Friday, June 17, 2016

It's Quiet, Uptown.

Photo  © Jessica Taghap
I'm putting off my original plan of finally posting a few long-drafted entries this week to take some time to put down a few thoughts and feelings about many things that have been brought forth into the public sphere over the past week or so -- particularly, the horrific events that occurred in Orlando.

The week started out with a lot of noise -- namely, about the Stanford rape, social media blowing up with plenty of strong opinions on consent and the proliferation of rape culture.  For a while, the noise over these issues only seemed to grow louder over the course of the week, even as news came of the untimely murder of singer and former The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie at a concert in Orlando this past Friday night.  In about less than 24 hours the verbal noise of the ether would find itself quieting down to a standstill, giving way to gunfire -- this time, at a gay nightclub.  Indeed, as one survivor of the shooting -- whom, admittedly, had never heard gunfire before -- had described: the shots had initially registered not as the sounds of cold-blooded murder, but that of music from within the club itself.  In the midst of joy and laughter and revelry, nearly fifty lives would perish.

As a writer, all I have are words -- and over the past week,  I have heard lots of words bandied about, but cannot myself rise above the din with my own.  Cutting through all the noise -- the opinions and calls to action and harried pleas and utter blame and endless debate -- I honestly don't know what to make of any of it.  At times like this, I very much wish I had an opinion to give, that I had all the resources in the world to give back what is lost.  But every time something like this happens -- another Columbine, another Sandy Hook, another San Bernardino -- I just feel...ill-equipped.  I do not understand.  All I know is that my heart is weary, and left with a terrible, terrible sadness at the world we are living in.

How does one even begin to comprehend such a thing? 

In Alan Bennett's play The History Boys -- about a group of Oxford- and Cambridge-bound sixth-formers in 1980s England -- the students ponder the same questions in what becomes a heated discussion about the Holocaust and how it could ever be taught in schools.  One of the students, Posner, the only one of the boys who is of Jewish descent, argues, "But to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained.  And if it can be explained, then it can be explained away."

I am jotting some of these thoughts down into my iPhone, on an F train coming from the Upper East side, where the sight of a building lit up in the colors of the Pride flag has just greeted me as I left work for the day.  In this, I take solace.  I take solace in the quiet of the summer night, in its crisp air, in the simple ability to be able to breathe it in for just one more day.  I take solace in the sight of a couple walking in front of me, tenderly holding hands as a song from Hamilton ("That Would Be Enough") begins to flood my ears, its opening lyrics carrying a new resonance:

Look around, look around
at how lucky we are to be alive right now 

As Lin-Manuel Miranda said in his acceptance speech this past Sunday night: "Love is love is love is love is love is love is love..."  That's all we have.  That's all we can give.  And that means so much more than just mere words.  It means so much more than hate.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

#Randomosities: The "Your (Yellow) Face is Problematic" Edition

I know.  It's been a while since I've done one of these, and in the intervening time since the last one (whoa, has it been THAT long?!), a lot has happened.  Seasons have once again changed -- the snow has thawed, given away to lots of rainy days (and, er, Mondays); the flowers and trees have bloomed (my favorite being the myriad cherry blossom trees lining sidewalks and parks, which reminds me -- did anyone go to Sakura Matsuri this weekend?)

Y'know the drill.  Here's a lil' digest of linkity-links and doodly-doos (I don't really what doodly-doos are, but just humor me for a second, internet) for your clicking pleasure:

♡ PULITZER PRIZES, 2016.  It seems that two of my FAVES won Pulitzers this year!  (I only idolize smartypants geniuses, apparently.)  One them happens to be a favorite writer of mine, The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.  Here's a compendium of her work for the publication, as well as my personal favorite: a write-up she did on Netflix's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."  Just as the people at the Pulitzer described, her writing is done so "with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis," and is certainly an example of what I aspire to, not only a discerning critic but as a writer in general.

Oh, and the other winner?  None other than our lord and savior Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course!  (He won the Prize for Drama, of course.  So, it should be no surprise that this happened as a result.)

♡ ANYWAY, SPEAKING OF WRITING... My cousin Faith wrote a beautiful piece over at Thought Catalog, musing on the idea of Past Selves titled, "A Letter from the Ghost of You."  (And, if you're familiar with my writing, you'll know how much I'm into Past Selves.)  It's a lovely, soul-stirring read that'll make you want to re-visit old journal entries.

HAMILTON.  Ah, yes.  When do I ever not blog about this show?  (I think we all know the answer.  Duh.)  Lately, it's been keeping its snug position in the headlines: aside from the Pulitzer, there was also the recently successful launch of its #EduHam program a few weeks ago; the publication of Hamilton: The Revolution, the official book companion to the show (a.k.a. #Hamiltome); as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda featured in TIME Magazine's annual 100 Most Influential issue!  It perhaps is far from an exaggeration to say that LMM & Hamilton are having a VERY good year -- and all this before the Tony Awards® nominations were even out yet!

(Just this morning, the nominations were announced -- and yes, #yayhamlet broke those records, too.)

#TONYNOMNOMNOMZ, OR: DIVERSITY, PART I.  We all know how controversial a year it's been so far, re: diversity in the arts (oh, hello there, #OscarsSoWhite), so it's no surprise that diversity would be a hot topic not only in film circles but in theatre, as well.  And upon this morning's Tony Awards® nominations, many took to Twitter to hash out some thoughts.

Here, a noteworthy comment from The Washington Post's Peter Marks (@petermarksdrama):

This has been just the tip of the enormous iceberg of dialogue that has occurred within the past month or so, starting with Diep Tran's keynote speech at this year's American Theatre Critics Association conference (#ATCA2016), held in Philadelphia.  The speech, titled "Perspectives in Criticism," declared a call to action for not only more inclusion regarding future generations of critics, but also for older generations to help guide and nurture upcoming talent:

We need to find a way to ensure that newer critics are being trained and encouraged to write, and we need to find a way to pay them. My boss Rob Weinert-Kendt has been talking about creating a fellowship for theater critics of color. I don’t see why ATCA can’t do the same, or partner with American Theatre to help fund theater criticism as the traditional outlets are shutting them down. If we want diversity, we need to be intentional about it. 
I recently read articles on Buzzfeed and Poynter that said this: It said that journalists tend to mentor people who remind them of themselves. And since most editors are white and male, it all but ensures that this exclusive club of journalists remains homogenous.
Tran, a woman of Vietnamese descent who currently writes for American Theatre Magazine, further directed her frustrations towards the content we see onstage, attributing the ongoing "one-sided conversation" to irresponsible assumptions.  She alluded to a previous article she wrote for American Theatre, titled "4 Ways Theatre Critics Can Be Less Racist", wherein she posited the following four points:

Point 1: Don’t ask the playwright of color questions that you would not ask a white playwright. 
Point 2: Avoid stereotypical adjectives when describing different ethnicities. 
Point 3: Call out problematic representations when you see them. 
Point 4: Own your mistakes. 
Each of these certainly great guidelines for writers out there who are not of color, and each worth remembering even if one is a writer of color.  LET'S LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD, GUYS.

DIVERSITY, PART II.  The dialogue continued last night with #BeyondOrientalism/#MyYellowFaceStory, a forum held at Fordham University in conjunction with The Asian American Arts Alliance, Asian American Performers' Action Coalition (AAPAC), Theatre Communications Group and the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.  Here, the full livestream of the panel discussion:

I'm just about to catch up and watch it, myself -- but judging from the Twitter feed alone, it seems like we're starting to delve into some interesting stuff.  This definitely won't be the last of this discussion.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

#StageReview: Heather Litteer's LEMONADE

Heather Litteer in "Lemonade."  Photo © Theo Cote
A Bittersweet Symphony, 
Served with Zest
Heather Litteer peels away the layers of the past

The prospect of seeing a solo performance often, admittedly, triggers a silent panic in one whose job it is to dole out an objective opinion about it.  As that they are often based upon a performer's life experiences, one-man (or, in this case, one-woman) shows often carry with them the possibility of turning out to either be really, really good -- or really, really, really bad.  There is the addtitional worry of what one might say should it result in the latter: can one dismiss the truth of someone's experience if it isn't performed in a certain way, or simply not to one's liking?  What then?  It hardly seems fair -- or kind, at that.  This is a challenge not only performers must face in sharing their stories onstage, but one critics must also face, in witnessing them.

In the case of screen siren and performance artist Heather Litteer, she finds a way -- much like the title of the particular show in question -- to turn some possibly sour lemons into some sweet, delightfully-raunchy Lemonade.  This metaphor holds well in representing her current onstage life, as well as the onscreen life around which Lemonade is structured.  She opens the show as Heather Poetess, uttering  a line that eventually becomes an eerie refrain throughout the evening: "I'm not a hooker...but I play one on TV."  
For roughly the past twenty years, Ms. Litteer has made a career out of playing hookers, junkies and strippers in both film and television.  "I'm arrested by pigs, I'm ripped from brothels," she continues to say in that same opening scene.  "I'm whipped and I'm wrapped in chains...does anyone make love anymore?"  She describes her roles with gusto, each new one prefaced by a one-sided phone call with her agent.  Her comedic descriptions of each role is peppered with dark, twisted humor, suggestive of her own observations on the ways women are exploited on film.   Whether playing a blowsy Russian girl named Nadia, one-half of a pair of lesbian junkies, or simply billed as Bored Hooker #1, each role and its accompanying scenario is made increasingly more ridiculous than the last, serving as further evidence of the indeed perverse business of sex (and women) as commodity.

In stark contrast to the flamboyant roles for which she would become known, Litteer's own beginnings as a young girl growing up in Georgia were, considerably, much humbler and innocent by comparison.  The actress' early childhood largely involve her "Steel Magnolia" of a mother Nancy, whom she affectionately calls a "walking, talking Tennessee Williams character."  Here, Litteer goes on to describe a younger Heather already showing signs of what is to come, painting for us a picture of a childhood filled with Halloweens dressed up in her mother's suits as the "Advertising and Marketing director of Vogue Magazine."  Many of these anecdotes of Litteer's past self are juxtaposed beautifully against the struggles of her present self, and exemplifies the actress' ability to successfully mix the bitter with the sweet.  This becomes especially true as Present Heather attempts to balance her professional pratfalls in New York with news of her mother's own slow decline into disease back home.   
The precarious act of balancing such a  fine line involves just stirring in the right amount of gravitas to counteract the awkwardness of being the sole performer onstage.  This takes a certain kind of physical stamina to accomplish, one which has been achieved in different ways in other solo performances: 2014's Forgetting the Details (previously reviewed here, for the New York International Fringe Festival) saw Nicole Maxali took on the varied mannerisms of her family members; while that same year, Daliya Karnofsky had the assistance of backup dancers for ...And She Bakes, Live (also reviewed here). 
For her part, Litteer falls somewhere between these two, which is not to say that the end result isn't as effective.  In fact, her slightly less-refined performance makes her Lemonade all the more raw and real in its portrayal.   Here, she instead adopts a thick, Southern-Belle accent (one that would, surely, make even Rhett Butler melt), along with some charming, old-world Nancy-isms in order to bring her mother to life.  Her performance never ceases to command the stage with striking, unabashed self-awareness, eventually culminating in a daring striptease at play's end -- proving that while baring it all for an audience isn't always easy, doesn't mean you can't have a little fun along the way.

Lemonade runs until April 24th
at The Club at La MaMa E.T.C.
For more information about this production and others like it, go here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


The cast of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."
Photo © Richard Termine
Girl Anachronism
Aquila Theatre Company reveals the feminine side 
to literature's most famous private eye

Just as a certain wildly popular celebrity departed from New York to commence production on a certain wildly popular television show based on a certain wildly popular, old-timey-but-updated sleuth, another iteration made its way back to the city.  Over at the Queens Theatre [QT], Aquila Theatre Company presented an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Aquila, the Professional company-in-residence at New York University's Center for Ancient Studies, is another in a recent line of companies at the theatre whose mission is to provide the public with accessible interpretations of classic works.

(The other one being QT's own company-in-residence, TITAN Theatre Company, the most recent production of which I reviewed here.)

As stated above, everyone's favorite snarky sociopath has seen many a proliferation find its way into the pop culture canon over the years, namely: Guy Ritchie's films with Robert Downey, Jr.; CBS' Elementary; and the BBC/Masterpiece hit co-production Sherlock.  Books such as The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes -- along with Conan Doyle's original collection of works, of course -- have lined bookstore shelves, further heightening the Holmesian craze.  If one were to actually apply these books' methods, one would probably, and very logically, conclude that it would be only a matter of time until a stage adaptation crept upon us.

In which case, that would be correct.

However, unlike that wildly popular celebrity (y'know, the one whose name sounds a bit like Beryllium Cucumber), the Sherlock of Desiree Sanchez's imagining is much less the tall, cherub-faced specimen of a man we've come to know and love onscreen, and instead takes his form in that of a tall, lithe-limbed...woman onstage.

Yes, that's right, Sherlock Holmes is a female -- at least for our purposes here.

Actors Jackie Schram and Peter Groom
as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively,
 in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."  
Photo © Richard Termine
Admittedly, it was this exact promise of a "female Sherlock" which led this writer to this particular production in the first place; not only because the prospect of a woman grasping the chance at playing such a character was too interesting and "hmm"-worthy to pass up, but also because the idea of girls in cloaks kicking ass arse was always a personal point-of-interest.  This Sherlock's female-ness is certainly mentioned within the dialogue of the play, but done so in an almost flippant manner, as if seeing a woman don trousers (along with signature cape and deerstalker hat) in Victorian England instead of a corset and skirts were a natural occurence.  It would seem that this unusual piece of casting was not a device to highlight any political undertones in the text, as with the case of TITAN's Othello last year; nor was it a way to subvert expectations, just as The Queen's Company's production of Sir Patient Fancy did two years ago..

This is not to say that Jackie Schram, the actress embodying the role, did not succeed in exceeding those expectations.  On the contrary, Ms. Schram brings into her Sherlock one that is just as quick-witted, observant and resourceful as the original canon's, managing all the while to inject some physical humor along the way.  In fact, physicality played a major role in providing much of the levity in the play -- aided most wonderfully by Ms. Schram's delightful Watson to her Holmes, Peter Groom, who does everything from clacking away frantically at a typewriter to scuttering frightfully away from a creaking door.  The rest of the cast is rounded out with Kirsten Foster, Michael Rivers and Hemi Yeroham, all of whom gamely join in on the fun, as well; most notably, in a scene from Sherlock's first case ('The Adventure of the Copper Beeches'), wherein they are chased by a bloodthirsty dog -- albeit, an invisible one.

The play, much like its characters in 'Copper Beeches,' fumbles along at first, trying to find its footing, tonally.  Many of the jokes only manage to garner a few laughs in many of the early scenes, but eventually hits its stride by the second case, 'The Adventure of the Yellow Face,' the conclusion of which is not revealed until the beginning of the play's second act, providing some fun tension.  By the time we delve into one of the most famous of Holmesian cases, 'A Scandal in Bohemia,' the entire theatre attention is held rapt, as our female Sherlock comes face-to-face with Irene Adler, later dubbed by the detective as "The Woman."  Again, despite many possibilities for an interesting, modern interpretation of this case (i.e., homo-erotic overtones), 'Scandal' was played rather straightforwardly, and disappointingly so.  Still, the ensemble's strong and energetic performance more than made up for these missed opportunities, making for an enjoyable evening in the theater.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes continues its run until April 23rd
at the GK ArtsCenter (29 Jay Street).
For more information about this production and others like it, go here.
For more information about the Queens Theatre, go here.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

#StageReview: TITAN Theatre Company's JULIUS CAESAR

Brendan Marshall-Rashid as Marc Antony in TITAN Theatre Company's "Julius Caesar".  Photo © Michael Dekker

How History Happens
TITAN Theatre Company fearlessly ushers Julius Caesar 
into a brave new world

TITAN Theatre Company has seen the future -- and the future is bleak.  The political climate gains momentum, with public opinion ruled by sweeping promises of  Rhetoric, rather than the practicality of Reason.  This could refer to the mud-slinging rat race currently going on in our country, referring instead to one which occurred hundreds of years ago.  The Queens-based theatre collective continues in their mission to breathe new life into classic works with a sleek, provocative take on William Shakespeare's politically-centered historical historical drama.  The production marks the end of TITAN's third full season as company-in-residence at the Queens Theatre, this time with Jack Young at the helm.  

In a lot of ways, Caesar stays true to many elements that have become part-and-parcel to a quintessentially TITAN production: a modern setting against which the company's consistently strong ensemble of actors (along mostly intact Shakespearean dialogue) are juxtaposed.  However, while these elements are certainly carried over into Caesar, giving it that particular air of TITAN-esque familiarity, this production is also a departure from the company's other works, leaning even more bravely toward the avant-garde.  This fearlessness is perhaps due not just to TITAN's ensemble of actors (resident company members and visiting artists alike) and its artistic director, Lenny Banovez, but also to the production's own design team.

Sarah Pearline's scenic design truly sets the stage for Caesar's bleak dystopia.  Just like classic novels of the genre -- particularly, George Orwell's 1984 -- the set, despite its stark minimalism, cloaks itself deep in complex symbolism.  Instead of the traditional Roman columns one might expect from the world of Caesar, Pearline punctuates TITAN's futuristic Rome with the criss-crossing, ray-like beams across the back wall of the set, conjuring images of both the steel frames of corporate buildings and bars of a prison cell.  Either way, the people of Rome are certainly trapped in a less-than-idyllic system -- a totalitarian regime, in fact, ruled by the titular tyrant Julius Caesar (Jonathan Smoots) himself.  

John Taylor Phillips as Brutus,and the TITAN ensemble in "Julius Caesar." Photo © Michael Dekker

Early on in the first act, Cassius (Banovez) utters the famous lines: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our Selves, that we are underlings."  Not everything is as fated as we think it is, and if it is Rome that is in a state of complete tyranny, then it is because the people were complicit in their own subjugation.  This is made clear just as the ensemble enters the stage and we can see, etched across its floor, criss-crossing geometrical lines dotted at various points -- remarkably similar to constellations in the sky.  At first, the group of Romans, decked out in black slacks and crisp white shirts by costumer Lorraine Smyth, step out individually into a strange assembly of movements.  These movements at first seem random until Caesar himself enters, standing at the center of the stage where all points of the "constellation" on the ground meet, and at the motion of his staff, they fall into a synchronized dance of sorts.  The choreography, abstract and yet specific in its thoroughly modern, Graham- and Cunningham-esque movements, most enhances the production's aforementioned departures into bolder artistic territory.

However, it doesn't just stop with just the design elements and choreography.  As they did in last year's Othello, TITAN rounds up some of the best stage actors found on both coasts and in-between; and as always, it seems almost blasphemous to single any one actor out.  From the aforementioned "grand entrance" in the beginning to the inevitable assassination scene and its dramatic, consequential end the ensemble move as one, egos thrown aside for the sake of better serving the story.  That said, TITAN also utilizes double-casting in Caesar (something seen before in their previous productions --particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream), which also allows for each actor in all of their varied, respective roles, to shine equally.

Unlike the dystopian doom they depict onstage, TITAN once again proves that unity as a group can positively serve the public at large, and that to progress in theater is not only to challenge its boundaries, but also compel one to think critically.

Julius Caesar ran from March 25 - April 10, 2016.
For more information about this production and others like it, go here.
For more information about the Queens Theatre, go here.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

#Spotlight: In Conversation with Ran Xia

This edition of #SPOTLIGHT  has us visiting with Word Play scribe Ran Xia!  I first met Ran five years ago at the Public Theater's Tweetup event -- as you'll soon find out, we were two shy wallflowers who ended up gravitating toward each other, and since that fateful afternoon, we've continued to align with one another's respective creative orbit.  A fellow theatre critic of sorts at the time, Ran was, like myself, reviewing shows...but with illustrations, instead of words.

Last week, on a gusty but lovely (well, except for the rain that came down afterwards) Friday afternoon, I met up with Ran at an outdoor public garden space.  We talked about her seemingly sharp trajectory from visual artist to wordsmith; how growing up in China influenced her political sensibilities; her play-writing process, as well as her obsession with time & memory.

NOTE: Because of the outdoor conditions in which our interview was conducted, there is A LOT of ambient noise: i.e., gusts of wind, sirens...and even people rolling their push-carts around(!).  It doesn't seem to occur often enough to deter from the interview, and otherwise the vocal audio seems to be fine.  Please bear this in mind, as I'm still working out the kinks involved with recording these sessions.  In the meantime, I hope you can just playfully shrug it off as an "At least it sounds very New York!" kind of thing.  (Because, you know.  That's totally what I was going for.)


More Ran-related links:
Read my review of Word Play
Performance: North (Video)
Official Website (Illustrations)