The Feminist Spectator ruminates on theatre, performance, film, and television, focusing on gender, sexuality, race, other identities and overlaps, and our common humanity. It addresses how the arts shape and reflect our lives; how they participate in civic conversations; and how they serve as a vehicle for social change and a platform for pleasure. It’s accessible to anyone committed to the arts’ political meanings.
The stars and supporting cast on the pub-style stage
enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007
film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall. The stage has been transformed into a bar,
replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that
serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play
proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents
of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.
playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin
which the story focuses is bound by its music making. The cast is small by musical theatre
standards, since the "community here," usually represented by dozens of
supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians
who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.
Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently
jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s
beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.
But “the girl”
(like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film)
overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his
life. Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin
Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’s Little Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a
piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style. Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld
romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can
reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.
As in the
film, music expresses the duo's personalities and their yearnings. The musical's loveliest and most haunting
number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and
performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who
remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation. The ballad grows as a duet between the two,
whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of
syncopated, already sad flirtation.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the original "guy" and "girl"
Although the pair
fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them
apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more
conventional musical stories are wont to do.
In fact, one of the pleasures of Once
is watching it resist the stereotypical formula. The community that typically mirrors the
central couple's initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should
be friends in Oklahoma—here are
manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the
music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy
turn for a loan to make their album.
When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a
not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band,
overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and
In fact, that
band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about
this very sweet show. Director John
Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his
instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style. He
guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in
between numbers. From there, they watch
the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or
acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass,
and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio
recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast. The mournful ballads underscore the fated
love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music
to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.
audience loves it. They approach the bar
on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and
crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers.
Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang
together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that
particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.
party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional
separation between performer and spectator.
The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small
and intimate, signals from the start that Once
is not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.
The poster for the original film
The guy lives
with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above
the vacuum repair shop they run together.
When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to
fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.” Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair
amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about
the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.
at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own
ambitions. But she’s insistent. In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too
single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical
girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.
gives the character more nuances in the second act. She has a child and a husband who’s on his
way back to Dublin from a trial separation.
And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that
requires her to try to make her marriage work.
That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become
lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical.
Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow
right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of
evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the
actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their
emotional complexity. Many of the show’s
scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into
intimate encounters between pairs of characters--the guy and his father; the
guy and the girl; Billy and his date. Once, as a result, is an intimate,
surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend
time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.
background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and
cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs. The cousins, of all the musical’s characters,
are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language
humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.
Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a
creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native
tongues. That is, the audience sees the
girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s
dialogue projected in Irish. The actors
speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none
of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.
The show’s choreography
is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the
guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles
of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks. For instance, the girl, downstage center,
curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her
embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her
waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.
light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a
pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom
play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands
outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.
a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway
in February. The show’s investors
premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge
before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.
When the show
moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the
intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience.
It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre,
and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly
bigger for a Broadway crowd.
The appeal of
Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads,
sung from broken, yearning young hearts.
New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.
Queen of the Mist is a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), which
the Transport Group produced at the Judson Gym in the West Village last
month. Starring the fiercely charismatic
Mary Testa, the musical tells the story of Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor (1838 – 1921), the first person to go over Niagara Falls in
a barrel and survive—and on her 63rd birthday (in 1901), at that.
is significant for placing a middle-aged woman squarely at the center of its
narrative. In fact, only one other
performer has a stable character part—Andrew Samonsky as Annie’s drunken,
rough-hewn, opportunistic manager, Frank Russell. The rest of the cast is a quintet of terrific
actor/singers who cycle through a number of subsidiary roles, all written to
support the journey of the central character.
than meets the challenges of a role that requires her to be a stalwart,
pragmatic single woman in an age when women were much more often domesticated
in heterosexual nuclear families. Annie
is a dreamer, a woman who insists, in one of the show’s best songs, “I have
greatness in me.” How often do we see musicals
about older, single women determined to actualize their dreams?
structure, as well as its story, makes it unique. This is not a typical “opposites attract,”
heterosexual love story that resolves the relationships and the musical world’s
metaphorical social divisions by the performance’s end. Instead, Queen
of the Mist keeps Annie alone throughout, and her relationship with Russell
one of affection and grudging love, but not romance. This makes Annie a remarkably original
character even by present-day standards, let alone for an actual historical
woman who came of age in the 19th century.
idea to ride over the falls coalesces, Annie tries and fails to make economic ends
meet through various schemes. Queen of the Mist’s book cleverly introduces
us to her through long monologues of cunning and manipulation meant to distract
her landlords and buy her time to pay her rent.
In one scene after another, she’s evicted from her lodgings.
stories about once having been married, though she never was. She lies about her age, moving herself nicely
(over the course of a scene or a song or two) from 47, through her 50s, to 63,
her actual age when she did what she called her “deed.”
Her sister, Jane, who lived with her husband and children in Auburn, New
York, provides Annie’s gender foil. Ensemble-member
Theresa McCarthy is wonderful as the pinched, submissive woman, who was happy
to be a mother and wife, with no ambitions but to make her home. Annie wanted much more than that. Her outsized expectations chafed at her
brother-in-law, who insisted Annie leave his house on the one occasion Jane
rescued her sister from indigence.
passion to distinguish herself and to make “the green” (as she calls money)
keeps her from intimacy with her family or her few friends. She carefully planned out her ride down the
falls, ordering a specially constructed, scientifically designed barrel and
attending to the details of the stunt’s public relations as much as to the
rudimentary technology that she hoped would save her life.
Annie Edson and her specially designed barrel
persuades Russell to be her manager so that he can carry out her plan for how
her stunt will appear to the public.
Russell is an alcoholic accustomed to exploiting his clients, but he’s
fascinated by Annie’s work ethic. His
surprising affection for this unusual woman is quite moving in Samonsky's subtle rendition. He can’t emulate her strict morality; in fact,
he steals her barrel after her successful trip down the falls, and employs an
impersonator to play Annie in a seedy burlesque about her deed.
The raw space
of the Judson Gym was designed for Queen
of the Mist to evoke the banks of the river that runs into the rushing
waters of Niagara Falls. The divided audience
sat on risers facing each other across the narrow playing space, with two
smaller playing spaces at either end.
The intimacy of the stage meant that Testa could easily project Annie’s
majesty into the audience.
inhabited fully a role that seems to have been written for her. Her carriage perfectly erect, her hands quiet
at her sides, she used her face and her eyes and her large eloquent voice to
command the stage, communicating the power and determination of a woman who had
to live by her wits in an age when women had few opportunities for agency.
Queen of the Mist underlines how unseemly it was for women to
seek public attention at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Annie did go down in history as
the first person to survive the plunge down Niagara Falls.
But after she
accomplishes her dream, Annie becomes strangely distanced from herself and her
adoring but finally impatient public. Queen of the Mist’s second act quiets
her down a bit and the show loses some of its focus and verve.
A quieter Annie after her "deed" is done
quite clear whether Annie is supposed to be disappointed about the reception to
her stunt and how quickly she passes from the public eye, or if something else
has suddenly drawn the wind from her considerable sails. She also begins to lose her eyesight. LaChiusa seems uncertain whether this is meant
to be metaphorical or simply factual.
then, despite its considerable charms, Queen
of the Mist seems a bit unsure what it’s about. Is it a Floyd
Collins-style indictment of the press and the way that it did or didn’t make
heroes of people? The press badgers
Annie for years to share the specifics of what she felt in that barrel as she
moved down the river toward the falls.
But Annie believes the fact that she did the deed should have been
enough. In the show’s 11th hour
revelation scene, after much prompting and suspense, Annie finally confesses
what she felt during her ride down the falls. She bares her heart as she describes her
terror and her love for all those she feared she might never see again.
But Queen of the Mist doesn’t explain why
she was reluctant to share these details all along, and what her hesitancy
means for the story’s larger implications.
Does the show mean to suggest that Annie should have been more
emotionally available in her life? That
a kind of emotional hubris was her downfall?
Or does the
show respect Annie for refusing to pander to sensationalism by describing her
emotions and the terrifying sensation of plummeting over the falls, in the
dark, with pounding water pummeling the thin wooden membrane between your body
and your death?
say. In a talk-back after the
performance we saw, Testa and director Jack Cummings III said that Annie wanted
to “own” her story, and felt that the fact
of her deed was enough. We weren’t quite sure, however, that the show itself made
Nonetheless, Queen of the Mist has wonderful
potential and a terrific cast who spoke eloquently about the project. Here’s hoping Annie Edson Taylor gets another
chance at fame.
Jane Adams and Thomas Jane as Tanya and Ray on Hung
After I posted on Hung, I watched a few more episodes, catching up with a recent
story-line (Episode 27, “What’s Going on Downstairs or Don’t Eat Prince Eric“)
about Ray’s encounters with Kyla (Jamie Clayton), the transgender client Lenore
introduces to his services without telling Ray that Kyla, who presents as a
woman, is “actually” a man.
The debate about Kyla is set in the context of
Ray’s apparent aversion to having sex with men, which Tanya’s new worker, the
happily omi-sexual Jason, is willing to do.
When Charlie, Tanya's erstwhile lover and fellow pimp, suggests that joining forces with Jason
and his wife, Sandy, will allow Tanya and Ray to expand their services, Ray
grudgingly agrees to bring the much younger man on board.
Later in the episode, the revelation that Kyla is transgendered
turns the tables on Ray and forces him to examine his narrow-mindedness.
The story-line presents a rather lame, liberal
excursion into transgendered experience.
Ray’s dismay when he learns that Kyla is trans seems calculated to
address mainstream viewers’ presumed discomfort.
But when Ray accompanies Kyla to her high school
reunion—and paid handsomely, even though he insists that sex is out of the
question—he sees his date through her former classmates’ eyes and realizes his bigotry.
At the affair, Kyla aims to pass as a woman, and
successfully mystifies former friends who have no idea who she is. Then, in a double reveal, just as a table
full of men recognizes Ray as a local if faded basketball hero, they also
recognize Kyla as Dan, an old classmate they remember with derision and
righteous ridicule for his new gender performance.
Kyla is humiliated and plans to flee, but Ray
comes to her rescue, chivalrously suggesting that they dance as the others
leer. Kyla is appeased and
comforted. Ray’s voiceover suggests that
he’s become too old not to let himself and others be what they are, whatever that
may be, securing the liberal message of tolerance for the episode’s end.
Obviously, this isn’t the treatment transgender
people deserve from a show that otherwise takes a more progressive view of
women’s sexuality. Given how much the
producers seem to know about feminism, I’d expect them to present a more complicated
story about the show’s first trans client.
Because the story proceeds from Ray’s perspective, his anxiety about
homosex determines his reaction to Kyla, and steers the viewers’ response.
At the same time, the episode is one of the first
in the series to underscore that Tanya and Ray are middle-aged. Charlie reminds Ray that however large his dick, it won’t last forever, startling
Ray with this foreshadowing of his inevitable loss of potency.
And when Tanya and Ray try to work with Jason and
Sandy, they’re both chagrined that they can’t follow the younger couple’s pop
culture references. The show’s attention
to their ages increased my affection for the characters. After all, how often do explicitly middle-aged
characters talk about generational issues on television?
On the next episode (#28, “I, Sandee or This Sex. Which Is.
Not One.”), Jessica (Anne Heche) continues to find herself excited by
Tanya’s instruction at the Wellness Center.
Although her presence there throws Tanya and Ray into fits of anxiety,
because they continue to think they can hide Ray’s sexual activities from his
former wife, Jessica is taken with the theory and the practice of embracing her
She enters Tanya’s office clutching a book,
breathlessly trying to say the author’s name, which Tanya explains is “Irigaray.” The book is the famous French feminist’s This Sex Which is Not One. I think this is the first time I’ve seen
French feminist theory happily referenced on television (let alone used to
suggest how women might sexually empower themselves). Jessica can’t quite follow Irigaray’s ideas,
but Tanya is delighted by her enthusiasm and eagerness. The two women bond over the book, hugging one
This level of insight into the post-structuralist
critique of sexuality and gender should have allowed the producers to handle
the trans story-line more gracefully.
But I continue to revel in Tanya’s feminist sex pedagogy and her
intellectual savvy, which more than outweighs her dismal business acumen.