Monday, July 26, 2010

Happy Accident: Antibes, France

I've been meaning to post this picture since last December, when Warren took me on my first trip to France (which was also my first trip to Europe). It was freezing and rainy most of the time but we didn't let that stop us-- we headed out most days and tromped around in the icy wet for five, ten, and once even thirteen hours at a pop. My handmade wool projects got a good workout and I was forced, once and for all, to get over my umbrella phobia.

We stayed a week in Cagnes Sur Mer, next to Cannes, right on the Mediterranean, courtesy of some beyond-generous friends who loaned us a fabulous apartment. Cagnes is also really close to Antibes, this really old, really incredible port city. Since it was December there were a lot of Christmas lights up. (I of course, pretended they were lights strung up just for me, and had nothing to do with that holiday I so loathe).

Quite by accident, I shot this photo (with my iPhone). I think I was just trying to capture the lights but instead I got my umbrella in the shot. Oo-la-la, look Ma! I'm an artiste! I'm an artiste! (The umbrella is actually covered in purple flowers. Please don't ask me what technique I used to make it look all orange like that.) This picture makes me crave chocolat chaud and macaroons. Waaa, I wanna go back.

Okay, so we don't have plans to go back yet. But pretty soon here, shalom y'all and all that, this shiksa is heading to Tel Aviv to demonstrate to Israelis that Jersey girls can, in fact, hold their own. I think it's about 900 degrees in the Middle East right now which, yes, is keeping with our ongoing travel theme of visiting countries during their most extreme unpleasant weather.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Circle Mirror Transformation @ Hyde Park Theatre: Yes, Yes, Yes!

Today, class, let us discuss Circle Mirror Transformation, which is currently playing at the Hyde Park Theatre. But first, I want you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine you are in a rather rundown multi-purpose room in the bowels of a small town community center. Okay ready. Innnnnnn and ooooooooout.

Good. Now you are in the right space, the same space in which this wonderful show unfolds.

As ever with these sporadic reviews of mine, I am hard pressed to give a good description without giving away too much. For those of you in a big hurry, here’s your answer: Yes, GO SEE IT. Wonderful show.

And now, the details:

Circle Mirror Transformation was written by Annie Baker, a young, fabulous, award-winning playwright who, if we’re lucky, will continue writing for the stage for a long, long time to come. Baker also wrote Body Awareness, the last show I saw at Hyde Park Theatre. Both were directed by Ken Webster. He also acts in the play, as does Katherine Catmull, who starred in Body Awareness and happens to be married to Webster. Getting to see just one of them perform in a play is beyond a treat. Getting to see them together pushes any production over the top. And honestly, you don’t even need to know about their personal relationship to get a huge kick out of their onstage chemistry, but that’s a nice little lagniappe.

Catmull plays Marty, who leads classes at the community center, in this case a beginning acting class. If you’ve ever taken an informal acting class, you likely know that these non-credit, 101 surveys draw in all sorts, from those who believe they were born to star on Broadway to those just seeking escape from some big troubles in their real lives to those looking to make new friends to those dragged into the endeavor unwillingly.

We’ve got one of each of the aforementioned. Schultz, played by Kenneth Wayne Bradley, is technically divorced, but not yet ready to give up his wedding band, which tells us much of what we need to know about his character. Theresa, played by Rebecca Robinson, hasn’t been in town too long, and gets to play the delicious role of accidental (or not) instigator. Lauren, played by Xochitl Romero, is the dorky withdrawn teenager hoping to pick up pointers so she can win the star role in her upcoming high school musical. And then there’s Catmull’s Marty, who really is trying her best to enlighten and enrich her charges, including James (Webster) who is her husband and, we get the idea, not totally thrilled to be in on the acting action but likely got strong armed into attending.

Let me pause for a moment to offer a brief comparison to Body Awareness for those of you who saw it and are wondering if the two bear a resemblance. Yes and no. You’ll get references to a toothbrush, a woman named Phyllis, and child molestation. And you’ll get further evidence that likely Baker spent her youth immersed in the political correctness she lovingly and searingly parodies in both shows. Beyond that, there are plenty of differences. I was trying to come up with an analogy. You know how the Beatles did both Revolution and Dear Prudence? And the former is all in your face and the latter is all floaty but no less profound? Okay, same deal here. Circle Mirror Transformation seems to unfold more slowly (though at 100 minutes with no intermission it’s barely longer than BA). There’s not a lot of big, loud, action as with BA. We spend the entire time in the community room, during the classes.

What keeps the pace moving here is that the show is presented as a series of demi-vignettes that take place over six weeks. Marty has her work cut out for her with such a diverse group of students, and things aren’t made any easier when interpersonal relationships start bubbling up like 8th grade chemistry class experiments gone awry. One exercise repeated throughout involves trying to get everyone to cooperate in a sort of intuition that, Marty says, is all about staying in the moment.

Really, though, no one seems able to ever stay in the moment, at least not the present one. The Mirror in the title could reference how Baker deftly reflects back through her characters the cyclical way all of us seem doomed/compelled to forever reach backward and forward, hoping to rearrange our pasts and fashion our destinies, never really able to just be fully present—a point further emphasized by the constant appearance of cell phones. Speaking of mirrors, the set is really wonderful, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the one mirror in the room is mostly obscured—anyone bothering to look into it is bound only to see a partial view of self, and certainly not the one others see in them.

I worry this all sounds glum, like a petri dish of fucked-upedness. Let me assure you, there’s way more comedy in this play than tragedy. The piece as a whole is rendered like a poem acted out, each snipped delivered like a tightly wrought stanza that could almost stand on its own. It’s very, very funny and very, very thoughtful.

I also love the great meta moments here, and there are many. In fact, the whole show is one big meta moment if you consider we are watching outstanding actors portraying not-very-good actors and doing so perfectly. That is, until they stop being not very good. There is a transformation here, and without knowing it, and likely little thanks to the direct lessons Marty tries to deliver, each player manages to transcend, as the actors who play them move from being believable as not believable to being believable as believable.

I especially love the ending here, which hinges on the transformation and is triggered by an exercise Marty hastily delivers, one which backfires terribly. I honestly didn’t see where the characters were going to wind up, which is always a delight, that edge-of-seat-til-the-last-scene feeling. And when-- in a closing scene during which Romero and Bradley shine very, very brilliantly-- Baker’s conclusion is revealed, I just sat back and did a little jaw drop. You will, too.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Announcing: Writing Workshops 2010

Hey Y'all,
Okay, I got it all figured out. I'm going to host a pair of writing workshops. These will be known as:

Six Weeks of Tuesdays: What Fresh Hell Is This?


Six Weeks of Thursdays: I Just Have to Know

Here's the skinny on how each will work. If you want to register, please email me at asap. I need 10 students per session for that session to make. I will cap it at 20 per session. Location is TBA -- once I have the numbers I will pick a suitable, comfortable venue that will be centrally located. Now, the specifics.

Six Weeks of Tuesdays: What Fresh Hell Is This?
Dates: Sept 28, Oct 5, Oct 12, Oct 19, Oct 26, Nov 2.
Time: 7 - 9 pm
Cost: $200

Who is this for?
This workshop is targeted at those of you who are currently suffering. If you are going through/have gone through a recent divorce or breakup, lost a loved one, lost a job, can't stand your family, and/or are struggling in other ways and would like to find some catharsis through writing (believe me, it works) this session is for you. Please note this is not therapy but it will be therapeutic. Attendees will receive a complimentary copy of Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief, which I conceived, co-edited, and contributed to.

What will we do?
We will swiftly get to the heart of what is eating you. I'll lead you with assignments which you will work on in class and at home. Yes, there will be some sharing out loud. No, this will not be mandatory.

Six Weeks of Thursdays: I Just Have to Know
Dates: Sept 30, Oct 7, Oct 14, Oct 21, Oct 28, Nov 4
Time: 7 - 9 pm
Cost: $200

Who is this for?
This is for those of you who are either currently working on first person/memoir/blogs or who keep meaning to commit yourself to getting your ass in the chair because you just have to know-- can you do it? Can you write in a sustained fashion? And really, do you even want to? You won't know until you try. The focus here is broader than the Tuesday sessions. It is for non-fiction writers. If you are a fiction writer working on autobiographical stuff and think you might benefit, shoot me an email and we can discuss.

What will we do?
We are going to work on cutting through the shit and really writing what matters, finding your realest of real voices, and learning how not to give in to all those thoughts that keep stalling you out. I'll lead you with assignments which you will work on in class and at home. Yes, there will be some sharing out loud. No, this will not be mandatory.

But Wait, There's More...
If enough participants are interested, I would be totally up for hosting a public reading at some fabulous venue. You might recall I hosted the Dick Monologues for two wonderful years-- this show was a collection of from-the-heart writing written and read by passionate people from all walks. I'd love to get a new set of monologues going. And no, participating in a public reading will not be required. I'm just saying, if enough folks want to, yes, I'll make it happen.

Finally-- Please Be Advised
Though certainly the topic of publishing will arise in the workshops-- it always does-- the primary purpose of these sessions is to write-- for self-exploration, healing, self-challenge, and the pure exhilarating fun of it. I cannot hook you up with an agent, or editors, or any of that. I can help you dig deep.

For questions or to sign up, please email And I sure would appreciate you helping me to spread the word.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Drowsy Chaperone @ ZACH-- Holy Crap! What A Show!

You want to know a couple of surefire signs that a show is fan-fucking-tabulous? Here's one: as you sit in the theatre, you are so excited, so utterly thrilled, so giddy beyond giddy that it grows a little hard to concentrate because your brain keeps wanting to interrupt your focus on the show to make a mental list of all of the people you know who MUST see it. I was watching TDC and my list got longer and longer and longer: Ross, Henry, Big Red, Southpaw, Maggie, Jill, Kenan, Paula, Jay, Chris, A Slew of Other Friends, The Six of You, Random Strangers on the Street, and on and on. If and when I am king, I am going to order up a command performance of this show to be put on every morning at breakfast for me and all of my friends and subjects, and the version I command shall star the very cast I saw last night.

The second sign that a show is stupefyingly delish? When you and your date wake up the next morning and before you've even come all the way to the surface you're recounting scene after scene, debating which was most hilarious, and expressing awe and wonder at every single detail of the production. That was Warren and me this morning. Usually I am a Bitch Royale before my coffee and Warren knows better than to chat me up. But I woke up chirping away. We were laughing and laughing and laughing some more. Holy Crap! What a Show!

Though I often mention how very opposed I am to spoilers, honestly, it won't hurt this time around for me to tell you a bit about the setup. The whole story-- from how this musical came to be to the tale it tells-- is just wonderful. It's a story within a story within a story. Once upon a time a comedian/writer named Bob Martin was engaged to a woman named Janet. This is a true fact. For her bachelorette party, Bob put together a little musical which they performed with no sets or costumes. This happened in an apartment. But it turned out that this one-off wedding gift was clearly more than that. So they turned it into a play about a musical and that play went on to win some Tony awards, which I think it should win every year for the next five hundred years at least.

More details-- The framework for the show is that there's this guy who's apparently a bit on the agoraphobic side and feeling a bit blue. The one thing that really cheers him up is to listen to an LP of his favorite musical which is called, yes, The Drowsy Chaperone. As he sits in his apartment alone and listening, the musical comes to life, the characters appear, and this guy, known as The Man in the Chair, spends his time alternately offering commentary and gossipy asides to the audience (I mean, US, the folks watching it) and jumping in to be part of the show.

Have I confused you? Don't worry. Just see the show and you'll see what I mean. What makes this show so splendid from a writing perspective is just how smart it is. OH IT IS SO SMART. And it is SO funny, sending up racial stereotypes and cheesy lyrics. And it is an absolute perfect parody of so many old musicals where ridiculous things happen, often without explanation, and then some deus ex machina descends to facilitate a happy ending which, yes, of course, involves marriage. (In this show a black lesbian airplane pilot who makes just two cameos, one crucial to the utterly silly plot, gets to be our Deus.)

I forgot to tell you-- the main characters in the musical that occurs inside the play are called Robert and Janet, same as the real life couple that inspired it. See-- there's so much meta stuff going on that my head was bursting with delight.

While great writing can take you pretty far, let's face it, when we're talking stage productions you need a helluva lot more to bump things up from pretty darn good to inimitably stupendous. ZACH's rendition of The Drowsy Chaperone soars on every single count beginning with Nick Demos's direction (note, Nick just won a Tony for best director of Memphis). Susan Branch Towne's costumes are in on the all the jokes here-- in particular one on-stage costume transformation during the song Show Off was remarkable. The costumes during the songs Bride's Lament and Message from a Nightingale caused me to laugh so loud I worried I might be escorted out of the theatre. And the entire wardrobe of The Drowsy Chaperone (I mean the character, not to be confused with the musical-within-the-play or the play itself) simply must win every prize this town has to offer for costumes.

Am I forgetting to tell you about the acting? No, no, patience please, we'll get there. Let's take a minute to also give a shout out to set design, lighting, and the live music. The set, like the show itself, is sharp and clever and wonderfully executed. And the lights required some pretty impeccable timing that did not escape my notice. As for the ensemble providing so much music with so few musicians? I'm not sure how they did that but since I'm busy handing out awards, they need to get some, too.

And now... and now... Martin Burke, are you with me? Have you read this far? Martin? Will you marry me? Will your boyfriend mind? People? Martin Burke as The Man in the Chair is so adorable, so charmingly misanthropic (or is that misanthropically charming?). His interactions with just the telephone made me want to rush down onstage, mid-show, and hug him. MARTIN I HEART YOU!

And I also heart Martin's character's complete obsession with this one musical he cannot let go of. Through all of my laughter, there were moments I got very weepy during the show. Let me explain why. When I was growing up in a very small town, my only hope for culture was stuff that accidentally crept in, like the time I found a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that had apparently been smuggled in to our tiny town library probably by some subversive 70s dyke (maybe this is why, ever since, I have dressed like a 70s lesbian-- out of gratitude!) Along these lines, I owe my deep-- nay bottomless- love for and knowledge of Broadway musicals to "the mom next door."

As a kid, I spent a lot of time next door-- home of my childhood best friend. Her mom cleaned the toilets every Saturday while absolutely blasting LP musical soundtracks: Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Gypsy Rose, and on and on. Back at my house where our exposure to the outside world came courtesy of Reader's Digest Condensed books, such musical tastes were considered putting on airs. But to me they were magical moments-- my friend's mom, wielding a toilet brush and belting out, "Have an eggroll, Mr. Goldstone..." with Ethel Merman and "Hello Dolly!" with Carol Channing. Those are cherished memories.

So even though I understood that The Man in the Chair was himself a parody, Martin Burke brought so much sympathy to the character that I fully felt in my heart that obsession of his as if it were my own. Seriously, people, I wept.

I think I'm on page twenty of this review and I haven't even told you about the other actors. Well crap. There's just so many good things to say and so many people to give shout outs to. The show is wonderfully cast and I will never understand how people can sing, dance, and then talk without panting heavily. This is amazing talent, people: Jill Blackwood as Janet, the star who wants to give it all up (or does she?!); Meredith McCall as the could-not-be-cast-more-perfectly Drowsy Chaperone is like a mash up of Merman and Bewitched's Endura; Jamie Goodwin as the dashing doofus Aldolpho; and-- you know what? I'm just going to put a damn link here so you can see the entire cast because they are all splendid and me typing a laundry list is not doing them justice. I want to make sure, though, that you know that only for a few more shows the role of George will be played by Robin Lewis who also choreographed the show. He performs this one solo that calls to mind Donald O'Connor, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly all rolled into own. (Shit, now that I mentioned that, I feel like I would be remiss not to mention Matthew Redden's (who plays Robert) roller skating skills.)

Okay, okay, I'll stop. But pay attention while I tell you one finishing fact. The show I saw was SOLD OUT. I expect every single show will SELL OUT. I do not know if they can/will hold it over. As soon as I post this I am going to see if I can buy a whole BLOCK of tickets, so that's another batch of seats you won't be able to get your hands on. Don't be a fool-- make your reservations NOW.

Holy Crap! What a Show!