Friday, 28 September 2007

REVIEW: "The Emperor Jones"

(This is a not-for-class review, and proof that writing a love letter review can, in fact, be quite difficult.)

Eugene O'Neill's 1920 hit “The Emperor Jones” has long been known as the type of play which, despite being difficult to read, bursts to life onstage like few others. It is my great pleasure to announce that the current production at the National Theatre rises to the occasion and excels at the unity of text, music, and spectacle which created the modern theatre.

The title character, superbly played by Paterson Joseph, is far from being a noble monarch. A murderous African-American ex-con on the run, Brutus Jones lands on a small Caribbean island and quickly scams the natives into declaring him emperor, with all of the financial and social perks attached. As the play begins, an old woman is caught trying to escape the palace by corrupt British trader Henry Smithers (John Marquez), and confesses that a revolution is at hand. Smithers relates this news to Jones, who rejects it almost out of hand, claiming superiority over the savages he rules, while taking the threat seriously enough to enact a contingency plan.

As Jones strips away his regal garb, so too does he strip away his pretensions as ghosts of his past, and indeed, all Black Americans' past, come to haunt him until he reaches equality with those he lorded over at the beginning of the play. The Emperor's demons are not those which seek to depose him, but his own misdeeds and fear of inferiority which cause his downfall. Mr. Joseph manages to run the entire gamut of Jones's path, from arrogance to meek exhaustion, with the utmost sincerity and passion.

In addition to Joseph's acting, credit must be given to Robin Don's sets which, when coupled with Neil Austin's lighting, create a haunting and psychotic portrait of the nighttime forest which ensnares the deposed emperor. By taking advantage of the forest canopy's angle and a raised turntable, the stage always feels comfortably full, even in moments where Mr. Joseph stands alone. Mr. Austin's lighting brings the audience through the stages of the night, from dusk to stillness, and back towards a fiery, raging dawn. Combined with a driving and tribal score composed by Sister Bliss and played live by a band of five, the viewer is forcefully pulled into Brutus Jones's world and whisked around through his descent.

The ensemble cast do what they can, but a minimal amount of material is available – the central six of the play's eight scenes are monologues by Jones. The one brief exception to these is a pre-civil war slave auction, where the stage is flooded with nameless, finely dressed white actors bidding on Jones during his penultimate hallucination. The only secondary character with a significant amount of material is Mr. Marquez's Smithers, and the role is acted with an appropriate amount of sleaze and contempt.

Modern audiences should be warned that O'Neill's text is a product of his era, and a specific racial epithet is used frequently by both Jones and Smithers. However, to update the text or censor it would be to reduce its power. Jones is so confident of himself and the fear he has instilled that he uses the white man's demeaning terms towards those who would be his own people, and are indeed his ancestors. When the play was written, the after effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction were still being felt, even as the US emerged from the first World War. It would take another 40 years for the play to lose its sense of contemporary relevance, by which time it had entered the American canon.

Where: National Theatre (Olivier)
When: Now until 7 October. Most shows at 19:30.
Cost: £27.50, £10 (Travelex £10 season, full circle and first three rows of the stalls)
Concessions: £10 rush for Students, Equity, Seniors, Unemployed, etc. Best available 45 min. before curtain, go straight to the Olivier box office on the 2nd floor, not the general one at the entry.
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £27.50 for an amazing performance and beautiful design. That said, get the tickets for a tenner if you can. All seats in the house are fine.
RZ other notes: If you take the front stalls £10 tickets, be prepared for a brief jet of fire directly in front of you. Also, major props to the National for making photocopied cast and creative lists available without needing to pay £3 for a programme.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

REVIEW: "Bill Hicks: Slight Return"

(This is a not-for-class review.)

Impersonating a deceased performer for the sake of one final appearance is not a new phenomenon, and even in the past few years, such high profile pieces as “Golda's Balcony” and “Say Goodnight, Gracie” have visited the American stage and presented the audience with a retrospective and history on the deceased's life. The act of bringing back a dead comedian, though, especially with the prerogative of continuing their work, can be a bit more challenging. Unfortunately, this is the task writers Chas Early and Richard Hurst have set upon themselves in "Bill Hicks: Slight Return".

"Slight Return"'s premise is simple enough: Bill Hicks can return from heaven for one hour by possessing an unknown British actor (Early) in order to deliver his final show. The material covers a standard range of topics for Hicks fans: drugs, porn, pop music, career failure, and a hatred for all things Bush. Problematically, much of it relies upon retrofitting new words into older jokes. These sequences, including a comparison of beer and hallucinogenic mushrooms (originally pitting beer against marijuana), tend to feel like demo material or placeholder gags - a new bit would be more appropriate, but the current one must do in the meantime.

Another area of issue is the use of Hicks's stage personalities, such as "Randy Pan, the Goat Boy". A character with an affinity for performing oral sex on underage girls was shocking back in 1993, especially when played with the sense of mischief and playfulness Hicks instilled. However, Early plays the character as fan bait, and gives us little to be shocked about after a decade of South Park.

Third, Early and Hurst have also chosen to take on some of Hicks's enemies from his lifetime, specifically the David Letterman show, and (more viciously), Denis Leary. While Hicks would gave some particularly memorable rants after being censored from Letterman, his feud with Leary was kept off the stage, as is standard among stand up artists. Including such a tirade here borders on petty fan squabbling and comes across as out of character, and placing such a reliance on Hicks knowledge outside of his discography alienates anybody who is not a die hard fan.

That said, much of the new material is quite humourous (despite its rougher edges), though the best moments come when the show is at its most original: Bill discovering the internet, a look at the upcoming American elections, and a shift into the philosophical towards the finale all come across with a genuine manner, where Early goes beyond being a fan playing his hero and begins to truly channel the spirit of Hicks. By trying so hard to make the new material sound like the old, the audience is denied the continued evolution that Hicks's material would have surely had if not for his untimely demise.

Despite having to cancel the prior week's performances due to laryngitis, Early does a solid job of bringing out the physical and vocal mannerisms of Bill Hicks in addition to his written contributions, and was capable of winning over a lukewarm Wednesday night crowd. Author Hurst doubled as director, and has kept Early's performance in line, though some minor work on the evening's order (a promise of low brow humour was left unfulfilled) would help.

Overall, "Slight Return" is an enjoyable, if not flawed hour at the theatre. It may lack the depth and power of its target's original performances, but it's more than successful at reminding us of why people fell in love with Bill Hicks in the first place. Sadly, its problems ultimately serve to enhance the show's closing point: Bill Hicks is dead, he will not be coming back, and it is up to us to seek the new voices and talents that can continue his message to evolve our ideas and ourselves.

Where: Arts Theatre, London
When: 26-29 Sep, 3-6 Oct. All shows at 19:30.
Cost: £17.50, £15 (back row stalls, back row circle)
Performance reviewed: 26 Sep 07, 19:30.
RZ unofficial “worth paying” : £15 for Hicks fans, don't bother going otherwise.
RZ other notes: The Arts Theatre is a small Off-Broadway sized space. The view is fine throughout the theatre, including the stalls under the overhang from the circle. The ushers are cool, and you can probably move up a few rows if it's not a heavily sold performance.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

All Men Are Created Equal...

But some have a far easier time getting into Equity. My programme had its registration and induction today, and among the many benefits we have of going to our college is that we are qualified by default for membership into Actor's Equity UK. Now, most of the people at my school are actors, and the choice is a no-brainer: sign up now and transfer your membership as opposed to having to get in the hard way through years of auditions and climbing the regional ranks with years and years of auditions ahead. For me, though, there's actually some serious debate.

First, I'm not an actor. In fact, I'm one of the worst performers anybody could ever see on a stage. The reason I'm here right now is because I found a theatre master's that DOES NOT require a performance practicum.

Second, I have a number of issues with Equity as an organization, or more specifically, with AEA (Actor's Equity Association, or the US version of the union). I don't like the fact that AEA places budgetary restrictions and salary caps on showcase and workshop productions (if your budget is under $26K and you want to use union actors, you're not allowed to pay them more than transportation). I hate the fact that AEA push the pink contract (infinite ensemble hire) so hard. I also loathe AEA taking it upon themselves to play the moral high ground in the copyright wars, when it's really the producers' and author/composers' jobs to protect their work - not the salaried and residual free actors and their union.

Third, I'm an American. I don't get the benefit of transferring to a full membership when I graduate unless I've got work clearances and all kinds of other paperwork that my exact profession may very well not cover.

On the other hand, there are some useful benefits to joining. Due to the size of my student loans, I'm not actually qualified for the NHS's low income plan, and being able to exploit Equity's facilities is a valuable thing if I need to see a doctor or deal with anything else not covered (or fully subsidized) by the NHS.

Second, there are shows that won't offer discounts to students, but will grudgingly give them up for Equity members. Sure it's only a couple pounds here and there, but it adds up when you're seeing 50-100+ productions over the course of a year.

Third, I could choose the name I've always wanted and put it down for professional use without having to deal with the legal hassles that come with a proper name change. No, it's not the most grown up desire, but how many people really get to take that opportunity?

In the end, I did what most people do. I talked it over with friends who are inside and outside of the industry, weighed the options, and decided that yes, barring any contradictory information that I hear in the next day or three, it is very much in my interest to pay the fees (a surprisingly cheap £15) and become a member of UK Equity. I don't have to agree with everything the union does, but I also feel that I will accomplish more from inside the system than I could otherwise, and after enough years possibly work towards fixing the issues I have. In the meantime, it's a promise of discounted day seats and health insurance (something I haven't had in three years).

About this blog...

Since everybody should know where the text on this page is coming from...

The author of this site is an American male in his mid-20s currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Theatre from a prestigious British university. As the programme includes a large unit on theatrical journalism and writing, the author felt that he may as well get some extra practice and some exposure out of his work, and decided to set up this blog as an outlet for additional work, assigned writings, comments on the London scene, and the occasional pining for what he's missing back home.

The works present on this site will primarily be reviews, with a few short articles and comments on the side. Blog-originals will be posted as soon as possible after seeing the performance. Reviews that are written for the author's class assignments will be delayed by up to seven days from completion in order to avoid the risk of having to explain that no, the author is not plagiarizing himself. The same rule will go for any other writings as well. Please also note that while it's not entirely fair from a professional standpoint, the author will be posting his thoughts on shows seen during previews. If there is a requirement for class or sufficient interest/time/money available, the author will attempt to revisit shows after they are frozen and post additional comments/revisions.

As for the URL name, the author is a huge fan of Macross (known to most Westerners as Robotech), an anime series where the invading aliens (the Zentradi) were defeated by introducing culture, emotion, and art into their civilization. The franchise has been a fan favourite around the world since its original broadcast in 1982, and a new sequel (Macross Frontier) is coming soon in honour of the 25th anniversary special.

Welcome to London.