Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Billy Elliot

The talent in this show is amazing. Especially so when you realize that half the cast hasn't even hit puberty.

There is a lot of advertising and buzz going around London for this show right now, and I am so glad that I was able to work it into my schedule to see it here. Obviously, this is a musical about dancing, and even for people who are not fans of ballet, this show has incredible varieties of dance that are all so emotionally charged that some of the most intense moments were without dialog or singing all together. The little boy who plays Billy takes on not only feats of tap, ballet, and acrobatics, but a very tragic story of a family that lost its mother and is currently losing its means of living. I have never before heard an audience of that size (or any size, really) sniffle and cry after a scene of ballet dancing.

Undoubtedly my American friends and I missed some of the humor and political points about Margaret Thatcher and the coal miner strikes, but that was really a secondary story line to the boy and his talent and the boy and his family, and how the two worlds clash and support while one begins to flourish and one begins to falter. The music, by Sir Elton John, was fantastic. The ensemble of little ballerinas in tutus contrasted with strikers and police were incredible in sound and choreography.

I would recommend this show to anyone in London or New York. Billy Elliot is visually stunning and the pricey ticket is worth it if only to see the amazing choreography.

As You Like It

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London is a complete recreation of how the Globe would have been in Shakespeare's time, all the way down to the use of wooden pegs instead of nails. The costumes are sewn in authentic Elizabethan style, and the stage is bare save for the decorative paintings that cover the entire inner building.

For five pounds, one can watch the show as the "groundlings" did: standing on the floor in the center of the circular theater, with no seats but standing and leaning on the stage. The authenticity of the experience sounds pretty exciting.

Sounds. Now, it was really hot in London today. Really hot. And I happen to be standing at the two o'clock matinee surrounded by Europeans who did not believe in deodorant. Authentic, no?So my experience with As You Like It, which was in fact a very fun, romantic show, was more concerned with my claustrophobia and horrified sense of smell (I actually had to step out the last few minutes of the first act to prevent myself from being sick).

But the performance itself was a fun and clever presentation of the romantic comedy, and despite my discomfort I found myself laughing constantly. At the end of the show, once everyone was happily married off, the cast danced jubilantly in lieu of bows (which, in London, are apparently typically ten minute affairs with multiple encores), clearly just having a great time on stage and with each other.

I would easily return to the Globe, even as a groundling, at an evening performance or at a midnight matinee (apparently they occasionally have shows for the matinee price that start at midnight and end with breakfast, since the sun rises so early here). But on a hot day at two, people pressing in on each other to try to stand under very limited shade felt more like an unpleasant ride on the Tube than a Shakespearean theater experience.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sister Act

Singing nuns are just funny. There is no way around it. Throw in some dance moves, a saucy old lady, a love story, and a mob chase, and you've got yourself a musical- complete with many, many sequins.

This show is exactly what spectacle musicals are all about: comedy, extravagant scenery, shiny costumes, and some feel-good songs. I will say this: I never thought I would see hundreds of middle-aged Britons clapping and dancing on their feet at the end of a play. And dance they did.

For the first half hour or so of this show, I was a bit disappointed in the songs, which at that point were mainly solo ballads that I found a bit unnecessary. I couldn't help mentally drawing comparisons to another Whoopi Goldberg movie-turned musical, The Color Purple, which had a score that left me breathless within the first five minutes. But as the comedy began to set in, I realized that this was nothing like The Color Purple, but in the best way possible. The voices were incredible, and the songs were so funny on so many levels: So many Catholic jokes, so little time. Anyone who can turn Transubstantiation into a punch line is a champion in my book of one-liners.

There was no shortage of glitter and jazz hands on stage at all times, and the amounts of pizazz were matched by the amount of witticisms and smart moves on behalf of the writers and actors. If you want a feel-good musical, Sister Act is the show for you.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Adventures in Food: Prague Edition

Prague is a beautiful city, with guidebooks and tours galore to explain the incredible amounts of history and culture on every corner. I was very fortunate to have my cousin Adam, who spent some time living in Prague, to give me some extra tips about where to eat. Because, as common knowledge will testify, I love to eat. These spots were some of the highlights of my short trip, and I am recording some of them here for anyone who happens to be studying abroad in the fall and finds themselves in Prague, or, in all honesty, for myself to remember in case I ever find myself in Eastern Europe with a sweet tooth again.

Firstly, the Kavarna Slavia, across the street from the National Theater. When he first gave me those directions, I was a little bit afraid that I wouldn't be able to find it, but as soon as I realized that the unmistakable giant gold-roofed building on the river was in fact the Theater, lo and behold, there was the Kavarna Slavia. After a long flight and a day of general harassment in the city from some unsavory male characters, the Kavarna Slavia was a heavenly, air-conditioned retreat complete with friendly old man playing the piano in a lovely, 1920's Paris art deco environment. If you are lucky enough to grab a table by the window, you are rewarded with a stunning view of the river and the castle on the other side.

The next day, as our touring took us up to the castle itself, we continued up the hill on a recommendation to see the Strahov Monastery. After a hot trek up the hill we were able to eat our lunch looking over the city of Prague from above, peering down and trying to name as many monuments as we could distinguish. Above the summer crowds, this spot near the greenery of the hills was incredibly relaxing.

Unknowingly, we saved the best for last in the recommendation of Cafe Louvre (picture above by Kelly Robyn Mann). This pretty pink restaurant was built in 1902 and was apparently favored by Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. One sip of the hot chocolate and I could see why. Our breakfast was delicious. If I was going to stay in Prague for any amount of time I am quite sure I would eat there every day.

As an unrelated bonus, there is an excellent antique/odds and ends old things store off of Old Town Square called Bric-A-Brac where I found some very cool items completely and refreshingly unrelated to "Praha Drinking Team!" shot glasses.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Cherry Orchard

I loved this show.

A new translation by Tom Stoppard and a part of the Bridge Project, a repertory mix of American and English actors rotating between the Old Vic theater in London and New York, The Cherry Orchard boasts a flawless ensemble and beautiful direction by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, Away We Go). Kevin Spacey is the artistic director for the Old Vic.

Before seeing the show, I wondered if the mix of British and American accents would bother me, but each character was so perfectly cast that their speech patterns could not have been any more appropriate. Sinead Cusack was wonderful in the lead role of a suddenly broke woman from old money and Simon Russell Beale was magnetic and hilarious as a peasant turned businessman. Ethan Hawke was perfect as a tutor turned revolutionary. But my favorite performance of the night was Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige). Much like her character in Vicky Christina Barcelona she was incredibly and often humorously tightly wound until the end of the play. When her home and her last shred of hope for love was gone, Hall utterly broke down into sobs that wrenched the heart of the audience.

The settings and costumes were breathtaking. I got chills when, at the beginning of second act, while the family throws a party they cannot afford, the stage lit by a chandelier and a multitude of candles,the cast, dressed in masquerade attire, began to ritually dance in a circle, slowly and rigidly in a stylized version of traditional Russian dance.

Funny and moving (what Chekhov should be and rarely is), this cast completely won me over. I cannot wait to see what they do with The Winter's Tale.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The National Theatre is another example of a government subsidized theater creating an atmosphere where everyone just wants to be. I am happy to say I will be returning a few times to this theater during my stay here, and when I do I will be sure to take some photos of the giant (and I do mean giant) grass-covered lawn furniture out front where people happily sip drinks and wait for their show to begin.

Phedre. I had really high expectations of this show. Academy Award-winning Helen Mirren in the title role. A new adaptation -from the 1677 French play (of course taken from the Greek myth) by Racine- by Ted Hughes (husband of Sylvia Plath). As the safety curtain rose, a gorgeous set appeared in shades of beige against a bright blue wall.

I'm not sure what happened. Maybe I just don't like Greek tragedies. Maybe I missed the more flowery words of the older translation compared to the sparse (although still beautiful) translation by Hughes. Maybe I just wanted Helen Mirren to be a little less reserved and a little more like the crazed, sexually depraved and eventually mad woman I imagined reading the text. Each actor had moments of brilliance, and my attention certainly never wavered, but it somehow did not match up with my hopes that I had had for this show.

My mediocre review aside, if you would like to see the show wherever you are, it is being broadcast tomorrow around the world on the BBC and in movie theaters as a special event (apparently the National Theatre is taking a page out of the Metropolitan Opera's book).

UNRELATED SIDE NOTE: The other day I wrote about Aunt Dan and Lemon. The author's name, Wallace Shawn, was unfamiliar to me. It was just today when I saw his picture that I realized that I am quite familiar with this author as an actor: aside from his obscure role in Melinda and Melinda (one of my favorite movies) he is Vizzini The Princess Bride. Inconceivable!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Waiting For Godot

A word on my mindset heading into this gorgeous theater: For the first time in London, I had gotten lost. After a lovely lunch by the river, I got off at the right tube stop, but it all went down hill from there. I was literally sprinting across Trafalgar Square, white skirt blowing in the wind behind me. 

But thank goodness I made it. This production of Waiting for Godot was beautiful on every level. The Theatre Royal Haymarket's red and golden interior is exactly what fills the imagination when thinking of upper-class Britons going to the theatre in tuxedos and gowns. No gowns tonight, but a stunning interior nonetheless.

The scenery, appropriately barren save for a lone tree, was austerely gorgeous. Shades of gray created a feeling of age and decay, complemented by lighting that seemed to be a character in itself, changing from beautiful patterns on the floor to delicate and deliberate streams of light coming from some heaven above the scene. 

The acting in this show was superb across the board, but tonight Sir Ian McKellen created one of my favorite performances that I have ever seen on stage. Every twitch and sound was smart and, for almost any given moment, hilarious. His appearance and voice were that of an elderly homeless man, but his choices were that of a large four year old child. It would be difficult not to love him. It would be even more difficult not to love the relationship between him and Patrick Stewart, who was also hilarious in his reactions to McKellen. Their friendship was tangible and touching. 

Waiting for Godot is a tribute to relationships, and these two men were perfect as old friends: dancing, talking, fighting, sharing meals, and passing the time simply being together. 

Aunt Dan And Lemon

My first show in London! I was a little misinformed the other night: Aunt Dan and Lemon was actually not in the West End, but at the Royal Court Theater near Kensington. The Royal Court is a national theater, meaning they are greatly subsidized by the government. 

Firstly, I must talk about this theater venue. A rounded three-tiered house with leather seats seems to hover over the stage creating a polished, intimate environment. But most fascinating to me was the bar downstairs. This is exactly what the Geffen and Kirk Douglas in Los Angeles are trying to accomplish right now: a great pub-like environment where all types of people come to drink and eat and just hang out (all talking about theater) before and after the show, making theater more of an expected social activity here than going to dinner and a movie in California. (The photo above is from the downstairs bar.) 

The play itself was incredibly interesting. Normally if I were to call something "interesting" it would be for lack of wanting to say something negative, but this show was truly intellectually intriguing. A sickly little woman who never leaves her house, Lemon, has never had much of a life, but spends her days reading literature about the Nazi extermination camps and recounting the stories that she heard as a girl from old family friend Aunt Dan. Lemon's thoughts and monologues are interspersed with scene's from Aunt Dan's life and the lives of her scandalous friends. Scenes play out about the politics of the Vietnam War, love affairs, and a call girl who is paid to kill a foreign man after sleeping with him. 

What makes all of these seemingly unrelated stories so gut-wrenchingly intense is that at the end of the play, after we have witnessed her memory of Aunt Dan's death, Lemon calmly explains that it is ridiculous for people to think that the Nazis did anything out of the ordinary. All people, as she learned from Aunt Dan, are willing to do any manner of damage to other human beings in order to maintain or achieve the life that they want: Henry Kissinger is willing to bomb villages in Asia to protect the lifestyle of American democracy. A young girl is willing to sell her body and kill a stranger to get the money she needs. Society is built on the fact that for some people to be comfortable, many others must suffer. 

This daunting thought coming from a tiny sick woman on stage is incredibly disturbing. It is not until you realize that she is completely devoid of any human compassion that you realize that human nature may not be as simple as she has bleakly laid out humanity to be. 

Exiting the theater, I heard many discussions of people refusing the idea that humans are nothing but animals meant to kill, defending morality and compassion.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Farragut North

Cheers from London! I am seeing my first West End show tomorrow night, but before that, I wanted to give a recap of the Geffen's latest political drama, Farragut North

Another example of Hollywood on stage, this production featured Chris Noth (yes, Mr. Big) as a seasoned campaign manager and boss to media whiz kid Chris Pine (calm down, Trekkies). Thrown into the mix is the competition, Isiah Whitlock Jr (from my current HBO DVD obsession, The Wire) and Juno's Olivia Thirlby as a teenaged intern. 

To be fair, I saw this show on its preview night. Still, considering the venue and the actors in it, I was not expecting as many missed lines and set difficulties (at one point a hanging piece was broken in transition). Even with his line flubs, Pine was still great, and at the end I truly hated his character. Noth and Thirlby were both solid- in smoothness (both have played these roles before) and believability. The dialog and plot seemed overly simple at first, so the explosive last five minutes of the show seemed a little out of place, but I am sure that after that first night of experiencing the audience's sometimes awkward reactions to certain things, they will be able to achieve a more steady buildup to the ending. 

The audience reaction pulled out several interesting themes in the show as often only men or only women would laugh at certain moments, clearly defining some gender issues that I might not have picked up on simply reading the text. The acting in this show was great in character relationships. 

On the way out, I thought I was bumping into paparazzi trying to catch shots of the celebrities in the cast leaving the building. On a second glance, I realized they were middle-aged Star Trek fans with memorabilia for Chris Pine. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cafe Bassam

Bassam's is quite possibly what I miss most about San Diego right now. This is one of my favorite coffee shops for studying, people watching, and sipping espresso that could revive the dead. Newly settled on Fifth Street in Banker's Hill (just across the street and up a block from one of my other all-time favorites, Extraordinary Desserts), Cafe Bassam is part antique shop, part European coffeehouse, and part wine bar. 

The atmosphere of far-away places and people (I love listening in on conversations in other languages) is enough to get me in the doors, but the food and drink delivered to your table is what makes me stay for hours. The espresso with steamed milk in a darling little porcelain cup is my standard pick me up from Bassam's, but the chai or hot chocolate are so delicious that many times I have ordered them post-espresso. If you would prefer a glass of wine, the cheese platters with toast are also delicious and could serve as a very filling meal. 

Play a game of checkers, write a book, or just watch Mr. Bassam himself mingle the locals from under his fedora and round glasses. I once saw him charm some policemen out of giving him a ticket for parking illegally in front of his shop by inviting them inside for an espresso flush (espresso over ice cream). The man asleep in the photo above? Bassam. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


One of my favorite perks of living in the Los Angeles area is that aside from the occasional celebrity sighting about town (Amy Adams eating barbeque, anyone?), there are always opportunities to see some very fine film actors returning to the stage.

Case in point: Oleanna by David Mamet at the Mark Taper Forum. The beautiful Julia Stiles and the very talented Bill Pullman create a tension filled story of a soon-to-be tenured professor and a frustrated young student. Pullman offers to help Stiles' character to pass the class, and over the course of three acts, she uses his words against him in ways he nor the audience would have ever anticipated. 

Audiences at the Mark Taper Forum are typically an older, wealthy crowd that are well-behaved, well-versed theater goers. Never before have I heard this audience audibly respond to what was happening on stage with such gasps and little shrieks or cheers or hisses under the breath as I have in this production. The text and performances are so gut-wrenching and powerful that everyone in the house was either cringing or leaning forward in their seats. 

The examinations of power dynamics of gender roles and the institutions of higher education are abrupt and personal. Pullman and Stiles' performances are two of the best that I have seen this year. This show is not for the weak of heart. 

Also, remember that anything at the Center Theater Group (Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theater) offers $20 "Hot Tix" if you buy at the door! Great theater for the price of a movie and popcorn. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Sunset Limited: A Novel In Dramatic Form

I consider myself I fairly well-read person, so I am a little bit embarrassed to say that before today's selection, I had never read anything by Cormac McCarthy. I now intend on scouring the library for his many books. 

The Sunset Limited is a novel in dramatic form, with only two characters: Black and White. White, a suicidal professor, is in the run-down apartment of Black, a former convict desperately trying to convince White of the presence of God and the value of life. Their discussion of faith, life, and God is written with such concise and beautiful language that I found myself re-reading passages every few pages. The ending left me speechless, so I'll give a few of my favorite lines instead of trying to comment on them: 

BLACK: I ain't a doubter. But I am a questioner. 

WHITE: What's the difference? 

BLACK: Well, I think the questioner wants the truth. The doubter wants to be told there ain't no such thing. 

Another passage, just because I couldn't pick just one:

BLACK: If this ain't the life you had in mind, what was? 

WHITE: I don't know. Not this. Is your life the one you'd planned? 

BLACK: No, it ain't. I got what I needed instead of what I wanted and that's just about the best kind of luck you can have. 

The Sunset Limited has found itself amongst my favorite plays on life, death, and God. Personally, I think The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis should be required reading for anyone who has ever questioned life or free will. Also, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (another trial play; I'm obsessed) is a fabulous example of people acting on their convictions.