Friday, November 30, 2007
"In Spitting Distance" is a monodrama (another term for one-person show) written by an Israeli Arab who is primarily known here as an outstanding actor. Though he wrote this over a 4 year period with himself in mind as the performer, it is being brought to live by another very talented Israeli Arab actor.
The protagonist is a Palestinian actor and the setting is first Ramallah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, in the West Bank territory. The play opens with a description of how, when and why Ramallah men constantly spit, and this becomes a powerful metaphor in the drama's exploration of the untenable position faced by this man.
He takes a vacation from it all in Paris, where he is totally free, and when it is time to return, refreshed, he is stopped at the airport by French authorities over the fact that his name appears differently on his Israeli passport and his airline ticket (explained as being due to his having a birth name and an official registered name), so he returns to town, gets his ticket reissued to match his passport so he can fly the following day, finds romance with a Parisian woman and is tempted to remain. He also realizes to his horror that his new travel day (in 2002) is September 11th, and that a Palestinian attempting to fly to Israel is the brightest red flag any security authorities could possibly be looking for and that this misfortunate coincidence is just another in a long string of ironies in his life.
Artfully directed and performed, it's a stunning piece of theatre; tour bookings around the world are piling up, but it has had only a few performances in Israel.
Why is that? The director, an Israeli woman, and the author agreed they feared it might be exploited for political purposes as an example of Arab-Israeli friendship and cooperation. (It also appears that at least one major institutional theatre passed on producing it even though they offered a reading of it.) That fidelity of purpose has limited its ability to find venues.
Written in Hebrew by this Arab writer, it certainly was intended for an Israeli audience; but recently, Najib created an Arabic version and performed it in northern Israel. (I asked if it had been performed in Ramallah, since that is the home of the character, and while the author and director did not answer specifically, it appeared clear that it has not been seen in Palestinian territories.)
What is remarkable is the high degree of humor in this piece. The man is so endearing, his agitation so pronounced and his observations of the world around him so keen that "In Spitting Distance" is powerfully entertaining. The audience I was part of certainly laughed and engaged fully, but the director said that when it played in Switzerlard, there was nary a laugh, as audiences there took it as deadly serious, which the artists found disconcerting.
Until next time...
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I returned there last night and it looked the same, but alas, I learned it's been under new ownership for many months and it has a new name..."Pub Lo Bar," which in Hebrew means, "pub--not a bar." Its focus is alcohol now, though it has a small menu for food, and I sampled one of two Shakshuka dishes.
If you're not familiar with this, it's a popular Israeli dish (not sure where it originated) of tomatoes and cheese and eggs. Though it is baked, the eggs are not scrambled or folded in like a souffle, but instead sit in the dish, so you enjoy the wonderful separation of white and yolk. They had an alternative version I will try next time, a Shakshuka with spinach and cream sauce.
Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari and I finally connected, and he told me he will take me today "for a plate of hummus." When I mentioned this to Alison, she was shocked: he always said that HE makes the best hummus. Hmmm. We'll see.
Until next time...
Monday, November 26, 2007
Saturday, November 24, 2007
There will be performances of about a dozen plays, the first of which is The Master of the House by Shmuel Hasfari, at the Cameri--the play I directed at the Laguna Playhouse last spring, and about which I will be delivering a talk entitled "Lost & Found in Translation" immediately following the Tel Aviv performance at the opening session of the conference on Wednesday.
I feel honored to have been asked to attend and to speak to the representatives of English-speaking nations from around the world, assembled to be exposed to Israeli drama and encouraged to produce more of it in their own theatres.
As time permits, I'll be sharing with you regular reports on the performances I attend, the people I meet and the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv.
Until next time...
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The play was very well received in Laguna in our 2003 West Coast Premiere, by audiences and critics alike, and as it already had a commercial producer attached to it at the time, we had high hopes it might make it to Broadway. There were celebrity readings in LA and New York, directed by Milton Katselas, featuring the likes of Stacey Keachand Martin Landau (in LA) and Eli Wallach and Richard Dreyfuss (in NY).
Producer Norman Twain then lined up a theatre and actor John Spencer (of West Wing) for Broadway. Spencer's untimely death delayed the project until Ed Hermann said yes to Twain, then had to back out for a more lucrative film or tv project. Twain got busy with film projects and the play couldn't make it into the 2006-07 New York season.
At that point, author Bob Clyman requested that the Merrimack Theatre Company in Lowell, Massachusetts, be allowed to produce it. There, directed by Charles Towers, it was also well-received by audiences and critics.
Well, that production came into New York this week, Off Broadway at the 59E59 Theatres, and today earned the best New York Times review any Laguna Playhouse-related play has ever garnered in that publication. Here's the review.
On the strength of The Secret Order, and my continuing relationship with author Bob Clyman, I secured the World Premiere rights to his latest play last year, Tranced, which will have its debut in January. Having sent it to my friend and colleague Timothy Near at San Jose Rep, she got equally excited by it and programmed it for their season immediately following the Laguna premiere. I have not doubt more productions will follow.
Bob is an intelligent writer whose craft has been recognized by many in the theatre world for some time. Indeed, he was a writer in residence one summer at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, one of the premier springboards for writers (e.g. August Wilson).
Kudos to Bob on having a New York hit, and here's to many more!
Until next time...
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Last night, we went to San Juan Capistrano's Coach House, an intimate concert venue that's been around for many years, to experience Suzanne Vega.
We've been fans of hers for about 15 years, and I think we first discovered her when we were in England and saw vivid posters of her newly released album "99.9 Degrees." Upon our return, we visited a favorite place of ours, the CD Listening Bar, where we sat at a counter and freely listenened to any CDs they had in stock, many of which were used and inexpensive. After hearing her work, we stocked up on several of her albums and have kept current with them ever since.
Last night was the second time we saw her perform at the Coach House--she paid a visit there 5 years ago. But I think last night's performance may have been the better of the two. Her new album, "Beauty & Crime," came out in July, and is characteristic of her eclecticism while at the same time exploring a theme: life in post-9/11 New York City.
The concert was bookended by two versions of her signature song, "Tom's Diner," which is about Tom's Restaurant on Broadway and 112th Street. Most people know it as the place where the Seinfeld gang congregate, and the TV show frequently included an exterior establishing shot of the place. When I attended Columbia University, I ate there hundreds of times -- mostly for their 99 cent breakfast. Vega wrote and recorded the song in 1981, long before Seinfeld came on the air, by the way. Upon her entrance, she launched into her solo a cappella version of the song, inviting the audience to join in humming between the verses--which we all did. At the conclusion of the concert, she offered a juiced up take on it with her band, ambushing us all--then chastised us at the end for not having sung along.
Vega has a comfortable, breezy on stage persona, and fielded with great aplomb the numerous song requests called out to her by attendees (only one of which she played, as an encore). She said she was flattered to hear the suggestions and that, yes, she actually "remembered" some of those songs. One suggestion surprised her; she said there was no way she was doing it, but promised to offer it the next time she came back to the Coach House--after rehearsing it!
The concert was a fairly equal mix of songs from "Beauty & Crime" and her previous work. Most of the older songs were delivered in new renditions; for example, "Left of Center," her famous song from the film "Pretty in Pink." Instead of leaning on its sing-songy quality with full back up as it appears on the recording I have (a live album), Vega sang it accompanied only by her skilled bass player. She imposed an unnatural staccato syncopation to it, demonstrating it's just as great a song when played against "type."
She left us wanting more, which isn't a bad thing.
Until next time...
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Hanalei Bay at sunset
Monday, November 5, 2007
"The Queen": Having lived through the Princess Diana years and shared most people's fascination with her, this film about Queen Elizabeth's handling of Diana's death held great promise--and delivered on some of it. The raves about Helen Mirren's portrayal of Her Majesty are not undeserved, though it appears mostly to be a strongly studied imitation of a real, living person. The film drags occasionally in its attempt to recapture those days in great detail, though the actual footage has been merged seamlessly in Stephen Frears' imagined account.
"Knocked Up": I'm generally skeptical of films like these that tend to pander to a 20-something male audience, and in fact it does deliver the expected coarseness and crude behavior that makes stunted adolescent guys gleeful. That being said, it's a far more sensitive and acutely observed comedy than I had anticipated, with a sweetness that's sincerely played. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl share a believable chemistry as somewhat mis-matched lovers whose drunken one-night stand has resulted in an unplanned pregnancy they both opt to work together to raise.
"Pan's Labyrinth": After months of goading by brother Bob to see this, we finally watched it. This is a film of substance and artistry that often surprises and shocks. A young girl with an active imagination who immerses herself in fairy tales finds herself in dangerous circumstances when her widowed and pregnant mother moves them to a remote village to live with the unborn infant's father--captain of a regimental outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War in 1944. He is a brute whose mission is to eradicate the smattering of rebels who still occupy the nearby hills and forests, and that plotline runs parallel to one concocted purely in the mind of the little girl--in which she is a lost princess from an underworld kingdom who must perform three difficult tasks to prove she's worthy of returning to immortality. That director Guillermo del Toro was able to make these two startlingly different worlds coexist within this film while also carefully constructing the fantasy world to be symbolic of the real is a remarkable feat. It's a fascinating tale. (Note that there are moments of violence so graphic one must turn away.) P.S. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and the real title of the film is "The Faun's Labyrinth," and no "Pan" character exists in the film!
Until next time...