by Michael Kuelker
From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.
Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.
I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.
Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.
Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.
|Amy Willard Top|
I’m not a big fan of the “This is My Life” school of cabaret that ties everything back to the performer’s biography. That’s not an artistic judgment, just a personal preference; some very good cabaret acts have come out of that approach.
Amy Willard Top’s cabaret debut “Back to Then” (performed at The Kranzberg Center on April 19 and 20, 2013) was definitely autobiographical, charting her course from musical theatre professional in New York and on the cruise line circuit to St. Louis mom. The fact that, my personal preferences not withstanding, I found it mostly quite entertaining and engaging is an indication of what a good job Ms. Willard Top, music director Greg Schweizer, and director Tim Schall did here.
The song selection was nicely varied, including both old and new numbers from the Great American Songbook and the musical stage as well as some pop standards. Mr. Schweizer’s arrangements fit like a glove and some of them (his jazzy “But Not for Me” comes immediately to mind) shed interesting new light on familiar material. Pacing and the overall emotional arc of the evening were quite satisfying.
The show did, in short, what a cabaret show should do: provide a showcase for the performer’s talents and present that performer in the most flattering possible light. Ms. Willard Top came across as a charming performer with a good sense of theatre and a clear, focused voice.
On the technical side, the lighting made good use of the Kranzberg’s limited space and the sound mix was very clean.
Were there some things I would have done differently? Probably, but most of them are more personal preferences than artistic decisions. The bottom line is that Back to Before was a very solid cabaret debut by a skilled musical theatre performer. Whether she goes on to do more cabaret or not, she can take some justifiable pride in this one.
Upstream Theater presented a flawed but nevertheless interesting new production through January 27th of Café Chanson, a new musical written and directed by Ken Page. The score consists of one new song by Mr. Page and his music director Henry Palkes. The rest of it is made up of (mostly) French popular songs from the 1920s through the early 1970s.
This is the second (and last) installment of a complete song list along with some background and random thoughts on some of the numbers. In cases where I had nothing intelligent to add about a particular song, I just listed it and left it alone.
The names in parentheses are the songwriters. In the few cases where the titles in the program were incorrect or misspelled, I’ve corrected them here. If there’s anything in here that I’ve gotten wrong, please let me know.
|Mistinguett, circa 1927|
“Mam’selle Josephine et Mistinguette” (Ken Page / Henry Palkes) In the show this is sung by The Man, the gay cross-dressing waiter at the Café, decked out in a flashy sequined Folies Bergère-style outfit. The Josephine of the title is, of course, Napoleon’s empress. Mistinguett (the final version of her stage name) was a celebrated French singer and actress of the early 20th century. Born Jeanne Bourgeois in 1875, she began her showbiz career at the age of 10, was appearing at the Casino de Paris by the age of 20, and went on to international celebrity. Her signature song, “Mon Homme” (1916) was not only a big hit for her but, in English translation (“My Man”) for Fanny Brice as well. She died in 1956.
“What Makes a Man (Comme ils dissent)” (Charles Aznavour) The great French singer/songwriter stirred up some controversy in 1972 with this sympathetic and tragic portrayal of a gay female impersonator.
“I’m Not Afraid” (Rod McKuen / Jacques Brel) The original title of the song was “Fils de” (“Sons of”). McKuen’s lyrics are completely different. Both English versions have had their share of recordings over the years; I remember the Judy Collins version of “Sons of” with considerable affection. In Café Chanson, the McKuen version is sung by The Young Soldier and The Mademoiselle as they try to deal with the disintegration of their relationship.
“If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” (Jacques Brel) The version of this used in the show has lyrics by Rod McKuen. The original is more properly translated as “Don’t Leave Me.” Brel originally released the song on his 1959 LP “La Valse à Mille Temps”. The song has been amazingly popular, with versions in nearly two dozen languages.
“La Fanette” (Jacques Brel) Another story of love and betrayal, a recurring Brel theme. A 1965 performance by Brel is heartbreaking in its intensity.
|Charles Aznavour in 1978|
“Yesterday When I Was Young ” (Charles Aznavour) Original French title: “Heir Encore” (“Only Yesterday”); the English version is by Herbert Kretzmer. This lament for the lost opportunities of youth is especially affecting for those of us who have reached a certain stage in our lives. It’s kind of the yang to the yin of songs like “It Was a Very Good Year”. Roy Clark had great success with it in the USA, as have many other big-name vocalists.
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “The family that stresses together represses together. When the Lafayettes descend upon a crumbling Arkansan plantation to liquidate their dead patriarch’s estate, his three adult children collide over clutter, debt, and a contentious family history. But after a disturbing discovery surfaces among their father’s possessions, the reunion takes a turn for the explosive, unleashing a series of crackling surprises and confrontations. A play about the trouble with inheritance, memory loss, and the art of repression.”
The title of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is nothing if not ironic. At one point or another nearly every member of the Lafayette family acts in ways that are not appropriate (the word we now use in place of “bad” or “wrong”). Resentful that she was left to deal with the family’s increasingly disturbed father and crumbling finances, sister Toni is hostile and judgmental towards nearly everyone—and possibly in denial about dad’s real nature. Frank (now calling himself Franz as part of his attempt to escape his past) has apparently still not gotten over the unhealthy interest in underage women that made that escape necessary. And Bo, while apparently the most rational of the bunch, is still willing to make a fast buck from a shameful family secret.
Dysfunctional family dramas can be deadly in my experience, but Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins avoids the pitfalls of the genre, at least in the first act. Exposition is neatly and economically delivered, the characters are all credible and quickly established, and the dramatic tension builds plausibly from the semi-comic opening scenes to the dramatic explosion that results from the revelation that the clan’s father might have been something much worse than just emotionally disturbed. The first act of “Appropriate” is, in fact, one of the best I’ve seen in many years.
The second act is not quite as strong, partly because it never satisfactorily resolves some of the tensions in the first and partly because it strikes some false character notes, especially in the arguments over how to capitalize on an ugly artifact found in the attic (yes, I’m being vague in an effort to avoid spoilers). The final moments depicting the eventual fate of the house also struck me as a bit anticlimactic and tacked on. Still, the script as a whole is very compelling; it needs only a little tweaking, in my view, to make it the Lexus of dysfunctional family plays.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Reese Madigan, Jordan Baker, and Larry Bull all shine as the siblings Frank/Franz, Toni, and Bo. Amy Lynn Stewart is very strong as Bo’s wife Rachel, especially in the final moments when Bo’s façade of reserve collapses. Natalie Kuhn is archly New Age as Frank’s very young fiancée Trisha.
There’s fine work as well from David Rosenblatt as Toni’s son Rhys (who has some ugly inappropriate behavior in his own past) and young Gabe Weible as Bo’s over-energized son Ainsley. Lilli Stein is remarkably credible as Bo’s prepubescent daughter Cassidy. Although Ms. Stein is a college graduate, she completely convinced me she was (at least) a good ten years younger.
Director Gary Griffin has nicely shaped the scenes, blocked it all intelligently, and served the script very well. He and stage manager Michael D. Domue also designed a redressing of Antje Ellermann’s amazingly detailed set in the second act that was executed so swiftly and artfully that it actually got applause.
That set, it should be noted, is quite a marvel, especially when you consider that it has to be struck and rebuilt repeatedly because it shares the Pamela Brown auditorium with “Gnit”. With the addition of Matt Frey’s lights and Bray Poor’s sound, the illusion of a decaying Southern mansion was perfect.
Taken as a whole, “Appropriate” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year—right up there with “Cry Old Kingdom”. And that’s high praise indeed.
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “Eminent novelist Thomas Wright has invited fellow writer Frank Bay and his daughter Adrianne to stay the weekend at his country house. From the moment the Bays arrive, though, Thomas and his daughter Ellen are out to get them. The shared love of books that should unite these characters instead becomes a battleground where words become weapons.”
Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age, but I think I’ve really seen my quota of acerbic comedy/dramas about dysfunctional middle class (and above) New Yorkers in the arts slicing and dicing each other and agonizing over their failures to make the Big Time. In a nation slowly sliding into third-world status, with millions of citizens facing unemployment, underemployment, and/or crippling debt, these concerns are looking increasingly trivial.
I could also do without plays that use a parlor game as the means to bring out Big Truths about the characters, but that’s probably just me being a curmudgeon.
I understand that struggling artists are of great interest to folks like playwright Marks, who grew up in the theatre and, according to Kathryn Zukaitis’s biographical sketch in the press kit, “is intimately acquainted with the risks and rewards of pursuing a career in the arts.” But in order for their struggles to matter to the rest of us, the characters have to be something more than just bundles of ambition and resentment. The father/daughter teams in “Delling Shore” just don’t pass that test.
Frank starts off with a chip on his shoulder that would make Atlas shrug and only becomes more abrasive as the evening progresses. Adrianne is so tightly wound from the moment she walks on stage that she’s ready to snap (and eventually does). Thomas is unprincipled and arrogant, and his daughter Ellen seems more interested in clubbing than anything else. It’s an indication of how unpleasant and ultimately uninteresting these characters are that Ellen eventually turns out to be the most fully realized of the lot.
That’s not to say that there aren’t laughs and some decent dramatic tension created during the eighty very long minutes of “The Delling Shore”. It’s just that they’re not enough to compensate for having to spend time with a quartet that you wouldn’t invite to your house on a bet. Worse yet, the play starts at such a high pitch of hostility that there’s ultimately nowhere for it to go without tipping into absurdity—which it eventually does, in a thoroughly unbelievable scene between Frank and Ellen towards the end.
The best things about “The Delling Shore”, in my view, are Daniel Zimmerman’s strikingly realistic set and the solid work by the actors. Catherine Combs’s Adrianne is a bundle of nervous tics from the get-go, tipping us off that she’s not as collected as she seems. Meredith Forlenza nicely manages Ellen’s transition from superficial to sympathetic. Bruce McKenzie is the very picture of resentment and Jim Frangione’s smug complacency is just right for Thomas.
Meredith McDonough’s direction mostly serves the playwright well, although I think she might have found ways to dial down the intensity a bit early on.
Some years ago Scott Adams authored a Sunday “Dilbert” strip titled “Seven Habits of Highly Defective People”. I won’t say that these characters have them all, but they have plenty and (to quote The Bard), “’tis enough, ‘twill serve.”
[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]
Synopsis: “Haiti, 1964. Beneath the watchful eyes of François ’Papa Doc‘ Duvalier’s government, revolution is brewing. Words of rebellion against his repressive regime flood the nation’s radio waves, even as the Tonton Macoutes death squads prowl the villages, killing or imprisoning anyone who speaks ill of the dictator. The people of Haiti face a stark choice: to join the fight or to flee.”
Edwin, a painter, is a kind of self-made zombie. Years ago he faked his own death and now works, appropriately, out of an underground studio. Or he tries to work, anyway. Since his bogus death his inspiration has suffered a real death. Worse yet his wife Judith is witnessing the slow death of her own former vivacity and love of dancing at Carnival, killed by the need to work in an open market all day to sustain her and Edwin.
When Edwin stumbles across Henri Marx, “a scarred but beautiful young man” (to quote the program notes) gathering wood to build the boat he hopes will take him to America, he’s fascinated by the young man’s lust for life. Edwin offers a bargain: Henri can build his boat safely in Edwin’s studio if Edwin can paint him. As the two men get to know each other, Edwin finds his inspiration returning, but the estrangement from Judith increasing. When Judith announces her intention to join the rebels, Edwin faces difficult choices—with tragic results.
“Cry Old Kingdom” is profound on so many levels that it’s hard to articulate them. From a purely polemic perspective, it’s a dramatic illustration of the way political repression undermines and corrupts human relationships. It’s also a forceful illustration of both the futility of attempting to remain apart from life and the cost of doing so. Edwin’s self-inflicted burial doesn’t insulate him from having to make choices because, as Henri Marx observes, “Being alive is having to choose.”
Andy Lucien brings the repressed Edwin to vivid life. He’s nicely matched by Jonathan Majors as Henri, still optimistic despite horrific persecution from the regime. Natalie Paul’s Judith is a masterpiece of body language, forcefully illustrating the gradual revival of her character’s spirit as the revolution seems to bring her hope—however briefly. The Haitian accents of the cast are (at times) a bit too heavy, though. When actors were facing away from me, I often lost lines—a pity with a script this literate.
Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman smartly conjures up the beach, Edwin’s studio, and Edwin and Judith’s home with only a few set pieces and some piles of sand. The lights, sound, Tom Dugdale’s direction, and the fine work of the actors do the rest.
“Cry Old Kingdom” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year. Its illustration of the horrors faced by so much of the world on a regular basis is so vivid, though, that it makes the angst of some of the characters in the other four plays I saw feel trivial by comparison. Not being able to find yourself, for example, looks like pretty small beer compared to not being able to prevent the Tonton Macoutes from finding you. That’s an invidious comparison, perhaps, but it’s hard to avoid those thoughts when you see five plays in three days.
“O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” by Mallery Avidon
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012
Synopsis: “Lila does not want to go to yoga class with you. Not because she doesn’t like stretching or has no discipline or worries she might be bad at it. Not because she doesn’t like you. The reason Lila doesn’t want to go to yoga class is not easy to explain, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try… When you discover that the system of belief in which you once found meaning no longer holds currency for you; when you find yourself a little older, but not necessarily wiser; when the question of ‘where do I go from here’ feels impossibly high-stakes, but impossible to answer, what do you do? Lila is hoping to figure it out today—and she has brought notes.”
“O Guru” is really three interconnected plays in one long (80-minute) act. In the first one, Lila attempts to explain to the audience, with notes and slides, why she can’t do yoga anymore, despite growing up in an ashram. But she can’t show any slides because everything about that ashram is copyrighted, the notes don’t stop her from digressing, and she eventually leaves the stage in frustration—at which point the theatre is suddenly transformed into a yoga studio, complete with an instructor and assistants in colorful saris. They invite audience members to take off their shoes and chant with them. They share personal stories about what yoga means to them. They present a cleverly executed shadow puppet story about the origin of Ganesh. Then they invite everyone to close their eyes and meditate. When the audience opens their eyes, though, the scene has shifted again.
At which point I have to stop summarizing, because much of the charm of the third play lies in the way it messes with the audience’s sense of reality. Let’s just say it neatly brings us back to Lila’s original issues in a way that provides satisfying dramatic closure and a bit of a life lesson.
Rebecca Hart heads a solid ensemble cast as Lila, so convincingly in the moment that when she momentarily lost her place in the script, it looked like Lila was confused and not the actress. Just as impressive, as the yoga instructors and other roles, were Daphne Gaines, Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva, Gisela Chípe, and Khrystyne Haje.
Lila Neugebauer’s direction manages the shifts in tone and perspective nicely. Technically everything is beyond reproach (although there was a minor glitch with the slide projector when we saw the show). The running crew shifts Andrew Liberman’s minimal sets with cinematic ease. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are well chosen, with the saris for the yoga instructions being particularly attractive. Jay Tollefsen gets credit for the beautiful shadow puppets.
The bottom line on “O Guru” is that while it might not be a profound work, it’s unfailingly charming, entertaining, and creative. And that, to quote a famous song lyric, “is all right with me.”
Synopsis: “Meet Peter Gnit, the recklessly aspiring, self-deluded anti-hero of Will Eno’s ’Gnit‘—a so-so specimen of humanity whose problem-causing skills may well be his most pronounced ability. Today he’ll disappoint his ailing mother, arriving painfully late at her bedside, full of excuses as usual. Then he’ll get distracted, careening out of the house to disrupt the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, absconding with the bride as an angry mob chases him out of town and into the mountains. So begins a lifetime of bad decisions, for Peter Gnit can’t stay put for long: he believes he’s on a mission to discover his Authentic Self.”
If that sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Will Eno’s “Gnit” is intended as a contemporary comic gloss on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” And, in fact, many of the Ibsen-based jokes work. I especially liked turning the trolls into a family of real-estate brokers, for example. Unfortunately, many of those gags assume a familiarity with the plot of Ibsen’s play that most theatergoers aren’t likely to posses, at least here in the USA, so some of them fall flat.
That’s not the biggest problem with “Gnit,” though. The real issue is the rapidity with which the title character’s self-centered cluelessness stops being funny and starts becoming annoying. After two and one-half hours (including intermission), I found myself just wishing Peter Gnit would shut the hell up. When the play takes a serious turn in the final scene, I no longer cared about Gnit enough to care that he had finally found something that looked a little like insight.
There’s enough comic material in “Gnit” for a good one-act, but at its present length the jokes revolving around Gnit’s selfishness start to get a bit stale. Worse yet, Gnit behaves with such callousness in a scene towards the end with a disabled beggar that he becomes actively repulsive.
Script issues aside, though, “Gnit” benefits from a top-drawer cast. Dan Waller’s Peter has the sort of wistful confusion I associate with the character of Joel in “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” Linda Kimbrough is acerbically self-aware as Mother, and Hannah Bos is sweetly self-sacrificing as Solvay. Kris Kling and Kate Eastwood Norris display quick-change artist stills as a variety of Strangers and Danny Wolohan has a virtuoso turn as Town, playing multiple characters at once with nothing more than shifts in vocal tone and emphasis. It’s a great example of theatrical illusion in action.
Les Waters’s direction moves everything along nicely and makes the most of the many gags. Technically the show is fairly solid, although there were apparently some lighting and—judging from the offstage banging—set repair issues the night we saw it.
“Gnit,” in short, might need to go back to the workshop. As it is, this is a very long evening at the theatre in which tedium ultimately overcomes the comedy.