Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Alan Arkin’s “An Improvised Life”

 An Improvised Life
Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 2011

This is not a critical review. This is not analysis. It’s excessive gushing followed by extensive quoting. Hope that works for you.

I’ve idolized Alan Arkin all my life. First, he made me laugh until I hurt in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!” Then he scared the crap out of me in “Wait Until Dark.” Then he made me cry in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Then he did all three in “Little Murders.” And on it’s gone, to my delight, for decades since.

When I found out he got started, along with many of my other performing heroes, in improv, I was determined to do the same. I spent 15 years on stage making things up, and loved it. Except for that time I got a concussion. Or the time I ate the cigarettes. Or when I challenged 150 people to a fistfight. Those are other stories for other days.

So, when I saw his memoir on the shelf, I grabbed it. I can happily say that it’s one of the most readable reminiscences I’ve encountered in a long time – especially because it’s not really that. I’ll explain.

Most autobios retail anecdotes – I did this, then I did that, I slept with her, him, them, I got this award, that honor, I was great. Arkin serves his readers by focusing specifically on the art of improvisation and its transformative power. Reading “An Improvised Life” is a rewarding experience for those who know the craft, those who are curious, and those who became, like me, burned out and dead-ended in the discipline. Arkin’s book will remind the latter why this calling is so intoxicating, fruitful and worth the struggle.

Arkin wisely provides us with just enough of his life story to set the stage for his thoughts on performance. Indeed, watching the writer get out of his own way is in itself a treat. His professional ups and downs, marriages, and relationships with his offspring are subordinate to his discussion of the use of the form to promote self-understanding and growth. He is more interested in being a genuinely good person than a star.

He sees performance as a revelatory (but not self-indulgent) process, instead of as an act of commodification. He writes:

“We live in a culture where everything is selling. I watch TV and I don’t see events, I see people selling me events. The newscasters are not reporting the news, they are dramatizing it, selling it, selling themselves as good reporters. They’re making the news “interesting” . . . actors are selling products they have no feeling for; the political forums are all jazzed up and contain endless faked fights . . . We’re so imbued with the onslaught of selling, selling ,selling – products and personalities – so bombarded with hype and false excitement that I think we forget what a real experience feels like . . . we begin to believe that since we are expected to have an experience that we are actually having one.”

I’ve often referred to this as “the Broadway experience.” If you shell out big bucks for a concert, play, movie or activity, it’s very difficult to admit disappointment or even dislike. Along with the rest of the audience, you are on your feet at the end, applauding. Why? Well, because you feel like a dupe if you don’t. Early in my career as a critic, I was often unduly harsh in reaction to the complacency I perceived. (Needless to say, my snarky comments didn’t bring the revolution.)

Arkin, like me, is a big fan of Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and advocates throwing away stale behaviors and perceptions onstage and off, getting fresh eyes. The second half of Arkin’s book deals almost exclusively with his work directing improvisational seminars, and it’s his demand that people stop looking for the punch line, to STOP ACTING, that I find so exciting.

The roots of improvisation are spontaneously play; when harnessed to the exigencies of appearing on a comedy stage, they turn into predictable setups. The standup comic traditionally likes to get a laugh in his or her routine with a frequency of between 15 and 20 seconds. That need caused me and others, countless times, to cut to the gag in an improvised instead of trying a more difficult, less payoff-certain path. Eventually, improv games became routinized, from development to payoff to blackout line. I was bored out of my skull, but didn’t have the wit or ability to push against the compulsion.

Arkin reduces the onstage impulse to intention and the emotional context stemming from same. He reframes the motivating spring between people onstage from “conflict” to “objective,” sidestepping the often fatal flaw of creating opposition in a scene gratuitously. He sees his function in leading a workshop as, one, providing support and a lack of judgment and two, “to help people get out of their heads. Their clever place.” He describes the results as “deeper, more spontaneous and more connected.” I believe it.

Making room for honest feeling and reaction allows players to invest the work with meaning. They don’t have to “buy into” anything, because they are being real, even in a willfully imagined context.

Arkin’s later workshops seem to involve people from all walks of life, not dedicated performers. As someone who has done many of these seminars, and who always felt guilty about taking money for them, I wondered frequently if people really got anything out of the experience, took something home with them that they could use in their “real” lives.

Arkin provides an answer: “If something is to come out of the experience it will come out of devotion to what is taking place right now. I believe this fervently, both in life and in a workshop: that if this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.”

That’s quite a punch to the gut, especially for someone as approval- and accomplishment-oriented as I still am. What? I don’t have to prove anything? I can just be? How does that work?

“In the final analysis, it’s all improvisation,” Arkin concludes. “We’re all tap dancing on a rubber raft. We like to think otherwise, so we plan our lives, we plot, we figure, we find careers that will guarantee us early retirement, we look for relationships that are permanent, we fill out forms, we do scientific experiments, we write rules – all in an attempt to solidify, concretize and control this universe of ours that refuses to be pigeon-holed, to be understood, pinned down, categorize, or even named . . . It’s all the nagging, the complaining, the plotting, the fears, the endless need to keep the universe in all its majestic chaos at bay – that with a little more thought and effort we can figure it all out, control it all, the universe, our destiny. This is what kills us, robs us of our spontaneity, our ability to improvise . . . “

Inspiring is an overused term, but appropriate in this case. For those who want to reach a place of authenticity and immediacy, the outline is right here. “An Improvised Life” asserts that there is a significant spiritual dimension to life, and that process trumps both end and means. It redeems much for me. Thanks, Mr. Arkin. Thank you very much!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Life imitates comedy: Murdoch and ‘Pravda’

“It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”

     -- John Steinbeck, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

People love to paint their judgments of others in primary colors. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is currently decked out in ebony.

Murdoch, now seemingly brought low due to the criminal activities of his journalistic employees, is being grilled by Parliament even as I write this. All and sundry are gloating over his downfall.

The powerful press lord, creator of the Fox Broadcasting Company and recent purchaser of the Wall Street Journal, is a legendary monster in the business – perceived and portrayed as ruthless, right-wing, opportunistic, with an editorial mission to cheapen the minds of readers with sex, scandal and celebrity obsession, with a healthy dollop of abuse and persecution of political targets in the pages of his publications.

Yet, as much as he is despised, he is feared. And admired. Undeniably, he gets things done, he makes things happen. According to the customs of unrestrained capitalist practice, he is not particularly out of line. Is he a hero or a villain?

In 1985, British playwrights Howard Brenton and David Hare saw the staging of their “Pravda,” a brilliant satire of the media with a thinly disguised Murdoch clone at its center. (It was one of Anthony Hopkins’ last star stage turns before his rise to international prominence with his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Nearly 30 years before today’s events, they summarized the dilemma the journalism business – can you have success and influence and still fulfill the ideals of the profession?
In the play, the Australian Murdoch becomes the South African Lambert Le Roux, who mercilessly consolidates and dumbs down his media holdings, making countless enemies who nonetheless are unable to band together and bring him down.

“I provided the formula,” Le Roux states in Act Two. “ . . . Page One, a nice picture of the Prime Minister. Page two, something about actors. Page three, gossip . . . a rail crash if you’re lucky. Four, high technology. Five, sex, sex crimes, court cases. . . . Then six pages of sport. Back page, a lot of weather and something nasty about the Opposition. There you are.”

Is Le Roux a monster, or simply an astute businessman? “Good papers are no good,” he continues “There’s no point in them. All that writing. Why go to the trouble of producing good ones, when bad ones are so much easier? And they sell better too.”

In the end, Brenton and Hare do not indict Le Roux. They indict his victims. “Journalists are not noted for standing up for each other. It is not in their nature,” Le Roux comments. And indeed, a publication’s discomfort with some truths is laid at the feet of editor Andrew May in the first act. May, who later becomes Le Roux’s puppet, is seen dealing with a woman who comes to his provincial paper seeking a retraction of a damaging falsehood.

“We don’t publish corrections. Because we don’t like them. I’ll be honest. They don’t look good on the page. If every time we got something wrong, we published a correction, then a newspaper would just be a footnote to yesterday’s newspaper. . . . if we apologize and correct, how can the readers know what is true and what is not? To print corrections is a kind of betrayal. Of a trust. It’s a matter – finally – of journalistic ethics.”

May’s corkscrew logic explains much about the temptations of the business. Is a newspaper a repository of facts, or not? This problem can be found at the smallest local rag. Agendas are pushed, perspectives are omitted, mistakes are made and glossed over, false conclusions are promoted. Access is traded for influence. Above all, the popular prejudices of the readership are reinforced.

As Andrew’s first boss ruefully states at the beginning, “As a young man I forged new copy. I hammered at words. I wrenched them. Until it was kindly pointed out to me that what people wanted was something that was every day the same. The illusion of timelessness, that’s what we sell. . . . Anything else and you’d stimulate people. Never do that. It can only compound their unhappiness.”

The shallow and manipulative route is remarkably and speedily successful. It works. I’ve seen editors make room for more and more crap, promising themselves that the extra “eyeballs” they generate will give them the leverage to assign more serious, in-depth work. I haven’t yet seen that happen. Laziness and deference to the lowest common denominator drives out the kind of journalism we all claim to want, but so few seem to read.

“Delusions.” says Le Roux at the play’s end. “Does nobody see? What on earth is all this stuff about the truth? Truth? Why, when everywhere you go people tell lies. In pubs. To each other. To their husbands. To their wives. To the children. . . . Why single out newspapers? Why there? ‘Oh! A special standard!’ Everyone can tell lies except newspapers. They’re the universal scapegoat for everybody else’s evasions and inadequacies. It is a totally unworkable view of the world!”

A publication can be many things. It can be a revenue stream, a beacon of light, a delivery system of consumer to product, a bludgeon, a pleasant waste of time. Who really wants the truth?

In this time, it’s easier than ever before for a journalist to wrestle with his or her conscience. The destruction of the profession’s economic viability, and the freedom to publish independently, means that “good” journalism is now a hobby.

Go for something thoughtful, complex, of social value, or flog the latest fad, promote the newest advertiser, rewrite the shortest press release? Get in bed with the government, bribe the police, tap people’s phones? All these things are simply logical extensions of what are generally considered to be sharp business practices. And it made Murdoch a billionaire.

Brenton and Hare saw it and named it and nailed it, decades ago. Perhaps Murdoch inspires such disdain because his choices are ours, writ large.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kicks and grins: CSF’s raucous ‘Comedy of Errors’

Tom Coiner and Gary Wright as the Dromio twins from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Comedy of Errors." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa/CU Communications]
Dying is easy, comedy is hard. I’ve seen some of the most unlikely actors climb up on the boards and get away with a passable swipe at tragedy. Furrow your brow, deliver your lines in sonorous, halting tones, and you’re a genius.

In comedy, there is one imperative criterion – the audience needs to laugh. They can’t fake it, so you better deliver the yuks.

And, among all bad comedies, nothing is worse than a bad Shakespeare comedy. In them, people prance about, make faces and talk some crazy jargon, and the crowd claps uncomfortably at the end, thinking that it was their fault, that they were too dumb to get the jokes. (We’re talkin’ Shakespeare, after all!)

Bull. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” is flat-out funny, as the theatre gods intended. Thanks to inventive direction and an enthusiastic and skilled ensemble, the laughs come early and often, leaving the audience (gasp!) pleasantly entertained.

The CSF is keeping the overall tone light this year, a smart move in light of these hard conditions as this time is like to lay upon us. “Comedy” is a challenge in several ways. It’s a farfetched farce stolen directly from Roman playwright Plautus’ “The Menaechmi” – two sets of master/servant twins, etc., etc. The mechanics and timing of the thing have to run like clockwork. Fortunately, co-directors Carolyn Howarth and Daniel Stein are in sync and have drilled their performers with precision.

Of the central pairs of twins: Stephen Weitz gets the more enjoyable role of Antipholus of Ephesus, since that character is a bit of a scoundrel. Josh Robinson, as Antipholus of Syracuse, gets the most thankless role in the show – he’s a nice guy, the Zeppo to all the zany Marxses up there.

Tom Coiner and Gary Wright get to have as much fun as they please as the servant Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse, respectively. Each actor on stage, no matter how brief his or her role, has a defined character and each gets his or her comic moment in the course of things.

Karen Slack steals the show as the beleaguered wife of Antipholus E., Adriana. Her range is wonderful, and here she suffers, simmers, and double-takes like an Elizabethan Alice Kramden. She find worthy support and foils in Amy Handra’s bespectacled Luciana and Leslie O’Carroll’s samurai abbess, Emilia.

It’s also a heck of a complicated story to relate – but the ensemble keeps things clear and straightforward throughout. Andrea Bechert’s standing set has been wisely designed to do double duty for both “Comedy” and “Romeo and Juliet,” which alternates on the outdoor stage this summer.

OK, a couple of caveats. There’s lots of slapstick going on, and much of it is conveyed remotely through the use of . . . well, fish. You have to see it. I am down for Stooge-level pokings and gougings on stage any time, so it was kind of a letdown. You get used to it as the shows goes on.

Six of the ensemble appear as elemental beings who act as stagehands, special-effects artists and crowd members, and one wishes – well – what the hell are they? Their lack of definition, especially in contrast with the sharply defined characters of all with speaking parts, was a bit disconcerting.

But hey, I'm nit-picking. It’s a good time, and you really can’t give much higher of a recommendation than that.
“The Comedy of Errors” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 11 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Russia with laughs: ‘Inspector General’ shines at CSF

Khlestakov (Stephen Wright) accepts a "loan" from the Mayor (Gary Alan Wright) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Inspector General." [Photo by Patrick Campbell/CU Communications]
Greed! Corruption! Lust! Lies! Stupidity!

No, it’s not a new reality show. It’s an OLD reality show, and it’s still true to life. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comic play, “The Inspector General,” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival with hilarious, absurd verve – by far the most adventurous and successful of all four productions at the Festival this summer.

The production is presented with the aid of a cultural-exchange team from Vladivostok, Russia. Staff from the Maxim Gorky Theater in Vladivostok, including “General” director, Efim Zvenyatsky, are old comrades-in-arms of the CSF’s artistic director, Philip Sneed.

The bright idea to bring them over and have them work with the Festival pays off. A completely different style comes into play, a raucous circus approach that dynamites the fourth wall, lets all kinds of on- and off-topic gags in, and gives us a humbling picture of humanity as well.

“General” gives us a look-see into the would-be movers and shakers of a small provincial town in Russia. The Mayor (Gary Alan Wright), the Postmaster (Geoff Kent), the Judge (Sam Sandoe), the Health Commissioner (Erik Sandvold) and the Superintendent of Schools (Mark Rubald) are a cynical, corrupt, pompous bunch that serve themselves and not the citizenry.

Word comes that a powerful high official, the Inspector General, who can examine all government functions and punish wrongdoers, is coming, and is traveling incognito. The mayor and his cronies misidentify that man as Khlestakov (Stephen Weitz), a no-account petty official who is stuck in town after gambling away all his money.

As we usually say in these circumstances, complications ensue. Not only is Khlestakov happy to use the mistake to lord it over all and “borrow” huge sums from his frightened hosts, but he puts the make on both the mayor’s wife (Lanna Joffrey) and daughter (Jamie Ann Romero). As time wears on, Khlestakov’s lies about his importance and accomplishments swell to zeppelin proportions – by the end he fancies himself a near-divine being – and, indeed, to these bowers and scrapers he is.

Gogol’s genius is in letting the characters condemn themselves out of their own mouths. What makes the play a classic is that these issues are universal – at least whenever society fractures into haves and have-nots. Zvenyatsky’s burlesque approach, complete with silly sound effects, slapstick and other buffoonery, opens the play out and lets in the audience, instead on trying to impose a naturalistic model on the action.

It's really a play in the sense of having fun. The actors are much more like sketch comics here because they don't have to portray characters as much as they need just to be efficient joke delivery systems. It's a much more technical exercise, which fortunately everyone onstage has down pat. It's a ballet of bellylaughs.

Vladimir Koltunov’s set and costume design reinforces the sense of eras colliding and commingling, and sets us in an exploded, cartoony landscape. Everyone in the play is an ass – and it’s only a matter of perceived power that determines whether they get theirs kissed or not.

Who wins? Who loses? Go see and figure it out for yourself, as you comb the confetti out of your hair.

“The Inspector General” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 13 in the University Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wish upon a star: CSF’s ‘Little Prince’

Tom Coiner as the Aviator and Alastair Hennessy as the title character in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Little Prince." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa/CU Communications]
A good theater critic acknowledges his or her prejudices. A good theater critic is more concerned with stimulating the discussion and provoking interest than in making judgments. A good theater critic is smart enough to know that each production experienced must be evaluated on the basis of what it is trying to achieve, not on the basis of what the critic thinks that achievement should be.

Why all the prescriptions? Well, I’m not in love with the material and some aspects of the production. However, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” does what it sets out to do – it presents a modern fable in pleasing visual terms. In my opinion, if you love the book you will love the show. It succeeds in sharing a message about seeing with your heart, a valuable lesson for anyone. It’s great for families and younger kids.

The original author’s writing is, for me, gratingly saccharine – faux-naif, flatly philosophical, sappy and sentimental in the tradition of others such as Richard Bach and Kahlil Gibran. Then again, I used to love Cat Stevens and still can’t tear myself away from a screening of “Harold and Maude” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My bad. Same feeling, different flavors. So, if you are of a cynical bent, this show is not for you.

Philip Sneed’s direction is intensely visual and succeeds completely on that level. He incorporates the Aviator’s drawings in process by throwing the drawing process up onto a screen behind the players, even as the lost and life-threatened Aviator scribbles away on his notepad. This neat technique gives life to Saint Exupery’s exuberant sketches and pushes the action of the play along very agreeably.

Clare Henkel’s costumes are spot-on in terms of illustrating archetypes. The flat cutouts of Trefoni Rizzi’s set accentuate the childlike perspective expressed in the play, and much work is done by Rizzi’s lighting plot – it moves the characters around and across the stage, and sets mood instantly.

Timothy Orr and Rudy Garcia’s sound design is apt as well – twining African and French melodies together in a shifting plot of contrasting sensibilities.

The ensemble, playing fairy-tale characters, doesn’t have much with which to work. Jake Walker gets to provide a string of funny snapshot roles as the wrong-headed inhabitants of various planets the Little Prince visits on his curious journey.

The Little Prince is played in turn by child actors Orion Pilger and Alastair Hennessy (I saw Hennessy at the opening). The Aviator is played by Tom Coiner, who does his best to overcome a French accent throughout the play.

Why Coiner, and Emme Watkins as the Rose, are saddled with this choice is pretty much beyond me. It’s difficult enough to take this material seriously without the Pepe Le Pew/Inspector Clouseau verbal garnish. It pushes the show over the edge into a cartoonish feeling.

I know there are serious and profound undertones in this tale, but I missed them. Maybe I should read “Chicken Soup for the Soul-less.” In the meanwhile, those who have the gift of seeing with their hearts, or know someone who needs to learn that lesson, should go and judge for themselves.

“The Little Prince” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 14 in the University Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit or call 303-492-0554.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Back to basics works in CSF’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Jamie Ann Romero and Ben Bonenfant in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Romeo and Juliet." [Photo by Glen Asakawa for CU Communications]
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's troupe needs a hit. Like action heroes with their backs against the wall, they pull off a miracle – a straightforward, involving production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

CSF’s production of “R & J” doesn’t mess around. It coheres, it is focused and fun to watch. It proves that you can tell a thousand-told tale again and still touch its immediacy.

After some years of economic misfortune (CSF broke even last season, and will begin retiring its debt after this go-round), the Festival finds itself with a longer season, fewer productions, a reduced staff, and the elimination of concurrent runs on any one stage.

Given these conditions, it is vital that each and every show succeed. Under the scrupulous editing and firm direction of Lynne Collins, “R & J” does just that, moving briskly and clearly through its saga of woe. It’s so easy to miss the mark with Shakespeare, and CSF has delivered its share of wacky directorial concepts and woeful miscasting in the past. This time, it gets it right. (OK, I miss the end of Act Five, when the warring families reconcile and Friar Laurence does his own version of “CSI: Verona”.)

Many old hands and local notables in the acting profession are here to midwife the presentation. Best of all, Jamie Ann Romero is Juliet. She stole the show as Ophelia here two seasons ago, and excelled in “Our Town” and “King Lear” in 2010. Here she inhabits a difficult part – the emotional gyrations the two young lovers go through are acrobatic – with grace and depth of feeling.

No less gifted is Benjamin Bonenfant, who delivers a matter-of-fact Romeo so grounded in the reality of what is happening to him that he is absolutely believable. The CSF stalwart Geoffrey Kent is on hand as mercurial Mercutio, burning with his usual high standard of extremely watchable intensity. (He’s one of the top fight directors around, which gives us a splendid assortment of on-stage battling.)

Nurse and Friar are really the second leads of the show, serving as comic foil and fairy godfather to the doomed couple, respectively. Leslie O’Carroll is the picture of jollity as the Nurse, and a solid Erik Sandvold effectively underplays the humble monk.

Other familiar and welcome faces include Karen Slack as Lady Capulet, Mark Rubald as he husband, Stephen Weitz as Escalus and Sam Sandoe as the apothecary.

Andrea Bechert’s standing set is versatile and appealing, a tawny cityscape that neatly blends in with the faux-Italianate architecture of CU in which it nests. Clare Henkel’s costumes are period-friendly, and Shannon McKinney’s lighting is functional and unobtrusive.

On a technical note, long-time CSF sound designer Kevin Dunayer is not present this year, but his long-time assistant Rudy Garcia, and Timothy Orr, take over with no loss of quality.

Now, whether you like it or not, body mics are in place for each and every actor onstage this year, for the first time in CSF history. The challenges of ambient noise from nearby Broadway have made it difficult for some to hear the lines – and in truth, the Rippon Theatre was not designed with acoustics in mind.

The solution needs tweaking; crunches, drop-outs and feedback and distortion in the upper registers plagued the premiere. These are quite normal when breaking in a new sound system, however, and will undoubtedly be smoothed as the summer progresses.

This also gives the actors, some of whom have bellowed their lines for years on the outdoor stage, a unique challenge. Stage technique demands “big” gestures and expressions, film and other amplified work allows the performer to scale back his or her work. Everybody now has to stay big visually, and yet can pull back and explore subtlety vocally. It should be a fascinating exploration in contrast.

It’s great to be able to recommend a production wholeheartedly. CSF understands “Romeo and Juliet,” and will share that with anyone who attends this very excellent show.
“Romeo and Juliet” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 13 in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit or call 303-492-0554.

The NRR Project: Rachmaninoff and Stokowski

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff Performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano Philadelphia Symphony Orchestr...