Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: February, 2014

American Idiot

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Among the exhilarating pleasures of seeing American Idiot now on tour at the National Theatre is experiencing this angsty, amped-up ode to  antiestablishment disaffection performed full force in DC’s treasured temple of high culture. It’s a discombobulating blast. And Billie Joe Armstrong’s wildly imagined lyrics—scathingly antipathetic to conventional patriotism—keep detonating like verbal grenades.

Don’t want to be an American Idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
Can you hear the sound of hysteria
The subliminal mind fuck America

The irony and incongruity that explodes in this revered venue is reason enough to revel in this powerhouse of a road show.

Fans of the 2004 Green Day recording American Idiot (of which I am one; I bought it soon as it came out) will be blown away. Director Michael Mayer and book co-writer Armstrong have turned that now-classic album into what has got to be one of the best rock concerts ever. The word “musical” does not come near describing what to expect—which has more in common with the sort of live event during which you can’t sit still; you have to move to the music, you have to get up and rock out, you have to imagine yourself viscerally in the mosh pit, high on electricity et cetera.

This being the decorous National Theatre, the opening night audience of course behaved themselves. But interiorly, from opening number to curtain-call acoustic surprise, it was as if there was really a rave going on.

Mayer and Armstrong have devised a semblance of a story structure to propel the songs (which come at rapid-fire pace, with scarcely a dozen words of dialog between). Three disaffected dudes take three different life paths. Will (Casey O’Farell) stays in their suburban hometown with girlfriend Heather (Mariah MacFarlane) whose baby he fathers. Tunny (Dan Tracy) joins the Army and gets injured in combat then nursed by The Extraordinary Girl (Francesca Granell, appearing in the role for Taylor Jones opening night). And the show’s focal point Johnny (Jared Neputo) leaves behind girlfriend Whatsername (Olivia Puckett) and takes off for the big city where he meets drug pusher St. Jimmy (Carson Higgins). These seven leads are uniformly charismatic, have big, brilliant voices, and easily outsing the vocals on the album. Together with the ten-member ensemble they agilely embody Steven Hoggett’s choreography, which never ceases to amaze—angular analogues of inner angst, convulsive expressions of lust and protest, leaps and lunges of exaltation. The audience must needs sit still; this superb cast never does.

Could I follow what was going on plotwise during the 21 musical numbers? Not so much; I was sometimes lost. Did I feel I was getting to know intriguingly complex characters? Not really; they seemed hipster types. But did I mind? Not at all. American Idiot is driven not so much by plot or character as by its tuneful and powerful, by turns tender score.

To that aural end the production team has deployed eyepopping effects. Scenic Designer Christine Jones’s set is a dark and funky construction of video screens and whatnot that seems too cavernous and complicated to pack into trucks. Costume Designer Andrea Lauer gives fascinating glimpses into character that might escape notice otherwise. Lighting Designer Kevin Adams creates not only retinal shell shock (as befits the decibel levels) but also poignant moments to offset the brash soundscape (designed by Acme Sound Partners). And stunning visual effects are achieved by Video/Production Designer Darrel Maloney, who at one point takes the stage on a bus ride as marvelous as any Merry Pranksters’.  Offstage yet visible in the wings is a fine band of musicians. Led by Music Supervisor Jared Stein, they send Tom Kitt’s stirring arrangements and orchestrations soaring up into the top balcony.

No movie could do justice to this show. Only onstage can it be experienced fully for what it is. No recording will ever match it either. Only in real-time performance can it come fully alive. And on the basis of seeing the show last night at the National, I’m going to hazard a guess that American Idiot will never play in a more apt house. Its theme of disenchantment and discontent with the country—”the alienation / where everything isn’t meant to be o.k.”—resounds in this town as only it ought to.

And as only it can in America.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

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Mother Courage

It takes a wagonload of courage to take on Brecht these days. His “alienation effect” esthetic challenges every theatrical convention that makes a show a contemporary commercial success. He explicitly intended that audiences not get emotionally caught up in his stories and characters. He eschewed sentimentality; he embraced skepticsm and cynicism. He expected the political ideas in his plays—jarring contradictions, points unpleasant, perturbing moral messes—to come alive in audience’s minds and shake them awake, not lull them into sanctimony. The notion of a snob hit would likely revolt him. He consciously refused to mollify the bourgeoise.

All of which makes the new production of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war classic Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater a theatrical event of extraordinary significance.

Could the Fichandler Stage in-the-round seating be a less likely configuration in which to elicit that enigmatic alienation effect? Would subscribers accustomed to seasons’ worth of heart-stopping and heartstring-tugging go along with deliberate detachment? Would top-tier ticket buyers even sit still for the text’s radical Marxist critique of ineluctable capitalist economic forces that wreak class oppression and wage interminable warfare?

Courage indeed.

Director Molly Smith and Kathleen Turner, wanting to work together again after their hit Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, picked out Mother Courage as the vehicle for Turner’s return to Arena Stage. And they were spot on; the larger-than-life guts-and-gusto role could not be a better fit for Turner’s kick-ass talents.

More than once as I watched the show, I recalled the impression made on me by legendary Brecht interpreter Lotte Lenya (composer Kurt Weill’s widow) when, as a callow high school youth on a trip to New York City, I saw her as Jenny in The Threepenny Opera at what’s now the Lucille Lortel Theatre. All these years I thought that performance peerless, one I’d never see the likes of again, as echt as Brecht gets.  Last night Turner joined Lenya’s league and owned it.

The translation by David Hare is dazzling. The hilarious zingers, the trenchant barbs, the pithy jests and lovely lyrics—all come through sounding as fresh and fiery as if Brecht penned them yesterday. The script is actually almost too good (blame both Brecht and Hare  for that); it stimulates mental engagement and reflection at such a rapid-fire pace one must savor its smarts in spurts. Turner delivers her lines with  savvy flair, yet at no point does she veer from the complex and troubling character as written; at no point does she conceal  the character’s ethical flaws; at no point does she appeal for smarmy sympathy through phoney heroism. The  convergence of Turner’s tough-minded performance, Brecht’s text, and Hare’s translation anchors the production powerfully.

The 13 musical numbers composed by James Sugg are another highlight. Many members of the excellent cast occasionally carry about musical instruments that they play during the songs. Sugg’s music for Brecht is as good as, maybe better than, Weill’s. Had there been a cast album for sale after, I would be listening to it all day today.

In these and countless other ways Molly Smith’s astute directorial choices achieve a fascinating balance between faithfulness to Brecht’s authorial austerity and an audience’s legitimate expectations for an experience in the theater that feels familiar.  It’s hard to imagine a more provocative and satisfying result.

Yellow Face

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

If there was an open casting call for the role of you, who should get the part and who shouldn’t? Must the actor be descended from a gene pool that arose in the same area on the globe that yours did? Or could the actor’s family tree be traced back to some other forest on the planet? Theater J’s nifty new production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face turns those what-if-y questions into a zippy-fun and witty-smart comedic pièce de résistance.

How essential is “race” for theatrical representation? The delight of Yellow Face is how it toys with that question and invites us to play along. With a payoff that’s a pip.

Even before this play begins, we get an arresting visual display of its insightful theme. Projected onto the back wall of the set,  a monumental assemblage of filing cabinet drawers, are yellow-tinged monochrome photos of assorted faces—some are in the show’s cast and creative team, some are personages to be referenced in the script, some are famous performers who have played “Asian” whether or not genealogically classifiable as such. As each visage appears in this looping jumbo-screen slideshow, a projection on a small whiteboard identifies the human being by name. Yes, you read that right: All their identities are projected onto “white.”

The extraordinary way that stagecraft artistry serves this play has only just begun.

The precipitating story in Yellow Face has been told extensively in advance publicity. A lot of it is fact-based (the part that’s not is the big reveal):  The renowned Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang got miffed when a European Brit (Jonathan Pryce) was cast to play the pimp in the musical Miss Saigon, a character written as half-Vietnamese and half-French. Hwang’s protest missive to The New York Times—demanding that this lead role be cast more gene-pool relevantlyset off a pissing match with producer Cameron Mackintosh and sundry pundits.  Actors’ Equity joined the tiff on Hwang’s side, Mackintosh canceled the show in spite, the union caved, the musical went on to be a megahit—and Hwang was pitched into a cultural-identity-specific tizzy.

Hwang did not just get mad then get even; he devised an evening’s entertainment. He wrote himself into the script and featured in his diverse character list members of his own family plus a host of boldface names who played a part in the real-life story (Mackintosh and more). He set up scenes like serial sketch comedies. He created quirky characters and running gags. He imagined a fiction more illuminating than fact. And the two ensuing acts turn the lemon of Hwang’s lament into fizzy lemonade.

Director Natsu Onoda Power has staged Yellow Face with amazing and amusing grace. At first I was taken aback by her stylistic choices; they seemed too lighthearted for a play I had been led to assume would be dealing darkly with Trenchant Themes of Great Cultural Import About Identity, Its Determinants, and Its Discontents. But as I quickly figured out: She was right and I’d been wrong. Yellow Face definitely has big ideas. But Yellow Face has fun.

We’re in on the joke already as soon as we meet the versatile members of a virtuoso ensemble who play the various characters (I counted more than 50) and themselves are multi-everything. So credibly does Stan Kang play the author’s alter ego (named DHH) that by the second act he had me believing he had written the play. Rafael Untalan plays DHH’s comic foil, Marcus G. Dahlman, with sturdy bravado.  And one by one the other six switch nimbly and hilariously into persona after persona: Tonya Beckman (as Jane Krakowski, Frank Rich, et al.), Mark Hairston (Dick Cavett, Yellowgurl8…), Brandon McCoy (Ed Koch, a chorus girl in The King and I…), Sue Jin Song (Lily Tomlin, DHH’s mom…), Jacob Yeh (BD Wong, Joe Papp…), and Al Twanmo (Bernard Jacobs, DHH’s dad…). As these players’ own received and perceived boundaries of race and gender get tossed to the wings, the show’s smart send-up of essentialism soars at center stage.

The aforementioned scenic design by Luciana Stecconi is downright brilliant: a massive array of filing cabinets some drawers of which burst open as if chockful of résumés in some master casting agent’s office. Deb Sivigny’s costumes depict splendidly each role that each actor dons (the backstage changing area must be mayhem). The still projections at the beginning become in Jared Mezzocchi’s eye-dazzling design a vivid storytelling undercurrent. The ongoing animation of Dan Covey’s inspired lighting design comes to seem as alive as the actors onstage. And the lively uncredited choreography that closes Act One (a whole-cast round-robin polka to the tune of “Shall We Dance?”) makes one want an invitation too.

The contretemps that prompted this play continues in the real world in real time. Just recently in Chicago, Mary Zimmerman’s production of The Jungle Book came under criticism for what some said was racially insensitive casting. American theater is still struggling to figure out how to catch up with shifting concepts of identity inside our shared and disparate histories—all of which, no question, are steeped in race and gender animus.  But theater can also take the lead and point the way. Theater can reveal potentialities of selfhood beyond societal scripts. Theater can show us what we might conceivably mean when we each say “I” that transcends any typecasting.

Yellow Face does just that. Yellow Face helps rewrite the identity story. Yellow Face helps recast us. It’s for our “I’s”—and it’s not for our eyes only.

If you see it (and you should), you’ll see.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.