I can’t believe it’s been two months since I moved to London. There is so much to write about, and a full update is coming soon. For now, here’s just one manageable slice of what I’ve been doing: seeing theatre. This is the first of what will be a regular PlayList series.
July & August 2013: 40 performances.
Children of the Sun at the National Theatre. I thought it was the best Chekhov play I’d ever seen, until I got a chance to read the programme at the interval (yes, “programme” and “interval,” I’m in England now), and found that it was in fact by Maxim Gorky. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
Silent Partners at the White Bear Theatre. A tiny pub theatre in Kennington, South London, where I met up with a friend of a friend who was in the show. I’ve been so lucky to find a warm welcome wherever I meet a stranger who knows someone I know.
A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic. How can a historical play set in the 1960s be so full of surprises? Because it’s African history, and it has simply never been on any syllabus in my 17 years of school. Apart from receiving an education in history, the production was a lesson in stage craft and puppetry. So beautifully done.
Winter’s Tale at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Believe it or not, this was adapted for ages 6 and up, despite the premise of the play being a king doubting his wife’s fidelity and ordering the baby to be put to death.
The Night Alive at Donmar Warehouse. I went with a friend who had never seen an Irish drama before. Neither of us were prepared for one of the characters to get his skull cracked with a hammer. Some truly stunning fight choreography – no pun intended.
Unrivalled Landscape at the Orange Tree Theatre. An evening of short plays from the theatre’s emerging artist programme, by five different writers sharing the same characters, which must have been an interesting challenge.
The American Plan at the St. James Theatre. Here’s another one that surprised me at the interval – for the first act, I was sure I knew what kind of play this was going to be. It was so deeply rooted in a time and place, and felt like something Neil Simon might have written… then something twisted right before the act break, and suddenly all bets were off, and oh, look, right there in the programme, you can see it’s a new play.
What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening at the Almeida Theatre (work in progress festival). My first foray into the charming Islington neighborhood led me to Tim Crouch’s latest work, an exploration of friendship, time, and betrayal. The play itself was interesting, but the female understudy for the male role of Andy led to some fascinating gender bending which sort of stole the show.
Penelope, Who Cried at the White Bear Theatre (Juniper Theatre Collective). I’ve already met a handful of young artists who are making work and starting companies to tackle issues of women in theatre. I’ll be keeping an eye on Juniper Theatre Collective and director Claire Moyer.
Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi at the Finborough Theatre. Such an experience to watch Pam Gem’s 1976 play and think about how rare and it still is to see four women on stage together, while the language, the costumes, the historical references, and yes, god, the wallpaper are all screaming, “this play was written almost 10 years before you were born!” (PS, if anyone is looking for scene work for 2-4 women, you can get the text here.)
Peek-A-Boo at the LIFT Festival (Elastic Future online theatre). San Francisco readers may know director Erin Gilley, who was behind this online performance project with actors in New York, London, and Beirut. Really cool to see what she and her team at Elastic Future are working on, and how it relates to the Google Hangout performance experiments I’ve been doing with Lisa Szolovits and Wolfgang Wachalovsky.
Josephine & I at the Bush Theatre. Cush Jumbo’s one woman show weaves the story of her own acting career with that of Josephine Baker, an extraordinary woman who danced her way out of Jim Crow era Louisiana to the New York stage, and then on to Paris to become an international sensation. In a breath-taking moment late in the performance, Jumbo reads from racist reviews of Baker’s return to the US alongside reviews from last year’s all-female Julius Caesar (in which Jumbo played Marc Antony) with chilling similarities. Then she puts on a spectacular sequinned dress and headdress, and sings “Times They Are A-Changin’.” Easily one of the most emotional moments of theatre I’ve ever seen. The whole audience leapt to their feet as soon as the lights went down.
Daytona at the Park Theatre. A brand new theatre in Finsbury Park, with a gorgeous 250-seat thrust space and a 90-seat studio. I didn’t care much for this play, but I’ll be back to check out what they’re doing in the studio.
Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down at the White Bear Theatre (Red Cart Theatre). The White Bear so far holds the honor of the only London theatre I’ve been to three times. Can’t Stand Up… is a 1990s three-hander of interwoven monologues from three women whose lives are connected by the brutality of one man. This one got me thinking about ways we measure gender equality onstage: the play doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (having at least A. two women characters with names who B. talk to each other C. about something other than men), but it is ultimately the story of women overcoming a male oppressor, and was clearly a positive artistic experience for 5+ female theatremakers (whom I had the pleasure to meet after the performance). There is no single rubric by which we can measure gender representation in a piece of art… yet. That’s a subject for another post.
An Indian Tempest at the Globe Theatre. I have never seen anything else performed in English, French, Sanskrit, and Indian languages I can’t name, with a mix of shadow puppetry, commedia, traditional Indian music, and British pantomime. I can’t say the elements sat well together, but the production certainly kept me on my toes – in more ways that one; I stood in the Yard for the full 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Jacuzzi at the Almeida Theatre (work in progress festival). A complex, plot-driven story from a Canadian company, the Debate Society. At least the third show I’ve seen recently in which one character suddenly turns out to be a murderer in a big twist. Am I noticing a trend here?
Life! a neoballet at the Arts Theatre. Yes, a dance piece! And a pretty rockin’ one at that – they brought a drum set out onstage at one point. Besides really enjoying the piece, I was also intrigued by how patient that audience was. There were 45-second scene changes in which no one seemed to mind that we were watching one guy trying to bring a keyboard onstage (and later, yes, the drum set), on his own, in the dark, before the next movement could start. I’ll need to go see more dance to find out if this is a “dance thing”, or if this performance (the first of this piece) was just working out the transitional kinks.
Sunstroke at the Platform Theatre Studio. I’ve had the pleasure of curating a female-positive theatregoing itinerary so far in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe. So this adaptation of short stories about extra-marital affairs, written from the male perspective and performed equally one-sidedly, was an unpleasant reminder of how sexist theatre can be. (see also: howsexististhisshow.wordpress.com) I’m still thinking about that rubric for gender equality… the ratio of male to female actors is often a good indicator, but here was a play with 3 women and 2 men onstage, which was one of the most unenlightened spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.
Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is epic and uncompromising. Chimerica has just transferred to the West End after its premiere at the Almeida Theatre. If you’re in London, go see it (the £10 tickets are tempting, but it clocks in at almost 2 1/2 hours, so it’s worth springing for the more comfortable seats in the lower circle rather than the balcony). If you’re not in London, keep an eye out for its probable US tour.
EDINBURGH FRINGE (21)
76 Million People and Me from Irresponsible Decorators Theatre Company. A bold premise (4 mass murderers sharing a rowboat to hell) got me through the door, but I honestly could not tell you what kept me in my seat past the first 10 minutes. I’m not even going to tell you about it, I’ve wasted enough time already.
Rouse Ye Women from And Then We Danced. I was a little nervous when the usher told me, “It’s a bit loud, you might want to sit at the back” as she handed me a programme. The ear-splitting STOMP-esque performance lives in between dance and theatre, in a narrative limbo where there is just enough story to follow the general gist of what’s happening, but not enough development to connect with individual characters. This may have been intentional (it’s about the power of these women as a union), but the bloc of characters kept me emotionally out of the world of the play as effectively as if I’d been a scab.
Projector/Conjector from Mamoru Iriguchi. One dancer had a projector strapped to her head, the other dancer had a TV monitor strapped to his head. There was some serious technical know-how going on with the digital images, but the stage was a mess of wires and makeshift projection screens. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.
Long Distance Affair from PopUp Theatrics. An online performance, in which an audience of 6 rotates through Skype stations at laptops calling various countries and time zones. It reminded me of the Car Plays we saw as part of our Directors Lab West curriculum last year, in which the audience rotates through very intimate performances in a line cars in a parking lot. Long Distance Affair was a series of disconnected monologues delivered right at me, sometimes requiring my verbal participation, sometimes preserving part of the fourth wall – which made it difficult to know how to engage.
Dark Vanilla Jungle from Supporting Wall and Royal Exchange Theatre. A young woman bounces onstage wearing a crisp white shirt and pink flowers in her hair, and unravels a brutal, shocking story of abuse and isolation. The character is fascinating – she sometimes seems not to know what is happening, but the way she tells her version of reality lets the audience know what’s really going on. The tense disconnect between the two planes of storytelling and the various versions of the character is masterful and deeply disturbing.
The Bunker Trilogy from Jethro Compton. I saw two of the three plays in the Bunker Trilogy, which reimagines the legends of MacBeth, Agamemnon, Morgana & King Arthur in a World War I bunker. Packing their audience onto uncomfortable wooden benches in a tiny, stifling room, the company of three exceptional actors somehow managed to make me forget that my leg had fallen asleep halfway through the performance. Both times.
Squally Showers from Little Bulb Theatre. I left this performance determined to use bubble machines in everything I direct from now on. Squally Showers is an exuberant, sometimes nonsensical dance piece which somehow managed to combine Margaret Thatcher, an oldschool overhead projector, dozens of wacky wigs, a shower of money swirling in the updraft from a giant industrial fan, astroturf cutouts of the British Isles, 1980s corporate culture complete with a satirical look at gender relations, and a unicorn with wings into an irreverent and at times truly gorgeous spectacle.
Luna Unlaced from Teatro Luna. I’d been tweeting and emailing with some of the ladies of Teatro Luna, Chicago’s pan-Latina Theatre, about my TACTICS interview series, so it was a treat to get to meet them in person after a performance of their “tapas menu” of scenes from previous shows. If you’re in Chicago, check them out – they’re returning from their US/UK tour in a week or two.
Miyazu: The Little Mermaid from HIBIKart. I didn’t mind at all that I couldn’t understand a word of the story, performed entirely in Japanese except for a recorded prologue and epilogue in English. It’s the Little Mermaid after all; I got the gist. Sometimes the narrative is the least important element, overshadowed by beautiful stage pictures, puppetry, gymnastic dance sequences, billowing silk oceans, and glowing paper lanterns seemingly floating in space over a dark stage. I’m always surprised at how touching an experience can be when it is simply gorgeous.
Extreme Withdrawal is Manifest from Scrunchie Theatre Company. I’ve heard a few people remark that the Free Fringe is changing the ecosystem of Edinburgh in August. the Fringe itself has become an expensive endeavor that few truly fringe companies can afford to undertake; the Free Fringe has reopened the doors for those unfunded risk takers. This sometimes means that you’ll find undiscovered gems, and sometimes means that you’ll be trapped in a flourescent room with two other audience members for an hour thinking, “well, that’s Fringe; you win some, you lose some.”
Nirbhaya from Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan. Director Yael Farber and her cast tell their own personal true stories of violence against women, inspired to break their silence by the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Dehli bus in December 2011. The attackers are still being sentenced; millions of people are still being affected by these issues. Nirbhaya is possibly the bravest and most deeply moving pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.
Smashed from Gandini Juggling. This seemed like the perfect light balance to the dark of Nirbhaya, so I grabbed a ticket for the juggling dance/theatre piece I’d heard good things about. They start with apples and end with teapots, and by the end the whole place is a huge mess. It’s good clean destructive fun. Except for the weird undercurrents of “ironic” sexism throughout, from the lyrics of bouncy 1940s music to the two women literally crawling on their hands and knees in front of a row of nine men who juggle while also rolling apples along the women’s backs. They acknowledge the skewed gender politics, which makes me think they’re poking fun at the novelty of having women in their troupe (as everything is devolving into shards of teapots, the jugglers yell at each other and the audience; one of them screamed “oh look, a woman juggler, oh my god!”). But especially after my experience with Nirbhaya, and reading about Robin Thicke’s stupid music video that has somehow become the song of the summer, I’m running out of patience with sexism, “ironic” or otherwise.
Grounded from the Gate Theatre. A one-woman play performed entirely within the confines of a 7-foot cube. It’s not just a super-tourable design, but conceptually sound: Grounded is the story of a US Air Force pilot who gives up flying when her daughter is born, and is reassigned to piloting drones in a trailer in Las Vegas, exchanging the wide blue sky for a tiny grey screen. Get your hands on this beautiful text if you can, especially if you’re an actor looking for audition monologues.
Breaking News from VaVaVoom and the National Theatre of Iceland. A delicate paper world is populated only by a red dressing gown in this exquisitely detailed dance/puppet/theatre piece that concerns itself with our 24-hour news cycle addiction. Also, I’m stealing the idea of window blinds as projection screens. That’s genius.
Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia from Maisah Sobaihi. I recently saw Wadjda, the first film by a female Saudi Arabian director, and was keen to see what other Saudi women are making art about. Likewise, Sobaihi was the first Saudi woman to bring a production to the Edinburgh Fringe. This was a one-woman show that bounced between monologue and stand-up, weaving together three love stories: one woman tries to convince her husband not to take a second wife, one divorcee considers entering into a special type of secret marriage in which the husband has no obligation to provide for this second wife, or even tell anyone (including his first wife) that he has married again, and our narrator falls in love with… wait for it… tennis, and is kicked out of the tennis club because her love makes the other members feel uncomfortable. The form of the play could use some dramaturgical work, but the content was fascinating.
Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy, Starring Her Pussy and Little Else. I’ll admit that I was scared to go to this when I first saw the poster, but one of my new friends from Teatro Luna was raving about it, and I’m so glad I took her advice. Adrienne takes the stage wearing three jean jackets, three bras, three wigs, some kick-ass shoes, but nothing else, and projects images of male comedians talking about rape jokes onto her naked torso. She proves that rape jokes can be hilarious by making them for an hour, and in the process makes some serious points about rape culture and comedy. There are a number of reviews cited in this article about her winning the Edinburgh Fringe Panel Prize award. Check it out, she’s fantastic.
Banksy: The Room in the Elephant from Sum with the Tobacco Factory Theatre. You guys have heard of Banksy, right? Here is a one-man show about a guy who was living in an abandoned water tower in LA, until some dude came along and spray-painted it into a piece of art. Talk about unintended consequences.
Voices Made Night from Magnet Theatre Company. A collection of short stories from South Africa’s top physical theatre company. A reminder of how beautiful simple production values can be, how powerful a tightly-knit ensemble can be, and how difficult it can be to make fragmented short stories feel like one satisfying theatrical experience, even when all the individual elements are there.
HeLa from Adura Onashile in association with Iron-Oxide. The fifth and final one-woman show I saw in Edinburgh was staged in a beautiful old lecture hall that felt like an operating theatre – perfect for this drama about Henrietta Lacks, the unwitting mother of innumerable medical advances stemming from a cell sample taken without her permission when she sought cancer treatment in Baltimore, 1951. Onashile brings together the wonder of science, questionable medical ethics, and rigorous physicality in her award-winning performance.
Water Stain from Armazém Theater Company. My first experience of Brazilian theatre has put me on a mission to find more. This was a strange, beautiful fairy tale, told in unreliable flashbacks and flashforwards through the waterlogged memory of the protagonist. Boldly staged with live music, a pool of water big enough to ride a tricycle in, projections onto a giant white wall with a trick mirror door, and a space-suit-wearing deep sea diver, La Marca de Agua sent me home with no shortage of fantastical images to dream about.
Phew! What a PlayList! I’m heading into rehearsals next week, so my September list should be shorter! More details on my other goings-on in another post coming soon…