Early Music as Theater: The Alehouse Sessions

by Anne E. Johnson

The first clue that The Alehouse Sessions show would not be your typical Baroque music concert came when an assistant laid out eight glasses of beer on a high round table onstage. Since we were at the performance venue SubCulture on Bleecker St. in Manhattan, you can be sure it was fine craft beer from their bar. But still.

Members of the Barokksolistene performing The Alehouse Sessions

In the September 25 issue of Copper Magazine, I’d reviewed the new album by the Norwegian string ensemble Barokksolistene (you can see the review here), led by Bjarte Eike.  It featured 17th-century music — mostly English — played as you might have heard it in a tavern when it was new. I went on and on about how much fun The Alehouse Sessions (Rubicon Classics) must be in its live version. When I got an invitation to hear them live on Oct. 11, I was thrilled.

All sense of time and history dissipated as soon as the men came onstage, stalking around each other as they played: there were baroque violins, viola, double bass, vihuelas (early guitars), and a harmonium. One of them danced hornpipes in his old leather shoes. One of them sang Henry Purcell’s arch, repeating melodies in a way that turned them into down-to-earth ballads. They cracked jokes — canned and corny, but then, barroom humor is not famous for subtlety. They played the hell out of Purcell and Playford, Scandinavian and English folk tunes, and even some Spanish songs. Even the classical pieces were freely arranged with new composed and improvised accompaniment.

One has to wonder: is this a trend? Everything about the experience was a sign of the times. We people of the 21st century crave engagement and visuals. And refreshments. There’s a bar right next to the seating area at SubCulture, in the same room as the performance. Good or bad, the age of sitting in absolute silence and watching musicians move nothing but their fingers may be coming to an end.

Bjarte Eike leads The Alehouse Sessions. (Photo: Matthew Long)

There’s an excellent argument to be made — which the band does make — that historical precedent exists for this kind of musical experience. The album and show Alehouse Sessions takes its name from the Cromwell-era practice of English musicians, out of work thanks to strict Puritan laws banning theatrical performances, meeting in taverns to play together. Eike laid the lore on pretty thick, claiming there was a traceable line from those pub sessions to the invention of concert halls. But what do historical details matter if everyone is swept away and having a great time? The music brought us joy, and that’s historical truth.

The space was friendly and relaxed. The music was vibrant and relevant. Thanks to the Alehouse boys, historically informed performance — HIP — is now actually hip, and even a little bit hipster. The barkeep did have a very nice mustache.

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@WildProjectNYC hosts a spirited, supportive theater benefit for @NYCLU

by Anne E. Johnson

The Wild Project is a venue in New York’s East Village, hosting theater, film, and other performance genres. It is also a community center of sorts, where artists and art-lovers of every stripe and style join to keep the light of self-expression burning in these dark times. On January 18, two days before the presidential inauguration, they hosted “Freedom of Art,” an evening of performances to benefit the New York Civil Liberties Union (the regional voice of the ACLU).

The atmosphere at the 89-seat theater was by turns defiant and joyful. Wild Project

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Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington (photo: Jose de Quesada)

artistic director Ana Mari de Quesada first introduced Pamela Zimmerman, Leadership Gifts Officer of the NYCLU. Zimmerman explained the importance of not only supporting, but also participating in her organization, which shares all contributions evenly with the national group.

After that sobering message, the real fun commenced. The evening’s MCs were the comedy duo Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington. These two women combined the perfect ratio of feistiness and friendliness — not to mention real enthusiasm — to guide us through the hefty program. The acts, all volunteering their time, were too numerous to detail completely here, and that in itself speaks volumes about how the arts community is rallying together. Here are a few highlights:

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Ryan F. Johnson (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Two writers represented Poetic Theater Productions, both revealing outrage and determination from an African-American perspective. Ryan F. Johnson read from his work We Lost Ourselves, and Teniece Divya Johnson shared her poem Baltimore Is Burning.

Group theater works spanned a wide range of styles. Broken Box Mime Theater offered three touching vignettes. Two members of Cherry Picking performed And the Law Won. In this piece, Charlotte Rahn Lee’s insightful script laid bare the difficulty white liberals sometimes have in grasping the social issues facing African-Americans.

There was music in the mix, too. Composer and electric guitarist John King played his Requiem for Eric Garner, astonishing the crowd with his skill at live sampling and looping on a gadget he called the wacky box. (Co-MC Marie Faustin mined some comedy gold out of that phrase.) And in an understated, haunting voice, composer Eve Beglarian sang What Justic Looks Like, the true story of Esther Hobart Morris, who became a justice of the peace in 1870 in Wyoming.

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Eve Beglarian (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Other performers included composer Paula Matthusen, comedian/writer Jill Pangallo, the Brooklyn Actors Troupe, composer Angela Di Carlo, cabaret performer Nicholas Gorham, composer Randy Gibson, and trombonist Will Lang.

“Freedom of Art” was a happening in the 1960s sense, giving performers the chance to explore, appreciate, encourage, support, and protect each other, their community, and the wider world. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of this spirit over the next few years.

 

David Yazbek’s ‘The Band’s Visit’: A gentle look at Arabs and Israelis…as people

by Anne E. Johnson

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Tony Shalhoub

When Tony Shalhoub first took the stage as Tewfiq, conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in David Yazbek’s new musical The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theater, he quietly reminded his players that they were representing Egypt on their trip to an Arab cultural center in Israel.

The band is trying to get to the city of Petah Tikva, but accidentally ends up in the small town of Bet Hatikva. The show covers the day and night the Egyptians are stranded in the wrong place. We watch them getting to know a few residents and revealing themselves in the process.

There are moments of tension between the Muslims and the Jews — sexual, economic, political. There are moments of love, understanding, epiphany. And there’s some captivating music by the chameleon Yazbek, who’s as comfortable writing R&B and American popular standards as he is writing Israeli folk songs and Arab classical pieces. Much of it was played onstage by multitalented cast members such as trumpeter Ari’ El Stachel, violinist George Abud, and clarinetist Alok Tewari. Powerhouse singer Katrina Lenk played Dina, the owner of a coffee shop and a lost soul happy to welcome any breath of the new into her little town.

Although at its surface The Band’s Visit is merely sweet, this is an important musical. Profound, even. It’s a tender approach to the Israeli/Arab question; Yazbek’s focus on relationships rather than relations suggests that peace might be attainable, at least at the level of individuals.

One of Roger Rees’ lesser-known roles

by Anne E. Johnson

As a besotted fan of the late Welsh actor Roger Rees, I collect the many works to which he contributed. Audiobooks and made-for-TV movies are especially fun ones to find. Yesterday I acquired a TV film called God’s Outlaw, about proto-Protestant William Tyndale, who risked his life to translate the Bible into English during Luther’s early days.
 
To be honest, I was dreading it, but I braved a viewing out of love for Roger. With the story’s shamelessly subjective bent in favor of Church of England (apparently only the Catholics ever did anything ill advised or selfish), it should have been unwatchable nonsense, yet it was surprisingly well done. Then again, when you people a cast with nothing but classically trained British character actors, there’s only so bad a piece can be. I particularly enjoyed Keith Barron as the fickle and irascible Henry VIII.
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Roger Rees as William Tyndale in “God’s Outlaw.”

Encores Off-Center Brings Vonnegut Novel to Life

by Anne E. Johnson

There probably weren’t many of us in the audience at City Center for the Encores Off-Center production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater who had read the Kurt Vonnegut novel on which the musical was based. I’d read it three times. I got hooked on Vonnegut by a forward-thinking high school English teacher, so by college I was seeking out the more obscure books. Decades later, Rosewater remains my favorite of his works.Rosewater

Given that the music was by Alan Menken and the lyrics by Howard Ashman, I expected a saccharin, Disney-esque treatment of the material. Not so! The ruthless criticism of the status quo and power structures; the baffled wonderment at life’s purpose; the deep-seated love of all humanity despite its considerable foibles — these trademarks of Vonnegut’s worldview, present in all his writing, were offered in the music, lyrics, lively direction and spirited performances.

And, a fun surprise: we all knew James Earl Jones’ recorded voice would be used for narration, but in the last scene Jones actually came onstage to play the role of the wise science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout (who is mentioned in most of Vonnegut’s novels and clearly represents Vonnegut himself).

Rufus Wainwright Really Did Judy This Time

By Anne E. Johnson

To commemorate ten years since he first performed his “Rufus Does Judy” show, which recreates a 1961 concert by Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright got the gang back together (once again conducted by Stephen Oremus), and put on quite an extravaganza at Carnegie Hall last night.

You know what the best thing is about great musicians getting older? They become even better musicians. Now in his forties, Wainwright sings with more sophisticated emotional nuance and phrasing. And while he no longer has the superhuman breath control of his youth, ten years haven’t diminished either his vocal range or power. What a glorious instrument!

Like all of us, Wainwright’s been through a lot in ten years. He’s seen darkness and joy. His mother died, he got married and became a father, he had his first opera produced. He’s absorbed all those experiences into his understanding of the songs, and somehow it all just makes him more like Judy.

The highlight came in the second half, where any seasoned entertainer knows it belongs: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung while sitting at the edge of the stage (where else would he sing it?) was heart-rending. Ten years ago, his mother, Kate McGarrigle, accompanied this song on piano. Now that she’s gone, Wainwright pointedly used an arrangement with no piano at all.

 

Battlefield Art: In Defense of “The Normal Heart”

By Anne E. Johnson

Today I heard from an intelligent, usually sensitive person with a great deal of experience watching theater. While his email was in praise of a local production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, I was distressed by his contrasting of that play with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which he called “a ham-handed political rant…which I hope never to see again in my life.”

This was my response:

“The Normal Heart and Mothers and Sons are, to my mind, not in the same genre, so I would not compare them. Kramer’s play is an accurately excruciating portrayal, not only of the time and society it represents, but of the playwright himself. It is autobiographical, and Larry Kramer has a shrieking, damaging personality. As much as anything, the play is a confession of that fact. And there was nothing subtle about the political Auschwitz that New York gays found themselves in during the 1980s. This does not mean you should like the play. It’s supposed to be almost impossible to watch, just as the period was almost impossible to live through. It’s an entirely different perspective from that of well-off 21st-century gays with the right to marry, or from a mother’s sorrowful memory.”

In other words, when a play is written in the middle of a real battlefield, the pages will likely be splattered with blood and skull fragments from the corpses tumbling by. But as gruesome and uncomfortable as that paper is to look at, the writing on it is still art.

Luna Stage seeking play submissions

Luna Stage Seeking Short Play Submissions for 4th Annual Festival

West Orange, NJ. – Luna Stage is now accepting submissions to its 4th Annual New Moon Short Play Festival.  Playwrights of all career levels making their home in New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania may submit short plays between five and ten minutes in length and monologues of up to five minutes in length.

The selected plays will be presented over two evenings, on Monday, May 9th and Tuesday, May 10th 2016 at 7:30pm at Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ.  Each evening will culminate with a talkback with the playwrights.

There is no fee to apply to the Festival. The deadline for submission is a postmark date of February 20, 2016. Selected plays will be announced by March 31st, 2016 and will be posted on the Luna Stage website.

For full submission guidelines and  further information, please visit lunastage.org

Luna Stage is a small but mighty professional theatre company located in Essex County, NJ, just under 15 miles from New York City.  Throughout the past 23 years, the company has earned a national reputation for developing and producing outstanding new plays and timely revivals and for taking on challenging and provocative subject matter in their work.

A proud member of Valley Arts, Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ 07052. The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.

A belated farewell to Roger Rees

I must admit, when Roger Rees died in July of this year, the news turned me upside down. I’d never met him, but he was part of my life. Ever since I saw Nicholas Nickleby on PBS as a high schooler in the 1980s, Roger Rees was a piece of the mosaic that was my mind. And that brought me joy. Whenever I learned he was in something, it made me look forward even more to whatever it was.

So, when he left this earth, I felt pretty lost, as if I’d had unexpected–if minor– surgery on my soul.

On Monday, September 21, 2015, Disney on Broadway helped me fill in that little hole in my soul’s fabric. I am grateful that the beautiful memorial they sponsored at the New Amsterdam Theatre was open to the public, so I got to witness the love of Rees’  family, friends, and colleagues and share in their grief and joyous memories. As if I belonged. As if my grief for this wonderful man mattered in some kind of cosmic way.

So now I’m ready to say it: Goodbye, Roger Rees, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

2 Astonishing Digital Theater Archives

Are you a theater history geek? Are you writing a biography of a long-forgotten chorus boy? Do you want endless, joyous distraction from your day job? Try these:

playbillPlaybill Vault. Broadway bonanza! Every Playbill cover and internal pages, searchable by creative and performing artists, awards, theaters, and other criteria.

New York Public Library Billy Rose Theatre Division. If you’ve ever done any theater research in NYC, you’ve run into this vast collection, but might not have been allowed to look at the NYPL_logo1_black_posvideo or document you ached to see. Well, the videos are still tightly guarded (a personal note from Edward Albee might get you in), but now the division is making its massive collection of ephemera available to anyone with an Internet connection. 100,000 pieces are viewable so far, and that’s just the beginning.

Best of all, both of these resources are FREE!