July 31, 2008

Squishyness vs. My Id

Lately I've been experiencing a long, slow revelation -- more like a sunrise than a lightbulb going off -- about myself and my craft.

I've tended to complain that the characters I play are very passive. Rather than making things happen, things happen to them, and they have to react. I marvelled for a while at just how consistent this was, that I kept being cast in these passive roles, when it eventually dawned on me... the characters aren't necessarily passive, *I* am, and I inject this passivity into my characters.

In my classes with Austin Pendleton, he described my approach as "bringing the mountain to Mohammad," meaning, I think, that he noticed that the characters I played in the scenes I did for him tended to have my personality traits and physical tics, even if they weren't particularly what the playwright had envisioned, yet I still managed to make it work. Usually. (Don't ask about the train wreck that was my attempt at Stanley Kowalski)

We don't disappear into our characters; our characters tend to disappear into us. People with strong, forceful personalities tend to inject that forcefulness into their characters (like Patrick Page, the best Iago I ever saw). People with ebulient, bubbly personalities tend to make their characters chipper and perky. This also is the case for generally inassertive milquetoasts like me. We tend to make our characters inassertive and, well, squishy. It gets cyclic, since casting people tend to assume that these are the only types we can play, thus we get cast accordingly. For me, my greatest thrill is to break out of my squishy typecasting and demonstrate that yeah, I have range, and I can play kings, assholes and villains too.

A few years ago I played King Philip (the young French king) in The Lion in Winter, and I grew a beard and wore a long wig which completely altered my look. Chip Noon made my decade when he told me how he remarked to himself, "Wow, that guy's pretty good. Who is he? (reads program) Oh my God, that's John???" This was one of the first roles where I got to really push myself into some new territory, transcend my own limitations, and actually act. I have an id. It's an impish little shit, and I need to let it out more. Onstage and off.

What My iPod's Album-Shuffle Feature Brings Forth Today

Multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles recorded an album on the Cotillion label in 1970 shortly after leaving the original lineup of King Crimson. Charmingly twee hippy-dippy folky prog rock, with a guest appearance by Steve Winwood, landing somewhere in between Traffic and T-Rex, but lacking King Crimson's sinister edge. Or really, any edge at all.

That said, here's everything you need to know about this album:

In the first verse of the opening song-suite "Turnham Green," when McDonald sings about his girlfriend's "soft pussy," he's referring, without a trace of innuendo, to her cat.


July 28, 2008

How I Spent My Weekend

An enjoyably busy, mostly theatrically-oriented, weekend.

Friday night I hung out with my favorite radio queers in the dungeon of WGAY-fm, which is far less kinky than it sounds. Dave & Patrick, America's most adorkable married (well, as far as the law allows in Maryland) couple, run a radio show from their College Park basement. Dave has a huuuuuge record collection and plays obscure or geeky stuff, Patrick pulls articles from the most recent issue of Metro Weekly to discuss, and a gaggle of us gather to wax witty and catty.

Saturday I was up early for "Peace" rehearsal at WSC, then straight off to Annapolis for a callback for "True West" at Bay Theatre. They kept me there for an hour, reading several times (usually with Lee Ordeman or Parker Dixon) mostly as Austin, once as Lee. Lucia the AD took me aside afterwards, and told me that although I wasn't right for either role, she strongly recommended that I come back in a few months to audition for Shaw's Candida. I told her I'd done the play before (in '04 with Acadia Rep in Bar Harbor ME, a month before I moved to DC), and she assumed I meant as Marchbanks. She was surprised to hear that I'd played Rev. Morell, which led to my confessing my real age. Lately I've been enjoying watching people's eyes pop when they learn I'm about a decade older than I apparently look. Good genes, I tell them. I never lie about my age. Although I might get more dates if I did...

No tears shed about not getting True West. I'd certainly love to do it, but it conflicts with "Temptation," the first play in Constellation Theatre's 2nd season, and I gave a good enough audition to hopefully merit serious consideration. Allison Stockman (their AD) and I are on the same wavelength; I like her work and she likes mine. If I don't get cast, darn, though I wouldn't mind the rest.

Then straight from Annapolis over to Capitol Hill for a barbecue at Warren and Shannon's. Haven't seen them in months. Only meant to stay for a couple hours, but as Warren's BBQ's tend to go, I left about 10pm (bundled, as usual, with copious leftovers). Amazing to see JP and his wife's nearly 3-yr old daughter walking and taking, when it seems like yesterday that I heard that they were expecting. I've been here that long already. Wow.

And straight over to another party, at Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee's (dubbed Chez Hardley) for a party of mostly WSC people. Lots of the "Red Noses" cast was there, many freshly trimmed at long last (Tom Wood looks twelve). Rolled out around 1am.

Up early for brunch at Dave and Patrick's for our somewhat regular Dr Who brunch. I bring over old or reconstructed episodes, today was a reconstruction of The Macra Terror (no surviving episodes of this story exist, but it has been partially reconstructed from still photos and audio). Sentient giant killer crabs are the secret masters of a utopic human colony. We are such geeks.

So another Fringe has come and gone. I'd yammer about what shows were my favorites, but I must confess I didn't see a single show this year. I feel guilty admitting this, since most of my friends were in one show or another, but between Red Noses performances and Peace rehearsals, it just didn't happen. I also didn't see any Fringe shows last year. My bad. Maybe next year.

July 24, 2008

On Career Minor-Leaguers, at the Plate and Onstage.

I read my new Facebook buddy King Kaufman's sports column daily on Salon.com, and in recent columns he praises a blog he'd come across written by minor-league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst. Unless that big call comes, Hayhurst is never rising above Triple-A ball. He's largely at peace with this, so rather than waste blogspace whining, he gives us the perspective we never get watching ESPN: the leaky motel rooms, endless bus rides, tarantulas in the bullpen, etc. There are a lot more of these players in the farm system than the 400 or so that are at any given summer evening are suited up for the Big Show, and aspiring athletes should take note, since the odds are that their lives will be more likely to be like his than, say, Derek Jeter. Similarly, drama programs churn out thousands of graduates every year, and somehow not all of them become Robert DeNiro.

His attitude made me reflect on my life, which isn't entirely dissimilar from his (except comparatively I'm chuggin' along in Single-A ball), maintaining my illusions of making it to the big dance, or at least a dance big enough to pay my rent.

I've got some similar life-of-a-struggling actor stories of my own, and that's definitely what I should be blogging about, rather than Youtube clips and LOLcats. To that end I can only say that I've been too busy living that life to write about it, juggling the full-time day job and struggling to turn my evening hobby into a career. My life, with not much exaggeration, is a perpetual cycle of work, rehearsal, and sleep. In the bits in between: feeding the cat, an occasional load of laundry, doing a dish or two, watching Doctor Who, and a lot of Chipotle burritos.

I spent many years in my artsy New England hometown, working in a tiny theatre with a rotating cast of fellow thespians. Although, yeah, technically I guess it was, I never thought of it as community theatre. Along with the requisite handful of incompetents and social maladjusts, many of my colleagues came from reputable arts schools, Tisch (NYU), North Carolina School of the Arts, or spent years working in NYC theatre off-off-Broadway; many were just as talented as any professional 'name' actors working today, or moreso. Yet they chose to come, or return, or remain, here.

This was my peer group. I learned far more by working with and observing them than I did at my undergraduate program (That's not a knock on my particular undergrad program, just a reflection on most B.A. drama programs in general). At the end of the run, we'd get a percentage of the gross, usually under $100. And this theatre was never dark. Each production had a two or three week run, and after one show closed on a Sunday, the next show would tech through the week, preview Thursday, and open Friday. This was my life for nearly eight years. I left seven years ago, and many of those same colleagues are still living that life (though some have passed away, moved to big cities, or are burned out).

A few that I knew tangentially, who usually worked at the nearly-Equity theatre across town, did go on to bigger things; some even to Broadway. Yet most of my peers chose to stay at the level that they are at. It's a question of priorities, I guess. Christopher, the NCSA grad, confided in me one night on a lakeside ten years ago that he wanted to be a Dad more than a professional actor (now he is a Dad, married to one of my undergrad classmates, and is from all I can tell entirely content. He still acts, just less). Kristan, whom I consider the finest actor I've ever worked with, couldn't conceive giving up her house and spacious yard to go somewhere like NYC. Her husband Chris, another fine actor, keeps claiming to be giving up theatre to focus on his painting, but never quite manages to. Eddie the eccentric visionary director (and former costumier at the NY Metropolitan Opera) emerges from his sculpture studio once every blue moon to throw some amazing theatre together on a budget of less than nothing. Tim, the aging Brit ex-pat, is slowly killing himself with overwork, exacerbating his failing health, but who would dare ask him to stop?

Although I could have been relatively content to stay home, eventually I realized there was nothing keeping me there, and I wanted to challenge myself to see just what I could do outside of this self-contained microuniverse. I dipped my foot into the water and got an internship, worked in summer stock, applied and was accepted into the Actors Studio MFA Program at the New School University (though I didn't attend), and finally packed and moved to New York City in the summer of 2001.

The people I met in NYC were a mixed bunch. For every career-focused tunnel-visioned hyper-talented person like my roommate Becki (now seen on prime time TV), there were dozens of talented unemployed (usually in my acting classes; they'd typically turn Equity and drop off the map), and hundreds of unfocused wanderers. The talented unemployed were usually the ones acting circles around me in Austin Pendleton's classes at HB, paying the rent as personal assistants to Oscar-winning actors. The wanderers tended to be grown up child actors, on the rare occasion doing the sort of store-front theatre in the boroughs that my CUA classmate Molly lovingly lampooned in "Ten For Hamlet." One of them told me how much I inspired him, apparently because even though I wasn't knocking on agents' doors, I regularly read Backstage, sent out headshots, and went to auditions. If, like them, I wasn't working, at least I was making the effort. Yet somehow I could never warm to the idea that showing up was particulary worthy of adulation.

My career in NYC was going nowhere so when the opportunity to pursue my oft-delayed MFA came around I jumped ship and came to DC. A two-year grad program later, I was out making the rounds, and almost instantly I was a steadily working non-Equity actor, basically having the life I had back home, just in larger theatres, for a (slightly) bigger paycheck, and getting my name spelled right in the Washington Post rather than misspelled in the Portsmouth Herald.

I'm still comparatively in the Minor Leagues, as befitting my status as a minor-league actor. I work in theatres where rats lurk, where the AC doesn't work in summer, I've had tech rehearsals interrupted by fires, homeless guys leave us roses and beer, and rehearsed in rooms in which we have to stay alert for parts of the floor that are too rotted out to support our weight.

I don't know if I'm a Major League caliber actor. I don't have leading man looks, I'm a decent singer but a terrible dancer, I have some issues with physicality, insecurity, socialization, etc. That said, I'm an intelligent, flexible character actor, can work in a wide variety of genres, have a strong voice and sharp instincts. I'm a well-rounded utilityman, a solid journeyman, not a spectacular power hitter or speedy base stealer. So at best I'll probably be like Dirk Hayhurst, toiling my career away in Triple-A. If I go Equity, I may work, I may not. I can see myself doing low-level Equity Regional theatre around the country. And unlike Dirk, who at my age would be considered at the twilight of his career, barring physical or mental infirmity I can act until I drop dead. So I still am on an upward career trajectory, albeit a gentle slope. I've got time. Knock wood.

July 23, 2008


"Ephemeris, ephemeris. An actor's life for me"
from David Mamet's A Life In The Theatre

I have little opportunity to mourn Red Noses which closed Sunday, because Monday night we dove right into our first read-thru of Peace.

Brian Crane and I are the only carryovers from Red Noses (though Amber and Kaleigh will do props, and Jack is now coming up with the season's graphic design), and we both found it very unsettling to come in barely 24 hours later to find the theatre empty. The platforms, drapes and blacks are all gone.

However, they did leave the small prop table and costume rack behind, and it still had a few props on it or near it. Flote's death mask, Toulon's wig and beard for when she played God, Bembo's drum, the Ravens' nooses, some tennis balls, a few damaged plastic noses, etc. A tiny island of memory in a vast empty room.

I think it would've been easier if that table wasn't there. We'll have various memories of putting on Red Noses, some joyous, some bittersweet, others just plain bitter. But there is an emotional pull in seeing those remaining items that I'd prefer not to have to deal with. It's over. Let's move on.

I recall working in an office some eight years ago, and dealing with the aftermath when a co-worker died in an accident at her home, and seeing her cubicle undisturbed for weeks afterwards (apart from flowers and stuffed animals left as memorials) grew increasingly distressing. The more we hang onto the past, the harder it is to move forward.

Impermanence is the nature of our profession. We work very closely, intimately, passionately together for a finite period of time, then we go our separate ways, sometime to work together again, sometimes to never see each other again. One thing I like about participating in a strike (in college or community theatre it's expected if not required) is the ritual of disassembly. It gives a definite sense of closure, like we're giving the production an honorable funeral. As I move up the career ladder of professional theatre, I don't participate in strikes as often; consequently I do miss out on the opportunity to definitively shut the door on one project before moving onto another.

The problem for me is that impermanence frequently bleeds into my 'real' life. For most of my adult life I bounced from job to job; restaurants and customer service for a while, then series of temp jobs with various companies. Working at the same place for more than a year is a rarity. In New York I lived in four different apartments in less than three years. Only one relationship in my life lasted longer than a year. Am I so accustomed to the impermanence of the theatrical life that I instinctively avoid commitments offstage?

Lately that's changed; I've got a full-time job (salaried, with great benefits), a new car, I've lived in the same place for nearly two years. This is the closest I've come to putting down actual roots. As for relationships, well, I'm working on that...

Dream Diary

These days I rarely have memorable dreams, or at least dreams that linger in the memory past my stumbling out of bed. Last night's dream had three distinct chapters, and they were odd enough that they merit repeating. I know that posting one's own dreams is the epitome of self-indulgence on my part - and tedium on yours - but I thought I'd share, just for shitz'n'giggles. Draw whatever psychoanalytic conclusions thou wilt.

Chapter One
I was at some kind of dormitory/condominium complex, watching from my window some sort of festival or gathering on the grounds, several stories below. I recognized, sitting in a large section of aluminum bleachers, a young man that I recognized as a prominent figure in the Russian Mafia. He was short, not fat but could be described as well-fed. He wore a well-tailored dark suit, sunglasses, and long oily hair pulled back in a ponytail. Surrounding him was a rather imperious entourage of bodyguards. I stared at him through the window - I remembered him from an earlier encounter where I'd apparently run afoul of him (either in a previous dream or a bit of deja vu). Suddenly he looked up and pointed in my direction, and several of his entourage immediately broke off and ran into the building, presumably after me. I bolted down the back stairs, certain I'd be killed if caught. I exited the building, and ran through the crowd around back of the bleachers. The Russian Mob Boss also was nearby, but I managed to walk past him unnoticed. Perhaps it wasn't me he was after? Who knows.

Chapter Two

I was reading the Sunday Paper, and much to my surprise was a new Peanuts comic strip. I understood that the strip was discontinued after Charles Schulz's death, but apparently his assistant, after many years of legal wrangling, had been allowed to carry it on. I noted how the characters looked largely the same, but without Schulz's unsteady 'jigglyness'. I noted that it was odd that the Sunday strip was without color. But the most startling difference was the subject matter. Sally tells Charlie Brown she's going to lay down for a while. Charlie Brown goes about his business for a while, then goes into her bedroom to check on her, tries to wake her up, and realizes that she's dead. The last panel shows Charlie Brown cradling her body in his arms and wailing.

Vague fuzzy dream where my friends Sean, Suzanne and I are walking through an old train station that had some section converted into some avant garde art museum.

Chapter Three
Another peril sequence of fleeing someone trying to kill me, although I seem to have landed in a cliché action movie. Again the definite sense that my pursuer was a recurring character (though I don't recall dreaming him before). I am halfway up the stairs when he cuts me off at the top. He has a bomb in a suitcase. A shot rings out and he pitches over. Behind me at the foot of the stairs is his girlfriend, apparently having seen the error of her ways. I grab the suitcase and run up the stairs to a cluttered living room where a friend is playing a computer game or surfing the web on a laptop. I open the suitcase and find the device. We have moments to spare, but he's too involved in whatever he's doing to particularly care. I run out, leaving him to his fate.

July 21, 2008

Fun With Anagrams = Human Was Farting

Clearly I don't have enough to do at work, so here I am playing with anagrams.

This one is particularly clever, but I didn't come up with it.

To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Scramble the letters around and it becomes:
In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

My favorite anagrams for John Arthur Geoffrion:

Father Foghorn Junior
Fathering For Our John
Join A Further Foghorn
John North Our Giraffe
Join Gaffer Hurt Honor
Hot John Fearing Furor
Roof Fear Hurting John
Heating Off Horn Juror
Hanger Jiff Honor Tour
Fourth Earring Of John
Orange Jiff North Hour
Ranger Hoof Fruit John
Hernia Off Thong Juror
Thane Foghorn If Juror
A Fourth Reign For John
Gonorrhea Jiff Hot Run
Urethra Jiff Goon Horn
Innate Horror Huff Jog
Jean Frothing For Hour
A Fuhrer Forgot Oh Jinn
A Goner Jiff Honor Hurt
Hog Off A Thinner Juror
Hornier Fag Fur To John
Honor Giraffe Horn Jut
Thane Griffon Ho Juror
John Foreign Fart Hour
A Foreign For John Hurt

July 20, 2008

Piercing Analysis From Random Facebook Apps, Volume 4

What Type of Person do you Attract?

You attract unstable people!
Congrats, you are an 'insane' magnet, and you probably have no idea why. Something about your mix of styles, how you walk not just 'one' lifestyle, but appear to have a foot in them all. To the insane, you appear to be a beacon of hope and they will flock to you, like it or not. But, they ARE insane. Lucky for you, the insane tend to be the best sexual lovers, just the rest of the package deal may not be for you.

How Evil Are You?

Mostly Good.
You are a decent person, who generally strives to do the right thing. But you have a little evil streak that sometimes shows its face. Usually, this tiny villain only expresses itself in small or petty misdemeanors and mischievous acts, and because of this you aren’t a huge threat to the wellbeing and goodness of humanity. But in a way, your impishness is even more dangerous because it can be charming, entertaining, and even amusing. So we have to keep a careful eye on you to make sure that little devil stays under control.

How CrAzY Are You?

You're so not crazy.

But that's a bad thing. You're boring. Dull. Some more boring. Soome more dull. Get some crazy medicine or some Cocoa Puffs to get coocoo for!!! YOU ARE SO NOT CRAZY, IT'S NOT NORMAL!!!!

July 18, 2008

Hometown Props

My hometown (and it's signature store) got name-checked in today's Non Sequitur comic strip...

July 13, 2008

Shakespeare en Français, a Geekery report.

It's Bastille Day! And I can think of nothing more appropriate to mark the occasion than to talk about Shakespeare. Allons-y!

Consider that unless you're fluent in Russian, you've never really read Chekhov; only someone else's translation/interpretation. Unless you're fluent in Ancient Greek, you've never read Oedipus Rex or Electra.

I have never experienced the actual words written by the playwrights that gave birth to modern theatre; Ibsen, Chekhov, or Strindberg; nor for that matter Brecht, Havel, Pirandello, Fo, etc. I have some familiarity with French, but still I've never really read or seen Molière, Corneille, or Racine. So apart from the universality of their themes, or recognizing the ancient comedy roots in Moliere, I'm not getting the pure unfiltered mind of a playwright who works in another language. So the intricacies of how they use language is lost on me.

It works the other way as well. We blather about Shakespeare's use of language, how the text is the key to unlocking the characters' emotional life, how the rhythm and alliterative devices in the verse are rich with detail, color, and life. Translate it into another language, and that disappears. You get a fuzzy outline instead of a sharp picture.

Some months ago I picked up a copy of Jean Anouilh's translations of three Shakespeare comedies, As You Like It (Comme Il Vous Plaira), A Winter's Tale (Le Conte d'Hiver), and Twelfth Night (La Nuit Des Rois), because I was so curious to see what Shakespeare sounds like filtered through another tongue, and through the perspective of another playwright.

Here's Jacques' famous speech from As You Like It (II.7)

Le monde entier est un plateau de théâtre et tous les hommes et toutes les femmes ne sont que les personnages de la pièce. Ils font leurs entrées, leurs sorties et chaque homme y joue plusieurs rôles, car la pièce a sept actes qui sont les sept âges de la vie. D'abord le bébé pleurant et bavant dans les bras de sa nourrice; ensuite l'écolier pleurant avec sa figure bien lavée du matin, se traînant à contrecœur comme un escargot sur le chemin de l'école; puis c'est l'amoureux qui soupire comme une fournaise en composant une mauvaise ballade en l'honneur des sourcils de sa belle; puis le soldat plein de jurons étranges, moustachu comme un léopard, jaloux de son honneur, prompt et hardi à la querelle, qui va poursuivant la bulle de savon de la gloire jusqu'en la gueule des canons; et enfin, c'est le juge qui s'avance dans son beau ventre bien rond, bourré de bon chapon, l'œil sévère, la barbe fleurie, débordant de vérités premières et des dernières nouvelles du jour. Le sixième âge vient alors et le transforme en une sorte de pantin maigre, en pantoufles, lunette sur le nez, vastes bajoues, aumônière au côté, perdu dans les hauts-de-chausse du temps de sa jeunesse, bien conservés mais trop larges, hélas! maintenant pour ses jarrets fondus. Sa grosse voix mâle est redevenue grêle comme celle de l'enfant rend un son de fausset et chevrote. Enfin la dernière scène, celle qui termine cette fertile en événements étranges, c'est la second enfance, l'oubli pur et simple: sans yeux, sans dents, sans goût, sans rien.

The original, for comparison:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Translating the French back to English, just for fun, via Babel Fish:

The whole world is a stage and all the men and all the women are only the characters of the play. They make their entries, their exits and each man plays several parts there, because the play has seven acts which are the seven ages of the life. D'access the baby crying and dribbling in the arms of its nurse; then the schoolboy crying with his well washed morning figure, trailing himself unwillingly like a snail on the way to school; then he is the lover which sighs like a furnace by composing a bad ballad in honor of the eyebrows of his beloved; then the soldier full with swearwords strange, with a moustache like a leopard, jealous of his honor, prompt and bold with the quarrel, which is continuing the soap bubble of glory until in the mouth of the guns; and finally, he is the judge who advances in his beautiful quite round belly, stuffed of good capon, the severe eye, the flowered beard, overflowing of truths first and the breaking news of the day. The sixth age comes then and transforms him into a kind of puppet thin, in slippers, glasses on the nose, vast bajoues, aumônière at the side, lost in top-of-fits time of his youth, preserved well but too broad, alas! maintaining for his molten bulges. His large male voice is become again spindly like that of a child returns a sound of falsetto and chevrote. Finally the last scene, that which finishes this fertile in strange events, he is it the second childhood, pure and simple lapse of memory: without eyes, teeth, taste, anything.

LOLcat du jour, Shakespeare Geek edition


This picture, by the way, is about as entertaining as Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Julius Caesar. Very solid JC and Calpurnia, however they're gone after intermission. And my old friend Pete was Cinna the Poet. But Brutus was boring, Cassius was sorely miscast (though he did fine considering), and Antony. Oh lordy. The understudy, who had to finish the run after Andrew Long tore his Achilles. You want to root for the guy, because this is what all understudies dream of; the chance to go on. But he basically marked it through. I could've slept through "Friends, Romans, Countrymen". He was better in "Antony & Cleopatra" the following week (STC is doing the two plays in repertory), but still. Come on, dude. Step up.

July 10, 2008

Doctor Who Geekery Report: Season Three (2007)

(Thanks, Mom, for the birthday present!)

The third season of the new series is a mixed bag, with some absolute low-lights balanced by some top-notch Doctor Who, some of the most emotional moments in the program's history, and one episode that might just be one of the most clever time-travel stories of the entire genre, let alone in the pantheon of Who-dom.

This series is dominated by a character who isn't even there, as the Doctor attempts to move on without Rose, and Martha can do nothing except pine for a man clearly in love with someone else. I actually like Martha a lot. She's intelligent, resourceful, level-headed, witty, and gorgeous, but gets a bum rap by fans who pine for Rose as much as the Doctor does.

Let us flit through the episodes...

The Runaway Bride - A jolly romp that provided little other than an preview of Catherine Tate's feisty Donna Noble and a fun Christmas story for viewers. If you think too hard it all falls to bits, so don't. B+

Smith & Jones - Very clever, even if the story is stricly a means to introduce the Doctor to his new companion. Martha's ability to not panic and make sense of the situation around her clearly impresses the Doctor. Highlights are many, but I love the sweet little old lady with a very sinister straw, plus the little squeak made as the Judoon mark the hands of their subjects with an X. B+

Shakespeare Code - Yeah, as a certifiable Shakespeare nerd, the nighttime performances considerably irk me, but that's balanced out by using a play title, Love's Labours Wonne, that has a sole contemporary reference to suggest that it ever existed, though I like to think that it had to have been written, the ending to Love's Labours Lost being so unresolved. Its presence in this episode makes me smile. But the rest of the episode is fairly unremarkable. B-

Gridlock - The frikkin Macra? Good lord, of all the Doctor's former adversaries, I can't imagine who was clamoring for their return, especially given that their only other appearance was in a missing story over 4 decades ago. The concept of a traffic jam lasting for generations is a considerable stretch on my suspension of disbelief, but you can't help but surrender to it. And I can't tell whether it's an acting choice or a character choice, but the Doctor's utter panic and desperation at Martha's kidnapping seems a bit... much. True, Martha's the Doctor's guest, not having 'earned' full companion status yet, and he could be overcompensating for his fear of being alone after losing Rose, but still. The story only exists for the Face of Boe to deliver his revelation to the Doctor that would bear fruit at the end of the season: "You Are Not Alone." C+

Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks - Oh lordy. Nice subtle continuity with 1965's The Chase which also, if briefly, connected the Daleks and the Empire State Building, and the American dialects are a bit better this time around, but damn. Dumb dumb dumb. Worst episodes of the New Series. D

The Lazarus Experiment - Apart from all the plot points about the mysterious Mr Saxon, and the use of Martha's mom as a wedge, Meh. C

42 - Apparently this didn't go over well with most fans, but I actually like this. Gritty, dark, reminiscent of the "Aliens" movies. The 'real time' scenario works quite well. Still, the Doctor's desperation when Martha gets ejected is a bit too much; still can't decide if it's the Doctor's over-compensation or Tennant displaying his raaaaange. The yelling & screaming as he fights the alien entity's attempt to take over makes me suspect the latter. Still, fast-paced and chilling. B+

Human Nature/Family of Blood - A bold concept never addressed in the classic series: the Doctor wipes his memory, changes his physiognomy, and lives as a human. Martha, posing as a maid, can only watch as he falls in love with the school nurse, and her race actually becomes an issue. And as the aliens that caused him to transform in the first place start to close in, Martha's desperation to get the Doctor back to normal builds nicely. Great cliffhanger as a humble schoolteacher who has no concept of his actual identity is confronted by aliens threatening his new girlfriend. Nice subtle fanwank by refering to his parents Sydney (Newman, the show's creator) and Verity (Lambert, the show's first producer). The montage of the Doctor's happy married fantasy life reminds me of Last Temptation of Christ. His agony over giving up the life he had is Tennant's best acting in his tenure in the role, and is the most heart-rending moment that we've ever seen the Doctor go through since the end of "The Green Death." And of course, the means by which he conceals his identity comes up again a few episodes later... A

Blink - If the previous episode was more soap opera than sci-fi, then Blink is a pendulum swing back, and damn if it doesn't present the most clever sci-fi concept in the show's history, if not the genre. I adore Sally Sparrow, and she'd've made a brilliant companion. I could go on yammering, but I'll stop and merely say that I love this episode. Love it love it love it. A+

Utopia - This story exists as prologue to the series climax, and is merely a means to introduce Captain Jack and re-introduce You Know Who. Credibility gets stretched by the connection between Professor Yana and the Face of Boe's message (You Are Not Alone), but still, what a chill we get as we figure out the revelation at the same time as Yana does. B

The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords - Something that goes unremarked upon is that basically everything that happens in this story is the Doctor's fault. After "The Christmas Invasion," the Doctor's whispered question in a single person's ear leads, like the sneeze of a butterfly, to the downfall of Harriet Jones and the political instability that would ultimately lead to Harold Saxon's rise to power.

Unfortunately, Russell T Davies tends to fall into the trap of writing season-ending stories in which he writes himself into such a corner that he can only resolve it by a deus-ex-machina device that stretches credibility to, and occasionally beyond, the breaking point. He did it in Season One with the Bad Wolf Rose-Is-God thing, he narrowly evaded it in Season Two, but really goes overboard in Season Three (from what I gather, he does it again in Season Four). The Doctor is reduced to Tinkerbell, resurrected by Martha as Peter Pan. And that's a shame, because John Simm as the Master is so damn fun, and Martha's family pays the price for their mistrust. A season that takes a while to get going but then recovers with two all-time knockout stories back to back, stumbles at the finish line. C-

Doctor Who Geekery Report: Sea Devils & Warriors of the Deep

I'll briefly cover the two other serials that comprise the Doctor Who box set I received last month. ("The Silurians" was the first, see earlier post)

The Sea Devils (starring Jon Pertwee, 26 Feb - 01 Apr 1972)

A virtual re-write of "Doctor Who and the Silurians", introducing another dormant reptilian race, this time an amphibian one, that seeks to reclaim the Earth. Additions: The Master, the ocean. Subtractions: Moral dilemmas.

There's nothing particularly wrong with The Sea Devils. The scenes between the Doctor and the Master are witty and biting, there's that iconic cliffhanger image of the Sea Devil force (well, when I say force, I mean six guys in rubber suits) rising out of the sea, the Master playing the part of prisoner when he's actually running the prison, him watching kiddie TV (which would be echoed 35 years later in The Sound of Drums). The acting is strong, the effects are decent, even the jarring electronic music doesn't particulary bother me.

So what's missing? Why aren't I as gripped (or even engaged) by this serial as I am by most Pertwee stories? Why does my interest inevitably begin to flag about two-thirds of the way through? Where's the joy?

Maybe it's the Master and the flagging, threadbare retread of his usual storyline: he attempts to rule the earth by introducing an alien menace (Autons, Mind of Evil, Axons, Azal, and later Kronos & the Daleks), but loses control of the situation and relies on the Doctor to save his sorry ass.

More likely it's because the central plot thread that made "Silurians" so engaging, the moral dilemma of the Doctor trying to make peace between two mutually xenophobic parties with an equal claim to the same planet, is given only a cursory nod while the production team place more emphasis on macho action sequences (oooh, swordfights! hovercrafts! blowing shit up! sailors running around! diving bells! submarines! speedboat chases!)

Warriors of the Deep (starring Peter Davison, 05 Jan - 13 Jan 1984)

God-bloody-awful. And the bonus features on the making of this serial don't even pretend that it's otherwise.

There's a decent premise at its heart; the Silurians wake up their Sea Devil cousins, infiltrate an underwater base, and attempt to launch a missle strike that would plunge the two unnamed hair-trigger superpowers into mutually assured destruction. What went wrong? Well, mostly everything. The production staff pretty much sleep-walked their way through this, with such a rush to throw it in front of the camera ready or not that they couldn't stop to second-guess any of their ideas, most of which were half-assed at best. And nobody involved with this serial appear to have seen either of the stories that inspired this one. So here's a laundry list:

The terms "Silurians" and "Sea Devils" were concocted by humans, not by the creatures themselves, yet in this story they refer to themselves as such.

The re-conceived Silurians' third eye, originally used as a weapon or a psycho-kinetic tool, only serves to blink to indicate which of the three is speaking. This wasn't a problem in their original story, and there one voice actor played every part! The re-conceived Sea Devils look awful, and the actors can't disguise the top-heavy nature of their headpieces which frequently lean to one side or another.

How do they attack the Sea base? By walking. Very. Very. Slowly. Down. The. Corridors.

The pet monster, the Myrka, was unfinished (the paint was still wet, as evidenced by the green paint on some actors' costumes when they get near it).

The rubber airlock doors, the over-bright lighting, the horrible costumes and heavy eyeliner.

Ingrid Pitt's ludicrously fatal attempt to stop the Myrka with a karate-kick.

Since the writers couldn't decide on (or wouldn't risk identifying) the two counter-opposed power blocs, the enemy agent Neilson actually announces he's from "The power bloc opposed to this one."

The foreshadowing, in pure "Show the gun in Act One so it can be used in Act Three" style, of the hexachromite gas, which takes most of the piss out of Davison's otherwise moving closing line. ("There should've been another way.")

Of course, I bought it. But then, the BBC Video/2Entertain team tend to release stories with little regard to demand; they're just as likely to release classic stories as clunkers. This one will do little save collect dust on my shelf.

On order for August: The Time Meddler (solid Hartnell), Black Orchid (solid Davison), The Five Doctors special edition (25th anniversary of the 20th anniversary story. Man, I'm old.)

On order for September: The Invasion of Time (flawed but enjoyable), The Invisible Enemy (flawed but not-so-enjoyable), K9 and Company (early 80's attempt at a spinoff, thankfully didn't happen)

Due for October release: The Brain of Morbius (one of the all-time best!), Trial of a Timelord (the clunker to accompany the classic)

July 9, 2008

Piercing Analysis From Random Facebook Apps, vol. 3

Which Winnie the Pooh Character Are You?

You are Piglet, the adventurous but weary little pig. You are quick to agree to do new and exciting things but then become apprehensive. Nevertheless you never back out.

What Greek God are you?

You are Artemis, the goddess of hunt. You are independent and know what you want from life. You respect nature and sometimes may test your skill at target shooting.

July 8, 2008

Red Noses Reviews, or Musings on Drama Critics

Critical opinion is decidedly divided over our production of Red Noses (runs thru July 20th). On the whole, the larger the circulation, the more vitriol.

The Good: Potomac Stages Sun Gazette

The Moderate: Metro Weekly DCist

The Fugly: Washington Post City Paper DC Theatre Scene

I've been a critic. And I can defend the notion of dramatic criticism. There does need to be an evaluative voice to override the shrill shreik of the publicist. Word of mouth can only go so far; someone has to say that Theatre A, with millions of dollars in the bank, Broadway-quality production values, major actors in the lead roles, and a huge publicity machine occasionally does substandard, patronizing, passion-free productions, while Theatre B, with a non-Equity cast, and pennies to spend can occasionally do work that is exciting, daring, and moving. (and sometimes not)

But the professional drama critic works in a vacuum. They're not theatre people, although they may have acted in high school or undergrad. They can't be familiar with the hundreds of actors in this town, lest they find themselves with a conflict of interest. The nature of their profession leaves them on an island.

They have scant insight into the creative process, thus they assume that everything they see onstage is exactly what the producers intended to put there, that it's always a full conceptualization of the director's vision, and have no concept of the compromises that are a regular part of the process, particularly for groups that skew toward Theatre B's end of the spectrum.

I've encountered one critic who wrote a negative review in which he singled out a painting that was a major plot point for being "very obviously blank." What the critic failed to realize was that the performance he attended was a preview. The props mistress simply hadn't painted it yet. By opening, it was complete. Yet he took the show to task for its sloppy production values, mostly based upon his failure to realize that not every set, prop, lighting cue, sound effect, etc., is 100% complete during previews.

Specifically in regards to Red Noses:

Most of the major critics came to the same performance. Most were scheduled to come to the opening, but didn't, and came the next night. Our opening was packed, they laughed riotously, loved it, etc. And virtually no press. The next show: less than 20 people, including the critics. Not our best show, low-energy cast and barely a chuckle (some castmembers claim that the principal chuckler was actually one of the critics, the same one who would go on to complain that the play wasn't funny.) Every performance is different, the audiences all have a different energy, actors may be collectively energetic or lethargic, someone might screw up their lines, a set piece might fall over, a lighting instrument might fail, the sound computer might go haywire, etc. Thus is the nature of live theatre. Restaurant critics may dine 2-3 times before writing their reviews, but drama critics come once. And if it happens to be on a bad night, sucks to be us.

Many critics complained of the length of the play. It runs about 2 hrs 35 minutes, or about half the length of your average Eugene O'Neill play. A critic would have no way of knowing (unless they'd read the play) that we cut approximately an hour's worth of material out of it. We cut an entire scene, about three quarters of another, and made dozens of internal cuts.

Some critics (especially the ones who write for major papers) complained about the heat. We have one functional AC unit in the building. It makes a difference, but critics accustomed to the cushy & cooler conditions at Shakespeare Theatre still will grumble. WSC doesn't have $10k or so to upgrade their HVAC, and even if they did, they're moving out next year anyway, so there's no point. And of course the critics complain about the heat, having to suffer the ignominy of sitting in a comfy chair with a pen in their hand, not even considering the discomfort of the actors who have to spend that time running around in heavy costumes (one actor nearly passed out from heat exhaustion one particularly hot night).

The irony is that from the outset, we were under a strict directive from the artistic director (who is also in the play) to cut it down to 2 1/2 hrs, with the tolerance of the critics for the heat in the building in mind. So we were thinking of you. We actually had to make artistic choices based on the quality of our HVAC. Wrap your minds around that concept.

(Of course, one could raise the legitimate point that maybe WSC shouldn't use Clark St Playhouse during the summer. Certainly a valid point, albeit a moot one since this is their last summer there.)

One critic acknowledged the unusual situation under which our play was produced (Red Noses was a last-minute replacement for another play, The Romans in Britain; see earlier posts on the subject). Yet that critic went on to criticize our fairly low-tech set & lights, which to me is like pointing out that someone is a midget, but then blaming them for being too short. They failed to conceptualize the challenges inherent in switching out one play for another two months before opening. In our case, we lost about a third of the "Romans" cast to other projects, tried to find the best fits in "Red Noses" for those who remained, and then had to find capable actors for the open roles who weren't already committed to Cap Fringe, Source Fest, Forum's Marat/Sade, or any other show (success rate: B+). We lost most of our design team, leaving one person to create some four dozen costumes (success rate: A-). My co-director and I did a rough design of the set, and tried to find someone who was available to build it (success rate: D+), and roped together a sound designer (success rate: A-), props master (success rate: D), and a lighting plot based solely on the lights we had (no time/$$ to borrow or rent more, success rate: B+). Our early production meetings were spent haggling over what we could afford to do, how many actors we could afford to hire, etc. and our tech week was spent deciding what as-yet-unbuilt set pieces we could cut.

Thus is the critic's dilemma. They sometimes have an inkling of the process and its challenges, but they don't understand the full significance. Ultimately they're just professional audience members, with better writing skills. Usually.

The opinions that I do value are those of my fellow actors; especially the really perceptive, experienced, learned ones. Thanks to C.M. who said that no play in years had moved her to tears like ours. Thanks to L.Q. and L.S. who said this was one of the best plays they'd seen in DC. Their praise (or not, sometimes) is tempered with perspective. They know what we go through, because they do too. So you can guess whose opinions I listen to, whose criticisms I take to heart, and whose praise I value above all others.

Sea Change

No joke:

One Saturday morning a month ago, I was getting into my hybrid Toyota Prius (love those 48 mpgs) when a huge SUV slowed to a halt alongside. The driver rolled his window down and asked, "Do you know where I can find a bike shop?"