Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Apparently, last week was my week to catch up on acclaimed plays that I somehow waited way too long to see.  Tuesday night was The Flick and Thursday night was finally the time for me to see last season's Tony Award-winning Best Play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  I loved them both and look forward to repeat visits, now that I know what I've been missing.

Though different is almost every way, both The Flick and Curious Incident are ALL about the magic of theater.  One is practically all silence and stillness and language, and the other uses all of the technology available to elevate a relatively simple story to something incredible. I was blown away by both, in completely different ways.  Spoilers will now abound, so you should probably stop reading, bookmark this page, order your tickets, see the show, then come back and see if you agree with me...

photo credit: Joan Marcus
Curious Incident opens with the death of a dog - at first, teenaged Christopher, who discovered the dog, was accused of the crime.  Once it became clear that Christopher wasn't responsible, he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery.  Making that difficult is the fact that Christopher is autistic, to whom routine and ritual are essential.  Moving outside that comfort zone causes him supreme anxiety - part of the genius of the play is that the director has placed the audience practically inside Christopher's mind.  We see everything play out in the lines and graphs that Christopher orders his world in.  When he steps outside those lines and graphs, the extreme sensory overload is overwhelming, both for him and the audience.  I don't think I've seen a more terrifying scene lately than when Christopher tries to ride the subway and he is assaulted with sensations he barely knows how to deal with.

As Christopher tries to solve the mystery of the dog's murder, other mysteries come to light.  At the beginning of the play, we're told that Christopher's mother died two years ago, but as he digs up information from the neighbors, he discovers that she may not have died after all.  So now there are several things for him to try to work through, all while maintaining his equilibrium (which isn't easy).  The sets and lights and sound and choreography were brilliant in showing us exactly how Christopher was feeling, and processing information, moment to moment.  As a boy on the autistic spectrum (I guess that he is, it's never actually stated what Christopher's issues are), Christopher can't be touched, can't lie, often can't decipher 'small talk' and has a rigidity in how he sees and responds to things.  But he also has a vulnerability that is heartbreaking.  His father longs to touch him and show him affection, but he constantly keeps him at arm's length, nearly literally.

The production does an excellent job integrating narration with the rest of the action; I'll admit I wasn't as keen on the 'play within a play' stuff in the second act, but I think with such a complex story, using different storytelling methods was completely appropriate and really smart, so I got over it.  Some of the staging was so wildly ingenious, my breath was taken away.  But I also held my breath at some of the quiet moments, as well, so it wasn't just the tricks and theatrical wizardry that caught my fancy, but the whole package.

Most of the original cast has departed the production, including the much-lauded lead boy, but the young man I saw play Christopher, Tyler Lea, was incredible.  I can't even imagine a better performance.  He had to portray this very rigid personality, yet not make him robotic or repetitive and make you care for his plight - Lea did all of this brilliantly.  He was funny, sad, scared, smart, self-aware, yet completely ingenuous.  Christopher is an amazing creation on the page, but could easily become a cliche; in Lea's hands, he's a complete whole person.

The rest of the cast was also terrific, I was especially taken with Andrew Long and Enid Graham as Christopher's parents and Nancy Robinette as a warm, kindly neighbor who tries to connect with Christopher.  But, really, everyone was good, and they made a formidable ensemble.  The staging of this show must be a bear to perform every night - one wrong step and the entire grid would fall apart.  The cast all works together as an incredible whole to elevate the material to the level of the amazing physical production.

I was really just blown away by the production and loved every minute of it.  I found it thrilling to look at and experience, but also very moving to listen to and feel.  I definitely would love to see it again, but who knows when it will come up on TDF again?  Maybe I should target other shows I missed early on to see what I may have missed.  Hmmm.  I don't have any tickets coming up in the near future - I can think of at least one acclaimed musical from last season (if not two) that I haven't seen yet.  I need to work on this!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review - The Flick

I am shamefully late in seeing Annie Baker's The Flick.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  LAST YEAR.  Gah.  There's really no excuse, it's just embarrassing that I've waited so long to see it.  But see it I finally did.  Last night.  And, to me, it was well worth the wait.

When the play was done originally, in 2013, it was polarizing.  Critics and many audience members loved it.  Other audience members hated it.  Reports of mass exodus during intermission became frequent.  The artistic director of the original producing company even sent out an apologetic e-mail to his subscribers (which really ticked me off, if I may digress for a moment; don't apologize for your plays!), feeling the need to explain that all theater can't be easy.  Once the play won the Pulitzer, though, things started to settle down, because...Pulitzer.  It shuts people up.  It doesn't, however, keep people from leaving at intermission (a good chunk of the mezz last night didn't return for act two; their loss).

I've had some friends tell me that since I liked John (which is the most recent play by Baker and was the first play of hers I'd seen) that I would find her playwriting methodology boring and static in The Flick, because I'd already seen it in action.  Most of my friends who liked The Flick didn't like John.  And vice versa.  But, hey, I'm a rebel.  I loved John and I loved The Flick.  I really appreciate the complete immersion into the lives of these characters, these PEOPLE.  I am completely on board with what Annie Baker is trying to do.  I love the feeling that I'm watching them live a life instead of be a character in a play.  I love the idea of character and history and self-growth (or no-self-growth) being just as important to a theatrical experience as plot and action. And this is coming from someone who considers herself a plot girl.

When you enter the Barrow Street Theatre, you see the rows of seats for the theater patrons facing the rows of movie seats that make up the stage.  The Flick takes place in a rundown movie theater in Massachusetts, one of the only theaters in the country that still uses a film projector instead of a digital process.  When the play opens, it's Avery's first day and he's being taught the ropes of cleaning the theater by Sam, a 30-something sad sack who has made his 'career' at this movie house.  The third movie theater employee that the play depicts is Rose, the projectionist.  How these three characters interact, live, respond to each other (or not respond to each other) and how they reveal themselves over the three and a half hour running time is what makes up the hypnotic atmosphere of The Flick.  Minutes go by in silence as we watch Avery and Sam sweep up the spilled popcorn and candy on the movie theater floor, but then we learn so much as they start to make small talk that builds up into major revelations.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
It's as if we're eavesdropping on real conversations, the dialogue and acting are so pitch perfect and authentic.  By what these characters say, and often don't say, we learn so much about them.  Much has been made of Baker's use of pause and silence - again, like when I saw John, I didn't take undue notice of the pauses or the silence, because I found them all filled with meaning.  I never got impatient, thinking 'oh my gosh, get on with it,' because I felt as if I could always see what was going on underneath it.  And, like life, what's underneath can be just as interesting as what's being said.

The play takes place over several weeks in the life of these theater employees, and the play structure is episodic - we see small scenes, learn more and more about the characters, then the next vignette begins.  So there's a build-up and cumulative effect to all these scenes.   Dialogue that seemed to be just throwaway lines early on turned up as pivotal moments later in the play.  I was so engrossed in how the story unspooled and was constantly surprised and pleased at the twists and turns.  And, looking back, there were many important things in the play to think about as well, like issues of class, race, education and status.  Again, just like life, seemingly small and unimportant conversations can take on major implications at a later time.

With all of this authentic dialogue came a lot of laugh-out-loud comic lines.  With such unique and idiosyncratic people (who could easily have been stereotypes, but they're written and acted with such compassion, that there are really no cliché moments), their quirky and weird ideas sometimes just made me laugh out loud.  There was also some real sadness and devastation underneath; just a lot of fullness and richness of human experience.  All in only three and a half hours!

When we got to the ending, I thought I knew how things were going to go - the last scene is really exquisitely mournful.  But I would think, 'yes, they're going to do this,'  then I would think, 'no, wait, they're going to do that.'  I must've gone back and forth a dozen times, trying to decide what would happen, which gave the most wonderful anticipation for how things would go.  But, really, I spent the entire evening in wonderful anticipation.  I just hung on every word and every pause and every silence, reveling in the lives I was peeking in on from my seat.

Speaking of my seat, I don't think I even knew Barrow Street Theatre had a mezzanine, but that's where my seat location was.  There are three rows in the mezz and I was in the third row.  Which was nice because I had the back wall to lean on.  The guy sitting next to me was sure our row wouldn't be full, so he took the opportunity to spread out.  When the gent with the seat in front of me sat down, I sort of gasped - he was a giant!  He blocked my entire view of the stage!  I looked down and noticed that a lot of seats had cushions on them - so not only was this guy a giant, but he was also sitting on a cushion to make him even taller!  I looked over at my seat neighbor and whispered, "I'm going to need to move over."  He laughed, handed me a seat cushion of my own and moved over.  He also didn't come back after intermission.  So...there's that.  The tickets say 'no late seating' on them, but people were being seated in the mezzanine throughout the first act.  And the technicians maybe went in and out of the mezz too frequently (the light that poured in when the door opened and closed kept shining into the corner of my eye), so I kinda wish I had seen the show from downstairs.  But since I enjoyed it immensely, I guess the commotion (and giant people) didn't bother me all that much.

The Flick runs until the end of January, unless they extend again, so you should definitely go.  Don't make the mistake I did.  I may try to see it again, from the main floor hopefully.  But rest assured, I will not wait so long to see the next Annie Baker play.  In fact, I can't wait for it to get here...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Adventures With My Parents - part three

(yes, still more from my recent trip to Florida...)

Friday:  We had to get up extra early Friday morning so we could change hotels - we needed to move to Dad's conference hotel for the rest of the trip.  We ended up taking a very early Magical Express bus from the Disney hotel (which I was very sorry to leave) to the Orlando airport.  Once we got to the airport, I called for a shuttle to come pick us up and take us to the Orlando Airport Marriott.  Thankfully, even though we arrived at the hotel really early, we could check in and have time to sit down for a few minutes before Friday's fun activity: a trip to Kennedy Space Center.

My dad and I have talked about going to the space center for years; every time we've gone to Disney, we've regretted that there wasn't time for a detour.  So when Dad's conference group planned an excursion, he signed us right up.  Mom decided to stay in the hotel room and watch tennis to give me updates (I will say I was surprised at how unengaged I became about the US Open.  I thought I'd be checking the app every few seconds to see what was going on, but that didn't happen.  Probably because being with my parents was so much fun).

Dad's group rented a very nice shuttle bus to take all of us to the space center - it was about a 45-minute drive from the hotel.  When you pull into the parking lot, you immediately notice how huge it is there!  There are acres and acres spread out before you, mostly covered with rockets and buildings about rockets.  It was incredible.  We made our way to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building - it was amazing!  I can't wrap my brain around the fact that I've seen two space shuttles this year!  Incredible.  Anyway, you go into the shuttle building and first you see a short film depicting the years up to the creation of the first shuttle.  Then the doors open and you walk into a large room with petal screens, where you experience the first launch.  That was very impressive, with surround sound and all those screens showing different perspectives of the launch.  When the launch is over, you see stars and feel the immensity of space, then the doors open and there is Atlantis.  It's so cool. 

We spent a couple of hours in the shuttle pavilion, just looking at all the exhibits and trying the hands-on simulators that were there (I failed miserably at both landing the shuttle and using the robotic arm; good thing I never wanted to be an astronaut).  There was so much to see and experience, it was almost overwhelming.  Dad and I also went into the Forever Remembered station, where there were mementos and brief tributes to the fallen astronauts of Challenger and Columbia.  It was lovely and sad.  We just had a great time wandering around the entire pavilion and being freshly amazed at each incredible thing that smart people can do when they put their minds to it.

After all that time with Atlantis, Dad and I were hungry, so we went to one of the outdoor snack bars and had a snack.  I found a shady spot to sit and we took our time relaxing.  I think Dad's feet were really feeling the two days at Disney, so we slowed down a bit.  After we finished lunch, we wandered through the Rocket Garden, took a look at the exhibit on conservation and how Florida came to be chosen for a space center, toured the Early Space Exploration pavilion (which was terrific; all the stuff about John Glenn and Mercury and Gemini missions was great), then we took in the Imax 3D movie (more 3D?!?) Journey Into Space.  I was at first nervous that 3D and Imax would be overwhelmingly loud and big, but the film was really terrific and talked a lot about the upcoming missions to Mars.  I will admit, though, that both Dad and I nodded off the tiniest bit during the movie.  Again, all the heat, humidity and walking was starting to hit us.  After the movie, we had about an hour before having to catch the shuttle bus back to the hotel, so we just went with some of Dad's friends to the nearby cafeteria to have some ice cream and sit in the a/c for a bit.  It was a nice way to wind down.  I'm not sure that five and a half hours are enough to see the Kennedy Space Center - there were lots of things Dad and I didn't have time to do, but that gives us a reason to go back!  Which is never a bad thing.

When we got back to the hotel, I was really tired, so I spent the rest of the night in the room.  Mom and I shared a Cuban sandwich from the hotel bar, which was delicious!  But we mainly relaxed, knowing more walking was coming up!

Saturday:  at first, I was afraid my parents had spent too much money already, so I threw out the idea that we didn't have to go Universal Studios to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  But they were so disappointed to think I wouldn't see it that we ended up going.  Well, Mom and I did.  Dad had conference meetings all day.  Our very nice concierge called a transportation service to drive Mom and me to Universal - it was a little pricey, but it was a comfort to get there in style and know that someone would be there to pick us up at the end of the day.

I'd been to Universal once before, but I don't remember the huge hub, or all the restaurants, before you get into the park.  Mom and I were afraid that we had passed the ticket booths (this was the one thing I didn't buy tickets for in advance), but we finally saw them just before the Islands of Adventure entrance.  A gal tried to offer us a free admission ticket as we got into line, but I'm always leery of those tickets and didn't want to be caught with a fake ticket, so I made Mom walk past her.  We bought two VERY expensive tickets to both parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) so we could see both parts of the Harry Potter parks and ride the train between the two.  Even though the tickets were really expensive, it was SO WORTH IT.  I loved it.

There's a lot to see in the Universal parks, but Mom and I walked past everything so we could get to Harry Potter world to experience it first.  We're walking and thinking "where the heck is it?", then you turn the corner and it takes your breath away!  It's like being right in the middle of the books and/or the movies!  It was more than I expected - so immersive and incredibly cool.  We started on the Hogsmeade side and took a look in all the shops, like the candy shop and the owl shop, we looked at wands and Quidditch supplies, we thought about trying out one of the rides, but the lines were spectacularly long (all the people who weren't at Disney were definitely visiting Hogsmeade!), so we didn't do the rides.  We still had a full and fabulous day, though, even without them.  We stood in line for a bit to have lunch at The Three Broomsticks, which is a very cool spot - we just got a couple of side dishes and some ice cream, but again, it was fun to sit down, relax in a/c and feel a part of the Harry Potter world.

After lunch, we decided to take the Hogwarts Express train over to the other park, which is Diagon Alley.  We got right onto the train and it is a terrific ride.  I thought it was just a basic train going back and forth, but it's also a ride!  You get on the train, the doors close, and you watch a movie through the windows that's as if you're riding from Hogwarts to London.  There are shadows outside the doors, as if Harry and his friends are walking past your train car, and the movie outside shows the countryside and you even see Hagrid waving, and some Weasley brothers ride by on their brooms!  It was really terrific and my mom loved it.  You exit the 'train station' and are transported to London.  Mom saw an alleyway and said what's this?  You go through that alley and it's magic, just like in the books, how Diagon Alley just comes into view in front of you!  Truly.  Magic. 

We went in all the shops and watched a live show, which was pretty cool.  I can't even describe how amazing it was being there.  I'd imagined it, but I didn't really grasp the size and scope of it.  It was so great to see people of all ages there, really young kids wanting to get a wand, or telling their friends about how things were the same or different in the books.  People were wearing the house robes, or using their wands to do magic throughout the park.  The stores were all themed brilliantly, not only in their wares but how every part of the space was filled with things that could transport you to this other world.  Mom and I tried to look at everything, but I don't think you can in one trip.  Really, hats off to the people who put these parks together, they're amazing.

For all the money my parents spent on the tickets, I did want to see more of the park before we left.  We wandered over to The Simpsons area and got right onto The Simpsons ride (sitting and air conditioning, don't you know).  Mom and I didn't really enjoy the ride all that much.  I laughed at a lot of the dialogue, but the herky jerky, loud and fast qualities were a little much for us.  That is definitely not a ride I care to repeat.  I wanted Mom to ride the E.T. ride, which I remembered as being gentle and lovely.  On our way over there, we saw a live show with animals - Mom loves animal shows, and it was starting in a few minutes, so we went to that.  It was very cute - it used animals that had been in movies, like a bird from Ace Ventura and the pug dog from Men in Black.  Marley, from Marley and Me, was there, but was a little ornery and didn't want to do her tricks.  There was a trained pig, who also had a little attitude, trained cats and lots more birds.  The show was fun and I'm glad we made a pit stop for it.

When we came out of the animal show, it was raining.  The forecast had predicted rain for every day we were there, but we had been so fortunate that it didn't rain at all before that moment.  It was still warm, though, so we just walked briskly to the E.T. ride, which just happened to be next to the animal show.  We got right on.  I'm still trying to figure out why you give someone your name and they give you a 'passport,' but you have to give the passport back before you even get on the ride.  Strange.  But the ride was as gentle and lovely as I remembered; I especially love the moment when the bicycles soar over the earth, you move into the stars and that beautiful theme music by John Williams surrounds you.  I can get a little teary there, I must admit.

We had thought about heading over to the Shrek area, but I noticed a sign that said the Universal park side was closing at 6pm (it was close to that), so we decided instead to take the Hogwarts Express train back to the other side of the park (which stayed open until 8), do a little more shopping in Hogsmeade, then head back towards where we would be picked up at 7pm.  Mom and I both remembered that there was a bakery near the front of the park, so we figured we could stop and get some dinner there before heading out.  The train ride from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade was just as fun and the movie was different!  This time, we saw dementors in the movie out the window, then we saw them pass by outside our train door.  I tell you, they have really done all of their homework to completely immerse you in the world of Harry Potter.  The only issue was that we had to stand in line to get on the train for about 45 minutes.  But, since there was a/c in the station, and since it was basically the only line we stood in the entire week, we had no cause to complain.

We were on our way back to Croissant Moon Bakery when we passed a stand with frozen lemonade.  I thought that sounded good, so we stopped.  Unfortunately, they were all out of frozen lemonade.  Drat.  But the turkey sandwich Mom and I shared in the bakery was very yummy, as was the chocolate peanut butter pastry we got for dessert.  It was so rich, though, that she and I only ate about half.  We took the other half back to the hotel for Dad.  After dinner, we went back to the parking/pick-up area to wait for our ride.  He wasn't at the appointed place, but he sent me a text saying the parking lot attendants made him leave and he would make another loop in five minutes.  Fine with us.  Mom and I just sat on the benches and waited until our driver arrived.  It was another smooth ride back to the hotel, though we all looked at the black clouds and hoped it wouldn't start storming until we made it back.  And it didn't!  Whew.  Dad was waiting for us in the lobby (his meetings were over) and we went back to the room.  We relaxed for a bit before packing up to leave the next morning.  Boo.

The trip to the airport was easy and all our flights went well.  There was a mishap at the airport, though.  Mom and Dad were on one flight and I was on another.  I walked back to the gate for my flight to wait - I was sitting there only a few minutes when I heard someone scream and a huge sickening THUD.  I turned around and saw that a man had fallen on the hard tile floor, face first, and wasn't moving.  I got up and ran over to my gate, asking the guy to please call someone.  He just looked at me and did nothing.  It took awhile (too long, if you ask me) for someone to go help that poor man.  A lady on another flight went over to him and said she was a doctor, so she sat with him until the paramedics arrived.  Which also took too long.  Thankfully, the man stirred and seemed to be able to answer questions and stuff.  I could see that he had a huge bump on his head, poor thing, and the paramedics were with him for a long time.  I hope they took him to a hospital and I hope he's ok.  But I don't think I'll ever get that 'thud' sound out of my mind.  It was awful.  I texted my parents and told them to not run through any airport, please.

Other than that, the whole week was so fun and we had a blast!  Yes, it was beastly hot and humid and my feet are still tired, but so what?  I'm so grateful to have generous parents who share my excitement for Disney and Harry Potter.  The trip would've been even more wonderful if my sister and nephew could've gone, but I'm glad I could take the time from work to go and spend quality time with my wonderful mom and dad.  I'm a fortunate girl, indeed...