Thursday, July 23, 2009


Once upon a time, there was a man who was known to love himself above all other men with aplomb throughout the land, and that man was known as John O’Hurley.

That’s right: J Peterman on Seinfeld, the silver-haired champion of Dancing With The Stars, and general celebrity for all your Family Feud hosting needs, is starring in Los Angeles’ Ahmanson theater as Kind Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Firstly, I am so happy to be home in Los Angeles. Secondly, I love Monty Python films.

Now. I saw Spamalot in New York two years ago, so this was my second attempt at loving it. But- hear me out devoted fans of this show across the nation- I just don’t think it’s as funny as it should be. And devoted fans there are aplenty: the Ahmanson was filled with people wearing pins and shirts from the show, laughing hysterically for two hours and cheering throughout.

I certainly did giggle at certain moments and each actor on stage was not without singing and dancing chops. In fact I thought the principals were all quite good; the overall production (including the text itself) just doesn’t measure up to the hype in my opinion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

War Horse

Two sad things about this show:
1. It was my last in London.
2. I found myself way too emotionally involved with puppets.

But perhaps the fact that I was completely emotionally involved was not so much a sign of sadness, but of a job well done by the creative people at the National Theatre. War Horse is the story of a young farm boy whose father sells his beloved horse, Joey, to the British Army to fight in the front lines of World War I. A live stage story that revolves around a horse presents a particular kind of problem for a design team, but the puppetry that takes place in this production is at once artistic (clearly, the horse is made of bamboo and there are men inside controlling it), and also ridiculously realistic (the movements are exactly that of a live horse, and the dimensions are big enough that it allows the horse to be actually ridden many times in the show).

Taken from a children's novel, this story (as many children's stories do) takes unspeakable acts of human cruelty, war, and death, and makes them palpable for young people to experience these things cathartically through a beloved animal. The relationship between the young boy and Joey the horse has the potential to be as heart-breaking and tear-rendering as classics like Old Yeller and every Disney movie that ever made you cry, but tragically the young man playing the boy made a very unfortunate choice vocally: his attempt at a Devonshire accent left me with the impression that somewhere along the story line we would be informed of some sort of impediment, but I was told at the interval that this was not the way the original actor had played the part and was in no way informed by the script. I'm not sure how the director let this go unchecked, but it is certainly the production's loss.

Aside from the amazing puppets, other aspects in this show were more subtly but no less impressively creative. Designer Rae Smith's sketches projected on a panel above the stage allowed for beautiful, simplistic artwork that also informed the audience and made it possible to jump from location to location, from farm to battlefront. Also, the original music by Adrian Sutton and John Tams was haunting and beautiful, and the production sometimes seemed to slip into a musical, but the solo or group singing blended nicely into the narrative and added layers of the feeling of the period.

If the part of the boy was to be recast, I would recommend this show instantly to anyone in London. The music, art, and puppetry are so far and above the expectation for children's theater that even non-theater goers could appreciate enjoy it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Winter's Tale

Once again, Sam Mendes has created a world in which I so very badly want to live. The other half of the Bridge Project in repertory at the Old Vic (the first being The Cherry Orchard), Mendes brings Shakespeare's story of lusty jealousy to life with the British cast members forming Sicilia, and Bohemia consisting of the Americans.

Like The Cherry Orchard, this production used breath-taking live music and candles to create a sense of time and place that invited the audience to enter the world of the story through laughter and tears. Once again Rebecca Hall was incredible, from her anguish as her husband accuses her of infidelity and takes away her children to her amazing beauty in the transfigured statue, where she absolutely glowed in a white dress, forgiving Leontes (Simon Russell Beale, also with yet another amazing performance).

In the second act, in Bohemia, the bawdy and freely happy Americans also inhabit a world filled with music, but of a more lively variety and, instead of somber candlelight, red, white and blue balloons fill the stage. Ethan Hawke, as the troubadour Autolycus, was a hilarious Jack Sparrow-esque conman, singing his lines in a flamboyant yet slightly bored with his situation tone. The cast partakes in one of the most ridiculous dances I have ever seen on stage during their country party: The women wear giant round balloons over their chests, and the men strap phallic balloons over their pants, and what follows is absolute comic absurdity.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in a talk with Tony Award winning cast member Richard Easton (Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, 2001), who played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale. It was wonderful to be able to listen to an older, very accomplished but humble actor reflect on his philosophies about acting over the span of his transatlantic career. Throughout the conversation he was insistent that the actor is not the focus of a play but merely a vessel for the text: "The artist is the playwright. The medium is the actor."

It was clear he had no patience for young, self-absorbed actors, who, he felt, misunderstood what acting is about, and if they wanted to be self-serving egomaniacs they should stick to film directing and leave acting well enough alone. When I asked how he and his fellow cast mates are able to keep the story and characters so fresh and alive after performing them often twice a day, around the globe, for nearly a year, he almost chided me for thinking that they could do anything but. He again insisted that you just have to do the text, and that each time you start with the first line, you are starting the story for the first time. He also admitted a love for seeing young people in the cheap, student-priced seats in the balcony at the Old Vic peering over the railing to look down for a better view of the stage: "The young faces..." he said almost wistfully but still with a straightforward edge, "It enables you to believe you are doing magic."


Mincemeat is exactly what experimental, political theaters everywhere are trying to accomplish. And the company producing it, Cardboard Citizens, accomplishes it in no small manner.

Cardboard Citizens is a theater company that promotes awareness for homelessness in their work and in practice, choosing texts that illuminate the complications of homelessness and choosing actors that have a personal connection to homelessness, all while providing people who are currently homeless opportunities and workshops to learn about theater.

Mincemeat did not take place in a theater, but in a massive, multiple-story abandoned warehouse. The audience was nervously milling around the bottom floor when suddenly one of the garage doors was pulled opened and in screeched a van, spilling out a group of masked vigilantes, with an elderly man as their hostage. The audience was pinned against a wall, not sure what to do or where to go amidst all the screaming and shouting. A few minutes of trying to decipher what the hell was going on later, the actors paused, informed us that this was not in fact "one of those" stories, and to please join them in the next room for a restart of the show.

And so it went. Each scene took place in a different room or floor of the massive warehouse, and we were shuffled from place to place not unlike cattle. But, as the actual narrative began, my annoyance with the herding of the audience was replaced with awe for the writing of this story and the actors carrying it, which were both incredibly far and above anything one would expect in a warehouse.

The story is based on a true event from WWII: The British military planted false papers on a dead man's body and left it to be conveniently found off of the Spanish coast, giving the fascists misinformation about where their next military attack would be, giving the British a huge victory one week later. The play's story began with this man in a kind of purgatory, charged with finding his true identity before he can enter heaven. He has no idea who he is, and so sets about looking for clues, but as the story weaves on we become aware that he is not a top military agent with secret information and a loving family back home as his dress and the content of his pockets would imply, but through a trip to the morgue and through bombed-out London and to an underground shelter, we discover along with the hero that he was no such honorable person, but an alcoholic, mentally unstable vagrant that the military had picked for the mission because no one would miss him or his body.

The acting and physical experience of this show as an audience member, in addition to a script so full with historical and ethical questions, made this play a visceral theatrical event. The physical discomfort that the audience endures as they try to breathe through the smoke and haze of a blitzed London shelter, the heat and stuffiness of the morgue, all make the story incredibly real. At the end of the show, just as suddenly as it began, the main character pulls open a huge garage door, walking out into the streets of London 2009, complete with some very confused looking pedestrians peering into the warehouse trying to figure out where this costumed figure came from and why in the world a hundred people are sitting inside between bunk beds and clothing lines.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Peter Pan

Peter Pan was, by far, the most fun that I have had at a theater event on this trip. Set up in a white, circus-like tent in Kensington Gardens, a beautiful London park, the theater-in-the-round boasts an Imax kind of experience in that the setting (London rooftops, Neverland, the Pirates' ship) was projected onto the ceiling of the tent above the seats and the simple stage.

Before even entering the tent itself, we were able to eat dinner outside in a little cabana in the gorgeous park (tragically, they had missed their shipment of paninis that morning and we were forced to eat cake for our meal) and watched as the families piled into the theater. Once inside, we were treated to one of the most imaginative and creative uses of space and objects that I have seen in a long time. The use of puppetry for Nana and a Neverland bird, a sort of bicycle contraption for the crocodile, and a bathtub on wheels for the pirates' rowboat were so inventive and clever. The stage floor itself had sections that would rotate, revealing beds, tree trunks, or undersea rocks for hiding mermaids.

The best part about Peter Pan was watching the little British kids react to the action, sometimes yelling out in concern for the Lost Boys or to warn them about pirates. The five-year-old little blond boy next to me was eagerly kneeling up in his chair by the end of the show so that he could see better. After the show and on the way out of the park, some boys had taken off their socks to use them as hand puppets, pretending to be the Neverland bird.


For all the talk about film celebrities in theater this summer, Jude Law (pleasantly and surprisingly) rose to the occasion in Hamlet. Roles like this almost require a certain amount of arrogance to say yes, why of course I should play one of the biggest parts in the cannon of this language's theater, and, unlike Helen Mirren in the French equivalent of Phedre, Law had the presence to pull it off.

This production was very dark in costumes and in lighting, with eerie fog and snow constantly surrounding the characters in shadow. A very solid ensemble may have done themselves a disservice in the running time of the show- almost four hours is a long time to sit through anything, even if the acting and staging are great. Ophelia was strong and charismatic, and Polonius was conniving and still humorous. Hamlet was played (thankfully) not as meek and indecisive, but as a quick-witted individual determined and torn with a sense of intense urgency. His mocking of the other characters created several moments that were quite funny, sometimes because of the text and sometimes with what Law did with it physically.

This is the first really unpleasant experience I have had with a celebrity being in a show. Even though I thought he was great, there was a crowd of obnoxious people (and when I say people I mean young girls) there to see him that I am quite sure would never had attended (and therefore never decided it would be a good time to go to the bathroom during the To Be Or Not To Be speech, unwrap candy throughout the show, or shriek during the bows) to see an unknown talent in the role.

Minor annoyances aside, I will say this production also featured my two favorite aspects of theater in London:
1. Fabulous student discounts on great seats.
2. The theaters all sell ice cream at the intermission. It's like I've died and gone to heaven.