10 Things I Saw In America
So I have recently returned from a couple of weeks in America. And like all good theatre wallahs, I tried to fill it up with performances. However this time, instead of rushing from one theatre to another, I decided to let the performances come to me. So here are ten performances that I witnessed, some conventional, some not, some theatre, some not:
- Fashion Show at Supper Club:
Arriving in LA we dumped our bags and were taken head long into the fancy LA night scene. I was still dressed in my jeans and a T shirt, and was wearing a big bulky sweater, but some "setting" by a friend and we managed to get into the Supper Club where a Bebe fashion show was on. So finally it felt like I was live at FTV. I prefer watching it on TV. The Supper Club is basically like a big hangar. There was a ramp down the middle and crowds thronged all over. To be honest the clothes were kind of ordinary, and as a show, it left a lot to be decided. It just seemed to random pulsing music, a few screens, few people walking the ramp...but none of it seemed engineered to creating an experience for the audience.
- Hang Musical Performance:
So the day after we arrived in LA our itinerary planner - friend and LA resident, Sita Thompson, hosted a party for us to meet all her friends. It was a lovely idea, and also one where her various friends from different walks of life could meet each other. It was a motley bunch that assembled. There were models, film producers, ad film makers, photographers, real estate consultants, building contractors, jewelery designers and more. Also planned for the evening were a series of performances. One such was a Hang performance. A Hang (pronounced Hung) was not about doing aerial work on the ceiling but about playing a strange metal drum. The percussion had an incredibly relaxing effect. It was a light sound. Not the harsh beat that we associate with percussion. The instrument was developed in Switzerland only about a decade ago. You can see a demonstration on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQXn5ba0aT8
- Fire Dance
Another performance that evening was a fire dancer. An incredibly supple young girl danced for almost half an hour with a variety of burning contraptions - chains, cups, etc. A yoga teacher by profession she was incredibly acrobatic and managed to keep rhythm in spite of the burning utensils and the strange pop music.
- The Cradle Will Rock
Right on Hollywood Boulevard just off where all the film stars names are etched on the pavement is the Stella Adler Theatre. It is a small 200 odd seater studio kind of space. Very intimate and cosy. Blank Theatre Company (run by ER's Noah Wyle & Daniel Henning) had taken the space for a run of an old musical The Cradle Will Rock. The play is about the suppressing of the unions in America. While extremely dated and not the most exciting staging, the play did have some powerful moments, and was a strong reminder of the 'fear' of union formations that swept America in the 30s.
- Comedy Store:
So I picked the one week in LA where itrained regularly. On a Sunday night we traipsed into the Comedy Store, hoping that an evening with comics would help us forget the woeful weather. Unfortunately this was not the case. The crowd was thin, about 50 or so people. But the material on offer was even thinner. For the 3 or so hours I was there, I watched comic after comic crash and burn. One would think that each set of ten minutes is not too much to prepare and deliver, but it was among the more boring evenings of my life. If any of the comics felt that the audience was not responsive, they resorted to insulting the audience. Without even cracking any jokes. Only 3 comics were entertaining (one was British), and they stuck to long monologue jokes, rather than riffs off the audience.
- Guitarist on Roller Blades
Once the rain stopped (but the temperature stayed cold) we headed to Venice Beach.It's basically one big street fair...all year round. While the regular jugglers, tattoo artists, runners, etc. are common everywhere. The amazing thing about Venice Beach was Harry Perry. He is a guitarist, who makes t-shirts and most importantly roller blades up and down the sidewalk. He is incredibly easy to talk to and quite an institution. A kind of hang over of the hippie era I guess. His performance is on wheels...so his music wafts passed you as he roller blades away, so unless you chase him you hardly hear to full song. But somehow even those fleeting performances make you feel good, and you can see his wake of cheer being spread as he wheels through the crowded pavement.
- Street Performers
The one thing about Hollywood (and by that I mean to road, not the industry), is that there is always a festive atmosphere. It's like one big costume party. Cat Women, Spider Men, Zorros, you name it they are crawling out of everywhere. These 'performers' are polite and are very appreciative when you take a picture with them and tip them (an important part of the process, since that's how they make a living). There was one guy who was a spitting image of a young Tom Cruise in his Top Gun jump suit. It was uncanny. So these performers are more human installations than actors.
I am not a big fan of religion. Never have been. So when someone suggested we spend Sunday morning at a place of worship for non-denomination Christians, I was quite apprehensive. But diving into the FULL holiday experience I relented. What followed was a 2 hour service of some of the most sublime singing. Now this was a complete show. The 'church' was in a HUGE room that accommodated about a thousand people. There were three shows...er services...a day. There was a lighting design, incredibly talented musicians, and a fantastically dramatic choir. Agreed that all of it was in praise of Christ and he was the driving force, but the way it was stage managed was fantastic. The priest (Michael Bernard Beckwith) was more of an MC. Interspersing jokes with his sermon, and giving short introductions to each 'act'. There was not a dull moment, not a moment when the mics were not in place in time, or when a stool or table wasn't placed correctly. It was magical to watch from a production point of view. And the of course the music led by Rickie Byars Beckwith was just ...UNBELIEVABLE.
- Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo:
The fact that Robin Willaims' name on the poster is almost bigger than the title of the play, should have warned me about what was in store. This show was in previews and is tipped to be the sleeper hit. Written by Indian origin playwright Ravi Joseph, the play deals with the conundrum of the Iraq war. It is the kind of play that everyone wishes well. It has Robin Williams. It's about Iraq. And Ravi Joseph is a new up and coming playwright, who was also featured at the Lark's HOTiNK writer's programme, that now hosts the likes of Siddarth Kumar. However, in my opinion, it has TOO much Robin Williams, just like the poster. In the text the tiger seems like an ancillary character to the main plot, which is about 2 American soldiers, an Iraqi interpreter and the ghosts that haunt them, including the tiger (Robin Williams). Unfortunately one of the problems of having a big name in your cast, is that inevitably the play will always become about him. As a result the tiger takes precedence over the rest of the plot and it's existentialist search for the meaning of life, makes the plot a little banal when compared to the conflict of the three protagonists. Also the concept of villainy is a little dated. So the ghost of Uday Hussein is the archetypal 'Bond' villain...evil for evil's sake. Every word that comes out of his mouth is about rape or torture or inflicting pain, without justification. A characterisation that might have been par for the course in the portrayal of Hitler soon after World War II, but now seems too generalistic. Still it was an interesting evening. Some lovely moments, lots of blood, and a wonderful performance by the Iraqi translator and his sister. The rest were strictly average including Mrs. Doubtfire, who no doubt entertained and held his own, but didn't quite make the plot magical because it was forced to be too much about him.
No trip to New York is complete without the big Broadway musical experience. In this case we chose Wicked. Not sure why. It's basically a different telling of the Wizard of Oz story but from the point of view of the Wicked Witch...except that she's not really wicked. The whole play is like an American High School musical. It all seemed a bit trite. There were incredible effects and stage craft, but too many, perhaps trying to make up for the thin plot. The songs were well sung, but left me unmoved. A pity.
All in all, it was a good, hectic trip. It was filled with performances, even though I wasn't trying. Moral of the story...performance is all around.