Sunday, March 21, 2010

Whirlwind Tour

I had another streak of seeing shows this week and I realized in the middle that I was taking a whirlwind tour of theatre production in New York. I literally saw a show at every level this week: Broadway, Off-Broadway, establishment Off-Off-Broadway and indie theatre. It was, well, kind of exhausting. That's a lot of evenings on a lot of trains all over town. I'm just glad that I didn't have to go to Brooklyn for any of it.

What did I see? Previews of A Cool Dip In The Barren Saharan Creek and Red, and regular performances of Glee Club and Lenin's Embalmers. So for those of you keeping track at home, that's four new plays, three by American writers, one British import, one remount. Three male playwrights. Four male directors. Twenty-three actors, three women. Five African-Americans. Those are the stats. But really what did I see?

Two naturalistic, fairly straightforward plays. Two that jumped in time and place and featured flights of fancy and the dread "theatricality." Three plays set in places other than New York City or any metropolitan area. Two straight-up comedies (though both were pitch-black), but all plays had at least moments of humor and comedy. Two plays revolve around art and artists, two are about government, policy, history, and people.

What did I see? A lot of terrific acting. I'm not even kidding. I saw four casts bust their asses, make me laugh, smile, throw themselves with abandon into a variety of characters. I saw actors push themselves into some surprising places, megalomaniac painters, sociopathic dictators...and Stalin. They were all incredibly well directed in a beautiful productions. It was a four day marathon of great performances.

Obviously, again, I can't really talk about the shows in previews, but you should go see them. And you absolutely definitely should go and see Glee Club and Lenin's Embalmers. Both are really exciting, terrific, fun as hell and some of the best things I've seen in a long time. Great evenings of theatre.

A lot of folks have said good things about Glee Club and all of them are more than deserved. It's a black-hearted laugh riot, full of surprise and the curdled milk of human kindness. There were two specific things I liked about it. One, "downtown" indie theatre is generally thought to be avant-garde, formally experimenting, non-linear or twee and full of whimsy. Glee Club is very, very much not. It's practically Aristotelian: one place, one course of action, it all happens in real time. It's a recognizable place, in the "real" world and presented without frippery or embellishment. The other thing I like about it is its point of view on art. Or Art. Often plays about art focus on the uplifting, soul-stirring aspects, even if they dig into the glorious monsters artists can be sometimes. But it's rare to see a show that says "Being an artist practically requires that you destroy yourself and quite possibly others." It was a thrill to be there.

What can I say about Lenin's Embalmers? I'm not precisely objective about it, since I'm a member of E.S.T., which produced it, and I've worked with a ton of the folks involved. But, boy howdy, it's a grand night of theatre. It is indeed formally experimental, moving through time and space basically by the dint of imagination alone. The company of eight covers dozens of roles, all specific and detailed (including at least three different women named Nadia). But it's not all trickery and stage magic. The play is compelling, funny, streaked through with sadness and death. It's matched by a great production and cast, but the play is the backbone. Sure, it's a Canadian import, but it speaks well to the life of the American play.

So...what did I see this week? I saw four plays. You really can't say anything more than that.

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