- In England, Roald Dahl gets a possessory credit above the title (like the one John Carpenter takes) for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
- They charge four pounds for a Playbill in London. But it’s bigger than the free US ones, each particular edition has some editorial material about the specific show you’re seeing, and, anyhow, somebody in front of me was somehow able to run down the cast (“Who’s Who”…) on his smartphone.
- Slapstick works everywhere. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, which is basically the disaster act of NOISES OFF quadrupled, or maybe a live version of THE ART OF COARSE ACTING, should come with complimentary pairs of Pampers. Sometimes you can’t even breathe.
- When the manager of THE COMMITMENTS yells just before the fourth-wall-breaking encore set, “Is there anybody here from Ireland?”, a London audience can give him a huge response.
- There are theater-busting assholes everywhere. Just to the right of me at THE COMMITMENTS, two biddies talked to each other using normal conversational tones during the entire show, as if they were home watching telly. Fortunately, whenever the soul band played, you couldn’t hear them any more. They did their best to ruin the show but failed.
- You can order “interval” (intermission) drinks before the show. When you get to the bar at halftime, they’re already waiting for you. The interval order taker is the most popular guy as the audience is filing in.
- Ice cream is a huge interval favorite, but can be queued for and consumed in the auditorium itself. No biggie. A member of staff will be by just before curtain with a big rubbish bag.
- They don’t tell you to turn off your phone or don’t take pictures or don’t bring anything into the theater. People just take all the pre-show pictures they like but know enough to turn everything off when they should. I never heard a cell phone ring or even saw anyone surreptitiously consulting one during the actual performance. The transgressive biddies were, sadly, non-electronic.
- Those oompa loompas (five or six different sly costume-&-lighting gags to make an average-sized person appear to be half hisser actual height) are amazing and worth the CHARLIE ticket alone. The bad news: they don’t appear until Act II.
- Understudies and overstudies come out on stage for the final performance. The lead COMMITMENTS role — the asshole singer — was being played by the Sunday man, but his rest-of-the-week counterpart, and all other fill-ins, showed up on stage for the finale of the show’s West End run. Is the musical — book, in the musical theater sense, by Roddy Doyle — any good? Look: all they promise is that you’ll get to see the soul revue known as the Commitments throw down live on stage, and once they kicked the show proper away for a joyous out-of-character series of encores, they bloody blew the roof off the bloody dump. So no, and bloody YES.
As Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night (it runs through August 16th at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square), it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.
When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)
I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.
Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.
Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.
PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.
No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.
Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.
No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.
And just like that, poof! it was done.
About fifteen minutes into the performance, the hairs on my arms and neck started to tingle. I looked around at the stage, the theater. I wanted a really good mental picture of this place and time, because I knew I was amid something amazing, and so did the cast and crew who were performing it. By the end of the first act, I still had the same unreal fervor. Now it almost felt like guilt, that I was watching something so transgressive that I shouldn’t even be there. As we filed out at show’s end, I realized I’d been clenching my body for the inevitable breaking of the spell, which always, always happens, even to the most promising Act I hopes.
Nope. Not this time. I had just witnessed the most rule-breaking, game-changing, crowd-thrilling piece of theater since the original Broadway production of HAIR — which was realized by this same Public Theater. In other words, HAMILTON punched me harder than anything in nearly fifty years. As we were walking out, Linda said, “I’d go back in there and see it again right now,” and that goes double for me. The last time I felt that way was GATZ, also at this selfsame Public.
More than one friend of mine had been skeptical after the word of mouth and then the reviews were all unrealistically fervid. HAMILTON was the hottest ticket in New York before it even opened. Hey, we sneered, nothing’s that good. Besides, our murky understanding was that this was some kind of “hip-hop musical,” and by me you can keep most hip-hop music: I’m too old and too Caucasian. (I think Eminem’s “Stan” is a compact noir masterpiece, but to me it’s the exception that proves the rule.) Still, knowledgeable people were falling all over themselves trying to explain how miraculous this thing is. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s my turn to try.
After the Tony-winning success of IN THE HEIGHTS (we were lucky enough to attend the ceremony the night Lin-Manuel Miranda won the biggest award, Best Musical), the writer-composer read Ron Chernow’s biography ALEXANDER HAMILTON and made the indelible connections that brought his story to the stage. Here was an illegitimate child, an abandoned orphan, a Caribbean immigrant to whom Revolutionary-era British-American society was as alien as was the slaves’ native Africa to their owners, a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through courage, smarts and sheer chutzpah insinuated himself into the snobby cabal of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton was no saint — he was hard-headed, loose-lipped and lustily robust; a lurid sex scandal probably prevented any serious run at the Presidency — and one of the great strengths of this piece is that he is presented candidly: at some points you sympathize with his opponents and wish the title character would just shut the hell up.
As for the music, there’s far more variety than I expected. There are ballads, traditional belters, musical winks and nods ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Led Zeppelin. But, yes, the beating heart of HAMILTON is that relentless hip-hop groove, an instant behind James Brown’s “the One,” which the best rhymers can cram with truth: here boasting, there spitting with rage. You don’t have to know a thing about Alexander Hamilton when you sit down. All those biographical facts and much more will be taught you with self-asserting lyrics that tear away all anachronism and make the historical characters as relevant as a smartphone.
In a program note, the Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, compares the sound of hip-hop to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Whenever I sit down for a Shakespeare play, there’s an initial period in which I have to get used to the ornate 16th-century language. After five minutes or so I can “sync in,” relax and enjoy the Bard’s beat. Here, we’re held by the hand as the opening number introduces the hip-hop cadence softly, clearly, the beat defined only by snapping fingers. (The orchestra is silent while we “sync in.”) Hamilton’s pre-Revolutionary backstory is presented as a group of song lyrics — the show is “sung through,” meaning there’s no dialogue — which lets us teach ourselves how to listen. As the orchestration later grows more complex (a superb sound mix never allows it to overpower the lyrics), we retain that comfort level, and even though rhymes will soon be flying by as fast as we can register them, we still feel comfortable within the form because of that early tutelage.
This has all been tried before; HAMILTON is simply the most successful at it. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, billed as an “emo” show, also depicted classic events through a contemporary filter. So did RENT, and even though Jonathan Larson’s songs were a high point of Nineties musical theater, we still got the feeling that the characters were Lower East Side dilettantes roaming through the milieu of LA BOHEME, that they were interpreting Puccini in the light of their own experiences: wow, we’re just like those bohemians. HAMILTON takes things a crucial step farther. Its players inhabit the historical characters. We’re not just like these immigrants, these outcasts mishandled by the plutocrats of their own empire: we ARE them.
HAMILTON is (very nicely) costumed for the period, as was ANDREW JACKSON. The set depends on vaguely period-specific carpentry and director Thomas Kail’s continually clever use of a turntable, which can make the stage appear for dramatic purposes many times larger than it is: 360-degree “camera moves”; a pedestrian approaching from afar, walking past, and disappearing in the distance, etc. What rocks us is the people inside the costumes: they’re all of African, Hispanic, Asian descent. The immigrants have busted open the American creation myth! That Thomas Jefferson…he’s…a black man! (And in Act I, he played Lafayette!) Public Theater founder Joe Papp championed race-(even gender-)neutral casting fifty years ago, which opened the Shakespeare canon to a new generation of actors. HAMILTON says, this isn’t a stunt: the Founding Fathers had more in common with us than you were taught. Then, while we’re busy pondering all that heavy ethnic stuff, a white man walks onstage. Wearing a crown.
We were lucky enough to see Brian d’Arcy James on his last day as King George. (Jonathan Groff, of HAIR and SPRING AWAKENING, took over, so the role is in good hands.) Mr. Miranda has given the British king only three appearances, but they each rock the house so hard — in imperious taunting style until late in the piece, when George joins the hip-hopping others in celebrating the fact that Hamilton will never become president — that we want more of that British royal crimson among HAMILTON’s other colors. The snarky monarch will go down in theater lore as an all-time coveted part when HAMILTON finally descends to community and educational venues.
So much is illuminated through this strange prism. As might be familiar to any follower of Maker Studios’ hilarious Web series EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY, the fierce debates between Jefferson and Hamilton over our republic’s financial system are presented as hip-hop battles, complete with dropped-microphone swagger. Throughout, it’s amazing how much actual historical info these beats are beating into our minds. (On this issue, Hamilton won: the little orphan bastard devised America’s monetary system as Secretary of the Treasury, battling Jefferson all the way.)
Duels. Hamilton was slain by his career-long rival Aaron Burr in a duel, every schoolchild knows that. There are actually three duels staged in HAMILTON, and the first one gives us the “ten rules” atop a whirring turntable. By the time the climactic Burr-Hamilton shootout arrives, we know how to watch, and as we walk out of the Public’s Newman Theater in pistol range between two life-sized statues of the combatants, they mean much more to us than they did when we entered three hours before.
Nothing’s perfect, of course, and HAMILTON could have benefited from more solid realization of its few female characters: right now, they’re largely window dressing and the higher voices on some pretty duets. But an intricately choreographed chorus of singer/dancers, evenly divided by gender, keep the stage flashing and insert themselves into the story where needed. Don’t stare too hard, though: you need to keep sharp and pay attention.
To my retrospective sorrow, I have not seen IN THE HEIGHTS. (At the Tony afterparty, I literally ran into a still-walking-on-air Mr. Miranda down a long, thin corridor to the restroom: “Sorry.” “Nice going!” “Thanks, man!”) I hate that because I think HAMILTON might be remembered as a keystone in the reinstatement of live theatre to its rightful place as a vital part of popular culture, much the role HAIR served in the late Sixties. (And, in fairness, RENT in the Nineties.) Now I wish I had taken the effort to see its progenitor. HAIR, that Medicare-aged pioneer, really doesn’t date all that well. I saw the recent revival and had tears streaming down my face, but they were chasing the beauty of the melodies, not any particular symbolism that survives. It’s a period piece, nostalgia, even a tad corny by now. But those songs — and on Broadway, no less! By contrast, HAMILTON forces reconsideration of history. It’s not a contemporary record: it’s a bridge between cultures, the first one to span this particular pathway.
I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, HAIR, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, HAMILTON and others in their original “downtown” (or Central Park) engagements. Few (HEDWIG, HAIR) really prospered after their transition to larger Broadway houses. HAMILTON will try its luck when it begins Broadway performances on July 13. I have no idea how the piece will translate to a bigger room, but I’ll tell you this much: when we saw the NYTimes ad, we hustled to find Broadway dates. Yes, we’re clawing for tickets — and homes, we’ve already seen it.
3/10/15: Thanks to my friend David Morgan of CBS for telling me about the great piece CBS SUNDAY MORNING did on the show last Sunday.
8/7/15: And Ben Brantley welcomes the show’s Broadway transition with one of the most gushing reviews he’s ever written. We’ll be back to see the Broadway production in November, but you can already start inscribing the 2016 Tony plaque, my friend.
We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.
Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.
Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.
John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.
Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.
Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.
The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!
The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Lypsinka is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget she isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Lypsinka’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, this Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.
After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.
P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.
UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.
This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?
There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.
The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”
The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.
We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)
The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.
The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when one removes the comma, and that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.
P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.
I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.
“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. He’d overheard my conversation on the platform; he couldn’t have escaped it. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.
“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.
Mr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.
We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.
He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.
Like many guys, I’m not much of a dancer. I feel self-conscious. I can’t help it. Intellectually, I know others don’t care, they’re too busy having a good time themselves to stop and stare at my geeky moves, but in that primitive fight-or-flight territory of my brain, dancing in public probably qualifies as a near phobia, what public speaking means to some people. You do it only when you have to. I’ve tried to avoid dances all my life except when it was socially necessary, such as a school prom or a fraternity party. (Not a kegger, a dance!) Dancing in a stage musical, for which you have to memorize and repeat the choreography, is somehow different for me, and I’ve done that several times without any anxiety beyond the normal butterflies. But I still have a little improv-dancing-in-public prob.
So it was that I absorbed many warning signals about the immersive theatrical experience HERE LIES LOVE as it prepared for its world premiere engagement at the Public Theater. You’ll stand for an hour and a half, on a set that’s made to look like a disco (I hate disco). You’ll be encouraged to dance. Wear comfortable shoes. If you really have to sit down, tell us in advance so we can scoosh you into a spot where you can. As the ticket date approached, even despite glowing reviews (I don’t read the details beforehand, just try to suss the general opinion), I was apprehensive enough that I suggested my wife invite another friend in my place. It didn’t work out, so I reluctantly trudged down to Astor Place last night. An hour and a half later, I realized what a close call it was. If I had turned down the chance to see this show, it would have been the most colossal mistake of my theatergoing life.
More indications that this one was Different appeared as we walked up the stairs to the third floor of the Public complex. Signs reading, we really think you should check your coats and bags, trust us. No theater program upon entering; you and I’m guessing 150 others are just in this disco with blinking lights and a pumping beat, a DJ gyrating on a balcony level above your head. There are a few seated people peeking over the edge, but since the action darts around, the only way to see the entire show is to be on the dance floor: there will be occasional obstructions from any balcony seat, just as most of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE audience, encircling the stage one level above, can’t see everything that’s happening on the Studio 8H floor.
There was a raised horizontal stage in the center of the room, the people milling about all around it. When it came time to start, the DJ pointed out a few stagehands in light orange jumpsuits, standing among us. When they want to move the stage around, he said, they’ll herd you to make room, so go wherever they point you. For a practice run, they rotated the stage as we followed them in a wide circle. From then on, the set crew would work nearly as hard as the actors, transforming the performing space into two room-ending stages, a horizontal walk-through ramp, all the permutations in between, and finally a huge stairway like the one in Duffy Square, where the two-thirds of the audience that had accepted the offer to come up on stage themselves could sit down for the finale. (So it’s no spoiler to say if they invite you on stage, by all means GO.) The DJ also asked us to shut off our cell phones, but anyone dumb enough to ignore him would have been unable to hear their call anyway, and trying to text on an active dance floor is, let’s just say, counterindicated.
The piece itself is a mostly sung-through operetta about the origin and brutal reign of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 through 1986 (under martial law beginning in 1972) and its public face, his wife Imelda. It’s also about the spirit and resilience of the Filipino people, who finally took back their country after four days of intense but nonviolent protest. This sounds (a) grim, and (b) kind of like EVITA II, but nope, it’s neither one.
The disco setting is used as a metaphor for the motivating power of celebrity as wielded on the masses, and also because that’s pretty much the kind of life Imelda Marcos lived. You’re swept up in the excitement, which literally, physically, carries you along. One minute you’re in the back of the crowd watching the soloist from forty feet away, the next minute everything has moved around and she’s right in front of you – or even next to you. When Imelda comes down into the audience to meet her adoring public – played now by us — a video camera follows her and the images are projected on all four walls as smitten audience members take her hand and smile beatifically. When her husband first runs for office, he’s surrounded by Men In Black Ray-Banned bodyguard types, who walk down the ramp all the way across the room, leaning down to shake hands and bark, “Vote for Marcos!” One of the goons grabbed my hand, and it was all I could do to keep from saying, “I will!”
David Byrne dreamed all this up and wrote the lyrics, and collaborated with Fatboy Slim on the music. It’s not exactly disco, not that droning metronomic vibe. Not exactly hip-hop, though it feels fresh and new. Not exactly show tunes, either, though several performers get rare quieter belters that garner applause. It’s mostly smart, melodic dance music, but the intimate setting lets the thirteen billed performers – if they’re not all Filipino, they can sure play it – engage the audience more viscerally than anything I’ve seen since the heyday of the Living Theater. And that includes rock stars who numbly order you to “clap yo hands!”
David Byrne is probably the “sell” on the show – that’s certainly why we bought our tickets – but for my money the guy who deserves just as much credit is the genius director, Alex Timbers. He co-wrote and staged the fiercely entertaining BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON a couple years ago; directed PETER & THE STARCATCHER, a charming piece that uses low-tech theatrical effects to beguile its audience with the Peter Pan backstory; and won the Obie a while ago for directing A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I adored them all. This summer, he’ll be reunited with ANDREW JACKSON collaborator Michael Friedman for a new musical version of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST as the second Shakespeare in the Park show at the Delacorte. In the dictionary, that’s his picture beside the word “creative.” From now on, if Timbers’s name’s on the show, I’m there. Here, as in STARCATCHER, he uses “hand-rolled” theatrical moves (most big set changes on Broadway are done by computer now, along little tracks just under the stage) to down-tech the show, dunk the audience in it (I’d like to meet the guy who manages to fall asleep!), and lift their heads up while it’s still refreshing. I also want to send props out to sound designers M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer: even above the dance-club din, we made out more of Byrne’s brainy lyrics than we had during the “state-of-the-art” production of MATILDA (which is a scream, by the way).
The dancing? Oversold. You can stand there like a potted plant if you want to, but the music is just too much to resist, so you’re moving around, there’s that. Then they show you how to jump, clap, left, right, in unison, like Imelda. The moves were pretty easy, but I still sucked, yet I didn’t care, and that went double for everybody else standing near me. How close I came to missing all this. Note to self: listen to wife all the time from now on! We got the Playbill upon leaving, and my one and only beef was with two female dweebs who’d retained their crammed, bloated backpacks despite the quite reasonable pre-show suggestion and, like nearly every other urban backpack carrier on earth, were oblivious to whatever they’re swatting from behind. One Trendora whirled toward me in irritation at feeling a bit of resistance, thus swatting somebody else! A pox on all backpackers who aren’t climbing mountains, on safari, or attending grade school.
After a long time seeing uninspired cookie-cutter musicals, and sadly noting that too often the best dramas on Broadway are revivals, it feels great when something comes up behind you and smacks you with a 2×4. The last time was probably GATZ, also here at the Public. Anyhow, if you can get a ticket, do it. They have held this show over twice, and now it runs through the end of June. It can’t move to a big Broadway theater (as, recently, did the Public’s ANDREW JACKSON and its Central Park productions of HAIR and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). This piece has to happen in a room just like this one. But if you get the chance – can L.A. be far behind? – DO NOT MISS. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes.
P.S.: If it’s been more than, say, nine months since you’ve been to the Public Theater facility in the historic Astor Library (a New York City Landmark in its own right), you will find it transformed, particularly the gorgeous lobby area, after a $40 million renovation of which we were happy to be a small part. We had a light dinner beforehand in the new lounge The Library, a great addition that helps you cut it much closer to curtain time.
5/31/13: Today the Public announced one final extension, through July 28. This show could probably run forever, only it can’t.
7/24/13: I take it back! Yesterday, the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, announced that they’re looking for a new space in New York to keep the show going, in one of four possible configurations, and mulling productions in other cities.
8/1/13: Damn! It’s raining tonight, so they canceled the pre-show backstage dinner for Public donors, an informal serve-yourself deal where you can eat, meet and schmooze. Tonight we were scheduled to hear from LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST songwriter Michael Friedman (BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON) and director Alex Timbers. I was actually going to be able to walk up to Mr. Timbers and tell him how much I enjoy his work, just as I personally congratulated Oskar on winning the Tony for the Public’s revival of HAIR. Alas, not to be. Damn! We’ll see the show next week instead. Yes, if you gotta have problems, this is a ludicrously lightweight problem to have, but still, I was really looking forward to meeting Alex Timbers.
3/21/14: It’s back, for another run at the Public, beginning in about a month.
10/14/14: No Timbers, but I did finally get to meet Michael Friedman just before a perf of the new musical THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, based on a Jonathan Lethem novel. (These creative folks aren’t afraid of anything!) I thanked him for writing so much great Shakespeare music, especially for those sweet summer nights in the Park.