Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review of Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall, January 29, 2008

From start to finish, Jerry Springer: The Opera, at Carnegie Hall is a drop-dead, no-doubt-about-it, oh-my-aching-sides hysterically funny piece of theater. Featuring Harvey Keitel as Jerry, and a 30-member cast plus on-stage orchestra, the show uses a no-holds-barred approach to replicate the oft-lambasted TV show in operatic fashion--which is funny enough!--and dives head-first into a second philosophically challenging post-mortem act featuring Jerry being forced by the devil to do his show . . . in Hell! With Satan (a role created by the incredible David Bedella), Jesus and God as guests! Get out of here!

White trash costumes never decked out such highly-regarded operatic talent so fittingly. They perfectly matched the in-your-face lyrics ripped from the flat screens of America. Sample:
A weird thing happened last night 
when I went to take a leak
I would up pissing on a man
with a fabulous physique
I mean--how can you not love a show that offers a pole-dancing soprano, a contralto "chick-with-a-dick" and tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members? Over-the-top has a new definition. But I wonder--how does cast member Lawrence Clayton--or any cast member, for that matter--explain to his family that he finally acheived his life-long dream of performing at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out audience--only by singing about the sexual arousal he feels when he shits on himself? And--oh, yeah--singing, while wearing only shoes, socks, and a diaper.

At the opening performance, two nearby patrons left during the second act, disappointed that none of the characters in the 2-hour production had any depth. "They're all caricatures!" one lamented.  Not true. Writer Richard Thomas was able to find an inner beauty for each of his outcast characters, such as infantilist Baby Jane, played marvelously by Laura Shoop. In the midst of all this madness, suddenly, one would stop and spill a truly awe-inspiring beautiful aria about the universal call to find true love.

Still, with all the history of beauty at Carnegie Hall, it is a bit disconcerting to watch an operatic cat fight between a fat suburban housefrau and a coke whore, with the simple lyrics, "Bitch, bitch, you bitch, fuck you bitch." I mean--how low has our society sunk, that in a hall of culture, Jerry Springer: The Opera would prove to be such a success?  But that's just the surface look at the show. It's what lies beneath that makes Jerry Springer: The Opera so fully-realized, endearing and--after the laughter wears off--haunting. It's the tracing through all of these outcasts, the common human link in the need for affection.

The production began at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002 and has since run for nearly 700 performances in London. It was originally slated to move to Broadway in 2005, but didn't get enough backers. It toured in England for 22 weeks, facing pickets that forced the cancellation of runs at 9 theatres. Interestingly, the show has run in several U.S. locations successfully, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago and Memphis. Still, several religious organizations have been protesting the Carnegie Hall event since it was announced, calling it "blashphemous" and picketing opening night. But let's face it: this is New York. Forty-seven years ago, Lenny Bruce performed Carnegie Hall, and no doubt stirred up similar controversy--but the show went on, to rave reviews. 

To my mind, Jerry Springer: The Opera strikes a similar brilliant chord. And nearly 24 hours later, my stomach still aches from laughing so hard.

Rumor has it that Springer will finally get that longed-for Broadway run. Keep your fingers crossed, and if you need someone to see it with, I'll gladly go again.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lenny Bruce: Dead and Well by Peter Carlfates now on YouTube

Here's a quick little 3-minute clip from the January 10, 2008 Cornelia Street Cafe performance of Lenny Bruce: Dead and Well, by Peter Carlaftes. In this segment, Lenny/Peter discusses what really went on during Flight 11 on 9/11. Carlaftes is working on bigger things for this show, so please be sure to leave a comment on YouTube to help the cause.

Poet's Winter Getaway at Cape May

Karen walks into her shadow. Cape May 2008.

Last weekend, Cape May, New Jersey was THE place to be for all up and coming poets. And the trio of Three Rooms Press poets who attended -- Jackie Sheeler, Karen Hildebrand and Kathi Georges -- made the most of a beautiful thing. Writing poetry in the mornings, workshops in the afternoons, dancing at night. It was all there.

One real highlight was a wonderful workshop with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn. His comments were dead-on in most cases, and he didn't pull any punches (gulp!). He let you know how to make a piece better through application of precise poetic techniques that most teachers and critics tend to be much more general about.

With Cornelia Street Cafe's Angelo Verga in attendance, along with former Manhattanite (now Philadelphia poetry prof) Lisa Grunberger, and the man with the world's cleanest bathroom, Greg Moglia, New York was well represented. The open reading (10-midnight) was a blast both nights. So nice to attend an open reading where most of the material is really great! Sharing the dance floor with the New Yorker's new favorite poet James Richardson was a treat--you should see his moves on Wild Cherry's 1976 hit "Play that Funky Music." Whew! Tore it up!

Below are a few pix. For more photos, plus more information on the phenomenal Stephen Dunn, see Karen's blog.

Can anybody say, "Road trip?!" JS is world's greatest driver.

Guess who's from New York? From left: Lisa, Greg, Angelo, Karen and Jackie.

All he needs is a little soup. Can't anyone give him a little soup?

Workshopping with phenomenal poet James Richardson.

Sunrise? Sunset? Either way, it's a nice place to be.

August: Osage County at Imperial Theater Jan. 24

The much-raved about Tracy Letts play August: Osage County was a bit of a disappointment. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood gushed: "It is, flat out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years." My opinion? "How sad."

Because if this is true, it's no wonder Broadway sticks to musicals of movies like "Legally Blonde" and "Xanadu" and rarely gives the nod to straight dramas. Because if August: Osage County is indeed the best drama on Bway in years, it's no wonder that producers find straight drama a hard sell.

August: Osage County is like an inversion of Pinter's "The Homecoming." Like the Pinter work, all the action takes place in the family home. Pinter has a reunion of three sons; Letts reunites three daughters. Pinter central character is the father of the brood; Letts uses the mother.

There, the comparisons end. Whereas Pinter's terse, taut language is full of innuendos, mystery and nuance, Letts chooses the language--and plot devices--most commonly found in American soap operas, replete with screaming matches, prescription drug habits, intervention!, mundane power struggles, pedophiles, illicit love affairs, incest and more... and more... and more... And everything is spelled out, so the audience never has to guess what really happened.

The play began with so much promise. A quiet scene: the father, Beverly, played with quiet intensity by the playwright's father Dennis Letts, spills the bare facts of what his life has become to Jana, a Native American he hopes to hire to take care of things around the house. He is an award-winning poet who published only one book, idolizes T.S. Eliot, abhors modern society, and regrets that he's reached a point in his life that requires him to become a member of that most distasteful of all classes, "the hiring class." The scene ends with him hiring Jana. Lights out. Scene 2. All hell breaks loose, as the drug-addicted mother, played impressively by Deanna Dunagan, discovers that Beverly is gone, and her daughters, one-by-one, return to their birthplace to expose and verbalize long-hidden family wounds.

The exposure and verbalization goes on and on and on. Too much plot drags the play down. By the time 2-1/2 hours had passed, the play had unwound to the point of being completely ridiculous, destroying the truly beautiful ending: by the time it finally came, I lost all empathy for the characters who been reduced to caricatures.

The directing by Anna D. Shapiro was tremendous, and, overall, the acting was superb. But it made me even more convinced that I have to get my plays on Broadway. Plays like this can further extend the tortuous death of real drama on the Great White Way, because if this is the best that audiences can expect, they won't be coming back.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Poetry Getaway in Cape May

TRP poets Jackie Sheeler, Karen Hildebrand and Kathi Georges are all packed up and ready to go to a three day poetry retreat in the lovely seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey. Joining such poetic luminaries as Cornelia Street Cafe's Angelo Verga, James Richardson & Stephen Dunn, the stalwart TRP poet trio will use the weekend to create brilliant new works, which hopefully, will lead to new collections in 2008. Best of luck to them! You go girls!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Review: Words & Music (Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky, Lonnie Plaxico, Mike Mainieri & Andrew Cyrille) at Jazz Standard Jan. 8, 2008

It sounded like an interesting show. I mean, how often do you get to see not one, but two U.S. poet laureates at the same show? As if that weren't enough of a draw, how often do you get to experience such top-flight poets as Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic reading with such top-flight jazz musicians as vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and drummer Andrew Cyrille? The potential seemed limitless. Alas, the result was like the end of a date with a man in need of Viagra. Warm, yes, Charming, sure. But lacking in the kind of memorable passion that changes the very nature of the world.

Perhaps the biggest let down came in the beginning of the early show on this balmy Tuesday evening. Pinsky took the stage with Simic and announced that this would not be a "exercise in nostalgia," i.e. "no berets required." Having thus smugly dismissed the artistic achievements of the poets who did know how to mix jazz and words--the so-called Beatniks, who clearly paved the path that allowed Pinsky to be a part of the show at all--Pinsky went on to state that the show we were about to see was one of real "artists" which he was proud to be a part of. Maybe Bob was trying to distance himself from such crass caricatures of the Beatnik scene as Roger Corman's cult film Bucket of Blood. Or maybe he was just trying to pave the way for the structure of the show itself, which was one of the least integrated concerts I've ever seen, and may well have been better had it been two separate acts: one poetry, the other jazz.

Simic did his best to try to prove there was a point in the musicians and the poets sharing a stage, and--in this club environment--his work came across as meaningful, humble and warmly humanistic. His love poem, with its great line, "Her eyes are two loopholes," was at least a relief compared to hearing Pinksy trying to be a man for the people by choosing poems that used the pronoun "I" more than you hear at an open mike poetry reading. Not to demean the poetry. It's just that to start a show called "Words and Music" with 15 minutes of somewhat high-falutin' poetry was like a right-handed prostitute starting a session with a john with a lengthy dissertation on the merits of her left hand. Poetry can stir the mind and, with music, has the even more cathartic potential of stirring the body too. The show was advertised as both; the result--for the most part--was delivered in two separate packages.

When the band finally kicked in with Thelonius Monk's classic "Well You Needn't, " it was a real relief. I mean--this is one of the city's top jazz venues and what the poets were doing in the first segment of the show was for the most part uptight and bound up in its own pomposity. I do agree with Pinsky's assertion that Poetry is the artistic kernel that influences all other forms of culture. But if you brag about it, and dismiss pop culture as somehow low brow or beneath "real" culture, you may as well stay out of the clubs and let the presumed cess pool of "pop" culture live or die on its own.

What was more clear than anything in this disappointing evening is how much jazz is about faith: the faith that in an art form so clearly devoted to listening and interaction, the cause of the devotion is the belief that the musicians, and the audience too, will discover the ethereal muse together. The poetry that was read on this evening required a different kind of listening: the listening to the poet who has already been inspired, and their interpretation of the muse. Like listening to a preacher. A soothsayer. A fortune teller. Hmm.... A professor?

As a reader, this is fine. As a listener, I want the space to groove on the sounds. Like any musician who practices too much in front a mirror, the poets on this evening seemed to focus more on "talking" than "sharing;" on "telling" than exploring."

Thankfully, mid-show, Simic did share a beautfiul piece about seeing Thelonius Monk on a frigid evening at the Five Spot on St. Marks Place (which my tablemate Jay informed me was originally on 5th Street, hence the name). This piece, followed by the band's tender version of Monk's "Round Midnight" provided the highlight of the evening.

But when Pinsky came back--sans jacket, more casual, attempting to connect?--with a poem offering sly sexual innuendos, it was like a guy trying to be accepted in the locker room by telling dirty jokes. You can't say he wasn't "being himself"--Pinsky is, truly, one of my favorite contemporary poets. But for this show, he just didn't seem to fit in, and the harder he tried, the more the gulf widened.

Pinksy's did achieve a fine moment, though, when he (say the magic word) "integrated" his work into what was going on around him, by reading a series of couplets, each of which the drummer responded to with a little drum cadence. It was humorous, sweet and it worked. Had more sure integration been a part of the show, it would have had far more impact.

Maybe the late show was better. Maybe not. In any case, there's definitely potential here. Too bad it wasn't met on this occasion. Fortunately, the evening ending on a real high point: the wonderful jazz stylings of Mainieri on a vibraphone solo version of "Lush Life." Now there's a song where music and words integrate like magic, calling those who hear it to find the muse common to us all.

How sweet that was...

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Lenny Bruce returns to Cornelia Street this Thursday, Jan. 10th, 6 pm

Lenny Bruce: Dead and Well, 
written and performed by TRP's own Peter Carlaftes, makes an encore appearance due to popular demand at Cornelia Street Cafe this Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6pm. Tickets $12. The show was sold out last time: be sure to get there early for this great piece of work. 
Carlaftes is fantastic as the reincarnation of Lenny Bruce, who has come back from the afterlife to tell the world about what lies ahead in his own inimitable style. And Lenny sure has plenty to talk about. His hilarious afterlife perspective gives him the inside scoop on such things as:
  • Who really killed JFK? The answer is finally revealed--and it will shock you for the rest of your life!
  • The dinosaurs are coming back. "Remember how the dinosaurs disappeared? Nobody knows why. Well, they come back. Nobody knows why." 
  • Cold War II. You think the first Cold War was bad? Brace yourself.
Lenny knows the hierarchy of heaven. And because no one can persecute him, he's  a new man, with a new attitude, and a wealth of new material, that takes its cue from such Lenny classics as Religions, Inc., How Hitler Got Started and To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb.
Peter Carlaftes fully embodies the essence of the comic genius. "Carlaftes is the reincarnation of Lenny Bruce," SF Weekly). Discover a new perspective on Lenny, and a new definition of "what is." See you at Cornelia St. this Thursday.