Archive for December, 2007

Theater Review (NYC): The Honor and the Glory of Whaling: Following the Northern Star at La Mama

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Following the Northern Star is the second in Michael Gorman’s trilogy of plays about drug addiction in the New England fishing community. “A new Recovery model,” the playwright has explained, “emphasizes the return of the recovering addict to the community and the sharing of his or her story, as opposed to the anonymity model of Alcoholics Anonymous for instance.” (Emphasis mine.)

“Sharing of story” can mean two things, telling or showing. Telling, which may work brilliantly as therapy, isn’t generally what’s called for on the stage, where, not coincidentally, it’s called a “show.” The excellent opening scenes of this play indeed show much promise – but then, alas, the telling takes over.

The production takes full advantage of the large, versatile space of the La Mama Annex. The introductory scenes occur in a big pool of blue at some distance from the audience, and on a “bridge” far to the rear, but with the hall’s fine acoustics we have no trouble understanding the exposition. Three childhood friends play fishing-boat, but one, Robbie, is haunted by the specter of his alcoholic father. Then a couple of inland high school kids, Guy and Maria, banter winningly about their futures. Engineered by Gorman’s smart, hope-charged dialogue, these scenes brim with life.

Aided by haunting live music, the first act carries on into a present day in which the bookish Guy, shunning college, has followed his dream and begun to learn the trade of a commercial fisherman. The locals, including the charismatic but still troubled Robbie, live the stereotypically scrappy life of a hard-working, hard-drinking deep-sea fishing community. If Bruce Springsteen had grown up in a place like New Bedford he might have written characters like these. “Rich people,” Robbie says, “they can afford to fail. We have to succeed.”

But times are hard. While Robbie pursues his dreams of big catches, and recovers from the loss of more than one boat, his childhood friends Johnny and Therese both take jobs on land. Robbie, played with scabrous intensity by Michael Kimball, shares the spotlight with the set, most notably a wonderful, big rolling boat.

But the experimental goodies, which include cracks in the fourth wall and other conceptual elements, declamations, and dance, can’t rescue the thin plot. “I’m trying to make ends meet,” Therese says to her now-husband Robbie, “and you’re after the big score.” Throughout, adult Robbie’s psyche is revealed by explication, not action. The second act drags on and on; even the return of the delightful Maria (Ruth Coughlin) can’t save it. The sailor Ray (the excellent J. Paul Guimont), a heretofore minor character, launches into a gigantic monologue which, by the time it eventually goes somewhere, has thoroughly tried the viewer’s patience. The wretched extremes of emotion that flay Robbie, Johnny, Ray, and Therese as the plot unfolds feel unearned.

Maybe you need to have been to hell (and hopefully back), like the drug addicts who inspired the playwright, to get what’s going on here. But a play should create its own world, not demand familiarity with one that may be alien to most viewers. It’s fine to show us these miserable, drug-addicted men. But you have to make us care about them as people. The long speeches, drenched in moralizing and metaphors, left me impatient, wanting plot, dramatic interaction among the characters, something.

The staging is clever, interesting, and impressive. And, as evidenced by the first third of the play, Gorman can create vivid characters, and write snappy dialogue that walks the fine line between magic realism and real realism. In this play he has dragged men who’ve hit bottom onto the stage, kicking and screaming. But he hasn’t shown us how they got into such terrible trouble, or made us care about them.

Through Jan. 6 at La Mama.

Creatures of New York, Pt. 2

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

On an early Sunday morning walk in Manhattan, the creatures one runs into are mostly dogs, along with their walkers. But plenty of other fauna can be spotted if you keep a sharp eye. white_pigeon Pigeons are everywhere, of course, but of the billions of pigeons in the city, mere millions are white like this one. If you spot one, you’ll have seven seconds of good luck, or so they say.

Squirrels are common, too, but you usually have to go to a park to see one. This one lords it over a patch of Madison Square Park. squirrel Squirrels feed on nuts, which they stash in the ground all over the place. The species thrives here because the city is full of nuts. (Chock full, even.)

Exiting the park, one may discover wildlife even on a heavily trafficked thruway such as Fifth Avenue, especially in the morning before the tourists have finished their breakfasts. Here, another pigeon has been artfully pressed into service as a window display. paul_smith_dove The culprit: the chain store, an invasive species with no known predators. Oh, but how can you stay mad at Paul Smith? He has that cute little monkey! (Monkey not shown.)

Indigenous New York species tend to be wheeled. Below is a robust yellowbacked streetsweeper, probably a male.

streetsweeper

The photo is blurry because sweepers are hard to catch up to, especially in early winter when they’re in a hurry to stock up on food for their brief wintertime hibernation. As a scavenger animal, the highly territorial sweeper must feed for many hours each day.

By contrast, take a look at this sleeping truckus deliverus. This beast maintains its full plumage all year round.

grafitti_truck

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – End of Year Grab Bag

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

This week I have for you some thumbnail sketches of 2007 releases that I didn’t have time to review during the year but are worthy of note for one reason or another. That was going to be the only “theme.” But then I noticed something. Several stunningly attractive women lurked among the CD covers in the pile. And it got me thinking…

Sometimes I wish artists weren’t allowed to put any pictures of themselves on their CD packaging.

Physical appearance can skew one’s expectations unfairly. With very attractive artists, the listener can suffer from a kind of reverse prejudice. The camera adores Kyle Lardner, for example. Kyle Lardner CD Cover Her stunning photos stress her Sara Michelle Gellar eyes and lead one to think she might be a manufactured pop moppet. Not so – read on for a pocket review of her new CD.

Landon (or Landonband) is fronted by Landon Dunning. Her music is harsh and sore, serious and angry and rocking – Bob Clearmountain mixed it, ’nuff said? – but her face is absurdly beautiful. Landon has addressed this by titling her CD Defying the Stereotype and using a non-glamorous cover photo. Landon CD Cover She looks closely into the camera, the black and white emphasizing her raccoon eye makeup, the beginning of a sly grin slightly curling her upper lip. The broken text of the title is stamped right across the middle of her face. So I’m fucking beautiful, she seems to be saying – what am I supposed to do about it? It’s an effective technique. Listen to the forcefulness of the music and it stops mattering what the artist looks like.

Just the other day I got word that Lara St. John, whose Bach Violin Concertos is one of my favorite recent classical discs, has a new Bach recording out. When I went to check it out, I read up on the critically acclaimed violinist, and I found that she has a penchant for provocative CD cover poses. (This kind of thing tends not to come up when you’re buying downloads and not CDs.) Lara St. John Bach Concerto CD Cover Do I now think about this person differently, whom I earlier admired purely for her artistry? In some subtle way, probably.

But when I start worrying about these things too much I remind myself that we are all, every one of us, imperfect animals. Artists, fans, blatherers – we may not all take ourselves equally unseriously, but we probably ought to. And artists can’t win – play up your looks and you’re accused of pandering; fail to and you’re passing up your chance for a leg up. I like Landon’s solution, but not everyone can back up the attitude with the good music like she can. So, enough blather and on to more music.

Jon McKiel, The Nature of Things

Speaking of serious, Jon McKiel’s dark alt-rock may have something of the shoegazer to it, but I found it just the thing for driving around the city streets in an angry funk, with its moody sounds and aware lyrics. Listen to some tracks at his Myspace page.

Sheva, The Closest Thing

Here’s another example of looks affecting one’s listening attitude. I was all set to hate this, or just toss it out, based on the washed-out cover photo showing the artist staring blankly into the camera as if a soap opera director had forgotten to say “Cut.” (The fact that my cover letter was addressed to “Dear Dan” didn’t help either.) It turns out, though, to be a solid piano-pop disc with some pretty catchy tunes. Sheva’s voice lacks distinction, the songs are formulaic, and some of the arrangements are overwrought – but I still liked a fair amount of this earnest, straightforward blue-eyed pop disc. Hear three tracks at her Myspace page.

Bronze, Calypso Shakedown

This smooth meld of nu-soul and easygoing disco may come out of Chicago, but it feels like warm climes and beach times. Good songs, Fender Rhodes, strings (real ones, not played on a keyboard), and vocals that alternately suggest the Bee Gees and Earth, Wind and Fire come together to make this a sweet, groovy set of original retro tunes. The songwriting weakens towards the end, but there’s a nice chunk of good stuff, and even the lesser songs go down easy.

The Spoken X, Wild Child

Spoken X pairs chip-on-its-shoulder spoken poetry with heavy, riff-based rock. The results are mixed – some songs just sound pretentious – but when Ted Golder’s lyrics sidestep a tendency to rant and slip into a descriptive or stream of consciousness groove, the songs cohere. Then the music slams with a satisfying crunch, a bit like the Doors of old. “Teo takes a stroll and walks past an old lady dressed in rags talking to her people from outer space / She used to be religious but now she’s found so much more room to express herself.” Hear more of Spoken X expressing themselves.

Kyle Lardner, Sail Among the Stars

For a more effervescent pop experience, try piano-playing songstress Kyle Lardner (mentioned above). With a teenager’s sweet vocal purity, Lardner does shimmery but sophisticated pop that’s a little bit Disney and a little bit rock and roll – nothing too new, but it’ll put the rouge on your cheeks. Songs like “The Blanket Song,” “Aways Away,” and the scintillating, Abba-like “Perfume” feel like elevated teen angst tunes, while “Moral Amnesia” and “When We’re Gone” show an admirable social and philosophical conscience. As a singer Lardner doesn’t have the vocal heft to fully bear her ambitious musical vision, but her songs, couched in these majestic arrangements, show her off well and hold a good deal of promise.

Choose, Untitled

Talk about anti-image. This experiment-minded, female-fronted band makes alternately atmospheric and metallic industrial rock. The song titles are just numbers, and all the printed materials are written backwards, as if to say, Don’t worry about reading this stuff, it’s all about the music. Kinda cool, actually, although it might have been nice if they’d compromised their principles enough to print at least the web address rightways. But it is all about the music – and the experiments. (In concert they match up the audience’s heartbeats with the beat of the music). I’d like to have a chance to catch this group live in the new year. Listen up.

Kickstart, Untitled

Fronted by the gravelly-voiced baritone of singer-guitarist Eric Strickler, these thrashy Brooklyn punkers seem to be as influenced by sixties garage rock as by late-seventies punk. Sometimes Strickler sounds as if he’s going to vomit; other times he growls like Shane McGowan. Or is it the same thing? Either way, the band’s take-no-prisoners rhythms and catchy songs add up to a big panful of rugged rock.

I’m That Guy

Friday, December 21st, 2007

I love Kenny’s Castaways. It’s always been sort of the Bitter End’s neglected little brother, but from the standpoint of actually hearing music, it’s better laid out, and the atmosphere and decor are just classic.

The building dates from the 1820s. Round about 1890, when it was known as The Slide, one of the papers called it “the wickedest place in New York.” Well, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era there’s not too much wickedness to be had, at least not in touristy areas like Bleecker Street, but you can feel the history when you walk into the bar, musical and otherwise. From Aerosmith to The Smithereens, the list of acts who played at Kenny’s Castaways when just starting out reads like a Who’s Who of rock royalty. Bruce Springsteen’s first NYC gigs with the E Street Band were at Kenny’s.

Seems every time I go in there, whether to play a gig with my band or to catch another act, if it’s early enough I see a lone guitar guy singing folk songs to practically nobody. That’s the 7 PM hour, before the bands show up with their hangers-on, before the tourists wander in, even before most of the regulars who hang out at the bar up front arrive. Well, tonight was my turn to be that guy. Whisperado Solo at Kenny's Castaways, 12/21/2007 You can see from my expression that I was having a good time. Didn’t matter that only a few people came (my dad, my aunt, my girlfriend, and a buddy from work, to be exact.)

I felt bad for the duo that played after me – they’d come all the way from Philadelphia and nobody was there to see them (as opposed to me, who might have a thin crowd but gets to walk home.) We couldn’t even hang out to watch them because I hadn’t had dinner, and much as I like to support other musicians, the stomach always wins.

But hey, that’s rock and roll – you gotta play to an empty room sometimes. For a long time, sometimes. Years, sometimes. Till you die, sometimes. The next Whisperado gig is at R Bar the day after Christmas, when we’ll have the whole band and be celebrating our fifth bandiversary. Be there or forever regret it!

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Aidanblaise, Strazza, Hate Camels, and More

Friday, December 21st, 2007

Laura Aidanblaise, Get Thee To The World

From Toronto comes a new singer-songwriter with an intensity of delivery rivalling that of PJ Harvey. There’s so much emotion in Laura Aidanblaise’s voice you worry she’s about to implode. The insistent intensity and melodic repetition may put off some listeners, but I find it haunting and vivid. Her seven-song disc is just about as sparely recorded as can be – just her voice and guitar on most songs – and it works fine; there’s isn’t much that swelling synths or dramatic drum fills could do to elevate or further focus the music. The last two songs do feature more instruments, but they’re used efficiently and tastefully.

“Boredom is the enemy and all that it attracts…” The words and melodies call to mind the skewed lyricism of Tori Amos’s early work, and the lyrical power suggests Ani DiFranco without the guitar pyrotechnics. There’s also a theatrical quality to the tunes that brings to mind certain Broadway music, like Sondheim. But the main point is that Laura Aidanblaise is an original new voice – probably not for everybody, but with a lot to say. Draw the curtains, brew some strong tea, and check her out.

Tommy Strazza, Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life

When you’ve had enough quiet intensity and you’re ready to rock, try Tommy Strazza; he writes hooky power-pop songs and puts them across with a voice and a classic old-fashioned rock style that call to mind Perry Farrell or Mott the Hoople – hoarse, passionate, triumphant. He’s not just a screamer, though. “Don’t mind walkin’ with some holes in my socks / If I can do my own thing hangin’ outside the box,” he liltingly sings in the folky “Goin’ Solo,” and his love song “My Love” is spacey and gentle. Still, his abilities shine brightest in his uptempo rockers like “Detour,” “Liberated,” and “Good To See You,” and the power ballad “Love, Don’t Bring Me Down.” Listen to some tracks at his Myspace page.

Hate Camels, Death Comedy Jams

This disc stands at the crossroads of progressive rock and jazz fusion, with a flash of heavy iron doing a wheelie in the intersection. Six of its seven long instrumental tracks pay tribute to a series of great comedians who have passed on – Mitch Hedberg, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and Andy Kaufman. Kinison gets the metal treatment, natch. Lenny Bruce draws out a jazzy improv number that evokes the Beat era. Bill Hicks gets a piece with a twelve-tone feel, and so on. But direct references to the particular comics’ personalities or styles aren’t always easy to pick out – in some cases they might not exist. No matter; the compositions have enough inherent interest to please the kind of music fans who perk up at the genres I named at the start. Hear some of the tracks at Myspace.

Lorrie Ruiz, Chewy
And speaking of fusion, Lorrie Ruiz’s good-natured jazz fusion disc might be just the thing to convince your grouchy friends that fusion isn’t always as cold, virtuosic, and inaccessible as its reputation would have it. Taking some Stevie Wonder funk, adding some Steely Dan archness and George Benson smoothness, crafting some pretty good pop hooks to hang it all on, singer Ruiz and keyboardist Joe Doria have come up with a batch of fun, toe-tapping, and friendly songs. The weakness is Ruiz’s hummy, uninflected vocals, which just make you think what someone like Stevie Wonder, or even Mariah Carey – or any number of great young neo-soul singers I can think of – would have been able to do with material like this. Fortunately the other elements are more important here. The playing – by Doria, guitarist Chris Spencer, bassist Dayna Smith, and drummer Larry Bichler – gives this disc its soul, and good songwriting gives it heart. Nicely done.

Red Plastic Buddha, Sunflower Sessions

I love to get back to psychedelia sometimes. But the same old late-sixties, early-seventies music gets tired after awhile. Fortunately there are bands like Red Plastic Buddha keeping the swoony, shimmery tradition alive. Like a Peter Max painting come to life, Red Plastic Buddha comes in colors – all over the floor. With semi-spastic guitar solos that bring to mind early Jefferson Airplane, keyboard parts that very vaguely suggest Ray Manzarek and the Doors, and vocals that range from an intense scream to a distant call, they’ve really got the flavors down. Many of the six songs deserve their psychedelic-music bloat (“Forget Me Not,” “Clouds”), while a couple are a little too underwritten to merit it (“Rollercoaster,” “Over And Over”), but overall it’s a pretty sweet 33 minutes of dark, retrograde flower power. If they sharpened up their songwriting a bit, they’d get a leg up on the other bands (and there are some) that are also keeping the groovy flame burning. Hear three tracks at their Myspace page.

Brett Dennen, So Much More

Brett Dennen is a young folk artist with a deft touch on the guitar. His singing is plaintive yet assured, and he writes in a mature, socially involved, and sharp-eyed style. I don’t love his reedy voice, although it’s starting to grow on me a little. But I am very impressed with this disc – the scope of his songwriting and the delicate emotion of his delivery make Dennen a potentially major talent. (He’s touring this summer with John Mayer.) Listen to a few tracks and see if you don’t agree.

Criticism in the Internet Age

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Recently Time Out New York published a special feature on the future of criticism. An assortment of critics, most of them fairly well known (at least locally), opined about the future of criticism in a universe overrun with bloggers. Music critic Alex Ross put it well:

Each [print and online] has its advantages and limitations; together they form a comprehensive picture. I adopt somewhat different styles on my blog and in The New Yorker; I enjoy the distinctions, and I believe it’s a mistake for print publications to try to sound “bloggy” or for blogs to ramble on at magazine length.

He’s right, but the matter goes deeper than style. This may sound counterintuitive, but serious criticism is not fundamentally about opinions. Criticism uses some earthly phenomenon – a work of art or scholarship, a trend, a political or social argument – as a starting point for an exploration of a matter (or matters) whose importance goes beyond the qualities of the material at hand. Endeavoring to shed some trace of new and persuasive light on something, the critic provides a lens, a focal point, for the collective public intellect. And because its ostensible subjects – the music and movies, the politics, the pop-psychology – interest large segments of the general public, criticism is the most important such focal point we have.

Always a fragile creature, the public intellect is presently under fresh assault from various fundamentalisms, pseudosciences, and abuses of power. While nothing new, these anti-thinking forces are potently aligned today, with Western culture under threat from a “foreign” and more violent fundamentalism than its own and from the consequent overreactions on the home front.

The internet is a double-edged sword – while it stimulates thought, it also makes it easy to magnetize large groups of samesayers (hence the Ron Paul phenomenon, among many others). But the internet’s inherently (if imperfectly) democratic nature might end up saving the world. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and enlightened, directed netroots movements are all contributing to a frothing primeval soup of ideas, from which some better-ordered civilizing force has the potential to emerge.

But internet discussion groups and the blogosphere can take us only so far. We need to be able to read, ponder, and discuss in tranquility, bringing our best faculties to bear. Tranquility is one thing the internet cannot provide. (Its very names sound schoolyardish and jumpy… Twitter. Myspace. Flickr. Blog. Feed.) Deeper criticism is a healthy and necessary counterbalance to all the online hustle and bustle. It’s like coming home to a quiet place after dashing through the city streets all day.

That’s not to say serious criticism can’t be found on the internet. Far from it. But it’s the shorter, sharper forms that thrive online. Blogcritics is a perfect example of a web publication that lends itself to this middle ground. Reading a long article, though, is much better done in print. It’s both relaxing and clarifying, something like what scientists theorize is the purpose of sleep – to impose some kind of calm sense upon the day’s maelstrom of chaotic stimuli. If we stop reading (and, of course, writing) any nonfiction that’s too long to comfortably fit in a blog entry, we will lose a crucial part of what makes us productive thinking beings. How can we absorb any nutrients if we don’t digest our food?

Blogging and online socializing, whether casual or intense, probably won’t, and probably can’t, supplant or marginalize serious criticism. Books aren’t going away – they’re more numerous than ever – and print magazines that publish long articles are still churning out the issues. The web is a fount of information, but it can also be a big distraction, and sometimes we need to get away from it.

Creatures of New York

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

lions_24thstreet

The Lions of 24th Street

red_lozenge_artwork

Art, MOMA

bud_500

Bud, the Office Cat

standpipes

Standpipes Mate for Life

Do You Like the “Rock and Roll,” Boys and Girls?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

The Blender Theater at Gramercy turns out to be a pretty good place to see a rock show. You can hear the vocals, and the whole mix isn’t nightmarishly loud… and that’s as much as I hope for from one of these old converted theaters. And you can sit! Although the shows are technically SRO, the seats in the former balcony have been retained. Though there isn’t much leg room, any seats are a blessing when you’re too decrepit to stand for a three or four hour rock show.

After Michael Tolcher opened the show with a solid acoustic solo set, the The Alternate Routes took the stage. They’re one of my favorite new bands, and although they strayed a few times from their smooth mix of alt-rock and power pop by hitting us with a couple of hardheaded country-ish numbers and maybe a few bars more jamming than were necessary for their short set, they didn’t disappoint.


The Alternate Routes
The Alternate Routes, Dec. 15 2008

Then the headliners, The Clarks, took the stage.


The Clarks
The Clarks, Dec. 15 2008

These guys are consummate pros. One song flows right into another. They look like they’ve been doing this and loving it all their adult lives, which they have. A bonus was their inspiring cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” to which they gave a gently swinging beat.

Altogether a good night at the not-movies. And we even got to sit down. Kinda like old times – going to see a rock show, walking around between sets, buying a beer, sitting back down. Only now, there’s no actual smoke allowed, so they fill the hall with some kind of haze. I guess it’s to make the lighting effects look cooler, but what it does it take me back to the days when you could smoke – pretty much anything – at an indoor rock show, and as long as you didn’t set fire to anything or try to jump on the stage, nobody would give you a second look (or smell).

Now You Funny Too

Friday, December 14th, 2007

People say making it in comedy is even tougher than making it in music. Evidence appeared the other day when a series of comedians performed at the Duplex for five minutes each. Some were terrible, some mediocre, a few quite good. Here’s D’yan, one of the good ones, trying out a new number with her “Jew-kelele”:

D'yan at the Duplex

Thing I noticed, though, was how hardly any of the comedians supported each other. As each one went on, others left the club, until for the last couple of performers there was practically no one in the audience. Much of the evening was downright depressing.

Music’s different. Trying to keep a band going, promoting the gigs, making promoters and club owners happy, maintaining momentum when you’re getting little recognition and no remuneration, all while being creative – those are difficult tasks, but bands are usually nice to each other and can often stick around and appreciate the music of the act that went on before them (or will go on after). Also, bands themselves are social entities. Even on the solo singer-songwriter scene, people at least clap for each other. Here’s a band.

Elisa Peimer at the Underscore, NYC

That’s Elisa Peimer rocking at the Underscore. (On the left is Meg Braun, with Paul Cabri on electric guitar.)

Yup, I think I’ll save my funny business for home. Plenty of stubbed toes, splinters, and cabinet-door head trauma to be had here, thank you very much. Hey – maybe I’ll write a song about it. And when you listen to it, I promise I won’t bang you over the head with a guilt complex if you don’t laugh.

City Dictionary, Pt. 2

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Building [bild-ing]noun

  1. Something I could have bought for $9 in 1940*
  2. [archaic] Robot-shaped building blocks

Here are several buildings. These happen to be along Sixth Avenue in New York, but they are everywhere.

buildings

Car [kahr]noun – [from Celtic "carus" (monkey)]

  1. A large wheeled monkey, usually transported upon one’s back.

Chrysler [Kris-ler]noun – [orig. obscure, poss. from OMG "How very large!"]

  1. A very large building
  2. A specific East Side skyscraper, rumored to have had been built with a fortune made in the large-wheeled-monkey business

Below is a construction site where a new building is going up. In front of the building you will notice an oversized rat. Here at The Bagel and the Rat, we know rats, and this isn’t just any specimen, it’s an authentic sighting of the Giant Inflatable Rat, a well-known New York City labor union icon.

rat

Conversation [kon-ver-sey-shuhn]noun – [from Latin "converse" (shoe)]

  1. An exchange of information about real estate, i.e. buildings

*Apologies to Jackie Mason.

Edwards vs. Huckabee – The Match-Up Democrats Would Love To See

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, would lose badly to any of the top three Democratic presidential candidates, according to the latest CNN poll. He’d lose to Hillary Clinton by 10 points, to Barack Obama by 15, and by a whopping 25 points to former Senator John Edwards.

The fact that Edwards often comes out on top in the electability horse race ought to be as big a story as Huckabee’s ascendance in the Republican field. This is only the latest poll to show Edwards beating potential Republican opponents by larger margins than Clinton or Obama. But Edwards’s populist passion on the stump, hardworking campaign organization (especially in Iowa), and excellent general election poll numbers aren’t getting him into the mainstream media. Why? Mainly because he refuses to accept special-interest money, working instead within the system of Federal matching funds that the other major candidates have declined. Hence he doesn’t have the budget for as much nationwide exposure as Clinton or Obama.

Part of Edwards’s high poll numbers may simply stem from his having fewer negatives than the other top-tier Democrats. A lot of people, including important swing voters, don’t like Hillary Clinton, for reasons that are at root primarily sexist. Obama, despite his star quality, faces a racial barrier, and many consider him insufficiently experienced. Edwards, however, is a white male Southerner, just like the last two successful Democratic presidential candidates.

Edwards is the most progressive of the top three Democrats, and his positions have populist appeal, in line with Democratic America, which, confronted with an enormous health care crisis and disgusted with the persistence of widespread poverty, is swinging generally leftward. Importantly, Edwards also gets points for sincerity, and the American electorate is serious about sincerity, as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton are finding out to their dismay. (On the Republican side, Rudolph Giuliani has benefitted from being forthcoming about his rather wretched personal life and his support for liberal positions on social issues.)

In sum, Edwards has two big things going for him, and no major negatives except the big one: not enough money. Something is wrong with this picture, but we all knew that.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics where some comments have been posted.

Theater/Cabaret Review (NYC): Ben Rauch is Horace Vanderveer

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Ben Rauch is Horace Vanderveer!!! Sounds corny, but this (mostly) one-man cabaret act is funny, sweet, and irresistibly entertaining. A superb singer and showman, Rauch puts all his talents into his never-say-die character – a struggling actor and Jersey boy with oversized teeth, a blindingly sunny attitude, and a resume – dotted with misspellings – filled with understudy roles with the likes of the Temple Shalom Players.

Utterly convinced of his superior talent and Broadway destiny, the unfailingly optimistic Horace gambols from center stage to the piano to the xylophone and back, supported by an excellent four-piece band and his own faintly absurd charisma. Tying together his numbers with funny bits of “autobiography,” Rauch uses the Horace character both to convey his love for Broadway musicals and to spoof them. Never breaking character – Horace speaks in a silly accent, something like a pastiche of Hollywood-Austrian, Low Countries, and Dr. Evil – Rauch/Horace convincingly works into his storyline a series of Broadway showstoppers from a variety of hit shows like Annie Get Your Gun, Godspell, Wicked, and Les Miserables. (His xylophone transcription from Rent is priceless – and I don’t even like Rent.)

Running about an hour and 20 minutes, the show has just the right length (and spunk) for a family audience. In fact Horace has a gaggle of teenage girls backing him up on stage during several numbers. Ben Rauch wrote the show himself, along with Melissa Rauch and Winston Beigel. Director Miles Phillips keeps the action nonstop, making it a crowd-pleaser all the way.

Reserve now – there are only two more chances to catch this show: Dec. 10 at 9 PM and Dec. 15 at 2 PM. At the Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Cafe.

Theater Review (NYC): Scapin by Molière

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Just off Times Square, a perfect cast is bringing Scapin, Molière’s nutty reversal-of-fortune farce, to life with such antic gusto that the four walls of the tiny Turtle’s Shell Theater can hardly contain it.

Puppets, singalongs, balloon animals, mugging, pratfalls, paddlings – it could almost be a kids’ show, and you certainly could take your kids to this uproarious Scapin. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper and less stressful than a trip to FAO Schwarz or to see the Rockettes.

This is the world premiere of Scott McCrea’s new English translation of Molière’s 17th century comedy. The three-act Les Fourberies de Scapin (literally “Scapin’s Schemings” or “Scapin’s Impostures”) is here reshaped into an economical two-act form, with the title shortened as well but the story and the craziness intact.

The players are all very good, but more than that, they are perfectly cast, and superbly directed by Shawn Rozsa. Scapin is played by Spencer Aste, who inhabits the role of the scheming, social-climbing valet to the hilt. The misbehaving scions of two well-heeled families enlist the clever servant to help them out of their respective amorous predicaments. Playing the sons off the fathers, the weaselly Scapin finesses trick after trick, and just when you think his web of deceit is about to crash down on top of him, well – just remember this is a comedy, not a tragedy.

I mentioned that you could bring your kids. The enthusiastic and very talented cast turned the audience of adults at last night’s show into a gaggle of giddy oversized boys and girls. (I even caught one of my fellow reviewers laughing, and we’re a bunch of seriously gloomy gusses, let me tell you.) Priceless cartoonish touches dot the fast-moving plot, riding the shoulders of the broad physical comedy. A big one is the setting, which has been moved from cosmopolitan Naples to a small Italian town on a festival day. A musician-clown leads us through the proceedings as if we’re an audience at a tiny circus. (For a second I pictured Zampano, from Fellini’s La Strada, turned inside-out into a figure of delightful, rather than dark, amusement.)

A nervous Léandre (the tall, reedy Nico Evers-Swindell) pulls out a piece of knitting to calm his nerves. Later his father Geronte (a tiny, mincing John Freimann) emerges from a sack – fan first. The ladies, including the regal Hyacinte (Maya Rosewood) and the frisky Zerbinette (Catherine Wronowksi), mug shamelessly, as do the pure-at-heart Octave (Matt Luceno) and his sad-sack pal Silvestre (Jonathan M. Castro), while Octave’s father Argante (Roger Grunwald) limps stiffly about Keven Lock’s funhouse set, perpetually grouchy, pulling on his beard.

Commedia dell’arte, with its related forms, is far from moribund. We see its spirit alive and well in modern analogues, most often on television, in sketch shows like Kids in the Hall and British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous. But nothing beats the high-spirited hijinks of a play like Scapin seen live. This holiday season, revisit – or discover – Molière. Good for what ails ya, I promise.

Tickets are $18, online at TheaterMania or call (866) 811-4111. Through Dec. 22 at the Turtle’s Shell Theater, Times Square.

Theater Review (NYC): The Puppetmaster of Lodz

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

With apologies to John Lennon, war is never over, not even if you want it. Case in point: Samuel Finkelbaum, a Holocaust survivor holed up in a one-room flat in occupied Berlin five years after the end of World War II. An imaginative showman and puppeteer with a tendency towards megalomania, Finkel refuses to believe the war is over, and won’t come out of his room. He’s paranoid, delusional, and patently insane, but as imagined by the French playwright Gilles Ségal and animated by the actor Robert Zukerman, he merits our full sympathy and attention for an hour and 45 minutes, intermission-free.

The plot of The Puppetmaster of Lodz could be summed up in two or three sentences, but I’m not going to do it, for two reasons. First: it would be a meaningless exercise unless I gave away the ending. Second: it’s not a very good plot. It doesn’t really make sense. And it’s not why the play is worth seeing.

Finkel is on stage all the time. Much of the action is just between him and his assortment of puppets. The puppets stand in for people from his past: wife, father, doctor, Rabbi, and a whole clothesline of concentration camp inmates. Finkel operates the puppets mostly by moving them directly, though he refers to them as marionettes, and like all good puppeteers, he imbues his dolls with vivid personalities and pathos. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 1 And like many who came out of the concentration camps alive, he’s burdened by survivor’s guilt, the ins and outs of which he explores through word and action with his puppet characters. The playwright asks whether, in the face of our seemingly endless parade of mini-massacres and mini-genocides echoing the Holocaust through the ages, we are “anesthetized[d] so that we are prevented from reacting, prevented from being moved to rebel?”

Ségal answers (in his program notes) that “facing the encroaching rise of barbarities, we have an obligation to continue to live, to continue to sing, to be happy, to laugh, to laugh, to laugh!” He lives this motto through the complex, disturbing, larger-than-life yet shiveringly weak character of the puppetmaster. And we do, at times, laugh with Finkel, and at the antics of the outside world trying to get him to come out. But the exhortation to live and celebrate is not a simple matter. Finkel asks the big, troubling questions: how can a Jew continue to believe in God after the Holocaust? How can you trust your fellow man? How can you go on living when your loved ones have been brutally destroyed?

War is never over. Even a particular war, one that ended half a century ago, isn’t over. It isn’t over for Finkelbaum in 1950, though Germany has long since surrendered and Berlin is occupied by the Allies. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 2 It isn’t over for the playwright, who made him up in 1985. It isn’t over for the theater company reviving the play in 2007. And it cannot be over for the audience (the house was packed on a Monday night) watching the drama unfold.

Zukerman’s grand, captivating performance is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast. Suzanne Toren is convincingly caring as the humane, frustrated concierge. Herbert Rubens is grave and avuncular as an old friend who comes looking for the reclusive puppetmaster. Daniel Damiano amuses in multiple smaller roles. Sharing the spotlight with Zukerman are a wonderful set (by Roman Tatarowicz), agile direction by Bruce Levitt, a superb translation by Sara O’Connor, and the puppets, designed by Ralph Lee.

Will Finkel ever get to put on his great puppet masterpiece for an audience of free people? We don’t know, and now we’re back out on the street – the play is over. But the war is never over. Art and imagination – whether Ségal’s invention, or the puppetmaster’s tragic, funny, macabre doll stories, or our reactions to both – can keep the war at bay, for a little while anyway. But they also keep old wars alive, on the stages of our theaters and in the rages of our memories. Perhaps we need them to do this.

For ages 14 and up. Through Dec. 23 at the ArcLight Theater, 152 W. 71 St. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444. Photos by Jim Baldassare.

Indie CD Holiday Gift Guide

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

My Holiday Gift Guide focusing on indie CDs is now available – free for the readin’! Dig it. Dig it again.

Theater Review (NYC): Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

Reduce we all our lessons unto this:
To die, sweet Spenser, therefore live we all;
Spenser, all live to die, and rise to fall.

Though considerably abridged, this new production of Christopher Marlowe's historical masterwork is generally well played, dramatically sound, and true to the fatalistic moral (above) spoken by the tutor Baldock at the end of Act IV.

At that moment Edward, though still technically the reigning monarch of England, has gone on the run from his rebellious land barons, who've become sick of the frivolous King draining the treasury to favor his relatively low-born companions. Who is still loyal to Edward? Who will betray whom? As always in English history, what will France do? Characters switch sides and switch back, from motives both honorable (occasionally) and base (usually) in Marlowe's bloody tale of the scandalous early 14th century reign of Edward II, the Gay King.

Marlowe's play remains popular and vivid after more than 400 years for two reasons. It is a great play, with language that at times rivals Shakespeare's. As important, it is one of the few great works of classical literature whose protagonists are, essentially openly, homosexual. (Marlowe, probably gay himself, didn't make this up; the King's proclivities appear to have been generally acknowledged in his own time.) But this production wisely takes the amorous nature of Edward's relationship with the Gascon knight, Gaveston, as a given, and stresses the more proximate cause of his downfall: power politics.

Power, if not politics, was lacking at the start of the performance I saw. It was only the second night of the run, so the weakness was probably attributable to jitters; after a few scenes, the cast found its rhythm and the bulk of the play ran smoothly. Jason Summers portrayed Edward initially as something of a psychotic, sort of a Caligula without the brutality. His love for Gaveston seemed at first more obsessive than heartfelt, his subsequent grief rather mild and stately. But as the King's torturous downfall accelerated, Summers found the passion behind Edward's vanity, and he had several big, heartbreaking scenes. Torn by the barons' ultimate demand that he relinquish his crown, his wail – "No, no, no, no," wrenched the gut marvelously. As Marlowe's stage direction goes: The KING rageth. And he doth.

Edward IINick Fondulis played Gaveston effectively as a sulky, childish rogue, even more vain than Edward and a flamboyant foil to the King's more tightly packed personality. He is a sensitive, showy brute who intrigues us without meriting our sympathy. Further over-the-topness came in the person of Spenser the Younger, whom Edward elevates to favor after Galveston's downfall, here played by Kristian Lazzaro with a shrill smarminess that amused at first but eventually grew a little tiresome. (Spenser the Elder was among a number of relatively minor characters dispensed with in this version.)

Casting women as several of the important lords (and having the characters played as women) worked nicely and even added a bit to the intricacies of the story's sexual politics. It also provided an opportunity for costume designer David Withrow to display his cleverness. All the costumes, in fact, were impressively inventive. Withrow combined an assortment of pieces of modern couture into garb that no one ever wore in real life but still suggested archaic courtly dress.

Neither a period nor a modern-dress Edward II, the production felt lifted out of time. Queen Isabella's purple dress was luridly beautiful; Gaveston's leather-and-chains outfit was a glorious sight gag; and the murderer Lightborn's terrifying get-up made the play's climactic killing all the more dreadful. (Cary Hite displayed notable range, appropriately chewing the scenery as the terrifying assassin and also as the cowed Bishop of Coventry.)

Royal announcements were staged as press conferences; amusing TV news broadcasts filled us in on some of the off-stage (or elided) action; a grand, modern-style conference table served as all-purpose scenery and furniture; and effective lighting and sound effects carried us neatly through battles and chases. Director Tom Berger has come up with a conception of the classic play that's both modern and true.

Through Dec. 16 at the 14th Street Y Theatre, 344 W. 14 St, NYC. Staged by the (re:) Directions Theatre. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.