Introduction

I have a stack of memos, notes “reviews” and whatevers, all written to myself and never intended to circulate. But since I’m converting myself into a digital filing cabinet they all find their way into the data base. They are all available—but warning!—they have never been edited. Editing is not a priority task but at least some are worth a read.

These notes and reviews are organized below, referenced by years. There is no logic to which plays I wrote about or which memos survived. There are some “best plays” for which there are no notes, some notes so cryptic they make no sense, some that make no sense anyhow, notes on things of which I have no recall. Sometimes there is a “review” that brings it all back. I have noted a few of the reviews from that period which I liked on a 2017 re-read.

The early years, e.g. 1977-80, roughly when I was in school in NYC, are referenced to the PDF for these years in the data base. The whole set of reviews is one PDF for each time period. Starting about 2011 I had a digital record of my notes made at the time. These are included starting about then, year by year. There are certainly not reviews for every play and every year.

What you see is what you get.

My Life at the Theatre

I’ve enjoyed attending theatre since I was a teenager. This morphed into a more serious interest after seeing some of the early Passe Muraille plays in Toronto in the 70s. The Farm Show was particularly moving. I had several “I-can-do-that” moments watching the fun—the writing, never the acting.

I made several trips to New York before I moved there for Graduate School in 1978 and had more wow moments. I had written one play, Rex The Horse, before I moved to NYC. And indeed going to theatre and written was a major adventure in those sabbatical years. (See Blind Dogs, 1980.)

When I returned from New York I fell into a libel case for the cast of OD on Paradise, a Passe Muraille play by Linda Griffith. The Star accused them of smoking real dope on stage. Not so. It’s a good yarn. The end result was a good settlement for the cast, by which I became the biggest fundraiser in Passe Muraille history! And ended up on the Board of Directors and later President.

For a time I was the chair of the Theatre Committee of Hart House.

Over the years I’ve made regular trips to Shaw and Stratford and NYC and London for theatre.

The Long List

I have a more or less complete list of all the plays I’ve ever seen. No comments. Go here for 1968 to 2015—a long PDF. And here for 2015.

Best Plays

I found a list of my ten best plays written sometime in the early eighties referencing the time up to about 1980. These were “the top ten”. The list proves nothing except my fantasy to become a critic.

“Best plays” is a mostly silly exercise. As I have sorted play-going material in 2017 accumulated since 1980, I created a second list of great theatre events since.

What is more interesting is “why” something was memorable. There are hints below but no real analysis yet.

Best plays to 1980

New York

Poor Murderer—Pavel Kahout—I cried. About actors losing their identity because they play so many part they lose track of who they are. NYC—1977

Whores of Babylon—Ridiculous Theater Co.—NY—1968—first show I saw with unconventional seating and wild staging. Magical.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on The Road—Public—About women braking free. As I thought I was doing at the time. NY—1979

That’s How the Rent Gets Paid—Jeff Weiss—high energy Gay monologue—so blown away I couldn’t get out of my seat—NY—1979

Wolkenstein—Bread and Puppet Theatre—in St Johns Cath—banners, large puppets—spectacular

Kennedy’s Children—Robert Patrick—four unrelated interlaced monologues—saw it in Toronto and NYC in a bar—great synopsis of the era—NY—1979

Toronto

Fortune and Men’s Eyes—John Herbert—ended up in an easy chair in very front row—actors almost falling over me—a prison gay play—very moving for a closet man—approx.—1975.

Farm Show—I saw the opening night of this TPM production—the farmers from Blythe who were portrayed were in the theatre—great “populist theatre”.

Zastrotzi—George Walker—I’ve seen this several times—I suspect the first time was the early 80s. Struck me as great writing. I’ve said since that it’s the best play written by a Canadian.

Best plays since 1980

There is no order to this list, just vague reasons.

Some were traditional in form and just plain fun with no message—American In Paris, Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Guys and Dolls.

Some were entertaining and had political punch—Urinetown the Musical.

Some were wonderful music—wonderful it seems because they had some serious content to the music other than true love—Assassins, Brand New Ancients.

Some were one-man tour-de-force—Mercy Killers, Hamlet.

Some were great political plays—Romance—Mamet, This House.

Some were visually unusual environments—Andy Warhol’s Lost Love, This House.

Some were great plays in traditional form where the writing more than other factors made the difference.—Cloud Nine, The Real Inspector Hound, Keane, Charles III, Romance—Mamet, Burnt By the Sun—National, Moll Flanders—Globe, Cowboy Mouth, Elephant Man, The 5th of July, Wit.

Notes—1977-1979

These notes cover the years I was living in New York as a grad student. My theatre attendance then was intense and systematic. I used to say I specialized in shows south of 23rd which cost less than $5. See:

Poor Murderer(1977), I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking IT on the Road,(1978), Passion of Dracula(1978), Clara Bow Loves Gary Cooper(1978), The Penny Arcade Peep Show—Le Plan K, Albert and Loose Ends, Approaching Zero, Talking Band, Worksong, The GinghamDog, False Promises—SanFrancisco Mine, Double Dreamburger, Mad Dog Blues, Cowboy Mouth, Buried Child, Utopia Inc.—Ridiculous Theatre Co., Seduced (1979),On the Twentieth Century, Going To Djibouti, Da, Telacast, Nature and Purpose of the Universe, Starluster, The Coach with Six Inside, League of Youth, Rat’s Nest, Marquis of Keith, Taken in Marriage, Re-Arrangments, Dar Twists.

Notes—1992-2012

These notes are often combined with travel diaries of trips to NYC or London.

New York (1993) — Angels in America, (Millenium Approaches, Peristroka), Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

New York (1994) — Three Tall Women, You Can’t Win, Why We Have a Body.

London (1994) — No Mans Land, An Inspector Calls, Prisoners of War, Hamlet—Branagh, Travels With My Aunt, Richard III(RSC), A Few Good Men, Deep Blue Sea, The Last Yankee, The Ideal Husband.

New York (1999) — Wit, Loaded, The Understudy, Under The Gaslight, Biography, Finian’s Rainbow.

New York (2011) — A Small Fire, Other Desert Cities, Blood From a Stone, Three Pianos, What The Public Wants, Gruesome Playground Injuries.

London (2012) — Jumpers, Revenger’s Tragedy, Shrek the Musical, Bully Boys, Timon of Athens, Love and Information, This House.

New York (2012) — The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Seminar, Richard III, Freud’s Last Session, Russian Transport, How I Learned To Drive, Sleep No More.

Notes—2013

See especially Zero Cost Housing.

New York:, Golden Boy, Peter and the Starcatcher, Water by the Spoonful, Zero Cost Housing, Hamlet Prince of Grief, Le Comte Pry. The Other Place, Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Jammers, The Last Five Tears, Corpus Christi, The Big Knife, Gamma Rays and Man-in-the-Moon Merigolds, The Assembled Party, Happy Birthday.

Washington:, Detroit, The Velocity of Autumn, Torch Song Triology.

Toronto:, Out The Window

Notes—2017

Toronto Next Stage

Fringe Festival at Factory Theatre:

Silk Bath, Western—with Music,

“Part myth, part campfire song, this show is a reckless chase through an imagined western landscape. Nance wants a son, Reach wants a home, Dirt wants release, Janet wants her brother, and Rabbit just wants to run. Join these acclaimed indie theatre artists ‘round the fire for a story about family, blood, and claiming what’s yours.”

Text by Matthew Gorman

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the beginning of New Physics by Kawa Ada

“It’s 1984. Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Imelda Marcos and a young political novice, Kim Campbell, convene for Indira Gandhi’s funeral. But when the group is hijacked by a mysterious woman named Malala—a time terrorist from the future—they must race against the clock to save humanity. In this hilarious and brazen satire, Dora-winner Kawa Ada fuses politics, feminism (and a little physics) to take a ball-busting look at the women who paved the way. Just like Hillary.”

Written and Directed by Kawa Ada

These three supposed Fringe hits were not uniformly awful, some were even worse than the others. Some of my companions liked Silk Bath. But they thought it was about getting through the immigration process rather than ‘after citizenship’. I thought it was about getting into China from Hong Kong.

We all trashed Western as incomprehensible. Never have my theatre friends been so uniformly vicious.

Regarding Mrs. Gandhi—how they “saved humanity” went totally over my head. Four famous women gather on stage as they did at the funeral of Mrs. Gandhi and talk about themselves and each other. And how they would …. something …. because they were women. The blurb writer thought the message was ‘save humanity’. What I thought I heard from the writer was that women could and would be ruthless and venal, corrupt and stupid as leaders, one character on stage for each point on the compass. I’m up for that message, because it’s the last ur-chapter of women’s lib. But then it was played as a comedy—very badly—so the message from the stage was that the women were idiots. Terrible coherence, utter confusion in the story.

The performances were embarrassing to watch. Mrs. Thatcher was played cross-dressed with a terrible accent. All the actor shouted.

The writer Kawa Ada is one of Factory’s non-white stable of writers. XX Acquino played Imelda Marcos. More shouting. Again embarrassing to watch. She is Factory’s Artistic Director. It makes you suspicious how this mess got on stage, not just for 60 minutes but 90.

I don’t know if Next Stage is curated or whether it’s just Fringe shows that have the drive to remount. If this was curated … !!!

Other

Alien Creatures by Linda Griffith

This is a remount of a show by Aluna Theatre and performed by its Director, Bea Pizano. It was performed in the TP Backspace.

The text is Griffith’s take on famous Canadian poet, Gwendoyln MacEwen, combining (I think) healthy stretches of her poetry with Linda’s voice ‘inhabiting’ a bohemian character she admired. Griffith did this ‘inhabit’ thing with Maggie Trudeau and Wallace Simpson. I thought these two plays were even better. These are all famous and sexy women Linda admired. Definitely pre-feminist.

I had never seen Bea Pizano perform and she was excellent. The staging and lighting was also terrific. I think of Linda Griffith as quintessentially Canadian. Her numerous trademark ironic asides are beloved. (Others have copied—Kevin Spacey.) Bea speaks with a sultry Spanish dialect that suits the sexy Gwendolyn but not the asides. At least to my ear.

Infinity Hannah Moscovitch — at Tarragon

A hit from last year—remounted—very well played especially ??? who played the eight and eighteen year old daughter. As the eight year old—terrific. You might say everyone was overacting but wouldn’t if you were in NYC.

The script is très intellectual—about whether time is fixed or open-ended—a matter of theoretical physics. And thus—somehow—whether if you start out not understanding love you can change. Something to talk about. The play is intended to be touching, about a tempestuous relationship of two super smarties. The were satirized rather well, perhaps too thoroughly so they were comic more than tragic. Still I liked it a lot. It was a smart script and well performed.

Unholy Diane Flack — Nightwood at Buddies — (with Mary Rowe)

This ‘play’ was presented as a debate among four religious women—except one was an atheist—about whether religion was good. It was an extremely well written ‘debate’—capturing all twists and turns. A bit too much shouting. Into the debate were spliced (very neatly) a number of personal interactions among the participants and flashbacks and stories from their personal lives to illustrate the dilemmas. I am of course on the side of the atheist. She was the most obnoxious on stage. And least sympathetic to the Jewish rabbi. Who was the most appealing personality. The ending was a bit cloudy. An actual brawl broke out. OK. Women arguing about religion aren’t going to solve the problem. The brawl was provoked by sexual relations between some of the characters. Right on. But there was some fuzzy suggestion at the very end that ‘love’ would solve all. Way too fuzzy to make any sense. Seemed like a compromise ending. The only weak bit of writing.

The actors shouted too much. But maybe that was part of the debate.

Anyhow—excellent work. ‘Smart’ is the word. Others might not like it and say ‘too intellectual’.

New York

(Feb — 2017)

Tuesday, Feb 14, 2017

Jitney — August Wilson — Manhattan Theatre Club

Jitney was touted as the hottest ‘drama’ on Broadway this season. It opened in the fall. It is said to be Wilson’s last play not produced on Broadway.

I didn’t like the experience or the play.

I’ve seen other Wilson plays, all about black family life in Pittsburgh in the 50s and 60s. They’re generally well constructed and humane. They teach the rich white audiences that blacks are just like them in their family problems. They almost ignore race issues and are certainly conservative in preaching to the black characters who do complain, well don’t, get on with it, there is ‘opportunity’ etc. (This one, the programme says, is set in 1977. Seems too late.)

This one is about a group of black men in a failing ‘car service’, a very casual taxi company. They hang around the office, take calls, come and go and mostly argue about everything. Nobody has it easy. There are two plots in all the banter. One about a young guy, who works extra hard and buys a house for his new wife. She’s at home with a baby. She’s mad at him for being absent—because of his extra work. The other is about a dad who’s mad at a son who comes home from prison, finally paroled from a murder conviction. The son has an excuse for the killing. Whether it a good one is the subject of a fiery argument, the only gripping drama of the evening. Alas it’s only a fraction of the play. (Does the rich white woman’s allegation of abduction and rape to hide their affair from her father justify shooting her? He would do time for this ‘lie’. Was he being a ‘man’ for taking a stand?)

There were quite a few times when I thought the black male drivers at the car service were being mocked by the writer and laughed at by the white audience. Maybe it would be alright for a black writer and a black audience. I saw a lot of stereotyping of low class blacks. But some of those characters are ‘real’ enough and a black writer can take a whack. Maybe I’m being too Canadian. There are lots of black family comedies on TV where the same thing happens and it’s a sign of a kind of integration to see that blacks are human. There were certainly lots of places where the audience gasped and chuckled appropriately. There’s my value judgment again. I felt at the end that the whole experience was if not racist at least patronizing.

The play is not well constructed or satisfying. There seems to be a bit of rebellion brewing in Act II to a City plan to tear down the whole slum block which forces closure of the business. Then the scene changes and the would-be leader has just died (!) and they guys are hanging around mourning. This might have been a good story if actually told in full instead of killing it. It could be a contemporary story about the ways blacks struggle—normal, undistinguished guys—against a government that crushes them despite their efforts. They are normal. One’s a drunk. One’s hot tempered and obnoxious, another compassionate to a fault, one hard-working but trapped, etc.

The play seems like three plays badly stitched together.

The ranting argument between father and son was excellent but otherwise the characters were just loud. And some with dialect too thick for me to follow.

The audience seemed to love it. An older audience with more black faces than you normally see in a Broadway theatre.

Wednesday, Feb 15, 2017

If I Forget — Steve Levenson Roundabout Theatre Company

This is a terrific piece of writing. A family drama in the grand tradition, three children deal with an aged father, their rivalries, the failings and fuck-ups in their own lives and a lot of biting political issues of Jewish, very secular life. Key point is how the Holocaust has become the central item of practice. One of the characters argues eloquently against this and how Jews are no longer progressive. It isn’t a new argument. But it is sharply put. And well embedded in family drama that clicks along. The audience loved it. I did too. To be any more barbed it would have to get deep into settler politics. One of the characters is mocked for overplaying the fears of bombing. The loose allegation of anti-Semitism takes some hits. Other over-wrought allegations are thrown around and mocked. It was just right for the NY Jewish matinee audience, I thought.

The set was fab, three scenes on a turntable. The cast was excellent. The atmosphere was totally realistic. Not too much shouting.

I predict great success for this.

Joan of Arc — Into the Fire — David Byrne — Public Theatre

(I’d be a bad theatre critic. I don’t want to rush home and write it up in a rush and condense my thoughts before I fall asleep.) (So here I added later)

(Did I enjoy this because my new hearing aids worked well and I understood the lyrics? Maybe the show was perfectly mic’d and amplified but it sounded so much better than usual.)

Some say the true joy of New York musicals is how wacky they are. Cannibal barbers. Florida land speculators. Presidential assassins. Public pissing rebels. Mormon missionaries. Latin dictators. Imelda’s shoes. Whatever. This one is about Joan of Arc by famous David Byrne, alt-rock star of an earlier era. Joan is of course an ultra-religious, mystic, nationalist warrior with Christ delusions.

She crowned the king, led the French national army for a while. Then was captured by the English, confessed to false visions, then recanted and was burned at the stake anyhow by the English. Then forgiven by the Church (after her mother pleads her case in a lovely song. And is given sainthood five centuries later. Great story and the book of this musical is remarkably true to the factual history.

A nobody, peasant girl comes from nowhere and saves the nation. Great story for the feminists—girl hero does great things, fights like a man and then is tortured and lied to and killed by men. The waif-like Joan of the first half of this show is strong for the feminists. Maybe even the transsexual ethos. The soldiers have to check whether she is boy or girl. She certainly looked trans. I thought for a while this show was on to a new hero. She certainly sings up a storm in that arc… ‘I will be your hero… have courage… etc. Joan’s religious side is there but you don’t think of it as dominant till you hear the rest of the story. When she is captured, tried, repents, recants and is burned. Then it’s all about her claim she is a messenger of God. Byrne and his writer don’t hide this. Indeed they stress it.

She sings over and over she is a messenger from God, seeks final communion. We could ignore the delusional in the first half but not anymore. If it weren’t rock music—albeit gentle and intelligible—you’d think it was a Catholic church service. Entirely suitable for right wing Catholics.

Perhaps the fact I could understand the lyrics was a disadvantage to my approval of this show. Perhaps you are not supposed to pay attention to the words. I did think too much of the music was too much already of up-lifting anthems a la Les Miz. The music is intended to carry you away. Anyhow, and more precisely, Joan is a religious nationalist. Not a good thing. She’s perfect for the right-wing rebels all over the world. She is a dangerous hero. Will she lead the feminists to the right, into the other camp? Joan of Arc is the symbol of the right in France. Sure, sure, my political take on it is intense and literal. But boil it down. Where is Byrne taking us with all the anthems and flash? Other than Broadway?

The staging was excellent. I can imagine an even flashier Broadway production that knocks your socks off.

The lead was very good, a skinny waif among a troop of hunky soldiers. Androgyny is ‘in’. They’re on to something. I like the girl hero as a fighter, leading the men. That part of the message was good. It’s missing from Shaw’s version.

But its ultimate message—where she’s leading them to—that’s the problem. As with Hillary—woman leader is good per se, never mind that she’s leading us into the arms of the Wall St looters.

Despite my political beefs I liked watching the show. It was fun. Flashy. It had meaning. I liked a lot of the music in an emotional sense—the way I like military bands and bag pipes.

Without music this would have been awful.

Thursday Feb 16, 2017

Town Hall Affair — Wooster Group

This was more interesting than other Wooster productions I’ve seen because it had less inexplicable visual and story ‘additions’ and commentary. Not a bad theory to take ‘real’ events and fuck them up visually and dramatically, comment from a different time perspective, etc. all crazy in a sense but intended to provoke comparisons etc. As long as this advances thinking somehow, I’m on board, in theory.

This one started with a film of a Town Hall debate in 1971 hosted by Norman Mailer between feminists. Really it was Mailer against the feminists. The panel had Germaine Greer, Jill Johnson, Diana Trilling and ??? from ???, a women’s group. (Sorry, ???, you didn’t remain so famous as the others, I don’t remember the name.) The key speeches are played on a screen and actors lip sync on stage—brilliantly. The actors also act out bits of the panel and evening to give some dramatic stage content.

I thought Jill Johnson doing her Ginsberg-Stein-ish rant poem on all-women-are-lesbians was vicious satire till I saw she was perfectly lip-sync-ing with Jill Johnson on the screen. Mailer was pretty abrupt in response. But she was out of line, by normal standards. All this was interesting.

But this old debate is… old. Never mind. It’s a slice of history.

Mailer had written, supposedly attacking feminism in Prisoner of Sex. He defends himself in the debate. Sort of. The debaters rarely engaged directly on specific issues, and some of the stage antics were intended I suppose to illustrate the underlying issues. What they needed was a lawyer to run the thing. ‘What exactly are you talking about?’ Not a chance. Confusion is strategy. Trump didn’t invent it.

[Unholy at Buddies last month used the debate format to discuss the issue of religion and feminism with some dramatic add-ons. It was better. The dramatic add-ons all ‘added’ to the meaning and our understanding of the issues.]

The inexplicable part of Wooster was an interlude in which the two male characters—yes two, why not—playing Mailer got into a fight on stage. Ended up bleeding. I had no idea what that was about. The programme refers to an unrelated occasion during the filming of something Mailer created. But what? If there were shots from this film I missed them. The best I could make of this was that in the context of a discussion of feminism and Mailer seeming to say that feminist goals were too idealistic???? We see men fighting and hear some comments about how/why/they shouldn’t/they do??? I have no idea. Might be a smear of Mailer just to… just to???

I have just made this much more coherent as an intellectual evening than it was at the time. Maybe Wooster is more clever than I thought.

The whole thing was somewhat enjoyable because it was interesting to see the famed ones in the movie clips. The stage antics were sometimes helpful and only partially stupid distractions.

Could I say this dramatic exercise helped in any way in the current debates about feminism? Unholy was much better in that respect. Both were interesting as theatre trying to present something topical and informative and to comment on issues. Present the hard-core debate as debate then ‘decorate’ the presentation with meaningful (or meaningless) asides that would never be allowed in a prim and proper debate to make the stupid audience think.

Friday, Feb 17, 2017

Sunset Boulevard — A.L. Weber / Glen Close

First off, the audience is mad for the diva star, Glen Close. It’s the dirty underbelly of narcissism, fans as enablers. The show works on two levels for everybody (except me). The performer is presented as a great diva. And the character is supposedly the greatest star of all time. It’s President Trump in a glitter gown, an utterly obnoxious character but so over-the-top that he/she attracts fans who admire the chutzpah. The movie is better for giving more play to male character who is victimized.

Now, other than that, how was your night at the theatre?

The music was third rate for the sub-plots of bustling Hollywood life. It was repetitive in the themes —‘haven’t surrendered yet’, etc. Norma has a few good songs to belt. Glen Close got big applause each time. But she could perform that well. She was better in the second act. But the very concept of Norma, the aging silent film star belting it out like Ethel Merman is just… wrong for the story. The last bit, her mad aria, was well done. There was nothing much written for the male victim. The orchestra played well. The staging was good, not too glitzy.

I could not help thinking of Glen Close’s famous role as the obsessed scorned lover in Fatal Attraction when she rises from the bathtub and kills the man that got away. The same story. This time Norma is glamorized instead of demonized. How time have changed.

So… I guess I hated it. And yet I liked watching the show of it.

Saturday, Feb 18, 2017

The Great Comet of 1812 (Natasha and Pierre and…) — David Malloy

This was lots of fun to watch. Big stage, big cast (30+), lively music, fiddlers who dance and sing, audience in clumps all over the stage, performers regularly racing through the audience, singing, dancing, playing, perogies for the audience and on and on. Tons of fun.

I think the amplification was too loud.

But… how much can an often literal presentation of War and Peace actually be played for laughs? The music was often just some tune as the performer quoted/in song voice Tolstoy’s words. It’s not a book with a modern message—young girl ruined by an almost elope with a cad. An unhappily married drunk gets a smile from her as the 1812 comet whizzes by—and smiles. The first story is mostly played for laughs. The second, when it surfaces, is embarrassing.

If there might be tragedy in the story it’s mostly lost in joyous singing and dancing. I caught two tunes buried in there.

The whole thing is odd. Something that shouldn’t be a musical to my mind is a Broadway musical. Well, no, that’s normal on Broadway.

The fun of watching did not outweigh the ridiculousness of the story.

The Penitent — David Mamet — Atlantic Theater

Mamet is my master dialogue writer. His norm is terrific and his best, a perfect mockery of our arguments—almost always angry—that constantly misconnect, as is so true in real life. His film scripts aren’t as angry or so irrational or so brilliant.

Anyhow, here’s a set of dialogue between four characters, two at a time, much less strident and angry but very crisp. Great, well, at least riveting to watch. Let’s take back great. Sometimes they seemed wooden. But maybe that was the female character, in her shock. It all seemed like Pinter. That can’t be bad. (I wonder whether, because The Atlantic is Mamet’s theatre of origin, I can think this is how he intends his dialogue to sound—a bit declamatory, stiff and stilted.)

The situation. A psychiatrist has refused to testify for his former patient in his defence. The patient has killed some people while in care. The shrink is being pilloried in the press. He does it, he says, for reasons of professional obligation and then, he says, religious conviction. His lawyer and wife, with whom he argues, are having an affair, it is revealed. And in the last few lines his wife lets out the secret—the patient gave him the gun in one of the sessions and he gave it back. And killed ten people.

The text is mostly about legal and moral issues. It sounds profound. But it is very confused about the legal issues. Very.

Was it spoiled for me because I know too much? There are several good legal issues explored and strung together. It’s the usual problem—the writer has a good scene and glues it to another. But he doesn’t have a good plot. And the typical consequence of this is that we get a surprise ending. It’s a surprise because it makes little sense of, and does not resolve, the scenes that came before. It just ends the play. I say ‘typical’. I think it is a good general critique of what is happening in modern theatre. I could build this into a theory of modern or millennial thinking. And the loss of linear logic among the tweet-brains. But that’s too much to absorb. Mamet has several plots:

  • libel case—In the first few scenes the newspaper accuses him of being anti-gay by a quote from his patient and a word slips from one of his papers. They argue about what will go into the apology. Rethinking this at the end after the revelation about the gun, it makes more sense that the real defamation was an article that implied his care was negligent about returning the gun. That would ‘sting’. What is discussed is very thin as a defamation case.
  • Crim case—the client seemingly wants him to testify in his defence in the criminal prosecution and he refuses. He can’t refuse. He can get subpoenaed. There is no privilege if the client waives it. Maybe if the issue was that he was subpoenaed and at trial he was refusing to testify and the fight breaks out what to do about his refusal.
  • In the former case his notes would have been subpoenaed. End discussion. In the later case there would be no notes.
  • There might be a different issue—being retained to do an assessment. There is an interesting issue—a doctor has refused to do an assessment for religious reasons. And the doctor gets sued for anti-gay discrimination. But where the doctor is the treating physician there wouldn’t be an issue of giving an assessment. He would be subpoenaed to testify. And asked.
  • It would have been a plausible crisis/drama to be dealing with the treating doctor under subpoena for the defense at trial being cross-examined where the cross-examination shows the accused killer wanted help and the doctor didn’t give it and is that an excuse/defence. We could then hear about what people expect from shrinks etc.
  • Another plausible way to explore these issues would be in a suit by the victims against the shrink for letting the kid go out and kill. Confidentiality doesn’t apply in such cases. The doctor’s claim of confidentiality would be exposed as his self-interest and also open the question how far the privilege goes. This was litigated in a recent Toronto case.

Anyhow, there are lots of meaty issues here. And the legal ‘cases’ on stage are confused and don’t actually illustrate the moral quarreling on stage.

Sunday, Feb 19, 2017

The Light Years by The Debate Society at Playwrights Horizons

The Debate Society has been a ‘hot ticket’ in small theatre for several years. Based in Brooklyn. Always sold out. Praised for the environments and sets and their intelligence. Playwrights is the leading spot for new plays. So the latter bought the former. I suspect for the usual reason that rich corps buy small innovators. Anyhow this was a must ticket for me and purchased as soon as I was booked for NYC. And also, grossly disappointing.

The story was something about theatre history, special effects, the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fairs in Chicago, inventors, success and failure, time, God knows what else. The scenes flips back and forth between time periods, not a bad trick but by the end I couldn’t follow. It would have been better down in a garage where the gadgets would star and the idea of he frustrated inventor could shine. Being halfway to Broadway with this stuff was a bad compromise. The two families upon whom the plot was hung were painful.

I will say the writers were trying to say something about ‘success’ and they had some theatre history they had discovered. But it was just a bad job.

Too bad. Somebody worked very hard on the electrical effects.

Monday, Feb 21, 2017

The Skin of Our Teeth — Thorton Wilder Theatre for a New Audience, Brooklyn

I have to try hard to get past the terrible seating. We ended up in the very front row—don’t ask why. Most of the first act was utterly in your face. The curiosity of seeing so up close was short lived, and the big picture of the huge cast and big set picture of man’s struggle through the ice age and the flood was lost. The second act was mostly performed on higher platform on the stage so I couldn’t see most of the performance, let alone the big picture effect. The first six or eight rows—until you hit the raked seats—were similarly impossible. The seat ought to have been half price or not sold at all. The set designer wasn’t thinking at all about the actual theatre.

Anyhow, the play won a Pulitzer in 1942. Wilder is famous for it and Our Town. Must see.

Wilder thought of himself as the poet laureate of the family. This smacks of the Our Town message of the wonderful family that sticks together through thick and thin. But that’s the lesser message to man survives and endures through crises and war. It is notably the hero dad who does this, but never mind the sexism. This play is from the 30s. (Finally on Broadway in 1942.)

I like the wacky deconstruction, The set falls apart. The actors rebel. Some supposedly get sick and can’t continue. Brechtian—beyond Brecht. This helped in addressing universal themes instead of a naturalist intimate family drama. It would have been radical in the late thirties. My friend Norman hated all this. ‘A bad play!’ He’s deeply committed to a NY/Broadway ethic that the play should entertain, message is secondary. And he’s certainly right that this was difficult entertainment.

The acting was also very declamatory in style, suitable to the purpose. This was not so off-putting as you might think. This kind of shouting or strutting is common now and the essence of a Broadway ‘show’.

The press was excited about the remount. Supposedly very current, refugees, environmental disaster etc. I’m not so persuaded of its current relevance. Good that theatre folks try for that. But the current problem and crisis is very different—a new dictator. There is no family response to that. [The search for the right ‘fit’ in dystopian literature is more germane.]

I liked Wilder’s effort to wrestle with a big idea and dramatize it. It was hard to tell given my awful seat whether it worked visually. I doubt it. Maybe the message was uplifting in the late 30s but it doesn’t grab me now.

All in all, my opinion of Wilder went up. I was never bored. Good brain candy even if it was difficult entertainment.

Tuesday, Feb 22, 2017

Man From Nebraska — Tracy Lett — Second Stage

The dilemma and message of this play had no legs for me. Devoted Baptist loses his belief in God. Goes on holiday to London. Extramarital sex doesn’t work. Booze and drugs loosen him up, but not enough. Too late? A dose of ‘art’ as a sculpture student doesn’t work. Mother dies. He goes back to his faithful (but dull) wife. She takes him back. He still doesn’t know how to resolve his unhappiness. But they go forward as ‘partners’.

The acting, staging, and direction were superb. Still it was boring.

It’s a great play for the aging New York Broadway audience. (Second Stage isn’t technically Broadway.) Many walkers at the matinee. The woman behind me was heard to say, “I loved it but I’m glad I didn’t bring my husband.”

This comes from Steppenwolf in Chicago—as does Letts.

The Interview — Jung Hwa Choo and Soo Hyun Huh — St Clements

What could be more New York than a musical about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder and a psychologist trying to interview all of the multiples to figure out which one is the real killer of his sister and mother and others, if it wasn’t the high school English teacher who wrote the novel based on the psychologists notes. Tough work but somebody’s got to sing it.

It was playing across the road from my hotel and a group of us went.

Nobody could figure out the various ‘persons’ in the ‘boy’ killer. There were many. And he had a lot of tough times. Bottom line—too confused to follow. The performing was not so inspiring that it made up for the rest. The crazy ‘boy’ and all his inner people were a tour-de-force rant for ten minutes out of ninety. That’s about it.

Feb 24, 2017

The Liar, Corneille (1644) adapted by David Ives

A play of which I knew nothing. How much of the text is re-write and adaptation? My guess, a lot, because it is consistently funny. Was the original in rhyming couplets? A pleasure to listen to for the puns and twisted rhymes.

Seems like Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and All’s Well That Ends Well. Utterly silly plot.

Great acting in the tradition of classical farce. Everyone on stage could be a great Shakespearean on another stage. (And speak powerfully, unmic’ed)

I don’t have much to say, it was so good.

    **

Feb 24 2017

Jonah and Otto — Robert Holman

Lost Tribe Theatre Co — at Theatre Row

This was an ‘I’ll-try-this’ because of a hole in my schedule. Never heard of anybody. A serious play in a serious venue. No reviews.

Robert Holman is an English writer. The star was a young and accomplished English actor. The play was done in natural English accents.

Described as ‘what happens’ when the 61-yr-old Otto has a chance meeting with 26-yr-old Jonah. They talk. Explore friendship and establish. And Jonah leaves. Otto is failed-smart clergy trying to be missionary. Jonah starts as violent tramp, thief and trickster. Otto breaks through Jonah’s hostility by forgiveness and respect. Empathy ‘downward’ evolves into empathy upward. A lot of ‘no-dad’ talk. They part friends. Otto’s mission work has been successful it seems, but you wonder what it profited Otto?

Sincere Christians would like it as a therapy play, even though Otto has lost his faith.

You wonder, how does such a sincere and nice message play ever get produced.

I admired Otto’s persistent and determined generosity but liked Jonah more. The fact I say I ‘liked’ the characters says the play was somewhat successful.

The text is cloyingly sincere. Doesn’t hide its message—be nice and good will come.

One sequence—where Jonah steals Otto’s clothes and ‘changes places’ was too long.

The acting by Jonah was excellent.

Can’t say I was moved though I like the message.

This very plain talk play was a flop in NYC. I’m seeing another talk play tomorrow—a success. (An Evening in the Talk House) What’s the difference? Unholy, and The Penitent were both successful talk plays. Didactic, when folks would say that’s not the way to go. The arguments in the other three were angry and the endings pessimistic. To be continued.

Feb 25, 2017

*Sunday in the Park with George — Steven Sondheim

I found the second act quite moving—‘Putting It Together’. Jake Gyllenhaal can sing! But the rest of the show was merely good.

The story in Act I is thin but who cares in a musical. The story that emerges of a modern descendant hits you in Act II. An odd twist that works. But a Pulitzer for Drama? No.

I was having some trouble with the clarity of a fair amount of chorus work. It sounded like a too loud air conditioner was running. In moments of stillness it was very noticeable. Maybe my hearing aids were amplifying it. Don’t know. Better in Act II.

I’m no expert but there are a fair number of motifs in this show that sound a lot like In The Woods. Other Sondheim shows have more consistent and larger, longer scores.

The set could have been better. The show is created to do a tableau of the famous painting. It was thin. My recollection of the Shaw version is that it was better but needed more space. This one had the space but could have used it more effectively.

An Evening in the Talk House — Wallace Shawn — The New Group

I have always puzzled over this person. Famous, but why? The movie My Dinner with Andre is him talking, over dinner, about nothing much, which is to say himself. It seemed very intelligent, literate, New York. He wrote The Fever, a monologue, for performance in small apartments (according to Wikipedia) and was, by XX in mine in the 80s. An endless babble about me/me/me, again very literate. I had never seen him live until now, in An Evening in the Talk House.

As a performer he is terrific, an animated and funny voice, great fun to listen to.

This piece had himself and famous Mathew Broderick and five others, at their club, ‘the Talk House’, talking. They do nothing but talk, except, maybe, somebody poisons the hostess. The play is billed as serious talk about the declining theatre and fascist America. That overstated the themes. More like him making fun of old theatre gas bags and he throws in some totally unconvincing blah blah about how some of them participate in assassinations. The actors are all good talkers so this ridiculous script is not utterly embarrassing. When Shawn himself is not on stage is drags. It seemed under-rehearsed—Broderick stumbled in one of his monologues—but that impression might have been deliberate, as if it were indeed casual conversation and we were there. (We could have drinks on stage with the actors before they started.) More likely, it seemed, nobody had the nerve to take Shawn to task for this wandering mess. As an absurdist comedy it failed, half written. As sentimental theatre talk it was embarrassing.

Listening to Wallace himself—terrific. But he’s an ugly little thing. He is the son of a famous New Yorker editor and a NYC brainy type, Harvard and Oxford. The City loves him. In a city of intellectuals he’s their guy in the theatre. As an outsider, who judges theatre by theatre’s own formal standards of beauty, coherence, pace and grandeur—go away, Wally. But, he’s more and less than that, a weird phenom. What is it? What? A failed NYC insider, who is a useless and confused intellectual and he fails by becoming a famous actor. That’s gotta be good in NYC. And he sells this shtick to us.

I felt no uplift, no insight as I left. Glad it was done. What a stupid play. I wished I could just listen to him–the voice! But remembering the other shows where he talked solo, or wrote a monologue, they were rambling and forgettable, self-indulgent twaddle. You wish he had something to say. You wish and wish.

Toronto Fringe

Seat Next to the King — Stephen Elliot Jackson

This was the only “best” Fringe play in years that hasn’t seemed worthy.

The premise is that Bayard Rustin meets Walter Jenkins in a washroom in about 1965 and the former, a very out and adventurous gay man, seduces the latter. Walter, nevertheless, does evolve into a liberated guy and departs the bed of sin to return to his closet. Years later, in Act II, they meet again, Walter is still in denial and unhappy.

Bayard Rustin, a noted black civil right leader was indeed gay. Walter Jenkins, an aid to Lyndon Johnson, was caught, busted and disgraced for washroom sex. But as I understand the history, not with Bayard Rustin. And the Wikipedia entry tells us that he went back to his family of six children.

Thus the play stands for the proposition that one dalliance with another man means you’re GAY totally and completely and forever and any denial is tragic. This is a notion rapidly fading in the era of switch-hitting.

The play had a painful beginning as Bayard teased Walter who tried to leave and yet stayed. Far too long.

The two actors did a terrific job conveying the tension in the script. Without them it would have been unbearable.

Six Quick Dick Tricks

Mind reading and noir detective. Fun. Impressive tricks.

Happy Family — Shelley Hobbs

Two sisters and brother search for mother who has wandered off from the locked ward of the retirement facility. One sister wants her dead so she can divide up the estate money. One sister want to keep looking after the brother who is emotionally or mentally infirm in some way which isn’t clear. And the brother is …. something weird.

Just awful.

The brother seemed fine to me and the sisters nasty to the core.

Hated every minute.

Shaw Festival

1837 — The Farmers’ Revolt

I didn’t love this nationalistic history dive. It was a remount of the famous TPM production in 1973. The history lesson is detailed and intense. Alright. But the staging was off. The original was striking as I recall, for the ensemble work in physical stagecraft, e.g. imitating a wagon and horses stuck in the mud, battles, fights etc. In a church gymnasium in 1973 the Passe Muraille troupe blew me away with fun and energy of something new (to me). Now these efforts came across as both limp and forced by high-paid professionals imitating actors who believed in their message. They company had four woman among them playing male parts. Perhaps this is a modern necessity but it failed over and over. This play is not such a classic that it bears the weight. In the same vein, a black actor pretending to white landowner/speculator was off-putting. What works in Shakespeare doesn’t always work elsewhere.

It’s interesting that the new Artistic Director of the Festival hunted down a core bit of Canadian theatre history for his first season. Why he got to this I don’t know. It is certainly remote from the Shaw mandate. Maybe it was left over from Jackie Maxwell.

In its day it was populist propaganda in an era that was strongly anti-American. It was interesting is see it again with a Yank and some history profs. Now Mackenzie as an American–style Republican begins to peek through. It’s much more anti-Empire and pro-American given the scenes of admiration for the thriving American democracy.

1979 — Michael Healey

This play tries to lionize Joe Clark, the short-term PM and last Progressive Conservative Prime Minister, as an ‘honourable’ man and a modern tragedy of some sort for his failure. ‘Too decent’. It is a compelling thesis which kept a crew of six knowledgeable political junkies debating into the steamy summer night outside the theatre. That’s good enough to rate a ‘good play’, despite many problems on stage.

Those problems can be fixed. What we saw had to be something they are still working on. It could turn into a great bit of writing, with audience legs and distinguished reputation as a play that defines Canada the way Canadians see themselves—decent. Whoever thought it of Joe Clark? Anyhow, there is a ways to go.

I thought some of the made=up dialogue was very insightful—e.g. Clark and Trudeau.

I really liked the ‘long arc’ of the play—not just the pivotal point, 1979, but the total collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party.

I liked making JC a tragic figure. But the play was missing JC’s early history and generally, why was there a progressive party and what was progressive about it.

I think something about the conventions in which JC lost his leadership to Mulroney would have been good—certainly better than the fantasy conversation with Harper.

The last ten minutes was based too much on bare text slides. They could have fixed this with a lot of pictures.

The open sequence when Crosbie was blotted out by loud music music had to be a mistake. Very, very poor. But could be easily fixed.

An Octoroon — Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins

This was a high concept piece from Yale Drama and Signature in NYC. It’s interesting that the new Artistic Director wanted this in his first season. BJJ is top drawer in NYC. The Director was Peter Hinton, Canada’s best stage director for great visuals. The Royal George looked to be sold out for a midweek matinee. I’m guessing this piece points the way forward for Shaw—which is fine for me. Although I thought this thing was awful in concept though not in execution. Peter Hinton made it look good but didn’t have the nerve to edit.

The theory is—stage an 1850’s famous (and forgotten) melodrama about slavery. In its day it was very anti-slavery. And it was a classic, over-wrought, painfully hammy melodrama. Such plays are awful to watch now in our era of realism on the stage. Never mind. This one is re-written and staged by a contemporary black playwright, who introduces it and then puts on white-face to act in the melodrama as the kindly white plantation owner. There is some race message here for white liberals. (But it isn’t really very clear.) He intervenes in the staging every once in a while to comment on the structure of melodrama (which is often informative and entertaining). Act IV has to be collapsed and we walked through what would have been the dramatic action in the original —e.g. fires, hangings etc.

The melodrama re-enactment was mostly painful. The explanatory overlay did not redeem. I admire the effort to rise above the play to a discussion of the play and its politics. But it failed to engage.

BJJ has other well-regarded plays. I would hesitate to see them. It’s like the text of a grad seminar at Yale discussing the play was tacked on to the play itself on the assumption the morals would be interested.

We saw a preview. There was nothing to improve on the staging. The only thing that could help would be a major edit. Too late for that.

Middletown — Will Eno

We saw a preview of this. Eno is another Signature Theatre favorite from NYC.

This production looked done and polished and was a pleasure to watch even if it was totally boring. The first act was tedious and second much more engaging, with a faint hint of the shadow of a plot.

It’s all about being lost and without purpose in middle America. People go to the library, get born, die, an astronaut circles the globe and ponders earth life… yawn. People talk and talk and talk and talk.

There is virtually no narrative story—which is fashionable these days. Good for people rich enough to drift or so poor they have no option.

Maybe it’s a good play for some but not me.

Stratford

The Virgin Trial — Kate Hennig

This is the second of her trilogy in progress on Tudor women. We saw the first, The Last Wife, and thought it excellent. This one was to me more ambitious and also excellent but perhaps didn’t reach its highest peak. It is a modern voice re-examination of Elizabeth’s teenage affair with Thomas Seymour who was married to Elizabeth’s step-mother. Was it consummated? Did Bess have an abortion—a child? All famous historical debates. Hennig would have us believe Bess was a powerful woman from her teenage years and indeed plotting to overthrow her brother, the king (a ward of the Duke of Sommerset?). She is shown fooling around with Thomas Seymour and then shown raped. He gets hanged for a supposed attempt on the king but he doesn’t betray her as a plotter. She is shown denying the sex and launching herself as a virgin but also as The Virgin Queen. It is plausible, heady and an interesting theory. It could have been clearer. That’s a tough criticism because I’d also like to have been shown more of the dynastic stakes instead of it seeming like a mere family drama.

Some folks may know too much real history to be satisfied with this dramatization and others may not know enough to plug into the real drama. The acting was excellent and the set dull.

The School for Scandal — Sheridan

I was exhausted by the evening we saw this that I slept too much in the first act and went home at intermission. What I saw was polished and the others were full of high praise.

Guys and Dolls

This musical is so much perfect fun. The production, especially the dancing in the second act, was superior. It made me so happy just watching and listening that tears came to my eyes. One of life’s great moments. No matter that the story is stupidly sexist. We just laugh at that from another era.

The Mad Woman of Chaillot — Giraudoux

I did not like this at all. Others did. Gail and I disliked it so much we left at Intermission. The scene is a café filled with characters—some whimsical, some criminal all played to the hilt. In a sense it was the French equivalent of lowlife New York in Guys and Dolls. I didn’t get the story. I was tired. Norman hated it and Doug liked it.

The Komagata Mara Incident

This play is supposedly based on a real incident—a shipload of Indian immigrants turned away from Vancouver in 1914. The historians in our group trashed it for being false history. I hated the confused narrator-figure. And the fact the director had added elements to the play to pump up the racism theme.

A vivid example of the worst of contemporary Canadian theatre.

The badness of this production deserves a longer denunciation. Which I’ll write another time. - There were Sikh rebels on board—the suffering mother representing the stranded refugees is false. - The First War was breaking out—good reason to be concerned. - The Chinese wife as a further subject of abuse has apparently been added to this version of the play. - The Native figure who starts the play and changes costume into a British bureaucrat made no sense. - The British bureaucrat—played by a sexy woman actor—who was the nasty guy-villain danced and pranced around for reasons I could only guess at—maybe that he/she enjoyed baring the immigrants—which belittles the very live, real and nasty issues.

It seems to me the story has been made over into a general scream about racism, belittling the real and deep problem.

The Breathing Hole — Colleen Murphy

A wonderful example of the best of Canadian theatre. Bravo to Stratford for sponsoring this. We saw a Preview. Act One could be shortened a little. But nevermind.

I’ve never heard of Colleen Murphy. She’s won two Gov-Gen Awards for Drama. For two plays I’ve never heard of. I hope it’s true—for me—not her—they got obscure productions and disappeared quickly. Otherwise, shame.

The set and costumes were cheap. But they worked fine. It had garage theatre enthusiasm and honesty. I can see it being produced ‘big’. But doing ‘absurd’ in fancy dress often guts the absurdity. We’ll see.

A co-production with an Inuit drama group. Never drag me there!—The first act was wonderful. A giant puppet polar bear as a ‘God’ figure?! Lovingly and respectfully sacrificed for food. A true Canadian experience of the wilderness animals. The Franklin expedition. Freezing to death. Deeply comic.

Summerworks

Professionally Ethnic — Bobby Del Rio

I went to a Summerworks play last evening called Professionally Ethnic. It was written by and starred a guy named Bobby del Rio who read Hamlet ten years ago for me. I thought he was quite talented as a performer. You could see that same stage skill last night—he moves on stage and his face is animated. He speaks well, although too loudly last evening, He is handsome. He has star quality. To me he looks like a white guy whose great-great grandmother or father might have been Chinese or something Asian. The play was about an Asian actor who is discovered by a great producer and promoted as a star because he is ethnic. The star hates being used this way. He hates being a professional ethnic. After the show there was a panel discussion of race issues in the theatre. Bobby was joined on the panel by another guy who I would not have guessed was ethnic who complained about the problem of getting work as a brown actor. And another guy, this one a bit brown and with a touch of English Empire diction, who joined in the chorus.

To his credit Bobby said stop bitching and do it yourself. And he does. He’s a dynamo of small productions. Also rather conceited about it. Maybe charming. And he boasted that in one of his recent Youtube productions he had a crew of 31 persons only one of whom was a straight white guy.

The play made good fun of pompous diversity bureaucrats. Bobby doesn’t like that mindset. But the room full of actors and panelists didn’t get it at all. It was an opportunity for the race-based complaints.

I dared not compliment the colour-blind casting—a white guy playing an Asian in a play essentially about discrimination against Asians by white guys.  

Edinburgh Festival and Fringe Festival

Normally in the summer you take a sweater to the theatre because it’s air conditioned and chilly inside. In Edinburgh you wear the sweater and rain gear outside and take it off inside—as if it November in Toronto. Just saying. Nobody comes to Scotland for the nice weather.

I have block moved the promo descriptions from the Fringe Catalog in italics to compare the self-conception and intention of the performer/sponsors.

Edinburgh—First Day

Tales of Life and Death — Craig Lucas

Our first play was performed in an oversized shipping container with three rows of folding chairs offering legroom a paraplegic would abjure—if he could get inside—said shipping container sitting on the closed off main drag of a gorgeous city amidst fast food stands and next to the Comedy Shack—Free! Free! Free! I guess all the hotel lobbies and lockers rooms were booked. But who goes to the Fringe for comfort? Drama in a theatre has been passé for a longtime.

Now here’s the real shocker. This Fringe production was a two hander about old people, fumbling sex, dying, sex in heaven and whatever else. Certainly no plot but extremely well-executed and related sketches—performed by seriously experienced, older NYC acting pros with many credits. And my compliments to the director for taking full advantage of the intimacy of the shipping container. [Craig Lucas wrote The Secret lives of Dentists.] The shipping container audience were heavily mature types. We’ll wait and see if this a new type of fringe.

In the world premiere of Pulitzer/Tony Award nominee Craig Lucas’s (Prelude to a Kiss, An American in Paris, Amelie) zany and touching new play, three stories collide in a world of voyeuristic theatre critics, bartenders with too much spirit and mysterious strangers looking for love in the afternoon. Starring US comedy legends Richard Kline (Three’s Company) and Pamela Shaw (Swingers), directed by Manhattan Theater Club’s Associate Director Hunter Bird.

A Common Man — Tom Payne

An extremely well done one-man telling of the life of Tomas Payne. XX as the writer and performer has done excellent work condensing the history. Payne’s life is hardly dry history and XX spices it up with a variety of characters.

Rare to get such a great performance for an audience of 35 or so. A privilege.

Dominic Allen (Belt Up Theatre’s Outland) brings Thomas Paine back from the dead to tell his incredible story: the pirate who invented America; the corset maker that inspired the French Revolution; the ordinary man who built an extraordinary bridge. This gripping solo show takes you from Norfolk Street to American battlefield, from ship to shore, in a whirlwind historical adventure. ‘Always sheer joy to watch Allen perform’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Thrillingly evokes an era of men in breeches… of the masses overthrowing their rulers’ (Scotsman). ‘Inspirational’ (Stage). ★★★★★ (ThreeWeeks). ★★★★★ (BroadwayBaby.com). ★★★★★ (BritishTheatreGuide.com).

Edinburgh—Second Day

It has been a beautiful day today. We did a lot of walking although we didn’t start until late. The significance is personal. I seem to have survived well enough. No serious knee pains, mainly normal sore feet.

The city is seriously beautiful—massive area of old stone buildings well restored. I’ve no buildings over ten storey and most are no lore than five. Lovely topography.

Got a sense from the street touts how many more plays there are than we bought. Only one of our five plays so far was full. The list of sold outs at the box office is about 20 to 30. I wonder if you could come without tickets.

The Royal Mile was a treat—very high quality buskers.

It’s hard to eat properly. A proper restaurant, seats in that restaurant, at the right time. I hate wandering looking for a restaurant. Anyhow the fish (haddock) but not the chips have been good. Next time—if there is one—I would pay more attention to the distance between shows to help with the eating.

Obfuscation

I chose this because I am currently writing about lying and newspaper editing. It was advertised as a play about the misuse of words. It was short. It was more a play satirizing seminars on how to make a speech. The style was absurdist.

Two New York actors performed a 30 minute script they wrote to an audience of seven in a very apropos hotel conference room.

It was alright. They were all right. But I have better texts in such subjects in such style in my work book.

One lesson—plays about word play and absurdity are a hard sell.

In an age of disinformation, this seminar teaches you how to stop telling people what you think and start telling them what they think. But when truth becomes slippery, who can be trusted? Are the instructors plotting a nefarious scheme or just trying to find a word for love that hasn’t lost its meaning? Either way, if you forget your name, an extra will be provided.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

This was a one woman monolog—Dorothy Parker reviews her life and famous companions and re-hashes her many famous quips. Many of which I love. I’m inspired to buy a book of them and commit them to memory. The performer was fine, the writing was excellent and the eventual mood melancholic. This was appropriate to the subject matter and satisfying.

The audience was large and all over fifty and seemed to enjoy it.

New York City, 1943. Dorothy Parker—member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, known for her biting wit (‘brevity is the soul of lingerie’)—sorts through her poems and short stories, reminiscing about her famous friends (Lillian Hellman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway), her fellow members of the Round Table (Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, George Kaufman), the founding of The New Yorker magazine, her Hollywood screenwriting career and her many loves and heartbreaks, as she prepares her famous collection for Viking Press: The Portable Dorothy Parker. ‘Tightly written, keenly directed, subtly performed’ (TheFrontRowCenter.com).

How to Win Against History

This was a two-plus very shrill comedy with music or send-up of opera or something. About a cross-dressing aristocrat educated at Eton who squanders the family fortune doing a touring road show and a lot of other stuff. Two problems. Often I couldn’t understand what was being said because of dialect and speed. Second problem—a lot of the humour was frantic silliness à la Monty Python which I often don’t get. The sold-out house seemed to like it.

The solid gold and sparkly diamond-studded hit of EdFringe 2016 returns. Henry Cyril Paget, the fifth Marquis of Anglesey, whose star burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely at the height of the British Empire, stalks the stage again in Seiriol Davies’s fierce, fabulous, tragi-gorgeous, hilarious, riches-to-rags extravaganza about being too weird for the world, but desperately not wanting it to forget you. ‘A work of genius’ ★★★★★ (Daily Telegraph). ‘Gleeful, ludicrous—a larky collision of Gilbert & Sullivan and Monty Python’ ★★★★ (Time Out). ‘Deliriously entertaining’ ★★★★★ (WhatsOnStage.com).

…”collision of Gilbert & Sullivan and Monty Python” sums it up. “Ludicrous” as well. But I could barely understand what they were saying. Something revelatory here. I like absurd and silly, but not so much.

Friday — War Day

    (I swear I never planned a theme day.)

Neville Chamberlain

Neville—well cast and well played—mopes about as he prepares to make his September speech announcing war with Germany in September, 1939. He talks about his wife whom he loves dearly and about how he wants peace and how he made a mistake about Hitler and about Winston who will now take over. He is waiting for a broadcast time slot. And in the meantime the BBC has a nice baritone to sing for the nation. So Neville’s meandering chat is punctuated by sentimental war tunes—We’ll Meet Again, etc., sung by the second actor. The play seems an attempt to get us to feel sorry for Chamberlain in as much as he made a mistake and tried to do the right thing. It culminates in Chamberlain’s famous speech, which is well delivered.

I thought the writing was weak. One or two background war tunes would have been ok, instead we got six. It was a poor cover for not talking more deeply about the situation in Great Britain at the time. A ruling class heavily influenced by Nazis. Efforts led by Churchill to re-arm. Rebellion in the Conservative Party.

This was by far the weakest of the four biography plays we have seen. Simple problem—not enough information.

In the last two years, Searchlight Theatre have cast their beam on Noel Coward and most recently on Laurel and Hardy. Both productions received rave reviews and played to full houses. Now a British Prime Minister, who is often regarded as our least effective and most unpopular. This new production asks why. His desire was peace in our time, his legacy was nearly six years of war. The play is set just before his famous radio broadcast to the nation informing Britain that she was at war with Germany. WWII songs are threaded cleverly throughout.

I’d try other Searchlight productions. It seems to be a Fringe genre that appeals to me.

Bin Laden

This was the best of the bio-plays so far. Single actor—a striking blond and handsome fellow—plays Bin Laden and tells his story of falling into radical and then revolutionary politics and then war. The early history of the student radicalization is sympathetic and logical—in the sense it might be to any American upper class radical from the sixties—and Bin Laden is an appealing person. Violence is a last resort. His history is told in the context of historical events, e.g. the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, He joins in. Discovers bravery. Then the US betrays the mujaheddin and Bin Laden retreats to Somalia. US take over of Iraq, etc. Bin Laden has a vision or a revelation or madness—take the fight to America. There is a reason—the American takeover of the Middle East to steal resources. (Not about the religious affront of Americans in Saudi Arabia). There are various attacks on American bases. The play is particularly effective here in telling the tale of a movement. We normally don’t put it all together. (The first attempt on Twin Towers is omitted.) When Bin Laden finally arrives at 911 he is a man obsessed with fighting America. 911 is shown as just the last stage in his war. He doesn’t revel in it.

I don’t know if the political history is precisely accurate. What is significant is telling a history in its entirety as one of courage. The Muslim basis of the fight is no more dangerous than the Christian basis of fighting Hitler.

The writing is excellent. Bin Laden might have come from Choate. He serves the audience tea just before the show begins. Bin Laden starts as a very rational sort with a flip-chart, motivational sales guy who asks the audience about heir politics and dissatisfactions and willingness in extreme situations to fight. The acting progresses in intensity to the highest level.

Altogether extremely well done. A political message very well told and performed. It reminds me once again how much acting skill there is in the UK. Here is a grassroots theatre in a very minor production with the highest skill level.

‘Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to show you how to change the world…’ The world’s most notorious terrorist tells his remarkable, provocative and multi award-winning story. After a critically-acclaimed USA tour, this incendiary, intelligent show provides fresh perspective; creating a space for debate and dialogue within the unthinkable. Critic’s Pick Of The Fringe Award (Hollywood Fringe Festival 2016). Outstanding Actor in a Drama (San Diego International Fringe Festival 2016). Broadway Bobby (BroadwayBaby, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013). Top 5 Theatre Shows at the Fringe (List, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013).

Edinburgh Tattoo

This was an excellent military show. Precision. Great bands. Strobe lights and projections. Great to watch. It was like Guys and Dolls—forget the meaning of the story and enjoy the performance. The meaning? Not just the glories of the modern army life but also the tragedy that Bonnie Prince Charlie didn’t succeed.

Saturday — Fourth Day

The Importance of Being Frank

This was terrible. I chose it because I had read it was some clever re-write of the Oscar Wilde classic. I couldn’t figure out what was re-written except the name. The rest seemed to be an abbreviated version which was embarrassingly awful to watch.

Not to mention that the ticket gave the wrong address and when we finally found it in an upstairs conference room of the Hilton Hotel it was uncomfortably small.

Wilde’s much loved masterpiece gets a 1980s revamp. John Worthing and his egocentric friend Andrew Moncrieff fall in love with two naive girls. However, there’s a problem—both girls are adamant they could only ever love a man called Frank. As the two young men bicker over who is the most Frank, issues with parents and parentage rise to the surface. Comical chaos ensues as the country and town collide with callous love. This production is a superb satire on British manners with witty repartee and hysterical hypocrisy.

I didn’t see any “revamping”—except changing the name.

The Fair Intellectual Club — Lucy Porter — Arkle Theatre Company

Set in 1717, three smart young women form a club to advance intellectual studies for the fair sex instead of learning to sew. Standard feminism so far. But one turns out to be a vain beauty really not interested. One is being married off to an old fart and resigned to it. The other is a math genius. One is English and there were a lot of Scottish-English jokes which seemed in good humour to the audience. The dilemma for the young women seemed true to history. The ending told us it was still the same. The jokes were fine. The performances good enough.

One homophobic joke—about Newton.

One could observe that there wasn’t a positive male in the whole play—no males on stage, just referred to—all bad.

1717—the inaugural meeting of a secret society where young ladies exercise their minds. In Lucy Porter’s sparkling play, the constraints of the day have a habit of intruding as they search for a higher plane.

Trump’d

This was the most ambitious—a musical with eight performers and two musicians.

It’s well into a Trump presidency. The Great Wall of Mexico is splitting the town of Pleasantville and two citizens set out for Washington to speak to the President who they believe will save them. On the road they meet three characters who are trying to escape Trump’s America to Mexico but they can’t gt deported because they’re white. These three join the trip. Then they add Hillary along the way. The Donald sends Arnold Zwartzineger to terminate this group. Somehow two of the group turn into ISIS assassins, who miss the Donald and kill Arnie.

They sing and dance songs stolen from various musicals and tell many puns.

For no reason I could figure Donald and Arnold Schwarzenegger are gay lovers. The part was obnoxious gay baiting that is long gone in North America. Aside from the homophobia I don’t understand why it was funny that the ISIS (sic TWICE-IST) shooter misses Trump in the assignation scene and kills Schwarzenegger who dies in Trump’s arms. Arnie has been consistently critical of Trump. Why does he become a stooge of Trump?

Often the lyrics were hard to understand.

A mocking musical about The Donald is a ‘good idea’ but nothing in the show was worthy of the premise.

A new comedy musical from the Cambridge Footlights. The year is 2030. As supreme dictator, Donald Trump has brought American society to the brink. As a unified resistance grows, the time for reckoning has come… Will the Mexican Resistance find their way home? Will the last remnants of ISIS finally have their revenge? Is Arnold Schwarzenegger really a robot, or just that good an actor? Find out on an all-singing, all-dancing parody-musical journey through the desolate wasteland of future America. ‘Genius’ ★★★★★ (Varsity.co.uk). A ‘fringe highlight’ ★★★★★ (TheatreSmart.com). ★★★★ (EdFestMag.com).

Sunday

The Divide — Alan Acykborne — Edinburgh International Festival

This new play was in total about six hours, in two parts, which we saw afternoon and evening. It is an ambitious work about sexual politics. It is far from a smash hit but I was mostly happy with my time spent. The last fifteen minutes were annoying and disappointing. There are many factors at play in evaluating a major work. One big plus is how thought provoking it is.

It is a very long and complex story, with a Romeo and Juliet plot line which has a schlocky dime store ending. While the story is stupid for intellectual sorts it is an alright vehicle for a discussion of sexual political issues. I say ‘alright’ only because using woman’s desire for make-up and fancy dress as a key symbolic issue is poor thinking. There are surely more important issues to seize on, like wage difference.

However the story-telling by the writer and director using text screens, stage action and projected scene names is excellent. There some important continuity issues for me but mostly I greatly admire the clear telling of the story.

It is a dystopian story of the sexes rigidly segregated and the women dress in severe black outfits. The stage atmosphere is very dark. Mostly this works well for the tragedy.

The acting was uniformly excellent.

Within the complex story are many issues worthy of discussion. - What is “the plague” in the story? Seems to be an illness men catch from exposure to women, hence the masks. It seems to be real in that men have died. The test for the illness almost kills the protagonist. There is a medical test for it. But somehow at the end the people, by recognizing true love, kissing at the lovers pool and true love in colourful clothes, make it go away. This makes no sense. Well, never mind that, what does it symbolize in a sci-fi fantasy? The aversion to young love and lust? Imposed by censorious feminism? That’s the best I can figure and it represents me helping the plot on this point. This makes some sense of the meta-story and politics of what I saw. But… making woman’s supposed love of mirrors and pretty clothes and men’s love of beautiful female bodies the core insight into sexual psychology is pretty thin. Yes, the visuals of lust are important but employment and control of money would have to be as, or more, important. Maybe it’s just the ending that goes off the rails. Maybe it’s strangely happy ending that is unhinged. An attack on censorious feminism is fine for a theme but “the plague”—whatever it is—makes a muddle of this. - The male side of the sexual dysfunction in the story is a set of assumptions about how men behave which are equal charactures. Men fight all the time, rape, get drunk. - The viciousness of teenage girls and the acceptance of it by the older women is interesting. It seems like the author’s “balancing” of bad behavior of rape. But rape is a phenomena is decidedly underplayed in the meta-politics of the story. The story makes it seem that women’s cruelty to each other is the greater problem—maybe that’s just because in a world where the sexes are rigidly kept separate rapes is indeed the lesser problem. As a discussion of sexual politics at a symbolic level this seems a weakness or failure. There doesn’t seem to be a strong objection to male sexual aggression. Indeed, the solution to all problems at the end is for the male to forcefully kiss, then the woman will be won over. - The “divide” as a symbol for sexual separatism is ok. But who enforcing this, the men or the women? This is unclear but maybe that’s ok because there are persons on both sides who would. Still the women seem to be the core leaders. “Mapa” is the female leader most at fault as the story ends. - In this dystopian world children are created only within female couples by artificial insemination. We are told it is mostly girls who are born. It is left unsaid, why. The assumption is that the male children are weeded out. This makes no sense—if that matters—in a world where males are vulnerable to the plague and die in large numbers. If the plague is contained then the number of males is kept low, why? - The trial and death sentence is interesting. The young girl who supposedly exposes the young male to the plague and causes his death is executed. The other girls who have endangered him but not knowingly killed him are sentenced to memorize the names of men who have died in the plague. This would suggest the true power in the society is male. The punishment is presented as unreasonable and cruel. A feminist perspective? In terms of power between the sexes this is confused, but then maybe that is good and proper. The Preacher, whose Book is is “the word” is male. He is represented on stage by a female. He spares the life of the female offender but orders the covert execution of the male offender. All the characters in the trial are female and they are merciless. - There is a continuity issue I never figured out. It seems the male dies ten days after exposure to the female. The assume the protagonist is infected but it’s not clear when—the fucking at the pool is the assumption at the trial. But the young girl was impregnated six weeks earlier—based on pregnancy tests etc. Or have I just missed the fact that the period of pre-trial incarceration is six weeks. We are not told. All these questions and issues pale as against the overall impression of play—a dark, censorious, anti-sex society where the women are cruel to their own and beauty is denied. The redeeming and saving force is lustful sex based on men loving pretty women. Whether this is anti-feminist is of course a core question for our era. Must feminists be anti-lust? The play has a decidedly male perspective in the sex wars. There are women in the play who are liberated sexually, the rebels, progressives and the bad girls, the minority in the women’s world. Rape is downplayed. The women are shown as desperate for pretty clothes. All this is a tough balancing act for the author to get to his conclusion—that beautiful women in pretty clothes and lusty sex saves all.

[My own conclusion in a similar dystopian speculation was the opposite—lusty mutual sex is gone and the ending is tragedy.]

Any play this ambitious has to be good. But it’s not for the faint of heart or those who insist on a politically correct ending.

Monday

Not for Heroes — Stephen Macdonald — Flying Bridge Theatre

Alfred Sassoon and Wilfred Owen quote poetry to one another at their soldier’s hospital. This is a classic story of poets in manly love. They also discourse on the evil of war and the nature and necessity of bravery. Both actors speak eloquently. Their war histories are told and clues to their poetry thus revealed. Both speak too eloquently for seriously injured soldiers but never mind. There is no sex between them. I thought—or did I hope—there was. Some bits of it were quite moving. I felt I learned something of this famous relationship.

This is a Fringe hit. I liked it a lot.

Stephen Macdonald’s Fringe First-winning play about the unique friendship between celebrated WWI poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. They met at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917 and bonded over a mutual hatred of war and love of poetry. This production won a Best Actor accolade at the Wales Theatre Awards and is embarking on a world tour, commemorating the centenary of both the meeting depicted in the play and of the Armistice. ‘Recreates the Great War as tangibly as if the theatre had filled with the smoke and stench of the battlefield. Compelling and superbly performed’ (BritishTheatreGuide.info).

Submission

Scared Pakistani Muslim meets dominant white fag in a bar. Several different encounters are blended. He talks a lot about why he shouldn’t do this and that he feels he is betraying. Very eloquent. A lot of his objection has to do with race. But he comes back for more and likes the sex. Dom boy isn’t all that mean but he is verbally abusive on the issue of race and religion. Is it abuse or truth telling? Some sexy rolling around. The last words of disengagement raise the prospect that he will radicalize.

The language is excellent and performances fine. I think the staged sex could be more explicitly abusive to make the race issue come alive.

The writing needed to dig deeper on the chosen theme—can a Muslim be a fag in the western world? Or with a white guy?

Sameer, a young British Pakistani, struggles to reconcile his sexual desires with his Islamic roots and values. On his 23rd birthday, Sameer hosts an unprecedented after-party with friends. A series of unwelcome events unfold, triggering an unhinged response in Sameer. Not only does he begin to question his faith, he also begins to acknowledge the cruel realities faced by queer people of colour. Torn between his allegiance to Mecca and his desire for temporal modernity, Sameer recites spoken word-cum-Quranic compositions, forcing us to contemplate the importance of integrating age-old philosophy with new-wave ideology.

Things Will Be Different

I thought this was a very pedestrian coming out story—of an older man. The lead actor/character—the older man—was in a state of high anxiety. Fair enough. But all he could do was shout. The characters had nothing profound to say. It’s too late in history to be moved by the sentiment of this domestic drama. Consequently the fact that I disliked the older man for his temper tantrums and abusive bullying dominated my reaction to the play.

Sisters/White Noise

Sketch—good bits—good use of video / supposedly live internet / backdrop / feedback — in another container

One of the performers had a wonderful way to animate his face to quickly convey whatever emotion he needed.

I had my usual frustration with sketch and improv—why can’t you tell a story that lasts more than five minutes! Is it you that has such a short attention span or your audience? I think it’s an age thing. The youngsters think quicker—a blessing of a sort but more of a curse. They can’t pay attention long enough to hold on to a plot—which is a kind of stupidity. For them a play with a plot and message is for old people. You can see it in the audience demographic. They are vain and want to perform and star more than tell a story. They way to do this is make people laugh. And their notion of being with live performers is that they should be laughing.

Innovative sketch duo Sisters snake Fringe-wards, clutching their debut hour to their breast. ‘See them now if you want to witness the birth of something special’ (ThreeWeeks). ‘Genius pieces’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘The sharpness of the writing can only be applauded’ (Scottish Daily Mail). ‘A supremely talented ensemble’ (Nicholas Parsons). Sketch Off finalist 2016.

Speaking in Tongues — Truth

This time we were in some kind of small dome that was otherwise used for kid romper room play shows. An audience of about thirty sat on chairs that swiveled and we watched the actors performing around the edges of the dome. They moved all around as the various characters spoke to one another and we swiveled to follow them.

The dialogue was clever enough, about a woman stranded after her car breaks down who then disappears. At various points in flashbacks she speaks on the phone to her husband, we hear her talking with a woman for whom she was a therapist, an old boyfriend obsesses about her and tries to phone her, her husband comes home and is interviewed by a cop, a guy who picks her up on the deserted road remembers her getting in and then fleeing from her car; the therapy-receiver speaks to her boyfriend who it seems is her husband. We try and figure out who, if anybody, murdered her. The pickup driver is arrested for it although to the audience he is innocent but a proper suspect. i The “truth”, I suppose, is the complex web of coincidental relationships and affairs that lies beneath this disappearance. The story line stops with the arrest of the one who helped her.

The writing was cleverly stacked and fun to figure out. Until the play stopped, it seemed, midway. What happens? Is the innocent guy charged and convicted?

There is a companion piece—Speaking in Tongues—Lies. Maybe be you needed to see both halves to understand. In the prologue they said no. I wish the answer then had been yes. Otherwise this good writing seemed incomplete.

There was no stage or props. The actors were fine in their roles. They were louder than they needed to be for a small room. They were intense as if they were on a Shakespearean stage. But you couldn’t see much emotion in their faces. I think I understand the difficulty of “showing” emotions from the stage when you have to speak loudly and project. It’s too much for the facial muscles. Perhaps these actors need training in performing in small spaces. Or doing film/television work.

Inverting theatre-in-the-round, swivel chairs place you in the centre of the action with a 360-degree perspective. Four married people become entangled in a web of love and deceit, the threads of which threaten to strangle them all. Spin and watch as two couples grapple with infidelity and, in doing so, unwittingly reveal a much more sinister scandal.

[Here was a day with five shows starting at noon. We rushed from one to another. I enjoyed the day even though the shows were not great. After three tired days my energy returned for this day of five although I was pooped by the time I got back to the hotel.]

Tuesday

The Remains of Tom Lehrer — Adam Kay

This was a sentimental choice by Norman and me—a show about our first comedy record from the fifties. Both of us remember most of the lyrics by heart.

The performer, Adam Kay, did a creditable imitation and had useful historical patter about Tom L. Unfortunately it was in a performance space, the Underbelly—Belly Button—that had terrible acoustics and they did a bad job mic’ing, the only time in Fringe this was a problem for me.

It was enjoyable despite these problems.

Following sell-out shows in London’s West End and at Fringe 2016, award-winning musical comedian Adam Kay presents his take on the legendary songbook of Tom Lehrer. Lehrer’s satirical songs have delighted and horrified audiences for decades, including Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Masochism Tango and The Elements. Classics are revisited from a contemporary perspective, as well as unearthing songs never before performed. Kay writes comedy for the BBC and Channel 4, and is a regular on The Now Show. ‘Inspired updates to classic material’ ★★★★ (Times). ‘Blissfully brilliant’ ★★★★★ (DailyMail.co.uk).

Fag Stag

This was a two man recital of a story about confused sexual relations among young gays and between gays and straights. Mostly they sat on stools and spoke, rather quickly. It wasn’t funny or trying to be. There was a lot of truth telling about the problems of gay coupling that was well done. Norman, my theatre buddy, found it not just well done but gripping, especially in telling of difficult but strong relations between gay and straight men. Might even rate as a tragedy. The story in its complexity was interesting. Might have been a better novella but good enough for the stage if taken as story telling rather than drama.

One story, two unreliable narrators. Heartfelt, funny and direct from One story, two unreliable narrators. Heartfelt, funny and direct from multi award-winning seasons at Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe, Fag/Stag asks what it means to have your best mate when you’re stuck being your worst self. Written and performed by two of Australia’s sharpest young writers Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs, Fag/Stag is a truthful and comic insight into the mind of the modern man. ‘Dialogue is witty and sharp, the performances are excellent… a rare gem’ ★★★★★ (TheatreGuide.com.au). ‘Beautiful stuff’ ★★★★1/2 (Adelaide Advertiser). Winner: Best Theatre Adelaide Fringe 2016. Winner Best Performance Melbourne Fringe 2015.

Calling Mr. Robeson — Tayo Aluko

This was an excellent biography of Paul Robeson. The performer was good baritone and the history was liberally sprinkled with Robeson’s famous songs. I learned a lot about his impressive life as a militant. Small audience.

[Norman thought the text was wrong that the originally the words of Old Man River contained the word nigger and Robeson changed it. Norman is wrong—Robeson did change it for his concerts.]

The text seemed to dodge the issue of Robeson’s membership in the Communist Party. I’m not sure how important this is to the overall effect.

Ten years live! Premiered at Fringe 2007. Paul Robeson is a world-famous actor, singer and civil-rights campaigner. When he gets too radical and outspoken for the establishment’s liking, he is branded a traitor to his country, harassed and denied opportunities to perform or travel. This rollercoaster journey through Robeson’s remarkable life highlights how his pioneering and heroic political activism led many to describe him as the forerunner of the civil rights movement. It features some famous songs (including a dramatic rendition of Ol’ Man River), speeches and a spectacularly defiant testimony to the US Senate.★★★★ (Guardian).

    **

There are various groups booking and running various venues. You buy tickets directly from some rather than the umbrella Fringe org.

C venues — www.cthefestival.com Assembly sell at edfest.com Gilded Balloon sell at edfest.com Pleasance sell at edfest.com Underbelly sell at edfest.com

The Stand Comedy Club www.thestand.co.uk thespace thespaceuk.com

There are various reviewing mags and site.

List.co.uk.festival Fringepig.co.uk — seems to specialize in comedy—reviews and stuff by Edinburgh locals Edinburgh-festivals.com Edfestmag.com

    **

We saw four comedies—one sketch and two musical review types, and one scripted. (The importance of… didn’t make it into the funny category.) Only the sketch show Sisters/White Noise, was good. The scripted one was OK absurdist but short. (Seven people in the audience here!) The other two were silly. My impression is that the Fringe, like most Fringe, is about comedy. Certainly the greatest number of shows are comedy and mostly standup. There is logic to taking another whack at this event specializing in the standup. But I don’t usually think stand-up is that entertaining.

We saw eighteen Fringe shows plus the Tattoo and the two part The Divide.

Seven of the eighteen were of the genre “theatre bios”. Picking “the best” of our trip is a bit silly but four on that list of eighteen would be Bin Laden, Not For Heroes, Dorothy Parker and Paul Robeson. The short play, bare stage format seems to suit that genre.

Of the “confessional” genre, Submission was good. But it required an intense performance.

Often my criticism was that the piece lacked a conclusion. Sometimes that is a fair ending. But sometimes I worried that the short format imposed poor compromises.

There wasn’t much on in the “real” Festival we wanted to see. Another time I’d look for more. It’s interesting to think about our different demands on big boy theatre.

There was virtually nothing we saw that didn’t have empty seats. Things that were repeating and were prior hits seem to fill up.

To go without reserve tickets would impose a significant time burden and stress being organized to acquire same on the day of. Not impossible. A big challenge for me would be following the reviews on various digital sources in real time to guide that selection.

The atmosphere of this giant event was terrific. The mix of ages was impressive. There were lots of grey hairs, lots of teenagers. The theatre bios tended to attract older audiences but not necessarily, e.g. Bin Laden tended to the younger demographic.

London

The Majority Rob Drummond — National Theatre, London

Mr Drummond, as the programme tells us, landed a gig to write and create a show about Scottish “independence referendum”. The problem was, he tells us, he “had no interest in it or politics in general”. He was then, I gather, a talented monologist. He still is. And so created The Majority, a stylish—no, flashy—and interesting monologue which he performed with verve. The audience has little devices, like a TV controller, with which they “vote” on different questions he poses. He explores questions of democracy, majority decision making and violence. The votes determine how his monologue progresses. He tells the story of his extensive interviews with a Scottish radical and his participation in a demo, getting into a fight—more below—and then he gets preachy about how we should learn to talk to one another and not fight. His “fight” was in fact an attack on what he thought was a fascist opposing immigrants from Syria. He thought that could only be a fascist, white-power position. It turned out to be a shelter worker protesting the eviction of the mentally ill in favour of the Syrians. His regret of course was that that was hardly an evil fascist position. And the show ends with his sermon about listening to one another, etc.

The audience was engaged. One could see the monologue as a lecture in a much less exalted setting—story telling, for instance. And he did extremely well in the bright lights, with lots of projected images.

He brilliantly glamorized his own personal journey into politics, his mistake and his regret. The problem is that he steered himself and the audience to easy conclusions and ignored the more difficult problems of “free speech”. His last question to the audience symbolized his problem—was abuse of speakers we disagree with OK? “What’s ‘abuse’?” It has so many meanings that the question and answer is meaningless. Is it abusive to shout back at racists who are demonstrating and shouting “Jews will not replace us”? Is a porn photo per se “abusive” of all women? Is it borderline “violence”? The promotion or provocation of it? What’s that? What of the “Charlie Hebdo” problem—deliberately provocative speech westerners would think is teasing but know will infuriate Muslim fundamentalists. Should that be limited?

Context matters. Mr. Drummond’s context and perspective was limited to his personal experience. And he was true to his opening admission—he was not interested in politics.

I don’t want to say Mr. D. is crazy. His end position is the same as the ACLU—extreme and absolute tolerance of free expression—even when it effectively supports Nazis. That answer is incomplete. Mr. D’s discussion is incomplete. The problem in America is much more evolved.

In the end, this show was interesting and engaging. Even if I think Mr. D politically naïve.

Dream Girls

I seldom hate a theatrical experience. Here was one such event.

The sound was amplified so much to…. Well I took my earing aids out and then I turned them down to de-amplify the sound and it was still too loud. A lot of the music was James Brown screamy rock’n roll music to start with, which I don’t like. The rest was imitation Supremes music. Some of that is tuneful and good pop. Only a few of these fake tunes seemed as if they might be worthy if they turned down the volume. And all of the women singers performed in high gospel mode, repeatedly showing off their volume and high range voices. That’s good gospel technique but, to me, hurts/destroys normal songs. They lose any meaning. The most out-sized voice freak was the lead actor, somebody famous from TV I’ve never heard of. She was grossly overweight. And her big emotional moment comes when she is rejected in the plot for leading roles because of that. She shrieks/sings her resentment. If I wasn’t with her, the rest of the audience was.

All that said, I am cautious about my judgment of theatre where sound is involved because my hearing is not normal. However, this time, trust me, it was bad.

Which brings me to the plot. Which I really hated. It is the story of conceited diva-types suffering emotionally because they can’t be the big star, or suffering because they were rotten about getting to be the biggest star. This is about the lowest character structure going. The only person lower would be the lying skunk who deceives and cheats them and everyone else. That was the central male character, the Supremes’ manager.

About the most disgusting moment in the theatre in my life was the end of the first Act when the star of the show’s character has lost her job and sings her big song, how she’ll get her revenge and make “them look at me, look at me!” She sings in her big gospel voice and the audience cheers. [A second close would be Sunset Boulevard where the aged star is lionized by the spot lights and the audience cheers her vanity.]

It was revolting. Enough said.

The Ferryman — Jeb Butterworth

This is the five-star, big hit drama in London’s West End. Certainly a fine play and a text book example of family drama with political teeth. A totally charming large Irish farm family carries on for three hours, blarney, fairy tales of banshees, bitter politics, frustrated love and of course they dance jigs. Sam Mendes, the director, brilliantly manages a large cast and lots of stage action. He could have edited down some of the long monologues without harming the flavor but it would still be a long play.

The deftly interwoven plots are slow to develop. As the end approaches the suspense has built. Who will die? Who will kill? The writer’s choices are dramatically sound and satisfying. We have a fine and true tragedy.

The English love it because the arch-villain is the IRA boss and the only Englishman—who does bad things—is a loveable simpleton living peaceably with his adopted Irish family. The Irish family is good and happy, drinks too much and dances and cares for the stupid Englishman in the midst —who is a good worker. If I judged this play solely based on race stereotypes this play is grossly manipulative. Fortunately there is lot more to it than that.

Yes, it was too long but it was fine and well played tragedy.

The Ferryman? This is a reference to Charon as described by Virgil who carries the dead souls across the river to final resting and peace. There are some troubled souls he will not transport—those who have not been buried. This symbolism works in the central plot of the play and also for the underlying political message for the Irish—to bury their dead and move on. [This was also Butterworth’s message in his prior play Jerusalem.]