Sunday, December 23, 2007


The argument over whether uptown or downtown yields better art/entertainment is essentially a pretty boring one: uptown art is reputedly commercial, and crassly so, whereas downtown art is presumed to be edgy and authentic. Or: uptown art is professional, highly skilled and attentive to its audience while the downtown variety is shabby, amateurish and self-absorbed.

As it happens, the cliches are true sometimes, but not all the time (shocking!), and that both good and bad stuff happens in both areas, uptown and downtown having as much to do with attitude as geography, especially since much of what used to be 'downtown' Manhattan has all-but-utterly commercialized and much of the exciting new work is being done in the outer boroughs and (gasp!) New Jersey. Yes, there has always been a bunch of crap happening on Broadway, trite, thoughtless pablum aimed at the lowest imaginable common denominator; but there are also fantastic productions put on by true artists, brilliant playwrights and some of the best acting in the English speaking world. And the downtown scene is full of posers who create intentionally oblique nonsense and couldn't put two coherent thoughts together on a bet; but it also provides some of the most adventurous, exciting and vital work I've ever seen. My personal pet peeves from working in the worlds of conventional and experimental theater extend to the stick-up-the-ass cowardice of some of the decision-makers in the more commercial environments, and the crazy disorganization and overwhelming disregard for people's time in the fringy stuff (ok, ok - maybe an inflated sense of respect for scheduling does smack of the patriarchal, but that whole thing about never starting rehearsal on time gets old. Really.)

This all returns us to the shows I started writing about last week. Rock 'n' Roll was one more example of Tom Stoppard bringing it all back home with a team of top-notch artists at the top of their game. The central trio of Rufus Sewell, Brian Cox and Sinead Cusack are impressive in a way you just don't get to see very often. Damn Brits.

And the play itself is one of those shows that you walk away from smarter than when you walked in that night. Don't know much about the history of Communism in Czechoslovakia? You will. Unclear about the progression of British intellectual thought on the subject of the Party before and after the '68 invasion? Serving of mental Windex, live on stage. Wait a minute, wait a minute: you think those subjects might be boring? The use of rock and pop music to tie the scenes to the culture of the time and place isn't sugar to help it go down; it's a dramatic framework that makes an essential connection between popular expression and political environment. The fact that it's an irresistible musical element is a pretty bitchen bonus though.

Couple quick questions: might the show have benefited from some more truly underground or radical music? Not to take anything away from the Stones, Dylan or Pink Floyd, but I'm guessing there were more radical/less 'classic rock' musical forces at play in Prague, as there surely were in London. The Velvet Underground is a little closer to a counter-cultural phenomenon, and The Plastic People of the Universe certainly fit the bill. Maybe it wouldn't have been worth the time to introduce bands that would have required explanation, but I wonder if this uptown play could have used some more downtown sounds to illustrate its points. And where was the Zappa?! Not only was he important to the London scene, and absolutely integral to the Czech scene, his music spurred the very name of The Plastic People of the Universe, and, with the Velvets, was their most important influence both musically and theatrically. He was barely mentioned in the show, and not one note of his music was used. Why not?

And the mention of that musical artist who below-the-belted his way to a permanent spot in the fringe pantheon brings me back to The Nutcracker: Rated R. What a fun show! Not polished to a shiny gleam, the rough edges were part of the point, kinda like the sharp edge of a broken bottle. The fantasy of a bourgeois girl in this version of the Tchaikovsky ballet takes a turn through pre-Giuliani (and mostly pre-Dinkins) New York of the 80s (or at least someone's version of the 80s). Some creative variations on the music were employed, and the dancing had raw energy that got through to the packed audience.

There was a nasty line in the cold for the box office, in spite of our having bought tix in advance online, that I'd have liked to avoid (ah, the downside of downtown). But I digress. The show was worth the wait, however aggravating. Good primal energy in service of good arty entertainment. The sexuality could have gone farther without crossing any dangerous line (and this show sort of tempts one to cross dangerous lines - at the very least, it advertises itself as 'R-rated' ) but they delved into different dance forms and style choices with exuberant abandon, and made living contact with the audience that, well, that you don't always get.
Not so sure about the pat anti-drug message-y kind of resolution. (Did you know that coke can give you a sense of euphoria and energy to party all night? But that then it might kill you? I know, so did everyone else.) But they had to end it one way or another, and those after-school specials were part of the 80s too. There were some sound problems early on in the performance I saw, which caused the company to stop for repairs and start over, but I actually think the way they handled it was pretty perfect, and if anything juiced the dancers up to give a little extra on this cold and rainy matinee day. Way to have a show ready to weather any storm. Good luck bringing it back next year!

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