Thursday, July 15, 2010

picasso at the lapin agile

Here's my latest review for the Post.

Full text below, but additionally here's a couple of quotations I started with but didn't have room to run with the story. I often search for quotations on whatever the general themes seem to be when I'm reviewing a play, and slap them at the top of the piece to glance at as I write. Anyone else do that?

Enjoy, and comments welcome.

Although they will immediately be disregarded. :)

“I want to be ready for it, to be ready for the moment of convergence between the thing done and the doing of that moment, I am speaking for everyone; I am dreaming for the billions yet to come.”
-- Steve Martin, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

"The function of genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions - which time and mediocrity can solve."
-- Hugh Trevor-Roper

“To think, and to feel, constitute the two grand divisions of men of genius--the men of reasoning and the men of imagination.”
--Isaac D’Israeli

“Real recognize real.” --MF Doom


The word “genius” gets tossed around a lot. A thoroughly unscientific search of recent headlines turned up the word in reference to Billy Bob Thornton, Adolph Hitler, Michael Jackson and Argentine soccer coach Maradona.

If nothing else, such a group would make for an interesting dinner party.

Putting aside the strong possibility that the word has been cheapened by overuse, genius seems to imply a sort of magic or alchemy, a connection to something outside of oneself, a great leap forward as inexplicable as it is miraculous.

By any definition, the genius guest list should include Steve Martin, polymath and author of 1996’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” As a stand-up comedy writer and performer, he routinely made great leaps, nimbly dancing in the gray area between the silly and the sublime. “Picasso,” his first full-length play, does the same.

Veteran director Terry Dodd has treated the piece with the joy and respect it deserves. Martin imagines a 1904 meeting between a young Albert Einstein (Brian Kusic) and Pablo Picasso (Ben Cowhick) at a Paris bar, the two men consumed with passion for their respective subjects of interest.

The dawn of the 20th century is a perfect laboratory for Martin’s thought experiment, a time when it must have seemed like new wonders of art, science, and industry were emerging every day. That innocence, that wide-eyed wonderment at the world and human achievement in it is written into the characters as well as the show as a whole.

Martin immediately has some fun with Einstein as he introduces himself to bar-owner Freddy (Larry Hecht) and incontinent customer Gaston (James Nantz). When Freddy declares that he can’t be Einstein, the theorist mutters, “I’m not myself today.” Then he fluffs up his hair to resemble the famous wild hairdo from a million dorm room posters and asks, “Better?”

Suzanne, a young woman joins them (the lovely and elegant Z. Z. Moore), tells of a tryst with Picasso, and waits in hope of seeing him again. When he shows, Picasso has naturally forgotten her, and in a hilarious sequence he tries to pick her up again using the same techniques Suzanne has just described.

But the majority of the show features Picasso and Einstein metaphorically circling one another, verbal knives out: the flamboyant, womanizing artiste and the seemingly meek patent office clerk, each on the brink of creating his masterpiece. Over the course of the lightning-fast 90 minutes, they come to recognize that ultimately, genius is the same creature, no matter how divergent the fields of study in which it is accessed.

The two leads are well-matched and mostly equal to the task of playing their larger-than-life characters. As the great painter, Ben Cowhick has a bit of work to do in terms of fully, truthfully inhabiting Picasso’s brash swagger, but he isn’t far off the mark. Brian Kusic as Einstein has mastered a sly, layered meekness that barely covers the theorist’s own tremendous ego and confidence.

As the combative Germaine, Laura Lounge can come off a little one-note at times, but she has a lovely moment late in the play when she reveals her own philosophy. Larry Hecht as the deadpan, sardonic bartender Freddy anchors the cast, much like the bar itself built into the lobby of the Barth Hotel.

Two minor points about the Barth: while it is a beautiful building, using the lobby’s regular lighting does detract from the magical nature of the show, especially one as otherworldly as this. Also, the acoustics of the place ensure that if the actors don’t make a point of holding for laughs, lines will get swallowed up in the echo.

While the glib, 21st century thing to do would be to smugly dismiss “Picasso” as a comedian’s pack of one-liners tenuously built on the shifting sands of absurdity, the truth is that there is a great deal of truth here. In exploring where inspiration comes from, author Martin, director Dodd and his cast also serve to inspire.

ADDENDUM: And according to I Write Like, based on this review, I write like H.P. Lovecraft.

Huh. And I didn't even mention Cthulu once...

Friday, July 9, 2010

beagle rescue

Prepare to have those cockles warmed.

From Andrew Sullivan's Atlantic blog page, here's a video of an extraordinary rescue performed by a group of volunteers in New Jersey. These 120-odd beagles were experimental subjects at a lab that went bankrupt, so these people found and rescued the dogs.

They believe (and from the video, you will too) that these animals likely had never been outside before, much less touched paw to grass.

It's heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once.

This keeps running through my head, and I'm sure I'm not the first to have these sentiments. But maybe this is my original phrasing, at any rate.

It occurs to me that most of the animals I have met are better people than most of the people I have met.

Just food for thought.

ADDENDUM: the people in this video being obviously very, very good people for doing this. However, it was people who used the animals for experiments in the first place...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

the fantasticks

Here's my latest Denver Post piece, on "The Fantasticks" playing at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

I have to say, it's a helluva show. Looking over this now, I fear I came off as too persnickety, too "critic-sounding" for lack of a better phrase. You have to find a way to say what you saw happen up there there, though, no two ways about it. If someone sounded a little flat, a critic would be remiss not to mention it, right?

Still and all, I laughed my ass off at this show--much to the chagrin of the old woman sitting next to me--and I would see this again.

(original text follows. link above to the edited--and probably better--version.)

Emily Van Fleet and Nick Henderson in "The Fantasticks."


"It struck me that the movies had spent more than half a century saying, ‘They lived happily ever after’ and the following quarter-century warning that they'll be lucky to make it through the weekend. Possibly now we are now entering a third era in which the movies will be sounding a note of cautious optimism: ‘You know, it just might work.’" -- Nora Ephron

If ever there was a theatrical trope that deserved to be taken down a peg, it’s the idea of “happily ever after.” Where is this place? Do I need a passport? What language do they speak?

The truth is the borders of this mythical land are impenetrable. There are no people there, only phantasms of people, only dreams. And it was this notion that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt illustrated when they penned “The Fantasticks” in 1960.

That’s not to say it’s a cynical show; there is a sweetness at the heart of it. But considering the suffocating, overweening optimism of entertainment at the time--some of the biggest Broadway musicals the previous year were “Destry Rides Again” and the “The Sound of Music”--to poke fun at love and happy endings was a bold risk, paying off in 17,000-some performances over a 42-year run.

As the Colorado Shakespeare Festival continues to explore material outside the Bard’s canon, taking up this venerable musical comedy seems entirely appropriate, not only for its numerous Shakespearean references, but also for its timelessness.

The play opens on Mute (Lenne Klingaman) soon joined by El Gallo (Seth Pantich). They are our guides, the Penn and Teller who show us two households, and the wall the parents have built in order to keep their kids apart.

As we soon learn, the parents are actually using reverse psychology to try to broker a marriage between Luisa (Emily Van Fleet) and Matt (Nick Henderson), two perfectly dimwitted youths in love with love.

Following a fake abduction perpetrated by El Gallo and a pair of hapless vaudevillian actors (the hilarious Sam Sandoe and Ian Anderson) and Matt’s “heroic” rescue of his beloved, the families end the first act in tableau under the light of a painted cardboard moon.

But Jones and Schmidt are just getting started.

Act Two opens with the actors still in blackout grumbling and cursing as they move to take up their positions. The sun comes up and we first begin to see that happily ever after is actually a very long time indeed.

Excellent songs and genuinely funny writing along with numerous tongue-in-cheek cracks written into the fa├žade of theatre have made “The Fantasticks” such a beloved show. All the usual tricks are out in the open: El Gallo addresses the audience; during a rain sequence Mute sprinkles enough glitter on the couple to stock a Dallas strip club; Gallo and Mute use a strip of fabric to signify the wall.

And director Sands Hall as gathered a game cast, with a few minor quibbles.

Casting Hucklebee as a mom instead of a dad was brilliant, and Tammy Meneghini is wonderful, as is her counterpart, Timothy Orr as Bellomy.

Emily Van Fleet is hilarious as Luisa, and she also possesses a tremendous singing voice, filling the house even when she is facing upstage.

Unfortunately this isn’t the case for all the performers. The decision was made to stage the show in the round, which in this case meant putting two sections of seats and risers on stage, separated by a ramp. And while it’s fun to watch the audience members on display as they go from stiff and nervous to genuine enjoyment, the upstage space is just too deep and absorbs all sound directed that way.

This is problematic, especially for Seth Pantich as El Gallo, as his lower register just isn’t strong enough no matter which direction he’s facing, marring an otherwise excellent performance.

As Matt, Nick Henderson is a perfect youthful airhead, with a powerful voice that stands up well to Van Fleet’s. He sometimes takes too long to climb to the note he’s supposed to be singing, however, and thus sounds slightly flat.

The show as whole doesn’t suffer tremendously however. Both cast and director have shown us once again the truth at the heart of the Fantasticks: it’s impossible to know happiness without a counterpoint of sadness.

Besides, isn’t happily ever after really just a series of ‘happy-right-nows’ that have been strung together?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

what do you expect?

I mean, after 200 meters of dix, who wouldn't be a bit worn out?


Wish i hadn't parted my hair so furiously when i was younger. This explains it all.

kelly's self-esteem is...

Presumably the star is there so you know you're on the end with the teeth.

Please describe Kelly's self-esteem in two words or less.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

FYI, Twilight fans

And by the way, if your gong to sparkle, get the hell off my lawn.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

july 4 - Howard Zinn

Here are some thoughts on nationalism from the late Howard Zinn. Maybe something to help put the madness of July 4th in perspective.

I could see this piece as something one could revisit every July 4, much as I find it good for my humility and my soul to read William Burroughs' 'Thanksgiving Prayer' in November.

via the progressive.

Put away the flags
Remembering Howard Zinn on July 4.

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

Is not nationalism -- that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder -- one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking -- cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on -- have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours -- huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction -- what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early.

When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession."

When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: "It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day."

On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our "Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence." After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: "We believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country."

It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war.

We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, "to civilize and Christianize" the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: "The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness."

We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.

Yet they are victims, too, of our government's lies.

How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for "liberty," for "democracy"?

One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail in 2004 that God speaks through him.

We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.

Howard Zinn, a World War II bombardier, was the author of the best-
selling "A People's History of the United States" (Perennial Classics, 2003, latest edition). This piece was distributed by the Progressive Media Project in 2006.