Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEWED: Fun Home

My second show of the day was Fun Home, and it was, quite possibly, the least uplifting way to end my day.
Regardless, it successfully lived up to all the hype that surrounded it!
Extended past its original run several times over, and with plans of further extensions and mayhap e'en a Broadway run, and now the cast recording is available for pre-order, the show has been receiving glowing reviews for its earnestness, joy, and heartbreak since the beginning.

It's not perfect, but nothing so based in humanity ever is. The stuff to love is pretty stellar, and the stuff to fix is pretty small.

Fun Home is a musical based on the awesome graphic novel by Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For), with a book and music by Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride; Well) and Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change; Shrek). It stars the talented female actors Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha (though I saw the understudy-turned-replacement, Emily Skeggs), and young Sydney Lucas as different-aged iterations of Alison recalling growing up in the titular Fun Home. It's also home to a powerhouse performance from Judy Kuhn (the singing voice of Disney's Pocahontas) but more on that later.
I just feel I need to begin at this point, because hanging in our box office is a returned Season Overview with a hastily scrawled message on it that reads: "Democratic!? I see only THREE women playwrights. Have more women playwrights and I'll buy a season subscription."
All feelings of sexism aside, I do acknowledge and abhor the fact that women are still severely under-represented in almost every aspect of the country, particularly the work place. The same goes for minorities and people of new and emerging sexual orientations.
But, for what it's worth, theater is a collaborative endeavor. The idea that in a particular theater's season we don't do an equal number of male to female playwrights is an archaic way of thinking about equality. I want to point out that three women worked on this show, we have a couple female directors involved in the season, and one of those female playwrights? Is Suzan-goddamn-Lori Parks. Not only is she a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but she's one of the best dramatists I've ever studied, and she is the Master Writer Chair of the Public Theater. What is that, you ask? I DON'T KNOW EITHER, but they made it FOR HER.
So, my awfully reductive point is this: I just don't think a low number of female playwrights is a good representation of inherent sexism. From seeing both Good Person (Kron is pulling double-duty appearing in Good Person while the show she wrote plays across the lobby) and Fun Home this week, I see a lot of good being done by women and it's caliber work, and that shouldn't be overlooked just because one ratio is out of whack.

Okay, rant over. Fun Home.

Like the graphic novel it is based on, Fun Home is a rough timeline of main character Alison trying to reconcile the memories of her seemingly withdrawn, somewhat angry, obsessive, and secretive complex character of her father. She sums up the show right at the beginning: "Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist." And from there, we see the struggle of a girl attempting to come to grips with her own identity as she also tries to find her place in her often-difficult relationship with her father.



Beth Malone, playing "Alison", our narrator, is ever-present, and observes as well as comments, but doesn't involve herself in the action, save for the important penultimate scene, between just her and her father. Malone is a capable actress, juggling a sort of journalistic neutrality but her wry humor and wit shining through appropriately.
Young Alison is in the hands of Sydney Lucas who is at the center of two "period" songs: "Come to the Fun Home", Alison and her brothers' attempts to make a commercial advertising the family funeral home business immediately recognizable as a Jackson 5/Motown homage, and "Raincoat of Love", a fantasy sequence reminiscent of The Brady Variety Hour, Partridge Family, or even Donny & Marie type musical numbers, complete with lame group choreography. There's a lot for a little girl to handle here, with a demanding father, a distant mother, a melancholy family business, and early curiosities into her own identity, but Lucas seems to know no fear. It almost feels like a continuity error that the wildly confident Young Alison grows up to be the awkward and tentative Medium Alison.
In the picture on the left, original actor Alexandra Socha plays the part of Medium Alison, but I did not get to see her. On the right, is her understudy (and now permanent replacement) Emily Skeggs, who had a quiet self-confidence, layered over by her social awkwardness. Her awakening and identification as gay makes for a wonderful journey, and provides much of the emotional pull of the show, and Skeggs proved she is more than what the connotations of understudy would suggest.

But to steal a line directly from the graphic novel (which is one of the best examples of a graphic novel being more novel than comic book),
"Your father has had affairs. With other men."
"What?"
I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parent's tragedy.
It's a late-act revelation for the character of Middle Alison (even though it was told to us at the beginning) and completely changes her perception of him and later on his suicide.
The story jumps between Young Alison trying to bond with her dad, a constant perfectionist, striving for cultured living, seemingly most happy when he's alone (One scene where she is working on a school project to draw a map of all the places she's lived and her father's good-natured interference that soon turns to stage parent levels of meddling is a difficult one to get through, as are many of the dramatically ironic scenes with Bruce exiting in any number of moods) and Middle Alison in her first year of college, meeting her first girlfriend, and coming to terms with being a lesbian. She thinks she can't talk to her father about her struggles because he doesn't know what it's like to be gay, until she finds out he is. But her father is not so quick to talk. Maybe he's in denial, maybe he just refuses to acknowledge it, maybe he doesn't even know, but whatever the reason, the conversation between Bruce and Alison never comes to fruition, even in the all-important scene where narrator Alison finally steps into the action, the conversation never happens, because no fiction can compensate for what actually happened.


Bruce is played by the incomparable Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd, Assassins) and boy, was there ever a wonderfully complex and dark musical theater character. There's many labels you can place on him: bi-polar, self-hating, obsessive-compulsive, manic depressive...But none of it is ever explicitly stated. You only get to see the results of a man having illicit affairs on the side of a broken marriage and home life.
There's a marked sadness to the character, as well as a lot of anger, and Cerveris can go from demure through gritted teeth to out of control rage over nothing in a second. Shades of the Demon Barber could be seen it, but there's something unknowable to the character that adds some depth to him that Todd lacks. Cerveris makes sure you never know everything about Bruce, and it only adds to our seeming disconnect when he dies. His last number in particular, the 11 o'clock number "Edges of the World" is heartbreaking and extremely telling without ever actually being either.

And Helen, Bruce's put-upon wife, is played by the tragical Judy Kuhn. She has only one real number in the show which is too bad because Judy has one of my favorite voices ever, but "Days and Days" is the true heartbreaking moment of the musical, and the real emotional crux. From across a dining room table, seated the whole time, Helen relays to Middle Alison her motherly hopes as she reflects on her own wasted days, basically: "Don't come back here. I didn't raise you to waste your days like I did." She reaches her hand across the table to her daughter, but never makes it all the way over, and her daughter never reaches for her hand. It's a powerful, dissonant moment in a gut-wrenching, powerful musical.

Like I said, it's not all perfect, but it's all easily forgivable. Some of the non-house sets are sparse but I feel it's done purposely, and I wanted to see more of the "panel" effects throughout the rest of the show but it was only for one particular sequence.
It's a bit spoiled that we all know the ending of Bruce from the very beginning. It provides an immediate disconnect to the character, but Cerveris and Alison's frustrating relationship with her father draws us in to this compelling family drama and it doesn't let go. I'm glad just for its emotional burden that it's only 90 minutes (and no intermission) but I enjoyed the show immensely.

The design of the titular Fun Home is something to behold on its own, the cast is stellar, and the music and lyrics are admirable and strong. If it's not Here Lies Love, then it's going to be Fun Home that gets a Broadway run and it could go on indefinitely.


REVIEWED: Good Person of Szechwan

It's:
The Public Theater presents the Foundry Theater presents Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan!


Probably one of my favorite plays ever, I was looking forward to getting to see this Brecht piece of verfremdungseffekt (I get 2 points from DJ Hopkins for spelling this correctly without looking it up, I believe) with Taylor Mac performing the dual role of Shen Te and Shui Ta. Mac, who identifies as neither "he" nor "she" (asking in bio to be classified under the gender pronoun "judy") is a pretty inspired choice: a male-looking, gender-neutral performer, playing at first a female prostitute, who soon disguises herself as her brutal and pragmatic cousin, Shui Ta.

Every part of the production design and concept at first seems cobbled together from discordant pieces, but it all works. The people of Szechwan are more caricature than character, references feel both anachronistic and timeless, the gods are dressed from one era while the music feels drawn from another entirely. Still, it all feels like the spirit of Brecht: instantly human and yet not, which makes us feel both at home and abroad, sympathetic and not.
Mac does a wonderful job bringing this very complex character of Shen Te to life. Shen Te is not faultless, but she is not weak, and this point becomes especially poignant when you remember she and Shui Ta are the same person. (Brecht's running idea seems to be that human goodness and evil exist in everyone, but the play's essential thesis is that perhaps we are capable of change, and restructuring the world.)

For those unfamiliar with the play, the gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak, and Mary Shultz) arrive to find good people on Earth who still follow the rules of being good and moral. They can't list the water seller (David Turner), because of his false-bottom cup. And most of the rest of the province leans toward the despicable: the proprietor Mrs. Mi Tzu (Lisa Kron) is bitter, Shen Te's former landlords (Brooke Ishibashi and Paul Juhn) are manipulative and conniving, and the Carpenter (Darryl Winslow) and Mrs. Shin (Kate Benson), who owned the storefront before Shen Te buys it, are both more than ready to take advantage of the magnanimous Shen Te. The desire to continue helping everyone spreads Shen Te thin, and her cousin Shui Ta, who is more business-minded and more interested in Shen Te's own well-being, arrives on the scene to clean up her messes.
Things get even more complicated when Shen Te saves an unemployed pilot who is going to kill himself. Yang Sun (Clifton Duncan) uses Shen Te to get a job but seems to have no plans of taking care of her despite proclaiming love for her multiple times over the show.
When Shui Ta is brought to testify before the judges (the gods in thinly veiled disguises) for the supposed murder of their "good person", he reveals that he is a she, and that she is also pregnant, and has proven incapable of living both good (for others) and well (for oneself). But the gods, having already found their good person, leave without further aid, telling her only to continue to do well.

It's the play's ending that is the most jarring. As it's stated, there is no happy ending. The gods leave, the world remains unchanged, and Shen Te, paralyzed with fear and despair, can only plead to the audience with a single, breathless, "help."
The actors then break character, and a final, rhyming monologue is delivered directly to close the play. The real final plea is that there "must be happy endings for good people. Must. Must. Must."

Brecht, often inaccurately, is accused of heavy-handed moral objectivism, but he's surprisingly subtle. Epic Theatre was the essential basis of a lot of performance art: to highlight social hypocrisy, to spotlight exploitation, and to leave the audiences in a state of self-reflection. It is, after all, our world, we are the only ones with the power to change it, but it can be a forgotten truth because of how deep the system goes, and just how aged the machine is.

That said, there is still an amazing emotional reaction to Shen Te. I can't help but identify with a put-upon character, a thankless hero, however faulted. Taylor Mac, judy's, Shen Te is quite the force to be reckoned with, particularly the musical climax of the first act: "You've Got To Make a Change," where judy transforms, onstage for the first time, from Shen Te into Shui Ta. It's strong, powerful, a great piece of performance, and quite moving.

All the excellent music is provided by a quirky, cool band The Lisps (Eric Farber, Ben Simon, Lorenzo Wolff, and Sammy Tunis) and like I said of the whole production, it's both comforting and disconcerting: with the easy, relaxing sound of American Folk (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and the abrupt, sudden cacophony of Chinese and Japanese theatre (a lot of punctuated percussion and plucked strings). It doesn't make sense, but it all works.



Same with the set, lighting, sound, and costume design (Matt Saunders, Tyler Micoleau, Brandon Wolcott, and Clint Ramos respectively). They're a mish-mash of pieces, but they all come together. I think the essential point of any Brecht is how to best tell the story. How do we best engage the audience and keep this piece moving? Good Person's no slouch, at 2 and 1/2 hours, and there has to be a lot of interesting pieces to keep it afloat and the audience engaged. All the actors play multiple parts: Kron also plays Yang Sun's overbearing mother, Winslow doubles as a cop, Juhm is also a barber later on, and even Duncan gets in a comic turn as Grandpa (which is good, because Yang Sun is easily the most despicable of all the characters), and the set is static, but lighting and interesting uses of pieced-together material makes it extremely cool to look at. Shen Te/Shui Ta's costumes in particular are lovely.

I was in this show in college. I loved it then, and I love it now. Brecht is easily the most misunderstood of all of theatre's writing contributors and Foundry's Good Person highlights exactly why he is so important: it's his urgency, his complexity, subtlety, comedy, and ultimately humanity. The one sad part is that it only runs til December 8th.
(There's me on the right.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

7 Awesome Epic Rap Battles of History

One of my favorite current web series started, as such web series often do, rather innocuously, with a small cult following as the videos gradually began to gain viewership. The concept is amazingly simple: two (although that may expand to three, or two teams of two, depending on the situation) historical figures, they can be fictional or not, duke it out verbally, trading off rap verses simultaneously building themselves up while cutting the other person down. The videos each only last a couple minutes max, but they are packed with all sorts of references in every line, making them funny, creative, and, for something comedic, surprisingly educational.

As the viewership has steadily grown over time, fans have been given the privilege of voting for the next battle and this has allowed for some pretty awesome pairings. A lot of credit has to go to the amazing wardrobe and make-up artists who have had to cover some diverse likenesses, from Al Capone and Blackbeard, to the Mario Bros. and Batman, all the way to Ben Franklin and Elvis Presley. Of course, the writing, which is top-notch, and the spirited performances are mostly in the hands of two amazingly capable and charming performers: EpicLloyd (whose "Dis Raps for Hire" are awesome) and NicePeter, a great musician. They appear in all the rap battles, although not always as the stars. The bulk of the rest of the cast is made up of prominent YouTube stars: Jenna Marbles, famous for "The Face" and How to Trick People Into Thinking You're Good Looking, plays Eve in the Adam VS. Eve/Men VS. Women battle; Jesse and Jeana of PrankVSPrank appear as Leonidas and Queen Gorgo against Master Chief; and KassemG has made several appearances, often as himself. Peppered in there are some pretty famous people outside of YouTube: Key and Peele appear against each other as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and Snoop Dog/Lion/Muskrat appears as Moses against Santa Claus.

Like I said, one of the masterful things about the ERB's is their brevity. None of them go much longer than 2 minutes, but they are packed with visual jokes and allusions to the characters on many levels that warrant more than one viewing.

Here are seven of my favorites.
(And here's their channel.)


Honorable Mentions


The runners-up in my opinion are certainly not bad, just an essential X-Factor is missing from each one for me.
Frank Sinatra VS. Freddie Mercury is damn good for Mercury. I find Sinatra to be slightly disappointing. There should be more charm and class to him, because he's going against the bombastic, fantastic Mercury, who has a voice, range, musicality, and musical prowess, but Sinatra was just as endearing to the populace but his raps don't show that.
Michael Jackson VS. Elvis Presley suffers the same problem for me. I love the transformation of both: little MJ to Smooth Criminal MJ and early rock & roll Elvis to late Vegas Elvis. But Vegas Elvis doesn't bring it home like other final verses do. (My personal favorite is Clint Eastwood ending his fight against Bruce Lee with:
"I'd beat you in round two but that'd be unbelievable
No one in your family ever lived to see a sequel")
Jackson's transformation is great, and little MJ rocks it too. I also love the rap style of early Elvis.
And William Shakespeare VS. Dr. Seuss is pretty badass on multiple levels: Seuss never speaks, letting his famous characters do the rapping for him, but Shakespeare owns, with George Watsky singing an ultra-fast patter, and even doing some of it in iambic pentameter. Thing 1 and Thing 2 ending the battle is a cool gimmick, just not an interesting finale to me. 


Of course, Darth Vader VS. Adolf Hitler is what launched ERB's into a new level of popularity, as it was arguably the "viral" video of the bunch. History's most despicable icon rapping against the darkest of fictional dark lords is a guilty pleasure to behold, and much like the fabled Trilogy itself, Vader and Hitler's 2nd encounter is the strongest to me. The fact that there was more comedic gold to mine for a second outing speaks volumes to its quality.


7.) Billy Mays VS. Ben Franklin

This is one of early Rap Battles. The guy playing Billy Mays is dead-on.
The heart attack and death may seem sad in the middle of the battle, but then his replacement rap partner knocks it into the stratosphere. Franklin has some awesome lines too, my particular favorite being:
"I'll craft a lyrical coffin and then spit the nails in
Call me Arthur Miller son, cause it's death of a salesman"


6.) Albert Einstein VS. Stephen Hawking

Arguably the stronger performance of MC Mr Napkins (though his Doc Brown is pretty good too) as Einstein who gets in some quick wheelchair jokes ("take a seat, oh! I see you brought your own.") and Stephen Hawking is one of the first rappers to have a really different rap style, with the use of auto-tune, giving a more electronica feel to the proceedings.


5.) The Mario Bros. VS. The Wright Bros.

There aren't too many fictional vs. historical battles, but the ones that exist are all very strong, and this one is my favorite, because the Wright Bros. are so good. I love the sound quality and the camera work they've done to make it look old-fashioned and Rhett and Link carry the battle well. I love the angry take Lloyd and Peter throw into the Mario Bros. and all the references are just top-notch.


4.) Nikola Tesla VS. Thomas Edison

This is one badass battle. I personally like the battles to be between people with more thematic connections rather than direct rivalries (I prefer Bieber VS. Beethoven over Romney VS. Obama) but Tesla needs his comeuppance and he gets some really good lines ("You didn't steal from me, you stole me from mankind.") but Edison is no slouch either. Lloyd's character work is something to behold, with Edison not being some out of touch inventor, but a crafty elderly gentlemen scoundrel.


3.) Gandhi VS. Martin Luther King Jr.

Key and Peele's takes on Gandhi and MLK are awesome, and their pretty equally matched throughout the battle, but Key's end line as Gandhi is truly epic. There's not too much else to say, because this is a truly epic battle.


2.) Babe Ruth VS. Lance Armstrong

There's something very special about when it's just Lloyd and Peter doing what they do best, just the two of them cutting witty verses at each other. Armstrong and Ruth is an interesting battle to imagine, because they both have such complex athletic histories: Armstrong is now revealed as a drug user but one of the most decorated Tour de France bicyclists ever, Ruth is a baseball icon but competed early on and was by no means a health role model either.
Both have some pretty complex wordplay in their verses and with no frills of cameos or partners or anything, Lloyd and Peter prove once again why they are two of the best ever.


1.) Mr. T. VS. Mister Rogers

My personal favorite of all the battles is this one. The Mr. T is quite good, with some funny lines, but Peter's Mister Rogers is unbelievable. He's calm and convincing, just like you'd expect Rogers to be. He ends the rap on a solid, subtly frightening note, and it's unsettling. I love it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I had a little too much fun with this...

Yeah, this website takes stuff you've already said on Facebook and generates a Status out of it. Some of them are incomprehensible (goodness knows what that algorithm looks like) but then some of them are gems like this. They both sound somewhat like me, while also bordering on surrealistically out of context.
Apparently, I'm not totally confident in my ability to eradicate SkyNet.

Yeah, Great Gatsby's wit and humor still hold up to this day. It's one of the few written farces that actually works.
But I was high when I wrote this Status.

This. This sounds exactly like me.
I don't do this much when I write, but when I talk I can occasionally stop before making a complete sentence...

Just let me.

New catchphrase?
I think so.