Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recent Performances in NYC

This is the first of at least two blog posts on what Catherine and I've been seeing lately. I've been writing on this for days but still haven't been able to finish it! It seems that the only entertainment genres we've missed lately are an opera and a rock concert... and if we can catch this company's next gig, we'll remedy both of those omissions in one event.

June 11th took us out to The Brooklyn Lyceum for The Nerve Tank's A Gathering by Chance D. Muehleck, directed by Melanie Armer. The text mixes naturalistic dialogue and poetic imagery in an intriguing fashion; the mash-up of the recognizable and the surreal in the work is a little unnerving—almost like lightning flashes that briefly illuminate within the dark, meandering soundscape of voices and industrial-ish white noise that occasionally flare up into a almost deafening roar. Melanie has done a great job making the piece fill the entire raw environment of the Lyceum so that the three actors use almost every inch of the enormous playing area: the balcony along the back wall, the stairs on both sides that lead up to it, the huge space behind the audience (the seating takes up only a fraction of the enormous room) and even a surprising niche in one wall. The lighting is entirely done with fluorescent strips (some placed beneath the four pew-like benches scattered around center stage) and the overhead fluorescent lighting in the space (which all began slowly flickering to life over the last few minutes of the piece). The actors the night we attended (there is a rotating cast as the episodes have been presented in installments since February) were Craig Dolezel, Stacia French, Irene Hsi and they all did a good job: they moved very well and had a nice handle on the dense language (volume was sometimes a problem but it's a big ol' cavern of a space so I cut them some slack on that one). If I have any complaint about the piece, it's that there's almost too much happening to be able to take it all in: just when I felt I had a handle on a character or a situation, something would change and I'd have to reassess (I know this was done intentionally by the artists but it was frustrating, nonetheless). The Nerve Tank is in residence at the Lyceum throughout 2009 and they'll be presenting a new work there in a much smaller space this fall; I look forward to seeing how it compares to the vast canvas they've used for A Gathering.

On Saturday, June 13th we journeyed north to the Triad on the Upper West Side for Huxley Vertical's Brave New Kabarett. We'd never been to the Triad and found it to be a pretty good place to hear music: a well-designed, intimate little proscenium theater with a pretty good sound system. Price-wise, it's a lot like The Duplex in the West Village (a $10 cover plus a two-drink minimum—$8+ for beer/wine/cocktails, $7 for non-alcoholic drinks) but there's a little more breathing room between the tables so it doesn't feel as crowded. The show was a lot of fun: basically a variety show emceed by Huxley Vertical's bandleader, Seth Bedford. The evening kicked off with a couple of ragtime selections from guest artist Brent Weldon Reno and musical theater selections sung by Patty Bruce, then a couple of very funny numbers each from Bobby Blue and songwriter Ben Lerman, and a few songs from Dutch singer Sabina Petra; interspersed throughout the set were the Weimar-inspired selections by Huxley Vertical. Our friends, Caroline and Jeff, joined us for dinner and the show which made the entire experience even more enjoyable: they are as excellent as dinner companions as they are travelers.

I was a little surprised when I heard earlier this year that Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, with Geoffrey Rush in the lead role, was coming to Broadway. It's a classic of the genre that Martin Esslin dubbed the Theater of the Absurd and I just couldn't see how it could possibly have enough commercial appeal for even a limited engagement—with or without a Hollywood star. Nonetheless, Catherine and I'd been hearing for weeks that the production—and especially Rush's performance—was amazing and that we'd be fools to miss it; we finally got tickets for the closing performance on June 14th and I'm happy to say that the reports did not exaggerate. The story is a rather obvious allegory on aging and mortality: King Berenger I learns in the first few minutes that he'll be dead by the end of the play and that he must prepare himself for this inevitability. While this might sound like a better recipe for tragedy than comedy, Ionesco's script is insanely funny and was beautifully executed by director Neil Armfield and his exceptional cast, which also included Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, Andrea Martin, William Sadler and Brian Hutchinson. But Geoffrey Rush's performance was the primary reason to see this show: his Berenger was full of life and energy, a man who absolutely refused to give into death until the last possible moment. Even from the back row of the balcony (which, fortunately, is not really very high up or at all far back from the stage of the Ethel Barrymore theater), the final instant of the piece—a sudden gasp of air from the incapacitated Berenger—was the most chilling experience I've had in a theater in recent memory. I don't know how Exit the King fared financially but I'd love to think that, between the critical success of this and the Roundabout's Waiting for Godot, commercial producers may begin to realize the enormous potential in some of these 20th century classics.

Still to come: Martha Wainwright singing Piaf at Dixon Place, The New York City Ballet performs Ballanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lincoln Center and Concrete Temple's The Bird Machine... which means that I've got to get writing soon before I head back to Dixon Place on Friday to see South, followed by machines, machines, machines at HERE Arts Center later that night!

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