True Art Will Never Die: “Lazarus”

A minefield of black balloons, knifed in the dark by ninjas. A slow ebb of liquid latex, seeping out of a wound like so much milk. Aerial cameras to provide the illusion of flight even as they amplify the earthbound nature of their subject. A trio of blue-haired nymphs: the real, the imagined, and the digital. The dissonant overlap between the present, on-stage action and the pre-taped and projected future (or subtextual) actions. Classic Bowie songs (and a few new ones), reinterpreted to fit the mood of his final work, the experimental rock musical Lazarus. Above all else, passion.

The plot of Lazarus, a follow-up to The Man Who Fell to Earth, is bare-boned, and that’s fine, because the animalistic director Ivo van Hove only needs a concept to work from, and in this case, it is the isolation of Thomas Jerome Newton (Michael C. Hall), an alien who has lived amongst us for forty years, unable to return to his home, his family, and haunted by the loss of those he–an immortal man–has loved. The curtains, screens, and glass windows that separate Newton from the backgrounded band are intention: they shut the world out, yes, but also cage him in with the screed of foreign (to him) media.

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A Manoment of Manderstanding

I had the privilege of watching Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a play in which a child who has grown up under an oppressive and racist regime in 1981 South Africa now has an opportunity to confront one of his former, naive-however-well-intentioned tenders (it is now 2003, with a new constitution in place). The boy, Jonathan (Yaegel T. Welch) recounts to the frightened, gun-toting woman Elmarie (Bianca Amato), what it meant for him to see his beloved role model, the elder Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) stand up for himself in private, painting his “story” upon “the big one” (a giant rock, beside all the other rocks on which he had been painting mere superficial flowers in order to beautify the land at his employer’s request), only to immediately revert to a frightened, servile old man when confronted by his “master.” There’s a moment at which it seems as if Jonathan and Elmarie will talk right past one another–she is blinded by fear of all things black, as angry and poor citizens have been murdering her fellow landowners, and he feels more entitled to the land than she–and then there’s a brilliant moment as Jonathan pauses and reconsiders. He stops himself and says something to the effect of: “We must try again. If we cannot understand one another, then what hope is there [for this new country]?” And so he takes the time to listen to her perspective, and to convince her of his–ultimately, they might not agree, but she at least sees him as a person, not an idea, not a construct. And that’s how the play ends, with a fade to black before the “big one” as he looks into the eyes that he has just repainted on it, with Elmarie right beside the rock, and says: “Now you see me. I am a man.”

That’s a breathtaking and important bit of dramatics, and I’m now going to apply it to something apparently pedantic, but bear with me, because there’s a point here. The site xojane recently ran an article entitled “I Have Been Sitting on Manspreaders for the Last Month and I Have Never Felt More Free,” and you know what? I agree with almost the entirety of it. As a native New Yorker, I have many times had to sit on someone to get them to move over and respect my right to an equal share of space; I’ve jockeyed elbows and knees with people who don’t seem to understand that they’re allotted only a single seat. I’ve had to push my way past those people who like to stand in front of the doors, not allowing anybody on or off the train, and when I can’t maneuver myself between pedestrian groups walking four to a stride, and they don’t listen to my repeated requests to “excuse me” (I’m a fast walker), I will triumphantly Red Rover myself through their interlocked arms. Fuck with me on the steps, people, because you haven’t yet learned that the correct lane is the one to the right, whether you’re going up or down, and I will Zax the shit out of you: we can stand there all day. I don’t care. My bony elbows are out and ready to joust.

The difference between my little rant here and Cassie J.’s is that hers is entirely about men. Continue reading

Why Broadway Needs to Learn How to Fly: “Finding Neverland”

“To write that story,” speaks J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) of his then-unwritten Peter Pan, early on in the musical stage adaptation of 2004’s film Finding Neverland,”I had to learn how to fly.” Director Diane Paulus does her best, with a park bench becoming a boat in “Believe” and then the entire set transforming into Captain Hook’s pirate ship in the Act I closer “Stronger”; with creative choreography and frozen tableaus in “The Dinner Party” or with the nightmarish frenzy of “Circus of Your Mind” and its dancing clocks and creepy merry-go-round poles. There’s an absolutely devastating moment, entirely earned, at the end of the musical when Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) is metaphorically taken by Peter Pan (Melanie Moore) in a whirlwind of glitter, leaving nothing but a dress fluttering in the wind, poetic in the same vein as American Beauty‘s floating, iconic plastic bag. And yet, sadly, just as plastic, because with every flourish Paulus uses to lift up Finding Neverland, there’s someone scheming to pull the production back down to earth–specifically, to the narrowly defined values of Broadway. Whereas Peter and the Starcatchers was a scrappy transplant that managed to keep its starspun charm (a story, after all, told by rebels), Finding Neverland is a commercial enterprise through and through, with Kelsey Grammer hamming things up as Barrie’s producer Charles Frohman (and dropping a joke or two about Cheers) and his acting troupe pointedly reminding audiences of how shallow the whole enterprise normally is. Continue reading

“The Illusionists” Is Fun, But Not Unbelievably So

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Magic is, for the most part, a matter of misdirection, but although there are a few baffling decisions in terms of the prominence given to some of the seven performers in this showcase, The Illusionists is not, itself, misdirected. Gaudy, perhaps, but strobe lights, smoke, and mirrors are nothing new to magic and, in fact, a few tricks–such as the train that appears during the opening montage–are probably a bit underwhelming for those used to Broadway spectacles. Ultimately, the show knows to leave well enough alone, trusting the charismagic cast to be slight only of hand.

That said, assembling seven disparate personalities and acts is dangerous, and they don’t all stack up favorably. Andrew Basso, for instance, performs only once, before intermission, because the water torture chamber escape that Houdini was known for is an almost impossible act to follow. On the other hand, Aaron Crow has a single marginalized performance–a modernized William Tell act–because his silent pantomime and physical precision can’t compete with everything around him. Jeff Hobson’s dry wit is far more impressive than his watch-lifting and card-finding, but that’s only when you compare him to the Manipulator, Yu Ho-Jin, who appears not only to be conjuring cards out of thin air, but to be reconfiguring the images on those cards as he fans them out on a table. (Cameras are used well to ensure that close-up magic plays well to the back of the house, and as two of my friends and a variety of enthusiastic six and seven-year-olds wound up on stage, I can confirm that they’re probably not using plants.)

That said, a great deal of The Illusionists comes across as broad and gimmicky, which may be a result of snapping between so many different acts, with no real sense of consistency, personality, or a build. I’ll sadly remember Adam Trent, the glib Futurist, more for the way he uses projectors and cameras (with pre-recorded and well-timed bits) than for any of his actual talent. Likewise, I’ve nothing but respect for all the tricks that Kevin James has designed–but it’s disappointing to feel, as a result, like you’ve seen his act before. It’s all still impressive, but you don’t get the sense that either one could carry a show through force of will, not like Penn & Teller, David Blaine, or Criss Angel.

On the other hand, Dan Sperry could’ve stayed on stage the whole night. Made up to look like a cross between a Goth and the Joker, his acts revolve around masochism and misanthropy, whether that’s a matter of pulling string out of his eye or objects “through” his throat, or playing a friendly game of Russian Roulette with a very handsy, very drunk audience member. (It’s possible his trick was ruined by this participant, since it ended so anti-climactically, but it was more than salvaged by his performance.) And though he bills himself an Anti-Conjuror, his dazzling dove act, in which he turns no birds into two birds into giant birds, the colors of their feathers changing with the sweep of a curtain, is the only trick that comes close to the eye-boggling “How did he do that?” provoked by Ho-Jin’s finale.

It’s a bit of a missed opportunity that The Illusionists doesn’t follow more closely in the footsteps of the movie Now You See Me that it’s so clearly modeled after–there aren’t any combination acts. But then again, the magic performed on stage is about as “real” as magic gets, and whether you’re the young girl watching a paper mache rose hover in the air before catching fire and turning into a real flower or the married couple trying not to flinch as an arrow slams through the apple just above your head, there’s something for everyone. Even if you figure out a few tricks–and there were a couple of body doubles and missed misdirects that seemed obvious–the evening still works to remind us of all the wonder that’s out there.

The Illusionists runs at the Marquis Theater through January 4th.

Put On That Red Dress: ROCOCO ROUGE Is Phenomenal

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Company XIV supposedly takes their name and cues from the sinful extravagances of Louis XIV, but while there’s perhaps an abandoned opulence to be found in things like the crystal and gold chandeliers serving as mere footlights, the truth is that nothing in Rococo Rouge seems to be wasted. Maybe it’s the effect of this tighter theater, and the way that the ever-inventive Austin McCormick has absolutely no problem finding ways to fit acts of all size and shape onto the stage. Or perhaps it’s just the natural evolution of a tight-knit company like this, with their aesthetic aging like the best of wines–a little bit of naughty alcohol, a whole lot of nice, rich texture. Each of the baker’s dozen of acts may mash up operatic renditions of contemporary tunes with Baroque ballet, but each individual element feels expansive, not cramped. In any event, don’t think of this as a miniature Cirque du Soleil, even if the acrobatic use of a Cyr wheel or a graceful aerial duet within an elevated metal hoop brings them to mind. It’s more intimate than that; the sort of act you drink and drown in, rather than see swallowed up by the stage.

With the exception of an overly nail-on-the-head interpretation of “Fancy” as a fan dance (it doesn’t help that the parodic lyrics come across as second-rate after Weird Al’s “Handy”), there’s a subtlety and sexuality to McCormick’s work that I cannot adequately sing the praises of. It’s burlesque, but not bawdy; precise without being profane. Davon Rainey’s bring-down-the-house performance isn’t a lip-synced pantomime to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”: it’s an emotional struggle against disillusionment. (He’d make a great emcee in Cabaret.)  It’s also impossible to adequately complement lighting designer Jeanette Yew, from the green neon suffusing (and shadowing) Laura Careless’s writhing during Katrina Cunningham’s slowed-down version of “Toxic” to the chiaroscuro way the Klieg light enhances Cailan Orn’s rhythms throughout snippets of text from Jean Cocteau’s “Le Bel Indifferent.” (Suffice to say that Beckett would be both dizzy and proud.) Over the course of the night, as the wonders accumulate, Rococo Rouge transcends the sum of its parts–although you’d be hard pressed to find another show that transitions so easily from Dvorak’s classical “Song to the Moon,” gymnastically accompanied by Allison Ulrich and Steven Trumon Gray, to an operatic (and Italianate) version of Lorde’s “Royals” (sung live by Brett Umlauf), before settling down with an acoustic version of Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,” Cunningham singing and dancing beneath a ruby rain of glitter.

Meanwhile, lest my dazzled imagination leave anyone out, let’s also credit Zane Pihlstrom, who clads the cast–men and women alike–in corsets, heels, and beribboned lace: if this is an extravagance, it’s one that frees up the cast, both sexually and physically, helping to further accentuate each moment, whether that’s a pole dance or a can-can. Shelly Watson neatly emcees the evening (and gets in on the action, worry not!), and guitarist Rob Mastrianni keeps things bouncing during the two brief, drink-serving intervals. Those drinks, incidentally–such as the vodka, fernet, Lemon, ginger, and angostura Guillotine–are delicious and worth noting as well, especially since the bar stays up as late as your adrenaline . . . though also largely unnecessary, as you’ll be drunk enough off of Rococo Rouge. This isn’t a hallucination of excellence: it’s the real thing.

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