Monday, January 31, 2011

Laugh @ Sadler's Wells and Goudron et des Plumes @ Barbican Theatre

Antonia Baehr's Laugh at Sadler's Wells is 70 minutes of her, well, laughing. The German choreographer, director and performer asked friends to write a "score" of laughter for her birthday. She begins by treating the event like a concert, with the names of the "composers" projected for each piece, and afterwards, dressed in a man's suit with brown shoes and slicked back hair she bows with the utmost seriousness.

There's one where she traces out a triangle in the air keeping the tempo like a metronome. point-point-ha, point-ha-ha, point-ha-chortle, etc until she's fighting to keep the triangle going as she laughs, coughs and gasps for air. The control and endurance is astounding. Having done clowning and laughing exercises, I understand exactly what is necessary to control that oftentimes uncontrollable muscle - and over an hour it's certainly a feat. A clever score that I would love to use as a training exercise uses a variety of balls, the laugh matching the quality of sound of the ball as it bounces and rolls. She then uses multiple balls and expertly traces their sound with laughter.

My favorite, which most of my classmates found terrifying, is where she stand behinds a magnifying glass (see picture). What starts of humorous in itself as she appears to have a ginormous head and little body, she laughs and giggles and flutters around in a circle; the silliness gradually grows into a maniacal cackle, escalated by an echoing amplification. I was crying with laughter - I've never seen anything so silly, absurd and terrifyingly delightful.

Something charming are the "scores" from her parents. Her mother wanted to record a session of them together, wanting her daughter to explain why she was doing this. "You can't fake laughter," says her mother in German, "it's not authentic and not contagious." Baehr then immediately laughs for her mother, who in turn laughs back at her daughter. "See, definitely not contagious." Ha! Her father's score was a request that she record and compare her family's laughs and then compose them into Beethoven''s symphony (or something like that?) Equipped with a mixer she mixes the laughs of her, her parents and uncle into a rhythmic beat.

All in all, I found it an interesting experiment on laughter and I appreciate Baehr's skill and stage presence throughout the piece.

Over at the Barbican (which is quickly becoming one of my favorite venues) I saw Du Goudron et Des Plumes, part of the London International Mime Festival, which is a 75 minute brilliant acrobatic exploration set on a high flying raft brought to us with the expert and stunning skill of the French  Compagnie MPTA and choreographer Mathurin Bolze.

The five performers (four guys and a lady) begin in stillness, and then slowly emerge from and explore their raft, bouncing, jumping, swinging, climbing from it's boards and wires. The raft sways as one performer balances and jumps on a plank. Tableaux in motion flash as the rhythmic swaying raft represents the passing of time. For one humourous scene the performers recreate a reflection down below from what's happening up top. The guy upside down desperately fights gravity and ends up with water in the face (and old school clown gag). Another scene they roll down sheets of paper off the raft and create shadows and image tricks with lights. Some of it seems gratuitous, but towards the end of that scene it was riveting. They then chop down the paper in madness as the woman jumps off the raft. The men go nuts and start destroying everything in a frenzy. The woman, now on a rope dangling below, twists and turns in the air. Finally the raft tilts down and the members of the raft slip and slid and hang on for dear life. The raft eventually finds land and it's inhabitants slowly emerge from the vessel for an enthusiastic applause.

The pacing is nice, keeping the audience engaged and also allowing time for the performers to rotate seamlessly to rest. The sound is stunning and matches the action perfectly. I've never seen anything like this: a mixture of acrobatics, mime, clown, and physical theatre - the theatrics of this event are completely stunning and captivating and it all looked effortless by the immensely skilled performers.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Love Will Break Your Heart

Midsummer (a play with songs) @ the Tricycle 

There are a few times in the theatre where we are pleasantly surprised and completely enthralled by what is simply good story telling. Midsummer, which was a huge hit at Edinburgh Fringe, is a rom-com with a theatrically splendid twist. Equal parts third and first person story-telling we find Helena (the resplendent Cora Bissett) a divorce lawyer and Bob (a pathetically charming Matthew Pidgeon) a used-car salesman/petty criminal in an Edinburgh bar during Midsummer. After an awkward one-night stand the two part ways as Helena heads of to be a bridesmaid (again) and Bob sells a stolen pink convertible to give the cash to his crime-boss. With both racing through the city, they end up meeting again and spending the shortest night of the year spending the £15K trapsing around the city - meeting goth kids, getting tied up in a Japanese fetish club, borrowing a mailbag and inserting cash into envelopes, and enjoying the poshest hotel in the city.

David Greig's delightfully charming, beautiful and poignant text is nicely complemented by Gordon McIntyre's indie music, with Bissett and Pidgeon strumming on their guitars and singing the melodic songs. The duo are pitch-perfect as the two thirty-five-year-olds who come together through the wonder of where their lives went wrong. Flowing from narration, to the multiple characters, and singing they both are a delight to watch - Bissett with her simultaneous charm and vulnerability and Pidgeon with his crass humour to overcome his life's disappointments. With their commitment, timing and easy stage presence we are carried away with their unlikely love story. I oou'd, awe'd, laughed and was completely engrossed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Yes, Prime Minister" and Resolution! 2010

I've got two shows to quickly cover so here goes:

Last week I saw Yes, Prime Minister with the USC study abroad kids playing at the Gielgud Theatre. The comedy is based on the 1980s satirical TV show of the same name. As the title suggests the storyline depicts the Prime Minister and his staff. There's a big oil line deal on the table, a request for an underage prostitute, global warming, bribing the BBC and economic doom all in one night. Over the course of the play the PM, called Jim Hacker, gets hilariously more and more desperate and frantic as things seem to farcically spiral out of control.

Knowing nothing about the TV show or the comedy, I went in with absolutely no expectations. Hitting humourously on the anxieties of 24 hour news, the global economic downturn and governmental responsibility this play infused with superb comedic timing offers a chance to laugh at our current condition. Although the text lags a bit here and there, the committed presence of all the actors keeps the comedy rolling along. Although I, nor my fellow Trojans, didn't get all of the British references, I was thoroughly entertained. 


Resolution! 2011

Last night I went with my flatmate to see a dance show with one of the dance choreographed by her friend. The Place has a dance festival of new work by up-and-coming dancers called Resolution! 2011.
There were three performances. the first called "[ex]posed" by 90 Degree Rotations was a beautiful piece by 6 dancers who fell rhythmically in and out of sync. There's a lot of potential in this young company and all of the dancers were quite strong. The overall piece, however, needed to flow more. For a relatively short set there were black outs and changes. I suggest figuring out how to have pieces of a whole weave seamlessly together.

The second set by Katerina Paramana called "Metrology" I would heavily argue was not dance, but rather a performance art piece. The conceit was to use 34 object. Why? I don't know. It felt like a graduate experiment, so I wasn't surprised when I saw it was a part of Paramana's PhD studies. The two performers had good stage presence and the actions were clear and committed. Although there were some delightfully clever elements the conceit soon became tired and I knew exactly how things were going to play out.

The third set (which was the one choreographed by my flatmate's friend, Anna Buonomo) was clearly the saying "save the best for last." This piece called "F5VE" featuring the Bricolage Dance movement chronicles 5 distinct characters and utilises each dancers unique style whilst they all blend and converge, building up to a beautifully messy frenetic energy. A well-planned and choreographed piece as the tempo slowly built up with the music and dancing complementing the energy of the movement.

The most interesting part of the evening for me though was having my lovely and smart Italian flatmate who is studying in the MA Computer Science programme keep asking "what was the message?" A genuine question that soon became our theme for the night as I poked and prodded the question in terms of larger issues of semiotics and audience reception. "What do you think the message was?" I would ask with the smile. "Well, what was the story?" she would ask. "Why does there have to be a story?" I'd ask in return. "I don't understand what they were doing." "Well, the message sent, isn't always the message received. And that's ok." Haha, you know you're getting a masters in performance studies when you turn every performance viewing experience into a contemplation and conversation about the semiotics of performance and the enigmatic spectator-performer relationship of performance.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fela! at the National

So this one is really really late as I saw Fela! at the National back in December. But as I spent winter "break" writing essays and am now starting semester 2 of my MA programme, I figured better late than never. (It's also super short as I have another post to write).

The musical is set in Lagos in 1978 at the Shrine, the last concert by afrobeat father Fela Kuti. The story chronicles his life from his upbringing, education in London and eventual explosion into the blended sounds of jazz, funk and the rhythmic African drums. After encountering the Black Power movement in America, he shifted the focus of his music to the political, spreading activism through music. After the brutal death of his mother, who was thrown off a building by the police, he delved even further into politics, making him an even bigger threat to the unstable Nigerian government.

I knew absolutely nothing about the life of Fela Kuti before stepping foot into the National. Upon leaving I wanted to learn more. Although Fela! is a flawed musical, and doesn't quite follow the life of this influential man, there's a lot to be gained from it.

For brevity's sake, I'm not going to go much further into the actual musical, rather I'm going to focus on the show-spectator relationship. Because I think it's really interesting. Fela addresses the audience as if we were at the actual Shrine and this was a concert in the middle of Lagos, rather than a well-funded national theatre in the heart of London with a bunch of middle-class white people. He encourages us to respond "ya-ya" and even has everyone get up to dance. Sitting by myself, I had no "support" to get involved and get my hip-shaking grove on, because no one else around me was dancing. The boy to my left looked like he was going to die from embarrassment and the couple to my left, with wine in hand, made pitiful, yet joyous, attempts. If I were to really let loose it would have become the "Ashley show" and I just wasn't prepared for that. So I stood there awkwardly, watching the majority of the auditorium stand in awkward solidarity, and looking envious on those with friends who were dancing. Many of the criticisms referenced this aspect (probably old disgruntled white guys). This made me wonder how this scene would have played out with different audiences. And by different I really mean a predominantly black audience vs a predominantly white (and British white to be specific) audience. Anyways on with the show...

A lot of the political problems in Nigeria were the result of British Colonialisation so it was a very interesting subtextual dialogue happening. He talks about the corrupted government, and even makes fun of the British to a (predominantly British audience). It's clear that many developing countries are still trying to get over the repercussions of imperialisation. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have seen this connection but it's ever so slight that I think the entertainment value surpasses any implications of compromising historical ramifications.

Overall, I absolutely enjoyed the show. It's a flawed musical but the music was rhythmic and continuous, the dancing was inventive and energetic and the performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela is absolutely phenomenal.