Wednesday, March 31, 2004


My Stupid Dog is one year old today.

Update (4/5): I've been "celebrating" my blog's anniversary, as it were, with a massive case of writer's block. I should break it later this week and start semi-regular postings again.

Monday, March 29, 2004

He should have called it "Jungle Fever"

The aptly named Mike Barnicle, a confirmed plagiarist who writes a biweekly column for the Boston Herald, has apologized at length for stating publicly that an interracial couple was "kind of like Mandingo."

Though Barnicle's mea culpa may not have been immediate, at least it was not long in coming. Spike Lee, on the other hand, has had thirteen years to apologize for coining the phrase "Jungle Fever," used as a slur against interracial couples everywhere. To my knowledge, no one has seriously asked Lee to recant, and he hasn't volunteered any regrets over his film of the same name. We're still waiting ....

Hat tip:

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Theater Reviews

I've had a very busy week, at least where film and theater are concerned. For your enjoyment, gentle reader, here are a few more unpublished and unpublishable reviews. This time I've tried to keep them somewhat brief:

Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul at Theatre J

Last Wednesday I saw Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, a coproduction of DC's Theatre J and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Anyone familiar with Kushner's work can tell you that subtlety, concision and control have never been his strong suits, and this play is no exception. It is overlong, with its more than its share of flaws, flimsy characters and scenes that fall flat. But it works well as a Shavian tragedy of ideas, even though the play is delivered in a most un-Shavian whine.

This is the only Kushner play I've seen or read which I can honestly recommend, even if I do so with some fairly strong reservations. But the rest of the audience didn't seem to enjoy the show at all: Their remarks after the show ranged from disparaging to damning. I'll write more on the Kushner play later this week.

Homebody/Kabul plays at the DC Jewish Community Center until April 11. For more info, click here.

William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle at Signature

William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle just opened at Signature Theater in Arlington. This most recent work from the composer/librettist of Falsettos premiered last spring in New York, but Signature is the first company to produce it outside the Big Apple. Elegies deserves more national exposure, if only because it contains Finn's richest, most demanding, and most memorable music to date.

The show itself is a ninety-minute revue on death and loss, with a tiny cast of five, a lone pianist, and a nearly bare stage. Songs deal with dead dogs, deceased friends and relatives, and for a grand finale, the terrorist attacks of September 11. Luckily, none of this is as grim as it sounds. In the face of death, Finn manages to remain emotional and life-affirming, without descending into religious cant or cheap sentimentality. (Granted, the show is frequently sentimental, but at thirty-five dollars a ticket it is hardly cheap.)

The finale, Finn's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is the show's weakest segment: His attempt to capture an outpouring of collective grief seems impersonal and inadequate. Art, alas, has its limits. But I was impressed with the way Finn uses individual tragedies unrelated to terrorism (including numerous AIDS deaths) to build to the climactic moment of horror. If nothing else, it gives the show a powerful dramatic arc, no small achievement within the revue format.

Joe Calarco's inventive direction, Chris Lee's elaborate lighting, and excellent performances from the entire case make Signature's production surprisingly effective. Still, one wonders if Finn ever intended his "song cycle" to be performed on stage. For what it's worth, I recommend Signature's production of Elegies highly. But if you go, bring extra hankies.

Elegies runs through May 9 at Signature Theater. For more info, click here.

LiveArts: Nine and Jesus Hopped the A Train

The Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical Nine recently enjoyed a scaled-down Broadway revival, and that version is nearing the end of its run at Charlottesville's new LiveArts theater.

Although Nine is ostensibly based on Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, it actually resembles Stephen Sondheim's Follies (itself an homage to Fellini), with several character numbers in Act I and an extended, climactic musical number in Act II. Unfortunately, Nine is too literal-minded to be Fellini-esque, too syrupy to be Sondheim-esque, and too fragmented and self-indulgent to be much of anything on its own.

If this show is to work, its male lead -- the only man in the cast -- must give a breathtaking, charismatic performance. Alas, Jeff Dreyfus, star of the LiveArts production, is very good but not especially charming. As the center of attention and activity, he seems neither driven or interesting; we never figure out what the other characters see in him. The supporting cast of women is a mixed bag: As Guido's mistress Carla, Catherine Ogden steals the show; as Guido's producer, Jeannie Jones nearly sinks it. But my favorite performance of the evening belonged to Jane Mayer, who plays long-suffering wife Luisa. She seethes, she simmers, she boils over, she finally explodes. Since her husband is cheating on her with multiple women, her rage seems perfectly understandable, and her sincere attempts to save him from his self-destructive tendencies seem positively saintly. Luisa emerges as the only truly sympathetic, three-dimensional character of the evening, and I found myself wishing this musical were more about her.

Director Robert Chapel fails to use LiveArts' oddly designed thrust stage. Instead, he blocks onstage action as if he were working with a typical proscenium theater. This is not good news for audience members seated to the left or the right of the stage, who spend most of the evening staring at performers' shoulders and backsides. Oops. On the plus side, sets and costumes are consistently superb; the lighting is not quite as good but still more than adequate. This is a very opulent production, except for the orchestra -- two tinny synthesizers hidden off to one side remind us with every note that we are indeed watching community theater.

LiveArts' other production, Stephen Adly Gurgis's Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, plays much better in the smaller, upstairs Lab Space. Jesus is an allegedly hard-hitting prison drama that moves forward in fits and starts: It's not well-plotted or -paced, but as a mood piece it works fine. The production features some distracting casting, though: A Black man plays a Nuyorican with an on-again, off-again Chicano accent; a dreadlocked, sturdily built sixty-year-old man plays a "skinny black faggot" (in the play's lingo); an Anglo plays a Hispanoamerican prison guard; a WASP plays an Italian. Only one character, a slightly pinched Irish lawyer, is played by an actress who really looks the part.

None of this would be a problem were it not for Gurgis's dialogue, which makes numerous references to characters' very specific physical attributes. Unfortunately, most community theater groups and repertory companies don't often have actors who match these descriptions, so the play has to be tweaked and retooled for each group of actors. Otherwise audience members will be left scratching their heads in confusion, as I fear I was. That's a shame, because LiveArts' production of Jesus Hopped the A Train is just about perfect in all other respects. Snappy direction, taut emotional scenes, and innovative set and lighting design complement excellent acting to make this one of the best productions I've seen in or out of Charlottesville this season.

Nine runs at LiveArts until April 3; Jesus Hopped the A Train runs until April 10. Both are worth seeing, but if you can attend only one, come to Jesus. For more info, click here.

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