11 August 2015

A Summer of Theatre

My latest trip took me first to Alexandria, Virginia, for my younger brother's wedding. It's an interesting place to be, at a wedding when your own marriage has failed and you're still trying to figure out why and how. It was nonetheless a joyful occasion, fitting for a couple who, by some standards, has everything in order: full-time employment, with benefits; a house and a dog (no pickup truck); plans for family growth. It was nice to see the families all gathered, in their various corners, while the d.j. had brought Long Island with them—full light show, continuous booming four-on-the-floor, video screens, intrusive R's.

The Original Story Brothers
Photo credit Chelsea Anderson
A wedding is a bit of theatre itself. You have your ingenues, your supporting characters, and, perhaps (depending on the wedding), your antagonists. You have your secondary conflicts, your objectives and tactics. Hair, makeup, costumes, tech, stage management, house management. There's even rehearsal. The food and wine make it more like a Dionysian festival, but this one to (one hopes) the god known as Love.

After the declarations, the parties, the speeches, the brunches, I drove north with my mother, her boyfriend, my grandmother, my uncle, and my sister (also younger; all of my siblings and close cousins are younger than me) to New York. Three days later, I was in London to attend the International School Theatre Association's (Ista) Theatre Arts Programme Symposium (TaPS), where I would be certified to teach International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) Theatre. (Whew!)

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One of the benefits of that program was we got to see a performance of a new play at the Royal Court Theatre, a three-hander one-act called hang, written and directed by debbie tucker green. (Ms. green seems to eschew the shift key for things like her name and her play titles, but has no trouble using it in her printed work.) It was a wonderfully performed and designed piece, with the direction not unlike a chess game. The premise and foundation of the piece always seem to be just outside the grasp of the audience, as we are never told what is really going on. We can ascertain that a woman has been called in to an underutilized room where she is being indirectly asked questions about something, and needs to make a decision about how some perpetrator is executed. It's a decision she has already made at the outset, but doesn't reveal until well into the play, since giving it away early would make the play irrelevant. Perhaps if certain details were more explicit, the piece would lose some of its suspense, its intrigue, but my thinking is that some slight details might make more impact. Knowing what crime has been committed might raise the stakes even more, and make us more sympathetic to the woman. On the other hand, if we never know the crime that has been committed, the play remains clear of having to make a statement on that particular crime, and then can focus on its singular statement about difficult decision making or capital punishment at large.

What makes this piece a success in my mind is its effect on the audience. We are forced to ask questions, and it is my overall opinion that theatre (and art in general) must force the audience to ask profound questions—some of them unanswerable. This generation is one that must be forced into communication more often than not, as we drift further and further into the digital age of social media isolation; having something to talk about, to argue and discuss, is paramount.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Back in New York after my short London trip, I split my time between the City and Long Island, my native land. Theatre Three in Port Jefferson had hired me once again to music direct their Musical Theatre Factory, a four-week program for ages nine through seventeen, and as a bonus had cast me in one of their children's shows, Jack and the Beanstalk (music and lyrics by myself, book and lyrics by Jeffrey Sanzel, who also directed). The role of Filpail, the cow, is a tough one in that you have only one word the entire show (“moo”, though I did get to sneak in a “the end” at the end) and you have to spend most of your time on all fours. It was a challenge I accepted, and I ended up receiving a very good write-up in the local paper.

Boy (Michael Giordano) and cow (me)
Photo credit Peter Lanscombe
You may think it “beneath me” to play a cow in a children's show after having spent most of last year as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. What I will say is this: The only theatre not worth doing is the theatre you don't have your heart in. Theatre doesn't pay well, it takes some time to put together, and you can never be sure how an audience will like what you do. In my opinion, theatre for young audiences is just as vital, if not more so, as theatre for older ones. Young people are the best at asking questions.

Shakespeare, Sweeney, and A Gentlemen's Guide

I had the great fortune of attending Shakespeare in the Park (finally!), and got to see what I thought was a remarkable production of The Tempest. Sam Waterston gave a fantastic performance (even if he was hard to understand sometimes through the beard) and the rest of the cast (which included Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of Modern Family fame, as Trinculo) did wonderful work bringing this magical piece to life. I balked at first at the printed backdrop, of rough ocean waves, but when the effect at the end was to quickly release it from its frame, creating empty space, I understood and applauded all the more. Great choices all around, and definitely the best Tempest I've seen to date.

Theatre in the outdoors seems natural, even in as urban a setting as New York City. And the Public Theatre isn't the only company doing work au naturel. There is a company in Brooklyn which does summer theatre at the Old Stone House, the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle, and this summer they presented Sweeney Todd. What a thrilling thing, to see an evening of theatre under the stars with a picnic blanket and bottle of wine. A less thrilling thing was the performance given by the title character, and the entire production, while it has some excellent moments, seemed to lack a cohesive direction.

I did get the chance to see one Broadway show, the Tony-winning Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr. What a fantastic show! My only critique is that there wasn't a musical number that really blew me away. That notwithstanding, the performances were all top-notch.

Pop Filter and Punderdome

Jenny and Adam as Simon Never Said
Being in New York allowed me to see friends I haven't seen in a while, which included Adam Blottner and Jenny Pinzari, who collaborate on a quirky comedy music show called Pop Filter. If you're ever in the Big Apple, be sure to look them up. Their spoof groups range in style and character so widely in one evening, it's an absolute delight. Special mention goes to my good friend Matt Tobin, their bandleader-keyboardist-fiddler, for going along for the ride.

Tobin and I have a long history of trading puns, so it's no wonder that I saw him compete in the oddly-successful Punderdome 3000, created by comedian Jo Firestone (whose collaboration with Dylan Marron produced one of my favorite comedy shows, Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite) and her father, Fred. Unlike other pun competitions, this one is judged by audience noise, so whoever gets the most applause moves on to the next round, until there are only two standing. A mighty crowd packed into the small venue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as eighteen contestants became nine became four became two. The amount of wit in one place was staggering, as most contestants really had some good stuff to deliver. Tobin got as far as the semi-finals, but a gaffe in the first round haunted him and he lost part of the crowd—one of the contestants was a transvestite, and Tobin, who was using her to make a transition to the word “hermaphrodite” in one of his monologues, tripped up and accidentally inferred that she was a hermaphrodite. What a drag.

G2K Oklahoma, Godspell Jr., and The Pied Piper

The Musical Theatre Factory at Theatre Three is divided into two programs. The younger group this summer worked on the “Getting to Know...” version of Oklahoma, while the older group tackled Godspell Jr. Both shows in their original versions were groundbreaking in their own way. Oklahoma ushered in the modern form of musical theatre, with its fully-integrated book, music, and lyrics that all help to tell a singular story, making the names Rodgers and Hammerstein reverberate forever. Godspellwas itself a new type of theatre, an abstract blend of Christian parables used to tell a story of creating community out of chaos, and it launched the career of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Both shows serve as great teaching tools for young performers.

The cast of The Pied Piper
Photo credit Peter Lanscombe
My last day on Long Island saw the opening of a new version of The Pied Piper, a children's show at Theatre Three written, again, by myself and director Jeffrey Sanzel. This show featured, in addition to its adult cast of six, a cast of 45 young people enrolled in classes at the theatre. It's a treat for me to see a show I've helped write, as often I am sending materials across the distance and can't get out to attend a performance. This was a particularly difficult show for the adults, as there is a lot for them to do, and more musical numbers than we usually put together. They did a great job overall, and I am awaiting to see how the rest of the run turns out. My guess is that it will be successful, since having 45 young people in a show practically guarantees a fairly full house of family members.

Looking forward now to the rest of 2015, I feel completely recharged, as if everything I did this summer caused no drain of energy, only resupplied it. I have a number of new avenues to explore in terms of learning about theatre, its theories and its inner workings. I have students to teach and a career to grow. I have ideas, hopes, and ambitions. And I'm really starting to feel like myself again.