Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas-Waiting for Godot and other wishes

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. If you are in New York and want to do something enjoyable during the holiday season, go see Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theater. It is considered by many to be Beckett's best, certainly most famous, play. We sat in the second row, and watching Ian McKellan living his character onstage is a treat. He and Patrick Stewart seem to have a real complicity between them, which makes the play work. It is one of the few productions of Beckett that didn't put me to sleep. Beckett is the greatest modern playwright the world has, in my opinion. And, being a great writer should mean that we love his plays. And, understand what he is saying. We do in this production, though, like every successful production of Beckett I've seen recently, they do it at the expense of his pauses. Like all productions, the pauses here are less than one breath, if at all. But, that said, the production is funny. We sat next to a couple whom I overheard saying that they had never been to anything except musical comedies. They were here because the girl loves Patrick Stewart from Star Trek. During intermission, they asked my wife what the play was about, as they heard her speaking French. And, obviously, French people must be intelligent and know about Beckett. She encouraged them to simply listen. They did, and enjoyed themselves, while we all were Waiting for Godot. The rest of the actors, Shuler Hensley as Pozzo, and Billy Crudup as Lucky, work hard, are very competent. But, they are not in the same league with Mr McKellen. In truth, there were moments when I thought that he and Mr Stewart should have changed roles, as he seemed so much more intelligent and thoughtful, and I think that the characters of Vladimir, played by Mr Stewart, and Estragon, played by Mr McKellen, are the opposite. But, it didn't stop me from enjoying their relationship, or the play. After all, I didn't go to the theater to see my production of the play. But, theirs. They seemed to warm up as they went along, and by the second act, they were flying along. From the beginning, the audience began to laugh, and I knew that they were reacting according to what review they had read. But, human beings, unfortunately, have lost their childlike ability to respond honestly and spontaneously to what they are experiencing. In this theater, like when I saw The Jacksonian, they sold drinks in the orchestra floor, and it was littered with playbills, and empty plastic bottles and paper cups by the end of the evening. I just don't like that. But, if you've been sitting around waiting for Godot, go see this production. It will make life interesting for awhile, and help you to feel that life is worth living.

On that thought, I have some Christmas wishes. As the United States enrolls in Affordable Health Care, I wish that the Government, including Congress and the President, will do something about making Health Care affordable. Like, regulating the prices of drugs. Years ago, my wife needed a prescription for eliminating toenail fungus. It cost $900.00 here. We bought it in Paris for 47€, about $62.00. And, aspiring should not cost $38.00 in a hospital. Nor should a forty-five minute physical therapy session cost $2,700.00. Etc. etc. And, the government is trying to negotiate trade agreements to force other countries to raise the prices of drugs, instead of lowering them, here. I guess the $500,000,000 yes, half a billion dollars spent on politicians by the drug lobby is working well.

Another wish, Congress will decide to limit the length of terms of office of its members. We have limited the Presidency to two terms. Why not limit Senators to two terms, and Congressmen to five or six?

Another wish, that the Internet will remain free, and that it will revolutionize cable television, and television, the way television revolutionized movies. And, movies revolutionized theater, along with the Kennedy's, whose policies of government support for non-profit theater outside of New York City revolutionized the Theater. Maybe, not all for the better. But, it certainly gave us more choices.

I realize that my blog's are about many subjects. And, I am aware that is not always a good thing. Because, people may not be able to say what my blog's are about, in a simple and clear way, so that people know how to think about my blog. Well, just think about it as being about life. After all, isn't that what art is, the artist's reflection and expression of his or her's perception of life?

Again, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. And, please, if you like my blogs, turn other people on to them. And, subscribe, here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Jacksonian by Beth Henley and American acting

Well, I feel great. Finally, I saw a production with a wonderful group of American actors, whose work exemplifies what is uniquely American, and is equal to any of the English actors one can see in productions in New York. In this period in New York theater, the English dominate the acting scene, whether I like what they do, or not, the English have a skill that is admirable to see. To see Americans with the same level of skill is a pleasure, and a relief.

On the night I went to The Acorn Theater, one of a series of small theaters on Theater Row at 42nd Street, the audience had a large number of tourists from the Southern United States. Normal, it's a play written by a Southerner, with famous American actors. The theater is one of several that have been redesigned. The architects took the five buildings that were formerly there, which housed small, railroad, black box theaters, and completely transformed the space into wide, comfortable, well done Off-Broadway theaters. This one has 199 seats, all of them good, with legroom! There is a bar on the second floor, and some of the spectators brought their drinks into the theater. I'm not a fan of that, and don't know whether they snuck them in. Or, whether the theater has a policy of allowing drinks in the theater during the performance. At any rate, alcohol in the theater is not the equivalent of drinking tea during intermission in London.

The play was a surprise. I like Ms. Henley's work. And, I liked this one, too. But, it is very dark. I think that the audience was surprised, especially those from the South. Because, we were all waiting for the lovely, sad and funny world of Crimes of the Heart. And, this is not that. It has the wonderful characters that Ms Henley knows. But, the situation, which also has a murder in it, and a family with problems, and heartbreak, also is, well, just darker. I'm not going to tell the story. Go see the play.

All of the actors are good. I've always liked Ed Harris. A nd, he is superb. I saw him and Glenn Headly years ago in Fool for Love. And, have followed their work ever since. They have a scene in this play that is fantastic. And, to my mind, their work in this scene exemplifies a level of work that has an energy in it that exemplifies the best American acting. Amy Madigan is wonderful as Mr. Harris' wife, in a role that could disappear, she doesn't. And, the rest, Bill Pullman as a barman, and Juliet Brett as Mr. Harris and Ms Madigan's daughter, hold their own with this group. Especially the work of Mr Pullman and Ms Headly, who play character roles, exemplifies the difference between what the Engish do, and what Americans do. Because, both of their characters are rendered with the same reality and skill that we see in major roles in most English productions. But, not with the secondary roles, which are played by competent actors, but they are not as real and skillful as the actors who play major roles. Here, all the actors are on the same level of skill. There are moments I might like it to be more real. But, I always think that. I am obsessed about not wanting to be aware that an actor is acting. This is especially true in the first part of the play. Perhaps, some of the playing I didn't like comes from some style that may be imposed by the director, but Robert Fall's is a good production.  But, at the end of the evening, I was more than satisfied Go see it!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Freedom, health, and the theater of life that inspires an artist's vision

As you will see as you read this blog, while I work in the theater, my blogs may not be exclusively devoted to that subject. After all, Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage." At the moment, in many countries in the western world, we are being confronted with decisions that affect our lives being made by men and women whose sickness leads them to believe that what we need is more government. They do not believe that people are capable of being free, and responsible for their lives. And, millions of people vote for them, and support them.

In the United States, the Affordable Health Care law is an example of this. It is the result of a problem that has existed for years. Many Americans could not afford Health Care, as it was run by Insurance companies whose goal was not to provide Health Care, but to make a profit. Under the name of making a profit, they refused Health Care to many people, and refused to pay for procedures that were necessary because they were too expensive. Their behavior forced people to fight with them, or resign themselves to not being able to be healthy. This is, to me, a conscious choice by the corporation to commit murder, which they justify to themselves by claiming that they have a right to make a profit. I feel that every American should have health care. I believe it is part of the social contract in a country as rich as the United States. The first defense of a society is a healthy, educated citizen. It is not a new concept, or even solely a Socialist concept. It exists in tribal society, much older than Socialism, where the medicine man treats one and all. It is a normal, healthy desire to take care of any sickness in the society.

But, and this is a big but- the solution to the problem isn't more government intervention, and more limitation of freedom. It is true that the law has come into being, like many laws, because something is wrong. But, rather than fix it, which the Government could do by taking Insurance companies to court, or Congress being willing to regulate the Insurance companies, we make a new law that gives the Government more power to run our lives. The government should have taken the companies to court, as you would any criminal. That is what Government is for: To keep us honest. It is not for the Government to run our lives. I wish the arguing between politicians was rational,  based on what the real problem is. But, it gets lost, or is unseen, by men and women who only have a political agenda. This isn't a problem of left or right, but what is the best way to have a healthy society.

I think that this problem, of Governments believing that the solution to problems is limiting our freedom, because we aren't capable of being free, is the same in Europe, where the Central European Government is regulating people's lives by ordering them to do things like destroy Olive trees in one country, trees that have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, because some bureaucrat thinks that is the best way to establish fair trade. It is astounding to me that people are not screaming out against this, what is clearly, fascist behavior on the part of the bureaucracy. It is senseless, and life-killing.

Once we give up our freedom, it will be very hard to get it back. It will be against the law! It will be against the law for someone in the United States not to have insurance if they don't want it. It will against the law for someone in Italy to grow olives. It will be against the law for a fisherman to fish, when the problem isn't the small fisherman, but the large boats that over fish the world, and destroy the ecology of the Oceans of the world.

It may seem strange to you, but I think that this does relate to theater. Because theater, when it is practiced as art, reveals life, and human behavior, to ourselves. "to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature". The Greeks, Shakespeare, Chekhov, all of the great writers reveal us to ourselves. They are inspired by what they perceive of the world they are living in. People who believe that life is machine-like, break life down into small areas of expertise, and believe that people only know about a small part of the world. They cannot see the big picture. This is not what we learn from great artists. Or, great men and women. Art begins with life, not with a technique, but with their passion for life, to live and see what life is, how people behave. Then, their art, their technique, develops, so that they can express, with simple, profound, truth, what they perceive. Writer's in writing, actors in the characters that they create, directors in their vision of a world. This is what I have learned from the great artists who come before me.

There are members of the profession who do not believe that acting is an art form. Most of them happen to be directors. They say that the actor only interprets what the writer writes. Anyone who has ever seen more than one production of a play, or more than one Hamlet, knows this isn't true. Actors are creative, in their visions, in their capacity to express themselves in a form. Theater, and I include film and television, occasionally is more than simple entertainment. Though rare, the art of theater, and acting in particular, does exist. Because, good actors, like all artists, have something to say about life.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Speaking of acting Shakespeare, read an article in Friday's New York Times

Here is the link for an article by Christopher Isherwood about acting Shakespeare in The New York Times today. Is it coincidence that Mark Rylance, whose work I like a lot, is American? Or, is some of the spirit and energy of his work due to that?

Monday, November 18, 2013

More thoughts on what I dream Shakespeare to be in NYC

My last blog was about the English production of Julius Caesar I saw at St. Ann's Warehouse in NYC. I thought that I should elaborate on that. Because, though I said I always admire the English, whether I feel their production has feeling or not, I know that the overall feeling I left with you, was that the production wasn't very good. I actually would love it if Americans mounted Shakespeare as well as the English do. I believe that it is the failure of my generation not to have carried the deeply personal, intimate reality of our work into classical theater. We came after the height of the artistic movement in the United States, the generation of my father, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, etc, whose intimate and personal work changed theater, film and television all over the world. I believe that our responsibility was to apply the principal of reality to classical material. Regardless of the efforts of Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, we have failed to do that. I think that I have done it, to some extent, but in productions I've directed in Europe, most of which lacked the deep reality that I seek in everything I do. Anyway, as my friends and colleagues said to me years ago, "Johnny, why do you want to work in Europe? You'll ruin your career here." So, whatever I've done, it doesn't count here. The best theater production of Shakespeare I ever saw was Franco Zefferelli's production with the Old Vic, of Romeo and Juliet, starring John Stride and Judi Dench. It may have lacked deep feeling, the grief that marks great tragedy. But, it was alive. And, I saw the player's scene from Hamlet done at in workshop at The Actors Studio, with Kevin McCarthy, Geraldine Page, and a host of wonderful actors that were part of the ensemble that the Studio had in those days. It was directed by Walter Beakel, who later became an agent in Hollywood, much to the theater's loss. It had life! It was exciting and alive, and had a physicality, and personal relationships, that I believe marks American acting at its best. Passionate, intimate, physical, life. I imagine an entire production done the way we could do it. But, I've only seen it in my dreams. Most of the American productions I've seen are watered down, second rate versions of English productions, lacking the kind of skill and energy that the English have. We never have learned to speak the classics from the heart. Yet! I thought I owed you, and the English, the thought I am expressing here. I wonder if I'll ever see my dream come true before I transition, as my sister would say.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Shakespeare without feeling at St. Ann's Warehouse Nov.9, 2013

I have neglected this blog for too long. And, hope that I won't, again. Sometimes, I feel that I have too much to say. And, feel overwhelmed and lose focus on what is important in the moment. The other night I went to see the final performance of a well received an all-female production of Julius Caesar at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York. I like this theater, which focuses on many imported productions, and productions that have an unusual perspective. I always admire the English, regardless of whether I like what they do, because their energy, commitment, and skill is admirable and professional. This production was a version of Shakespeare's play, set in a prison. I often like the initial images of English productions. Though, I often feel that they never follow through on the promise of their beginning. This was true this time, too. So much of what was said and done seemed disconnected from the text. And, more specifically, the context of the character's lives. It is well presented, but without one iota of feeling. For years I have said that one can go to any National Theater in the world, and hear actors screaming. And that, whenever you do, you know that they have no idea of what they are saying or doing. Lots of excited movement and action, without any sense. Forget reality. Except for moments with Harriet Walter,  a very good actress who plays Brutus. She speaks well and clearly, with a human voice, not an actors voice. She makes sense out of her text, as opposed to the rest, who tend to recite their lines. Though, with a lot of energy. But, general energy is no substitute for real feeling. Despite my criticism, I would tell people to see it, as it is a very professional evening. I just prefer theater that has a little more feeling and reality, where I am moved and educated by the production revealing something about how human beings behave. To me, that is the least to expect from any production of a Shakespeare play.

I think it is my generations failure, speaking of American acting, not to have carried on the artistic movement that comes from the Group Theater and the Actors Studio, into classical plays. I have seen glimpses of work that I would call a truly American way of interpreting Shakespeare, with a deeply personal involvement and physical life that is one of the qualities that define the best of American acting. That we haven't done this is why I recommend seeing productions like this one. So, that one can dream of what else is possible.