Monday, 9 June 2014

Incognito, Squirrels/The After Dinner Joke, Privacy, The Drowned Man, and more

How has it taken me so long to discover the Bush Theatre? It's better than the Donmar--it's in a very cool neighborhood and has comfortable seats! What a revelation. And the play I happened to see--Nick Payne's Incognito--will surely be among the best I'll see this year.

The backbone of the play, which has a beautifully complicated structure, is the true story of a pathologist in Princeton who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein soon after his death in 1955, stole his brain, and kept it for over 40 years. Payne's play relies heavily on Michael Paterniti's book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain in which he recounts driving the then 84 year old pathologist, Thomas Stolz Harvey, across the U.S with Einstein's brain in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk in order to meet with Einstein's daughter. There are several more story lines in Payne's play related to the vast mystery that is our brain, ingeniously interwoven and miraculously interrelevant. Keeping track of all the strands is thoroughly challenging and engaging. The material--physics, cosmology, and neuroscience has been trendy for so long it's beginning to feel a bit tired, but Payne manages to more than eek out continued interest. His play is as good, better really, than Lucy Preeble's 2012 The Effect dealing with antidepressents effects on the brain and the pharmaceutical industry. It also nods to Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and the subsequent opera based on his book. Major credit for the success of the play goes to the four actors--Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda--who play up to six characters each with incredible subtlety and aplomb. The range of accents was impressive--though being from New Jersey myself, have to say that one didn't quite work.

How has it taken me so long to discover the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond? Okay, not so cool a neighborhood, and the seats worse than the Donmar, but a great venue nonetheless. And their recent revivals of David Mamet's Squirrels and Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke very solid stuff. Squirrels just about perfectly sums up the glories and terrors of the writing process, with a significant nod to the female influence/aspect which I found surprising coming from Mamet, and The After-Dinner Joke just about perfectly sums up the entrenched hypocricy of the left, right, and center, especially when it comes to "charitable works." This short play is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was written. The actors in both plays, were excellent. The Orange Tree Theatre will soon be putting on a festival of new work and rediscoveries and I will certainly be going along.

Privacy at the Donmar about the Snowden leaks and how technology is changing/has changed our entire concept of privacy was an intriguing affair for about 40 minute and then it just felt repetitive. Also, the framing device, a playwright struggling to write a play was weak and annoying.

If you have never experienced a Punchdrunk full immersion theatrical experience, The Drowned Man is a great one and I urge you to go. If you have experienced one (I saw their Faust a few years back), I'd still say go, but they haven't improved greatly on the formula. The best thing about the production by far is the truly inspired, meticulously, lovingly, wittily designed sets by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns. Wearing creepy white (death) masks, each audience member is encouraged to go it alone and explore the vast and  now defunct Hollywood Temple Studios expanding over several floors. (The building was, in fact, until not too long ago a post office near Paddington Station.) The care, thought, and aesthetic values that went into putting together each room and space is spectacular--and if I do go back to a Punchdrunk production it will be for the sets. The fragmented performances of a script based on Buchner's Woyzeck were far less interesting to me than the Hollywood executive's office full of chicken coops, the medical records room, its walls covered in forms listing on-set injuries and drug treatments for stars, wandering around the trailer park, sitting in the soda shop watching the other masked audience members come and go--and this just a fraction of what's possible. One of the great things about a Punchdrunk production is its comment on perspective. After the show is over, and you gather with your mates in the saloon, you realize that what you saw and experienced was utterly unique.

For his 18th birthday, I took my son to see cabaret sensation Meow Meow at Southbank's Wonderground. Seemingly out of control at all times, she gloriously manipulated the hell out of us all for the entire exhilerating performance. Her crowd surfing is one of the most courageous and stupendous acts I've ever seen. Her singing was great, especially her hilarious rendition of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and a great cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees."

While in New York over Easter a friend took me to see Stephen Soderbergh's The Library at The Public. The premise was promising. A student played by 17-year-old going-places actress Chloe Grace Moretz is falsely accused by another student of telling a gunman on a shooting spree at her school where other students are hiding. Unfortunately, the play, written by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Contagion, was none too subtle and it was pretty clear how the whole thing was going to unfold after about a half hour.

Also while in New York, my agent and I snuck off at lunch time to see The Realistic Jones by Will Eno, starring Marisa Tomei, Toni Colette, Tracey Letts, and Michael C. Hall. We'd both read Charles Isherwood's rave review in The New York Times. What a disappointment! What a waste of talent! The play, about ALS, was a bunch of clever one liners that never added up to much at all. And the ALS was used, like so often happens with the Holocaust and children, as insto-heartstring-puller. Ugh.

A while ago I saw a revival at the National of A Taste of Honey written by Shelagh Delaney when she was eighteen in 1958. A very ambitious play, taking on class, race, gender, and sexual orientatio in Britian in the 50s. The first half is a tour de force but the second half was a letdown, really just a repeat of the first. Still, I was glad to have seen it and actors Lesley Sharp and Kate O'Flynn were wonderfully watchable.

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