but MD is a novel inside of a natural history text.  And they did it very well.  

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For me, hearing and seeing the beginning line, "Call me Ishmael", was like meeting an old friend in person.  The coffin was the central icon from the beginning.  The staging included stripping whale blubber off the hoop skirts of "whale ladies", men climbing and swinging from the rigging over 2/3 of the theater, a Greek chorus of New Bedford widows - there was hardly a factor in the plot that went usused.  Thankfully, they did not "waste" hours informing us about the different kinds of whales, my least favorite section of the book.  

Lookingglass is located at the old Water Tower at Pearson and Michigan, so a prime tourist area. Their productions combine the excellence and edginess of the Chicago theater scene with enough "tourist wow" to keep the crowds attending.  Their current production, which we will miss by one day, is Treasure Island, adapted by Mary Zimmerman.  If you plan to be in Chicago, don't miss it.