Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cirque du Soleil's Kooza and Saltimbanco in Boston and Amherst

A spectacular moment from Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco coming to Amherst September 3-7

Cirque du Soleil has remade the traditional circus into a true artistic experience. Their mission is to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world. In the process of reinventing the art form, this Montreal based company has grown from a small troupe of twenty performers into a worldwide phenomenon. They have 4,000 employees, and 17 shows currently being performed all over the world. I am impressed that they dispensed with the circus animals that were often brutally forced to entertain us. Good thing too, since the handlers often utilized hurtful training methods on the animals in their care.

Cirque rethought the way everyone from the clowns to the trapeze artists perform, raising the bar to the point where even Ringling Brothers tries to copy their concepts, costumes and choreography. But nobody does it like the Cirque people. This coming month, there will be two Cirque du Soleil troupes visiting Massachusetts. One is a tent show, the other a touring arena production.

Arriving in Boston on September 5 for a month's stay at the Bayside Exposition Center, Cirque du Soleil will set up their Grand Chapiteau near the extensive parking lot and MBTA station. The show is fresh and new and "Kooza" tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world. The plot, of course, is just the connective tissue that holds together the half dozen acts that are presented with the most glorious costumes, lighting and special effects. Click here for Kooza information

One of the Cirque clowns in Kooza in Boston, September 5- October 5

The Arena Show is an old favorite of mine (I have seen almost all the Cirque shows - three of them multiple times) titled Saltimbanco. It will play the Mullins Center at the Univesity of Massachusetts in Amherst from September 3-7. Saltimbanco takes spectators on an allegorical and acrobatic journey into the heart of the city, celebrating the people who live there. Click here for Saltimbanco information

Either show will provide memories for a lifetime. I guarantee it. Like me, you may be bitten by the Cirque bug, and start thinking about seeing their five shows in Las Vegas (Mystère is still the best in my opinion) or Orlando to see La Nouba. If you are ever in Hong Kong, take the boat to Macau for Zaia.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What the hell is Kate Maguire doing down in Stockbridge?

Kate Maguire
Photo by Kevin Sprague

Do you realize how lucky you are if you live in the Berkshires? Kate Maguire, artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival is taking more theatrical risks than most summer theatre impresarios. Two recent productions are especially worthy. If you can get to Stockbridge this week, by all means do. Her current offerings are brilliant, historic and worth your time and attention. Kate's hand is not evident in the program credits - she did not direct or act in either show - but rather benind the scenes, through her planning, daring and problem solving.

One of these days we are going to read that she has been lured away by the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Guthrie or Steppenwolf. Let's hope it is just for a project and that the Berkshire Theatre Festival will continue to have first dibs on her.

"Waiting for Godot" Breaks the Rules, Upsets the Critics, Delights Audiences

The signs of her success are abundant: mixed, even volatile opinions on BTF's current iteration of Waiting for Godot which is directed by Anders Cato in a fresh, new way, blowing away the dust and upsetting more than one drama professor in the process. Imagine, Godot as comedy, as vaudeville, and being played for laughs? "Heresy," the purists scream, so sure are they that their dour, existentialist meanings of this work are the only righteous interpretation of the play. Never mind that Beckett broke all the rules 50 years ago, and wrote a play that was so different that it took the geniuses decades to figure out what it all meant. Perhaps they could not accept the evidence that was staring them in the face. Bert Lahr was cast in the first production. Bert Lahr, you know, The Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, one of the greatest comic actors of all time! Jeez.Randy Harrison in Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre production of Waiting for Godot. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment, Cato and his wonderful cast (David Adkins, Stephen DeRosa, Randy Harrison, David Schramm and Cooper Stanton) spent extra weeks developing the new interpretation. Happily I found it one in which Beckett's minimalist approach to theatre was minimalized still further. Gone were the ponderous pauses which made many previous incarnations seem like a leaden high mass. I say if the script says "pause," count two beats and move on, don't make me wait for six or ten seconds between lines. And don't forget that the title of the play actually translates as "While Waiting for Godot" and that puts my focus on how cleverly Didi and Gogo manage to pass the time. I have never laughed so hard at a performance of Godot with all of those clever bits, nor been touched so deeply by their frustration.

If Adkins and DeRosa were great tramps, Schramm's Pozzo was earthshaking. But best of all was Randy Harrison as Lucky. Harrison's reading of Lucky's speech was simply the most heart stopping theatrical experience I have had in more than 50 years of play-going. Totally original, totally unexpected in its ferocity, and beyond compare. Revolutionary, even.

How such a transformative play could be reduced to the status of a sacrosanct theatrical relic by critics is beyond me. Beckett himself was still fiddling with it 30 years after it opened, so its premature embalming is inexcusable. Godot is still alive. Alive, I tell you! So thanks to Maguire for nurturing the grant, assembling the brilliant cast and director, it is a production that will live long in memory.

As Beckett himself remarked: "I'm no intellectual. All I am is feeling." Amen, Sam.

Waiting for Godot runs until August 23, time to still see it...if there are tickets left. (Box office: 413-298-5576.)

Noël Coward in Two Keys

The second play that broke some rules is actually two one act plays done at the same time: Noël Coward in Two Keys. to appreciate what Maguire and director Vivian Matalon have done you have to listen more carefully than usual. The dialog is crisp and clear, in perfectly understandable English - American English, I guess you could call it. While an equally delightful production of a Coward work, Private Lives, is underway at Barrington Stage Company, the two are as different as night and day. The Barrington version goes to great lengths to get the English accents just so, and in the process makes it somewhat more difficult for Americans to follow the dialog.Mia Dillon and Maureen Anderman in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s 2008 Main Stage production of Noël Coward in Two Keys. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

The clarity of the dialog when spoken normally ehances the audience's ability to enjoy the cleverness that Coward embedded everywhere in the dialog. So thank you Kate for finding Vivian Matalon, who directed the original Broadway version of these plays almost fifty years ago with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the main roles. The casting of Maureen Anderman, Casey Biggs, and Mia Dillon in the main roles worked like a charm. All attention was focused on the play as it unfolded. The end result is that for a short time those of us in the Berkshires can see Coward at his peak (Private Lives) and at the end of his remarkable career (Two Keys). In a real way, it was the beginning and end of an era. Stonewall and the rise of gay liberation rendered the discrete, nuanced beads of humor that Coward dropped like pearls obsolete. In your face, up-front, direct bitchy humor soon became the trademark of gay writers ie Boys in the Band, and, yes, even Who's Aftraid of Virginia Wolf, which this play was a late minute substitute for. Make no mistake Virginia Wolf was a gay play with straight characters.

For reviews of these plays and my interview with Randy Harrison about Waiting for Godot and Samuel Beckett, check out Berkshire Fine Arts. Other interesting reviews are those by Gail Burns, at Gail Sez and Peter Bergman at Berkshire Bright Focus.

Netflix Shipping Again, Records Lag Behind

Three discs were waiting for me when I returned home last night, though the Netflix site shows them still due to ship...on Monday! I am happy to have them in hand. The changes I made in my queue during the last week were not reflected so I think the shipping choices must have been made from a backup source. An email from Netflix said that the records would be updated by Saturday afternoon, but as of Sunday morning, this still does not seem to have happened. The technical problems still affect the site.

Still, it is clear they are making progress.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Netflix Has a Meltdown

Netflix spoiled me. With only rare exceptions, I would mail back a DVD and receive a new one in the mail two days later. Years ago, when they first began, they were not quite as reliable. If you returned your discs too rapidly, and managed to get two turnarounds a week, they deliberately slowed down your replacements. But on the internet, you don't claim one thing and do another with impunity. Netflix subscribers compared notes and verified that such was the case. A class action suit followed, and settlement finally took place. Of course, I am still looking for my free month of one additional DVD "payback" sometime this fall, but I am patient.

Then this week happens. The week without any new discs at all for most of us.

I count my blessings that Netflix has been good for some time now, until this week when they went bad, and things could soon get ugly if the problems aren't over. Look at eBay, a totally different website today than it was when it began, and most buyers and sellers will tell you the changes have rarely been improvements. eBay proves it is possible to be both profitable and hated. Their sales in the US peaked some time ago, and it is no longer a source of growth for them, so they raise insertion fees and tighten the rules to find more profits. They are a company that has peaked, and becoming just another internet retailer.

Packing up DVDs is backbreaking work at Netflix

This week, when I didn't receive my new DVDs in the mail I was surprised but forgiving. Under Reed Hastings, Netflix has done a great deal to reinforce their customer service, and their customers have made it of the highest rated internet companies for some time now. Keeping people satisfied is no easy task, but with WalMart, then Blockbuster, and many smaller companies nipping at their heels, I believe it was a combination of superior attention to detail and a better selection of movies that has put Netflix in the lead. Despite urban legends, pricing is only part of the picture. And if you are one of the bottom feeders who is like a ravenous shark at the thought of saving a buck or two - you know who you are - you have no loyalty anyway. So screw saving pennies, it is performance, selection and reliability that counts.

The Meltdown

The short of it is that while some delayed discs were mailed sporadically last week, almost all of their eight million customers did not get their replacement discs at all, and will thus lose one week out of the month of the service they paid for. Netflix is quick to announce that all customers will get a 15% discount off of next month's service fee, but one week is 25% of a month, not 15%. Bad move, Nexflix. You should be overcompensating, not letting the bean counters run customer service. Expect more legal action, especially if things are not fully restored.

Netflix kept customers informed, sort of.

Netflix has not been very specific about their technical problems, but my best guess is that they can be laid at the feet of Microsoft with whom they have formed a strong alliance. Have you ever used Microsoft programs? You go to bed with dogs and you wake up with fleas. The worst part is that when things went south, they couldn't figure out what was causing the problems for days. Netflix has had some of the best techies in the world, and they went down for the count for almost a week. And things are still not up to speed, my DVD records say that my discs will be mailed Monday or Thursday, though their notice on site and via email says they were all caught up by Friday. Not true. Wishful thinking. The effects of the problem will be felt into next week at minimum.

The media has not done a particularly thorough job of covering the problem, as this incomplete report in Home Media Magazine - a trade publication which covers Netflix extensively for the DVD trade - shows. Home Media Magazine's only story as of 8/16. There have been lots of reports on the effect this is all having on their stock price. (Very little).

In the end we are all the problems solved? That remains to be seen. I'm anxiously watching my mailbox, and the withdrawal pangs are not all that bad. Only the lack of something new and decent to watch is making me think about going to a video store. Oh, the horror.