REVIEW: Zhang Huan’s Stunning, Ambitious “Semele” at BAM

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

See this review published on Flavorpill

Baroque opera meets Buddhism in the Canadian Opera Company’s U.S. premier of “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the hands of director Zhang Huan—a Chinese performance artist based in Shanghai—George Handel’s 18th century oratorio takes a turn away from tradition as Chinese and Japanese cultures intervene with the Greek tragedy.

“Semele” is Huan’s directorial debut and first foray into theatrical set design. In his notes on “Semele” Huan stated, “My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”

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Play is a Play is a Play: Last Week to See Gertrude Stein Lab at Bushwick Starr

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See this published on Bushwick Daily 

This past month the Bushwick Starr hosted a special series with the Target Margin Theater (TMT)inspired by the literary prowess of Gertrude Stein. Curated by TMT Artistic Producer John Del Gaudio, over 75 artists contributed to seven original pieces and three special events. In discussing why Gertrude Stein was chosen to be the matron saint of this year’s Lab series, Del Gaudio stated, “There is much room for play, but at the end of the day you are left with this language, this poetic and, yes, sometimes repetitive language, and these rigorous structures that make her work exciting for some of us and frustrating for others. It challenges and provides different points of access. It pushes boundaries and can be polarizing.”

Getrude Stein (1874-1946) was a leading poet, playwright and patron of the arts during the Avant-Garde era. Although born in the U.S., Stein moved to Paris in 1903 where she lived for the remainder of her life. As a patron of Modern Art, Stein ran in an elite circle that included the creme de la creme of Modern Art including Pablo Picasso and Matisse.

Her “stream of consciousness” literary style is both rhythmic and repetitive, inspired by the life she lived in Paris. Stein happened to live during two tumultuous moments in history, witnessing first hand WWI and WWII at ground zero. She also lived on the fringe of society as an openly gay woman during a time homosexuality was very much a taboo. Her idiosyncrasies in life played out in her novels, plays, stories and poems.

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Sci-Art organization ArtLab sponsors Eco-Performances at The Bushwick Starr

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Now that Earth Day is here, and NYC has finally sprung into full Spring mode, let us rejoice by putting on a floral ensemble or cut off jeans to hit up the outdoors for some much needed sunshine. Before penciling in an afternoon picnic at Maria Hernandez Park, channel your inner eco-thespian at The Bushwick Starr who has a Go Green line-up of Earth Day plays and activities this weekend.

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I want to be killin’ it: Performance “Actress Fury” rocks Bushwick

“Actress Fury,” dance-theater-performance at The Bushwick Starr. (All photos courtesy of Sue Kessler of The Bushwick Starr)

“Actress Fury,” dance-theater-performance at The Bushwick Starr. (All photos courtesy of Sue Kessler of The Bushwick Starr)

See this article published on Bushwick Daily February 4, 2014

Be twenty something. Planning your track in this world, juggling the job search with after-hours dancing or dates at that great wine bar. You wake up and press play to the same-old morning monologue: “This is my year, this is my time to get what I want.”

“I want to be killin’ it-killin’ it-killin’ it-killin’ it.”

Now go see Actress Fury. Three women, tearing up the dance floor, chanting in unison:

The Rallying Cry of our generation spoken out of the mouths of babes.  Actress Fury at The Bushwick Starris created and performed by artist Jennie MaryTai Liu in collaboration with Hannah Heller and Alexa Weir. In this performance, deep-seated desires are funneled through the guise of the Actress. A rightful metaphor, because more so than not, it is easier to play a role than to be yourself.

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A play without players : Performa 13 and Gabriel Lester “Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)”

Gabriel Lester at Performa 13

Gabriel Lester at Performa 13

Theater without actors, a play without a plot, a cast only in absence, and action through inanimate light and sound.

Gabriel Lester’s “Super Sargasso-Sea (phantom play #1)” is theater distanced from life to expand its medium-specific conventions: a perverse theater perpetuating its own extinction, only to emerge again as a new “theaterless theater”. No remorse necessary, because Lester fills this actorless void with a sculptural set activated by light and sound.

Lester’s loose plot is printed in the playbill. During this 30-minute play, a scientist, his fiancee, their firstborn, a dog, and a cat together experience great misfortune: the young couple dies in successive fatal accidents, leaving their firstborn (named “Creature”) an orphan. Characters are represented in absence strictly through light and sound interacting on a sculptural stage. Viewers are given authority regarding the plot because without overt actors progressing the scenes through active dialogue, action is regarded on a completely individual level; all will experience this play in different ways because without hard-edged parameters, we have choices.

It is important for art to break through its own parameters. This is reflective of societal flux ever expanding in search of a perfect plateau. Once art is removed from assumptions it enters a space of unknown. To some, this expanse of possibilities is self-affirmative. However, not all want choice when it comes to engaging with entertainment. In the playbill Adam Kleinmen insightfully writes:

“Thinking is hard. The brain links inputs to ideas, but needs to do so quickly. If not, you’ll overload. Snap judgments follow preconceived notions so as to limit processing power to get you through the day.”

Traditionally plays guide us towards meaning through preconceived notions. We know what we will experience from the play’s categorized genre. The meaning in Lester’s play is not so obvious, and it may not even have a symbolic truth value. It may be an exercise in pushing theater to its limits. Read into this play as much as you would like; experience it as a visual metaphor for the paragraph long plot synopsis in the play bill, or, enjoy it on technical grounds as an aesthetic journey through sounds and light. This play expands genre barriers, and it does so enchantingly.

Learn more about Performa 13.

Learn more about Gabriel Lester.

Gabriel Lester "Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)

Gabriel Lester “Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)

Procrastinator @ Heart: Top 5 “Last Chances” of NYC Art Scene

BAM - Brooklyn Academy of Music - 30 Lafayette

BAM – Brooklyn Academy of Music – 30 Lafayette

1. “Anna Nicole” @ BAM

This may be difficult to see if you have not already accrued tickets. This witty and fantastically vulgar Opera chronicling the rise and fall of our favorite Reality TV startlet closes on September 28.

2. James Turrell “Aten Reign” @ Guggenheim

Turrell’s entrancing site-specific light installation closes on Wednesday, September 25. This is a beautiful experience to gaze into the kaleidoscopic light of a world-renowned artist par excellence.

3. Governors Island Art Fair

A perfect excuse to go to the very close island between Manhattan and Brooklyn, not to mention it is free to take the fairy their and peruse the art fair festivities in the colonial buildings that populate up this Island.

4. Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” @ BAM

This is your last chance to watch the docudrama of a neurotic, self-loathing and utterly repressive woman’s inevitable downfall.

5. Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” @ Film Forum

PLUS free popcorn! PLUS half-priced tickets for students! “The Killing” is an early noir-esque Kubrick film, and would be a great introduction to a fan favorite auteur.

Contemporary Culture and Opera Converge: Anna Nicole at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House

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I want to Blow you All…..a Kiss!

Anna Nicole at BAM is a theatrical tour de force of one of our first “famous for being famous” reality darlings: Anna Nicole Smith. One can only laugh at the sardonic and overwhelmingly crude language beautifully sung in high Opera fashion. A fusion of low brow celebrity culture weaved through classical Opera style, this show is for all who are able to take a wonderfully orchestrated joke about our obsession with the trailer trash turned tabloid queen Anna Nicole.

The opera itself, including the ensemble, language, music, and stage design, personifies the large personality of Anna Nicole. The plot weaves a path through the starlet’s life, beginning with her humble roots in Texas, and ending with her untimely death. We see a star rise to fame through sexual exploitation: her moment of stardom is because of her good looks and great body (post plastic surgery of course). As a poor, uneducated, single mother stripper in Houston, she hits the jackpot and captures the heart of billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. After his death, her attorney Howard Stern, labeled “Darth Vader” and “Bambi killer” by the chorus, becomes Anna’s right hand man, taking on an ambiguous role as lawyer/manager/friend/lover/husband. Anna gains weight, abuses prescription pills, and sadly dies shortly after giving birth to a baby girl.

The opera borderlines Brechtian Absurdist Theater and Surrealism. We are not shown a scene by scene retelling of a provocative TV star’s rise and fall from stardom. Instead, a wonderfully fantastical world is created through larger-than-life stage design, audacious costumes, raunchy scenarios, and jazz-inspired music. A chorus of reporters and paparazzi follow Anna’s every song and dance as she quickly skyrockets to Reality TV fame. Personified film and video cameras stalk her every move and capture the highs and lows of the starlet’s life. She was on cloud nine rising the ranks of audiences worldwide, quirky and lovable in her southern naiveté. Her blast to celebrity status came during the 1990s, the beginning of Reality TV and audience obsessions with the daily lives of young Americans. If we remember the Real World, producers selected varied candidates to exemplify the backbone of the United States as a nation that prides itself in economic, political and social diversity. Anna Nicole exemplified the American Dream by rising the economic ranks to a stature of not only financial prosperity, but celebrity success. She was a Reality Darling, and the death of her son Daniel and herself to accidental overdoses was a contemporary Greek Tragedy.

In Act I we laugh to the rambunctious antics of a young woman attempting to rise the ranks from trailer trash to financial stability. Act II takes on a somber tone dealing with Anna’s drug abuse, weight gain, court battles, and her son’s death. The sparkle and spunk of a once vivacious Playmate is lost inside of an overweight addict following the every suggestion of her lawyer Stern, arguably a man who had a paycheck in mind over the well-being of his client. We cannot just blame Stern for her self-destruction. Her rise to fame, stardom, and untimely death was a lethal combination of Anna Nicole’s charming ignorance, and our world’s obsession with Celebrities.

The last scene is powerful and makes you momentarily question who really is at fault for her death: Anna Nicole, heartbroken after her son Daniel’s accidental overdose, wraps herself inside a body bag while the personified paparazzi and reporters scatter trash and debris around her filthy home. The ironic and comical tone of earlier scenes is completely transformed to a dismal expression of a woman who cannot withstand the overwhelming antics of her Celebrity status. She becomes a martyr to Celebrity Culture, a sphere where the basic human right of privacy is completely disregarded by the Media. Of course Anna Nicole was Media hungry and chose to put her life on display, but we can still question the “Reality” in Reality TV. Anna Nicole is a great example of the formation of Celebrity Culture and contemporary Paparazzi Mania. We have, indeed, created a monster: Tabloid Media.

A metaphor sung by the Chorus at the beginning of the play very much inspires my ideas on Reality TV/Celebrity Culture. The Media/Chorus described Anna and her life as a comet, a body in space that ferociously speeds through the air and lights up the sky. As vibrant as they are propelling through the atmosphere, their light eventually subdues and they either disintegrate gracefully in outer space, or, penetrate our earth’s atmosphere and die a brazen death by impacting the terrain. Anna Nicole was definitely the latter; she fought a long fight to be America’s darling, and she most certainly did not leave this earth without an impact.

Composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto by Richard Thomas
Directed by Richard Jones
Conducted by Steven Sloane

Yes, the Theater!

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality. Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him. Theater must teach all the pleasures and joys of discovery, all the feelings of triumph associated with liberation.

Last week I saw a read-through of a play at The Brecht Forum by Justin Kuritzkes titled “Drones: A Protest Play.” Set in a sci-fi, futuristic, dystopian United States overwhelmed by hyper protective government activities, the play questions social liberties and human rights during a technological “Big Brother” age. Scenarios of techno-war serve as the main scenes, with soldiers and aircraft pilots operating drones oversees rather than physically fighting themselves. This sense of safety is liberating for soldiers at first; they sit in their barracks chugging Mountain Dew and eating donuts gossiping about their equality as male, female, gay, or strait soldiers, all working together without government inquisition. The high-ranking officials even promote sexual liberation and congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness towards at one time taboos, but in the end basic human rights. However, this freedom comes as a price when big business corporations manufacturing the drones forcefully coerce legislators to promote national, corporate and eventually private sales of drones to U.S. citizens. Now, machines monitor our every move and our freedom becomes a false consciousness, one that makes us feel safe because we are being protected at all times, but one that also violates our freedom of privacy.

The show played out as absurdist vignettes of different scenarios between the President, his agents, legislators, soldiers, their wives and even university officials lobbying for new government grants to build drones in their engineering departments. Seven actors played countless characters, all professing through verbose monologues their favor for their new drone-filled world. Government officials and soldiers were egocentric with Freudian death-drive complexes and had little regard for factual evidence regarding the terrorists destined for doom. For the most part their killing operations ended in tragedy, with soldiers so anticipating a siege they instead drone-blitzed not only civilians, but also American citizens overseas. This play showcases a problematic scenario between man and his machines, and I’m looking forward to seeing “Drones: A Protest Play” in full swing.

Written by Justin Kuritzkes

Directed by Sam Alper

Dramaturg/Assistant Director: Celine Song

Sound Design: Harrison Adams

Cast: Jeena Yi, Micah Stock, Andrew Zox, John Gordon, Wei Yi Lin, Chris Tyler, Ari Rodriguez.