Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blasted and Men Should Weep

Fifteen years ago when Blasted by Sarah Kane premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, it was harshly criticized and labeled a 'disgusting feat of filth', with audiences walking out. Since then, and since her suicide in 1999, the play (and the playwright) has been rightfully reassessed as a stark and illuminating examination of violence both domestically and globally, emotionally and physically. The latest revival at the Lyric Theatre is a stunning, well-paced production of this intensely disturbing piece.

The play opens in a posh hotel room where the older Ian, a paranoid, racist, homophobic,  hack-journalist misogynist makes advances towards the much-too-young-to-be-with-him Cate. Their past sexual relationship feeding into his advances, I wondered why they were ever together in the first place. And why the hell Cate doesn't just leave. Although the epileptic and sometimes simpleton Cate stays, she seems to hold her own. Until the next day when we realize that Ian has raped her. She eventually runs off through the bathroom window, just in time to miss the soldier who storms into Ian's room. His machine gun pointed at Ian whilst he eats two plates of English breakfast - to an effectively comical moment.

What was an act of private violence has now opened up to a war-torn world. A bomb hits the hotel and in the next scene the set transforms to just a bed and remnants of the structural metal grid. In this scene the soldier re-counts how he has become another cog in the machine of war. How his girlfriend was raped and killed and how he, in turn, has become the very thing he's fighting. Disturbing, heartbreaking and hyper-real the plight of the soldier is one the will forever dwell in my mind. He is the monster, yet he is fighting the monster. Which makes one ask - which came first: violence or violence? After raping Ian nd sucking out his eyeballs, he then commits suicide - leaving Ian blind and alone.

Cate returns carrying a baby that she found and is trying to care for. The city has been overturned by soldiers and there's chaos in the streets. The baby dies so Cate makes a grave through the floorboards and attempts to pray for the baby.She leaves in search of food - again, leaving Ian blind and alone. In his desperation and starved state, he goes into the whole and tries to eat the baby but spits it out. With just his head sticking out it looks as if he's dead. But as rain falls through the cracks onto his head he wakes up saying, "Shit." Just then Cate returns with a sausage that she prostituted herself out for and feeds Ian. The play ends with him saying, "thank you."

After the curtain call, the guy next to me and I just looked at each other and shared a giant exhale. "That was a bit of a mind0fuck," I said. He had seen it when it first premiered and said the there where no stops in the first production - that it was relentless. We didn't get to chat further but it seems like he appreciated the breaks in this piece. Each scene the curtain came down - and the scene changes felt like an eternity. So we're sitting in the dark for awhile contemplating what we just saw. Knowing that when the curtain goes back up - it's going to get worse, and worse, and worse. After the show my mates and I went to a pub to discuss the play. We talked about the character of the soldier, about Ian's rape, about Ian and Cate's relationship, about the mythology surrounding Sarah Cane and her suicide and also about the audience at the theatre. There were a lot of students there. Which in interesting how a play can be received over time. When it first came out it was cast aside. But since then it has entered the world of academia - something worthy of study. And because it's been studied and analyzed, of course those at the play are most likely to be familiar with its content.

Overall, I was completely satisfied by this production - wonderfully acted and directed with a stunning set and lighting. Now I need to actually read Kane's plays - apparently her stage directions are very poetic. Next on my ever growing reading list.

Onto a completely different production:  Men Should Weep playing at the National Theatre was written in 1947 by Ena Lamont Stewart. This play about Glasgow during the great depression is an interesting artifact from a moment in history. Not only is the play written by a woman, but it's told from a distictly female perspective through the protagonist Maggie, a mother of five and whose husband always seems to be in between jobs.

Director Josie Rourke has taken full advantage of the National's space and money. The set is phenomenal - talk about "slice of life." The set resembles that of a dilapidated doll house with Morrison's flat center, a staircase to the left, complete with flats above and below where you can see the occasional goings-on of the neighbors. My one complaint about the set is the built in lights in the framework that turn on brightly in-between scenes. They felt way too modern and briefly took me out of the experience. If you're going to do realism, commit to it.

It was really interesting to see a play about the 1930's from a different worldly perspective. My lexicon form that period are specifically American, like Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, George Kaufman, etc. So it was really nice to see something specific to Glasgow - although I couldn't understand half the things they were saying. And it wasn't just the accents - the performance was surtitled and reading the words didn't help either.

I also find it interesting when depression era plays are revived today. The themes definitely translate, yet they also remind us that things could be worse. Here's hoping that they don't.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Complicite, Kira O'Reilly, Ron Athey and Shunt walk into a bar...

This week (my week off from class) has been crazy busy - as usual. Monday I saw Complicite's Shun-kin at the Barbican. This week Queen Mary hosted OUTSIDE AiR which presented two performance pieces; one by Kira O'Reily and the other by Ron Athey (the latter in which I participated). And last night I went to Shunt and saw a couple of performances. So, let's begin!

Having heard about the amazing theatre company Complicite I was eager to see this re-installment of Shun-kin. Based on the 1933 writings of Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, the story chronicles the life blind Shaminsen player Shun-kin and her intensely loyal servant Sasuke.

Under the helm of Artistic Director Simon McBurney this production is beautifully and imaginatively choreographed. The puppet of Shun-kin was eerily effective and all the acting was strong with a sharp and efficient ensemble, however, it was that story itself that was lacking for me. Shun-kin who is adorable for all of five minutes at age eight quickly turns into a complete bitch. And that's putting it nicely. Once she becomes Sasuke's shaminsen teacher she goes absolutely power hungry and becomes a a complete dominatrix, which eventually leads up to the blossoming of a  sadomasochistic love affair between the two.

There's one scene where the two begin to have sex, and puppet legs were brought out. I couldn't help but laugh. And the woman sitting behind me couldn't help it either. Thankfully they eventually switch the puppet for an actual woman, although she wears a mask and is treated like a puppet. By the end I was ready for both Shun-kin and Sasuke to die.

Interspersed with the Shun-kin story is that was a woman who serves as the narrator, doing a voice recording at a studio of the book. Although her stroyline is pretty much irrelevant, she serves as much needed comedic relief. And her voice as the narrator was enchanting. Although she spoke in Japanese (it was all done in Japanese), as I read the surtitles I could almost here her voice in English - it was wonderfully eerie. Also, the woman playing the voice of Shun-kin and who later transforms into her mature self was absolutely pitch-perfect (she's the one on the right in the picture above).

The narrative perspectives were often times a bit murky - one character who I think is supposed to be Tanizaki (who originally wrote the book in 1933 as a factual historical piece, when in fact, it is just fiction) feels completely superfluous. His character adds nothing to the show.

With narrative/character issues aside - it really is visually stunning production. Fantastic use of lights and shadows, paper as birds, sticks as halls and swaying trees, breath as the sound of sliding doors and the constant hum of the shaminsen make for a thoughtful and constantly shifting mode of storytelling. I just wish I knew Japanese, that way I could have just watched the action onstage and not the surtitles, trying to follow the story.


Kira O'Reily's piece Untitled (syncopations for more bodies) is comprised of five nude women with black showgirl-esque hats, round mirrors and red heels. They slowly and meticulously entered the space of the Great Hall. Playing with the light and the mirrors as audience members walked around the space. Then a frenetic shift occurred and the ladies frantically moved backwards about the space - with audience members trying to get out of their way. Then there were a series of movements and then more frantic backwards walking and then more stationary movements. Based on the title syncope has a wide variety of meanings - most of which deal with loss:  loss of consciousness, fainting, loss of sound, a missed beat. Although there were bits that I found intriguing, I think overall the piece misses the mark. Although I also found it fascinating how after a while, a nude body no longer appears nude.

I'm the black blob hunched over on the right.
A couple of weeks ago the lovely Ron Athey came to our performance lab and talked to us about his work and showed us some of his favorite videos. It was pretty much an awesome day. He also invited us to work as a part of the automatic writing machine for his piece for the QM festival. We all eagerly volunteered.

Ron grew up in the Pentecostal church and was brought up on spiritualist teachings. For this project, stories of his upbringing were used to inspire us, (in a hypnotized or trance state) in automatic writing. We wrote pretty much non-stop. While we were writing, "editors" went around cutting out stories to give to typists to type on typewriters. In the background, piano keys were hit ominously by boxing gloves (it sounded amazing). I'm not really sure what it looked like to the spectators because I was so focused on what I was doing. I was, however, acutely aware of the audience looking at me and trying to read what I had written. It was a very out-of-body experience. The first night I wrote out a lot of very personal and slightly troubling feelings, which I why I think for the second night it wasn't so personal. I think subconsciously I knew that I'd be able to feel people reading my words so I kept the writing at a slight distance. I have to say though the second night I was really in a deep trance - I was writing some crazy shit and even wrote in symbols and gibberish. Over all it was a cathartic experience and immensely pleasurable.


Last night I went to Shunt with my friend Jane and her flatmate. The first performance was called Tiny Distractions by a company called Fail Better. The lower "Sauna" room from the Machine was completely covered in plastic wrap and clad with a bubble wrap floor, with a telly on with static playing in the up-left corner and a record play in the down-right corner, center - a table and 3 chairs. The performers (two girls and a guy) were dressed in white tank tops and undies. With their intensity and committed movement it was an absolutely riveting piece and stunning to watch.

The late night show was called Beast which was an installation/performance piece that utilized all three stories/floors of the Machine and explores humans' relationship to eating meat. It was stunning, disturbing, and intoxicating. Down on the bottom floor was a tribal "creature" eating human head. On the 1st floor were "animals" (wonderful masks and head-dresses): a rooster, cat, owl, hippo and others with a dear at the head of the table. And on the second floor (where we were standing and able to see though the glass floors all the way down to the bottom) was some scary futuristic human farm which was much too similar to modern day farming practices. At the end the woman feeding the humans brought a tray of "meat" to us for us to eat. As soon as I grabbed it I knew I would not be putting it in my mouth. Jane, on the other hand, wasn't so bright. Ha!

Another gripping, fascinating piece. I seriously made me think about becoming vegetarian/vegan. But I think this typically once ever other week so I don't think it had much of an effect.  I can't say enough how much I love this venue. Although the show Money is ending soon, I do hope they keep the Machine up for a while.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Julia Bardsley and Almost the Same

A couple of weeks ago Julia Bardsley, who is a "live art" artist and former Artistic Director of the Young Vic, came to do a workshop with us for my Performance Lab class.

The workshop was immensely satisfying and thought provoking. After a few warm up activities to get our minds and bodies ready she had us discuss our modes and aesthetics of creating work. Then we had an just over an hour to create an "Installation of the mind" or an "altar of ideas." Here's mine: I call it Imagined City

It's "floating" on the wall.

After that we created a character through qualities of movement. We began with individual qualities and then fuzed them together. After that we did a ritual of creating the face (or the projected self) of that character on our partner - who's face was made "blank" by a stocking over the head. To finish the projected self we added a wig.

Overall the workshop's structure was enlightening and really a lot of fun. Having spent the day with Bardsley I was excited to see her performance Almost the Same - a collaboration with sound artist Andrew Poppy.

Playing at the Chelsea Theatre, my fellow classmate Jane and I went to go see the "feral rehearsals for violent acts of culture." It begins with the audience lining up according to height - we then enter the space and stand in a triangle formation. The curtain opens revealing Bardsley at the apex of an opposing triangle set up in the seats of the house. She emerges from a black plastic body bag and continues to pull out two feral rabbits. Lights out, we then move to the actual audience and sit, again, in a triangle.

The rest of the piece is in three parts - the first with Bardsley clad in black animalistically and ritualistically mourning the hares. Poppy's live mixing of the sound give the piece a stunningly eerie vibe. Along with Bardsley never-wavering intensity. The video of the pale and almost transparent Bardlsey evokes an almost "master"-esque and controlling juxtaposition to the live animalistic Bardsley on stage. The images of the skinned hares, meat, sculls, ritual - along with the elaborate wigs, costumes and gestures mix horror with absurdity, disgust with fascination. Although "live-art" is not my personal aesthetic, nor do I have a lot of experience with the mode I was really transfixed by the combination of Bardsley's performance, the amazing use of projection and the stunning sound. Having met Bardsley, I was surprised out how intense and striking the piece was compared to her soft demeanor in real life. She's definitely created a heightened performing persona, which can be traced back to her methodologies. Really fascinating.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Whoopi Goldberg enters the stage and the audience goes wild.

Sorry this post is super super late. I've been busy these past couple of weeks reading, writing and coming up with a performance (which went disastrously - but that's another post in and of itself). So I'm finally going to write about Sister Act the musical.

I grew up on the Sister Act movies. I know them by heart, I had the soundtrack of the first one on cassette and my mom and I would take hours watching Back in the Habit because she would rewind our favorite songs over and over. The movies in and of themselves aren't anything spectacular - what makes them so watchable and charming is the one and only Whoopi Goldberg.

The musical originally opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006 and has since then become a mega-musical. It opened last year in London and is opening on Broadway next year. Back in August Goldberg had made a 3-week engagement as Mother Superior (Maggie Smith's character in the films). I was sad to hear I had missed out but wanted to see the musical anyways. So I was really happy to see that Goldberg would be coming back for a 5-performance engagement. I bought a ticket (the most I've ever paid for theatre) and marked it in my diary.

The musical begins with Mother Superior asking for help. So as Goldberg took the stage the audience applauded and cheered for what felt like a solid five minutes. Goldberg motioned for us to settle down so she could carry on with the show. Ah to be a star where all you have to do is enter the stage and the audience goes wild.

The musical is much much different than the movie. Which is why I think it works so well. It is definitely its own entity. There are no songs from the original film at all and it takes place in 1978. Patina Miller who plays Delores has definitely made this character her own - there are no traces of Whoopi's character. She's vivacious, funny and a terrific singer.

Anyways back to Whoopi - watching her really made me think about the star's persona and how it comes to play in performance. I didn't feel like I was watching Whoopi Goldberg be Mother Superior, I was watching Whoopi Goldberg playing herself playing Mother Superior. And I couldn't help but smile. (But now I'm curious to how I would have responded to the show had I seen a regular production). Her interactions with Delores were delivered with the typical Whoopi sass. There's one scene where Whoopi just gestures (that's it) and the audience ate. it. up. And at the finale when she dances it felt like the entire audience wanted to go up there and dance with her. The excitement and energy was felt by all.

I rarely stand at curtain calls and honestly, the musical isn't the most amazing thing I've ever seen but that evening's performance is definitely something I'll remember for a long long time. So I, like every person in the theatre, jumped to my feet when Whoopi came out for her bow.

Other thoughts on the musical itself. Like I said the musical is completely different. There's enough of the charm and characters from the films to satisfy the nostalgia but I'm really happy that the show is completely different. It's difficult to make movies into musicals. With musicals there needs to be spectacle and this show has plenty of the "good" kind of spectacle (unlike the other movie-turned-into-musical). The music by Alan Menke and lyrics by Glenn Slater are effective and catchy --  this show is simply fun. The characterization is a little 2D but I feel that's almost a musical theatre necessity. It has everything to be a huge mega-musical so congrats to Goldberg and everyone involved. Those are incredibly hard to create and maintain. I hope it keeps its charm as it continues to grow.

Here's a video of one of the songs "Raise Your Voice"