Sunday, August 23, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 3

A review of The Event, but first a story ...

Two summers ago I interned at New York Musical Theatre Festival. My job description was nebulous, and sometimes I got the chance to work for our executive director and founder, Kris Stewart. But because interns are at the low end of the totem pole, here and there, he’d ask me to execute small, seemingly innocuous tasks—run down to Subway to pick up his lunch and a diet coke, or walk his blind, seriously-separation-anxiety-prone pooch. If I looked in the least bit not-thrilled by any of this, he’d wink at me and say, “You’re a legend, Laura Hedli, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.” Might I add that he has an Australian accent.

And thus began my fascination with festival directors and how they work their magic to get people to do things they might otherwise never willingly submit to. But more than that, they have a knack for making people believe in the power of live theater.

I am reminded of my experiences at New York Musical Theatre Festival when I sit down at The Event, notebook in hand, on Wednesday night. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I find all the gloom and doom curious given its playwright.

Founding artistic director of the Fringe, John Clancy, wrote the 63 minute script, and with his words he works a different sort of magic. In the witching hour where the house is dark save for a plainly lit stage and a single man in a standard suit, he casts a spell of disenchantment. A play is nothing more than a string of rehearsed lines, the faint glow of the footlights can be achieved with the press of a button, and the entire experience is expendable to us and to its creators when the curtain falls.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any less engaging. In being so intricately connected to his craft—having played both administrative and creative roles—Clancy recognizes the strengths and limitations of this art form and draws analogies to real life. The Event tells us that we’re living a “high stakes game of charades” where we’re “good actors in a very bad play.” If our ancestors are retired actors watching our performance, they’re neither amused nor applauding.

The Event’s backstage account is by no means glowing with glitter and showgirls. Instead, a single actor, Matt Oberg—who is responsible for plowing through the challenging just-over-an-hour monologue—says that we’re sitting here due to “chance and advertising.” He invites anyone who wants to leave to do so. And for anyone who feels compelled to use this time to sleep, he sings a rendition of “Rock-a-bye-Baby.”

The words that follow achieve a sort of lulling effect, and I only start to squirm in my seat when Oberg pretends to forget his lines. It’s part of the play, of course, but still produces the effect of watching a nerdy boy wring his clammy hands, feet pacing back and forth as he tries to get through public speaking class unnoticed and unscathed. The only other moment when I emerge from my hunched position are to watch the man in front of me who is actually sleeping, head back, mouth gaping open ready to catch those flies. He’s sitting in the second row. Bold move. He doesn’t snore, but does that head bobbing thing on the words “exhausting” and “connection.” Innnnteresting.

Though, near minute 35, The Event does seem to lose some of its spark. Clancy ditches the sarcasm and theater-insider speak, and instead resorts to telling us what we know. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still impeccably well written. But as the sweat drips from Oberg’s face as he discusses the nature of a cliché or how we have a need for speed, he seems to be wasting his breath on stating the obvious.

The Event works best when it’s self-referential. Clancy lives theater, and when he writes about what he knows the results range from incisive humor to heartbreaking realities. He gives us a backstage look, but seems to suggest that there really isn’t very much there to see. It’s like one giant wink to the audience that says theater is transient, and don’t you ever forget it.

The Event plays tonight at 11 PM at the Players Theatre. The final performance will be on Fri 28 @ 6 PM. The Players Theatre is located at 115 MacDougal St.

The Event is written and directed by John Clancy and stars Matt Oberg. Tickets are $15. Please visit for more information.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 2

As a neuroscientist, a journalist, as someone who refuses to keep a daily planner but still remembers what you wore the last time we got together, losing my memory would seem a fate worse than death.

But writer of The Crow Mill, Andrew Unterberg was struck by how his grandmother grappled with dementia. Watching Alzheimer’s disease strip her of recent memories (like what she had for breakfast) and then transport her to a time long gone (a cruise she’d taken in the 1950s), “I began to think about, well, what could be worse,” he says. And so, from this thought exercise an idea was born.

For Unterberg, this is his second time around at FringeNYC. In 2006 he co-wrote the festival’s Overall Excellence Award Winner The Infliction of Cruelty with Sean McManus, but “I couldn’t imagine having written this one with someone else,” he says.

Here, Unterberg examines opposites: forgetting and remembering, nature versus nurture. Like his grandmother, the character of Mia is someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s, while her son Nathan, a brilliant geneticist, is desperately trying to remember what happened during his childhood. Abuse and subsequent repression has left the first twelve years of his life a question mark.

“There is an element of racing against time,” says Unterberg. Add to the mix, Anna—Nathan’s wife and psychologist who tries to play therapist to her guarded husband—and the conflict seems almost inherent.

“It was definitely challenging to take these characters who are coming from such different places; but at the same time, it was really exciting because there’s so much great tension that comes about by these personality clashes,” says Unterberg. “It also provides an avenue in which you have these different perspectives all converging together and all trying to find a common ground. And that’s so much of life.”

Growing up in a family who specializes in treating phobias and vanity, depression and anxiety, in The Crow Mill Unterberg doesn’t shy away from probing sensitive issues. During one scene, Nathan and Anna fight over the limits of genetically engineering children. Sure, we all want them to be disease free, but if you could, would you elect for yours to have brown hair, blue eyes and a penchant for soccer? Just how much is too much?

“The goal is that we keep this play going so that these questions will continue to be asked,” says Unterberg. “For me, that’s what’s most important with the work.”

With his days occupied clocking in long hours as a lawyer for a Manhattan financial firm, Unterberg spent his nights and weekends reading genetics papers, consulting with his father (a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst), and getting his hands on as many plays as he could. The result eighteen months later is a script peppered with a discussion of the Watson-Crick model, but also one that includes poetry by cummings and Longfellow.

“I surprised myself at times in terms of where I was letting the work take me, which is something I had not expected when I first started writing the pages,” he says.

Without another voice to keep his tangents in check, though, Unterberg acknowledges that he had to do a lot of trimming and rewriting. But all and all, he says that the experience has been easier than his last. His wife found him his director, Eli Gonda, and Unterberg brought on casting director Cindi Rush to streamline auditions. He’s happy with his show times and his location, the new Cherry Pit theater.

“It’s air conditioned,” he remarks, “which is huge in the summer.”

Certainly, it also doesn’t hurt that all 90 seats will be filled this evening, as the opening night performance of The Crow Mill is sold out.


The Crow Mill opens tonight at the Cherry Pit at 9:30 PM. Subsequent performance times are as follows: Fri 21 @ 4:15 PM, Tue 25 @ 2:30 PM, Wed 26 @ 12:45 PM; Sat 29 @ 7:45 PM. The Cherry Pit is located at 155 Bank St (btw West and Washington Streets).

The Crow Mill is directed by Eli Gonda and stars Geraldine Librandi (Mia), Quentin Mare (Nathan), and Margot White (Anna). Tickets are $15. Please visit for more information.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 1

The last time I attended a media junket, they sat me next to the New York Times. (Gulp.) So, this time, I show up in business casual with my laptop and ipod recorder ready to go.

The blogger sitting next to me is wearing a worn T-shirt and shorts. He doesn’t even have a pen handy.

Welcome to the press conference for the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). It’s my first Fringe, and it becomes quite clear to me that things are much more “chill” down here. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less legit.

Featuring 201 shows from Aug. 14 to 30, FringeNYC is the largest theater festival in North America. And despite a sparse attendance at the press conference, Producing Artistic Director, Elena K. Holy assures that advance sales are up 48 percent.

Holy serves as the cruise director for this preview of the “New York’s Best Staycation”—as the Fringe is marketing itself these days. With each ticket at the chump-change price of $15, the Fringe is trying to attract New Yorkers who may not have the dough to escape to the Hamptons, or even Hershey, in this recession summer.

The sampling of performances shown to us insiders at the Minetta Lane Theatre ranges from campy (Devil Boys From Beyond) to tongue-in-cheek (The Event – my personal favorite). We witness Japanese sword fighting set to drums and flutes (Scattered Lives), and see variations on Looney Tune characters brought to life by puppeteers (Powerhouse).

With so much to see and so little time (16 days), FringeNYC offers package deals, the most intriguing of which is the Lunatic Pass. For $500, you get the golden ticket to everything Fringe. (Of course, there’s still that $500 out of your pocket, so perhaps Wonka references make for a faulty analogy here.) I ask Holy just how many of these Lunatic Passes they sell each season, and she says around 12 or 15.

“A number of people may see one or two shows a year, and then they may see 20 in 16 days” says Holy. The price is right, she explains, and the Fringe selects work that draws in the younger crowds.

In fact, I was amazed at a statistic on their website that says that 60 percent of audience members in 2007 were 18-35 years of age. Given that no one seems under 70 in most Sunday matinees at Broadway and prominent off-Broadway houses, this number is astounding. Holy takes it even one step further:

“We can’t afford to do super fancy research, but anecdotal evidence shows that not only have a lot of them [18-35-year-old Fringe-goers] never been to an off-off-Broadway show, but a lot of them have never seen live theater.”

This is hard to believe at the press conference, where I am surrounded by folks that may or may not have ties to one show or another; perhaps they’re friends of a certain actor or actress. It’s unclear. One woman sitting two rows in front of me is armed with a digital camcorder and pans to me as I watch the performances.

I hope she caught my good side.
Coming up in FringeNYC coverage:

- Comments from the people behind Scattered Lives, Far Out, and Powerhouse.
- An interview with Andrew Unterberg, writer of The Crow Mill.

For now, check this out. From Graveyard Shift. Anyone who’s ever had to give up their lunch break to watch office safety videos ought to appreciate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sanctuary ... Magical Thinking at St. John the Divine

A close friend of mine, who recently relocated (at least for the time being) to Switzerland, just sent me a message. Among other things, she wanted to remind me to get my ticket for the one-night benefit performance of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She tells me it’s her favorite show, having nagged me to get tickets to this particular staging at St. John the Divine for the past six months.

The play, Didion’s first, is based on her memoir by the same title, which was written as an account of her grief and mourning. Didion lost her husband in 2003, and later (after the memoir was completed) her daughter in 2005. Having starred in the Broadway production (2007) and the London incarnation (2008), the famous Vanessa Redgrave will reprise her role in this one-woman play. But after the tragic death of her own daughter Natasha Richardson, I imagine that this performance will be different from the others. In fact, Lisa Schubert, Vice President of Cathedral Events, Marketing & Communications goes as far as to say that it will be a “historic evening.”

Because I happen to have moved just blocks away from the largest cathedral in the world, I decided to do some investigating this afternoon. (Did I mention that I’m starting Journalism School exactly one month from today?) So, after speaking to three staffers at the cathedral, the game of telephone eventually ended with Schubert.

I start by asking her why an Episcopalian church would chose to do this show, and she tells me that it was Redgrave in fact that chose the cathedral. Last fall she approached reps with her idea to do a staging of The Year of Magical Thinking. As for Didion, I learn that her husband and daughter are both buried in the columbarium at St. John. Everything seems compounded.

“The cathedral has always been a major place to talk about the big issues of our time,” says Schubert, citing poverty, civil rights, and environmental issues among others. “It’s tried to provide a voice for those critical humanitarian concerns.” As Redgrave is a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF, a portion of the proceeds from the performance will go to providing aid to the children in Gaza and Southern Israel.

With all these major players involved—UNICEF, Redgrave, and Didion—you’d think you could easily google (or bing) your way to this information. And you can, though, coverage is sparse and Schubert says there’s been no formal press release. For the time being, they’re relying heavily on word of mouth.

Conceding that they’re a little old-fashioned at the cathedral, Schubert says she does hope to continue seeing St. John in the blogs. Lucky for her, I plan to be there on Oct. 4 to report at the Feast of St. Francis, otherwise known as the blessing of the animals. After all, when else can you see turtles, llamas, and puppies together again on the Upper West Side?

For now, though, I’ve got my copy of Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” sitting just two inches away, my ticket reserved on will call.

Thanks for nagging me, Andrea. ;)
(The Year of Magical Thinking will be directed by David Hare. The performance is a one-night only benefit scheduled to take place on Monday, Oct. 26. You can purchase tickets online via the link on the church’s website.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Popular, you're gonna be popular ..."

So, I’ve returned from my little hiatus. For the past few weeks, I was attending rehearsals leading up to my performance in Annie Get Your Gun as staged by our director/producer, Mary Meo. Less than two years ago, Meo started Clinton Area Stage Troupe (CAST)—a non-profit that serves the theatrical needs of Clintonians as well as community members from surrounding towns in Hunterdon County, NJ. It was a noble task, indeed, but one that I’m sure nobody would argue was particularly easy. After staging two plays—The Miracle Worker (spring 2008) and The Importance of Being Earnest (spring 2009)—Meo decided to try her hand at tackling a large-scale musical production. The result was Annie Get Your Gun, which opened after just five weeks of rehearsal time. Today, I am proud to report that with only two shows we sold 813 tickets. At that number, we outperformed Meo’s lofty goal of 800. Bottom line: community theater is alive and well in Clinton, NJ!

I joined CAST because my best friend pleaded with me to do a show with her, but also, because I thought having the experience of being an actress—however small the role (I was an ensemble member)—would inform my writing about the theater. And so it did …

With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, and such recognizable tuners including “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do,” Annie Get Your Gun got me thinking about the popularity of music from musicals. Just where are the Gershwins of today, and what are they writing? Why are we no longer hearing showtunes on the radio?

In December 2006, Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik touched upon this notion of popular music and the theater during our interview. “Initially it was the same world,” he said. “Musicals provided the popular music of the day.” And while times have changed, “every once in a while you have a musical like Hair or Rent or Tommy and now, I suppose, Spring Awakening that bridges the gap.”

Yet, Spring Awakening has since departed from Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. And while members of the cast have gone on to achieve greater commercial acclaim, its music can’t be heard on Z100 or XM’s “The Pulse”. Sheik may have won the Tony for best score, but I wouldn’t compare ‘The Bitch of Living’ to his Billboard mega-hit “Barely Breathing.” (To be fair, here, Sheik told me that he tried quite hard to stay out of the pop limelight. His success with “Breathing” came as a not-so-wholly-pleasant surprise to a man who takes pride in his more alternative musical tastes.)

Spring Awakening may have been quote-unquote edgy—a critics pick that attracted a considerable following among young theater patrons—but statistics show that we may not necessarily be able attribute its lack of mainstream success to its dark subject matter. I should note, here, that Steven Sater wrote the angsty lyrics and libretto for the musical.

A recent article by Benedict Carey in the Health section of the New York Times explored whether our nation’s mood is reflected in song. He writes that with the advent of music genres including metal, punk and hip-hop, there was an increasing tendency for lyrics to feature more gloom and doom after the 1960s. (The article reports that 2003 was the nadir for “depressing” lyrics. Hmm?)

But, a ha!, we’re getting warmer ... We may be feeling bluer these days, but I think lyrics—no matter happy or sad and swearing aside—have a quite a lot to do with the marketability of a song. Perhaps taboo subject matter is, in fact, a contributing factor for why punk and metal bands (even Spring Awakening for that matter) have a more difficult time attaining mass appeal. As for Broadway, though, I think its problem typically lies in the specificity of its lyrics. (Dark subject matter is ancillary.) True, showtunes may have a catchy beat that you can dance to, but just how many of these only make sense within the context of the script?

Let’s look at some of last season’s Broadway musical offerings, shall we …

Next to Normal is one of the most talked about new musicals of the season, but it concerns a bipolar matriarch and characters sing about electroshock therapy. Writer of the Shrek lyrics, David Lindsay-Abaire decided to ditch Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer” for expository lyrics that helped to build both character and plot surrounding our beloved green ogre. And the little engine that could, Title of Show, featured tuners that contained so much industry jargon that if you weren’t in the know you were probably left on the outs. Alas, Rock of Ages—a musical of the jukebox variety staring American Idol’s Constantine Margolis and featuring popular 80s tunes—seems like the sure-fire winner in this group. How can you go wrong with Journey and a song about “a smalltown girl living in her lonely world?”

But I would be remiss if I failed to mention that “Electricity,” from this year's Tony winner for best new musical, Billy Elliot, has been played extensively on Sirius XM radio—and not just on the Broadway channel. Elton John wrote the music, and let’s face it, names carry weight in this world. That said, the song is different from some of the others I’ve noted. Lee Hall’s lyrics are simple and universal; he uses simile to tap into our ever-elusive limbic systems. Performed as the 11 o’clock number, “Electricity” occurs after the judges at Billy’s Royal Ballet School audition ask him what it feels like when he’s dancing. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

“It’s a bit like being angry / a bit like being scared / confused and all mixed up and mad as hell. / It’s like when you’ve been crying / when you’re empty and you’re full / I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to tell.”

Perhaps ... but hey! I’ve been there! Haven’t you? We’re no longer in a smelly swamp or revisiting notorious flops on the Great White Way. Instead, we’re somewhere we know. It’s familiar. And isn’t that what popularity is all about?