23 August 2012

A Review of INTO THE WOODS at the Delacorte Theater (Act 1 only)*

*I wrote this review as a Facebook "note" and posted it sometimes in the night - but I'm proud of my work and think it deserves more eyes than a late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning post would garner, so here it is on my blog. 


(I'm somewhat retired from criticism these days, but I thought I'd flex the old muscles a bit on this piece. I'm writing it more in the style of an essay meant for someone who's familiar with the show, as I'm doing it for fun and don't have the desire to recap the storyline here.)

There is a notion - perhaps old fashioned, but it's still around - that drama is all about the day where something out of the ordinary happens. It's never about the birthday party that goes off without a hitch, the courtship that runs smoothly, the friendship that sustains. More to the point, it's about how the out-of-the-ordinary affects those (often) ordinary people. Do they embrace the strange or run from it? Or ignore it entirely? 

At its heart, INTO THE WOODS is about people who long for change, get it, and have to deal with its effects. They are not contented people, and, for many of them, they will never be content, always changing old wants out for new ones. There is a restlessness that drives the piece from the first urgent piano chords and Cinderella's plea, "I wish!" Yet for all of the danger and realism that the Delacorte's modern costumes and alfresco setting promises, and for the driving pace needed by a space that is unable to provide black-outs or closed curtains and so must rely on quick entrances and exits, there is no urgency in this production. 

Part of the problem rests with the creative team's substitution of an imaginative boy (Jack Broderick) as the Narrator. While the young actor's line readings were lively as he told the story as a child playing with his toys, and his hand-of-God machinations in the actions of the characters through his manipulation of the dolls were nicely chilling in places, this gimmick (might as well call it what it is) somewhat robs the characters of motivation beyond their good/evil status. How can a little boy understand a long-married couple's longing for a child? How can he know the pride and fear in a mother's heart as her daughter grows older? Though some of these themes come to play more strongly in Act 2 (which I didn't see, as I attended an Act 1-only family matinee), their lack of "oomph" in Act 1 didn't set the stage for their post-intermission exploration. 

But I may be confusing directorial intent with lack of character development here. The show's central couple is the Baker and his Wife, played by Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams, respectively. He is played as an offbeat and somewhat slow man (perhaps a reflection of the Homer Simpson doll the boy uses as his playtime stand-in?), she as a nice-enough, clever-enough woman whose massive stack of hair is the only remarkable thing about her. (I didn't get a look at the doll that represented her, but that sure sounds like Marge Simpson to me.) There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason as to why they are a couple, working as they do on such different wavelengths. And if I didn't hear the Narrator tell us how desperately they wanted a child, I wouldn't know it by their actions. They go about their hero's quest as though a voice from above were telling them what to do, not because of a strong passion of their own. Again, unless it was a conscious decision of the co-directors to have the Baker and Baker's Wife act like action figures, there should've been a directive to Mr. O'Hare and Ms. Adams that commanded, "You want a child that badly? Go FIGHT for it!" 

Perhaps the most unexpectedly low-key performance of the night was given by Donna Murphy as the Witch. Of course it's best not to repeat note-for-note the showy turn of Bernadette Peters; if we wanted her, we'd listen to the CD and watch the DVD. However, I wasn't anticipating Ms. Murphy's choice of making the most fantastical and magical character of the show into one of the most naturalistic ones (tree branch hands aside). Her misery and outsider status were certainly there, but, devoid of the usual histrionics, she didn't work quite as well as the catalyst for the Baker and Wife's trip into the woods, which in turn acts as an agent of change in many of the others. 

Two of the more effective actresses in this show were Sarah Stiles as Little Red Ridinghood and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella - perhaps because the wants of these characters are so clear, and in fact, made clearer through this re-staging. Little Red, seen here as a tart teen in roller derby guise, hides her vulnerability and lack of adult emotional and worldly intelligence with her nonchalant-tough exterior. She thinks that because she attracts the attention of a sexy rocker wolf with an "American Idol"-style growl (Ivan Hernandez), she's old enough to handle him - but she isn't, and her "I Know Things Now" holds even more "innocence-lost" resonance. Cinderella's problem is not a lack of awareness of others but of herself; she wants to attend the King's Festival but has a hard time figuring out if her head's been turned by the Prince or by the experience itself. She is so used to negative attention from her step-family that positive attention is perhaps confused with love. Both actresses gave a little more and a little weirder than what is usually expected in their roles, to much success. 

John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour's enormous three-tier set allowed for a wondrous, creepy and highly adaptive workspace for the actors. It was both a part of and apart from the real trees that surrounded it - though it required some high-level endurance on the part of the performers who must climb up and down a series of stairs to get to each playing space. The orchestra was as it should be - crisp and unobtrusive, enough so that it was only because I was sitting next to a musician that I made an attempt to figure out where they'd been stashed, as they weren't clearly visible (for the record: on the middle level, behind the scenery). 

All in all, a lot of the unexpected happens in Act 1 of INTO THE WOODS - and even more so in Act 2. But with a production that seems to favor visuals over emotions, why should I care? 

- Lauren Snyder

31 March 2012

absence and the conversational arts

Before I get into the topic of this post, can we just mull over the fact that I haven't written here in nearly two years?! You thought I'd given up on this blog, right? Sure, I've only used it during that time for the blogroll, but I have considered posting now and again. Usually I'd get an idea but not have the time to follow through with the post.

That's the story of my life as a writer ... if I were Shakespeare, I'd have completed the sonnets, yes, but maybe only a play or two, plus there'd be a lot of pieces of paper that said things like: "Play about Danish prince? TRAGEDY. Mother marries father's brother!! 'To be or not to be?' (monologue about choosing life/death) Girlfriend goes crazy, drowns. Everyone dies (?)"

You think I'm being flip, but I have several spec scripts, comedy sketches, and books in this format. I love ideas; they're always sparkly and delightful and the best thing ever. Half-finished works freak me out, and completed works mystify me.


Okay, what I was ACTUALLY going to write about was my current interpersonal hurdle: having a normal give-and-take conversation with a grown-up. Before I had kids, I thought that when stay-at-home parents talked about having difficulty talking to people their own age, they couldn't follow along with the topics of conversation because of falling out of touch with current events, sleep deprivation, etc. Now that I have a 4-year-old and a 3 1/2-month-old, I realize that the issue is not content (or consciousness), but conditioning.

When you are a new mother with a baby, there is a lot of silence in your day. (That is, when the baby is not screaming. Let's not sugar-coat things.) You feel weird talking aloud to yourself, and the baby can't understand you, so the only things you say are "sshs" and lyrics to lullabies (or, in my case, Broadway shows and Beatles songs). Then you read books that tell you about keeping a running dialogue with your baby, and after a length of time, this becomes second nature. By now your child is starting to talk, but you are mostly forced to draw things out of your child with questions. You are responsible for the lion's share of the conversation, pausing only for nods or "NO!"s as they come.

Thus, when you attempt to talk to someone whose vocabulary extends past a dozen words, and who has opinions, anecdotes and questions of their own, you have a hard time switching gears from constant narration to an equal discourse. You're so used to preparing something else to say to drown out the quiet that you find yourself half-listening to what the other person is saying in order to ready your next statement. You come across as jumpy, inconsiderate, and vain, when really you're just trying to remember how talking is supposed to go. How does it go again? When do I speak? When do I shut up? Should I be asking more questions, or am I asking too many? Is this when I should volunteer something about myself, or does that sound conceited?

I find that after every conversation I have, I'm doing some post-game analysis on how it went, so that I can improve for the next time. I'm so desperate not to come off as crazy THAT I DRIVE MYSELF CRAZY.

So please cut myself, and others in my situation, some of that so-called "slack." Also, please don't assume that because we're struggling for things to say that we don't have any feelings or experiences to share that are not child-related. As much as I love my kids, I am generally dying to talk about myself in the singular again - and, one of these days, I'll remember how to do it.

18 May 2010

greener grass that can do what it wants

My little family unit lives in Queens, unlike most of the people that I know; they are in New Jersey and Brooklyn, both of which might as well be Maine for all of the visiting that we do. This is generally fine with me, as I tend to prefer having a lot of acquaintances but very few friends. (Friends were a bit too much work for me even before I had a husband and Kid.) But of course, woman cannot live on the company of her spouse, child and the people who work at the neighborhood stores alone. So, fortunately, I've started cultivating friendships in the local theater scene.

It's always interesting to start out in a new group of people. I've never had a really hard time doing this, though, as has been mentioned in a previous blog, sometimes it takes a while for me to warm up and have my full personality emerge. I'm a space heater, not a fluorescent light, you see.

Anyways, I'm enjoying being a part of the larger Queens drama society, even though my participation is fringe at best. But it seems that the people my age or thereabouts that go out after shows are mostly single or dating, with a few married-no kids around. Of course it works out fine; I know better than to talk about my family life, sticking to common ground, and since the Hubby is generous enough to hold down the fort during these once-every-month-or-so outings, I don't have to worry about getting home at a certain time. (It helps that I go out on Saturdays, when people often have a matinee the next day and can't stay out all night.)

The only times I feel uncomfortable are when these no-strings-to-tie-them-down folks talk about what they're doing, projects-wise. They go from show to show, without a question as to whether or not it's possible. The last time I did a show, I had to rearrange my whole family's lives and schedules, resulting in lots of stress and some financial hardship. It was worth it, yes - even when I'd get to rehearsal five minutes late, sweaty from running all of the way and still fuming over an argument I'd just had, I could then disappear into my old life and my character for a while. Still, I've had to take a few months off, and even when things had calmed down, I've had to wait for a project that was within walking distance with a role for me with dates that I could do. I'm still waiting.

Within the next six months, the Kid should be old enough to hang out at rehearsal with me until her father can pick her up. In a few years, she could read or do homework at a table unsupervised when I'm onstage. The problem is that I'm 33 now, old enough for the good 30s roles and young looking-enough to go for late 20s stuff as well. I have a small window for playing Marian the Librarian, or Miss Balish in She Loves Me - and that window is closing a little more every day. It's no surprise that actresses get pregnant in their late 30s; it's a fallow time of being too old to be an ingenue and not old enough to be the matriarch. Silly me, I got knocked up at 30 instead.

This is one of those issues that come with the "being married" territory. Thing is, if I hung out with more married people, I could gain the missing perspective that would turn this from a nagging jealousy to a manageable notch in the loss column. I was hoping that writing about it here would help me to work it out ... Clearly, I've been watching too many sitcoms these days. My problems can't be solved in 22 minutes, or in 2000-odd words. :)

12 April 2010

song of myself

I was thinking today about mix tapes ... Specifically, the beast that is the audio cassette mix tape. Now, I've already touched on this lost craft of musical scrapbooking, but there's another element to it that has yet to be reproduced by the "shuffle" button on my iPod.

Audio cassette mix tapes were always the most laborious of this genre. You needed a double-cassette player, one deck set to "record" and one set to "play" - and you COULD NOT CONFUSE THE TWO. (I did once, while dubbing the lone copy of the radio sketch I co-wrote with the Comedy Club at Penn State. That sketch is now lost to the ether - though, mercifully, as the parts that I remember weren't that funny.) There were no notches or tracks to use as guideposts when finding the songs that you wanted to add. Lots of fast-forwarding, rewinding, pausing at the right time ... and this is all AFTER agonizing over the set list and BEFORE the snazzy artwork and track listings for the cassette holder.

Perhaps the most important thing lost in the transition to MP3s is the personal use mix tape. Can anyone imagine spending that much time on oneself anymore? Not to enhance one's appearance (going to the gym, spending time at a salon), or to fulfill basic needs (shopping, eating, showering) - but just to have something to listen to when you're in the gym, or the car, or on your walk to school.

Today I was waiting for my drink order at Starbucks when a 70-ish woman walked through the door. She looked at the cashier, saw that there were six people waiting in line, muttered about the line being too long, and left. This woman, who wasn't dressed for work or going out, and who probably didn't have anywhere that she had to get to immediately, wanted a coffee but didn't want to spend the 10 minutes it would've taken to get it.

This is not about impatience to me - sure, I live in NYC and that is certainly a quality that we residents share, but that is a symptom rather than the problem. The problem is not spending enough time taking care of ourselves. We let our hang-ups and our fears and our issues and all of that negativity just grow, like weeds in a garden, taking up all of the space that the good stuff needs to take root. We have to go to other people to figure out what's wrong with us, when if we spent a little more time just checking in, we could figure it out ourselves.

Has anyone ever explained what's wrong with you, and you've said, "Oh my gosh, you're totally right!" and been amazed to hear it laid out? Your reaction is telling you that YOU KNEW WHAT WAS WRONG. Those "revelations" are never that because somewhere you knew this stuff all along.

So, back to the mix tapes ... When I was a senior in high school, I made myself a mix tape full of sadness and pain - Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. The thinking was that it would help me to deal with being upset. As I crafted it, I speculated that, if I were to put these songs in a particular order, I would [de]crescendo to such despair that I might take my own life. So I made sure to tweak things so that I would go up and down, rather than straight down. And the saving grace was the addition of "It Can't Rain All the Time" by Jane Siberry, off my much-beloved soundtrack to "The Crow." Once I worked myself into a pretty mess of self-loathing ("Hurt" felt like Trent Reznor had ghost-written it for me), I would get to the soothing words ... "It can't rain all the time, your tears won't last forever," and then the crying and the better-ness would start. (And still do - damn my salty, blurry vision!)

Self-preservation, you might say - but that implies instinct rather than feeling. I felt sorry for myself, I LOVED myself - even if I didn't outrightly know it. As much as I was worn out from depression, and terribly tired of living in my mind, I also felt almost a nurturing, protecting thing towards me. I made myself laugh with the things that I said, and I made myself laugh even more with the things I never said out loud. I had redeeming qualities that made putting up with all of my crap worth it. And I didn't realize it then, but I realize now, that that is why other people would be able to put up with me, and to love me. Other people can deal with a lot of crap, much more than you think they can, as long as there's ice cream coming. And yes, I can deliver some ice cream.

A friend of mine in high school once pointed out to me that I started a lot of sentences with "I," and that it sounded conceited. To this day, I write and rewrite every single text message/email/FB status/blog entry so that there aren't so many "I"s to be found, so that nobody would mistake me for being conceited. Most of the time, it's because I find it ludicrous that anyone would ever think that I'd think so highly of myself. (Some of the time, it's because I don't want to let on that I do!) But as much as I may refer to things through the first person - and I'm letting it go right now a bit out of respect for the rawness and truth of this post - it's not because I'm overly concerned with myself.

Maybe I should be.

25 January 2010

the shy, retiring type?

Depending on whom you ask, I am one of two types of people:
  1. A dryly funny, talkative person who's quick on her feet, fairly at ease in social situations and who enjoys other people's company

  2. A quiet observer who doesn't add to conversations, who talks a little quickly when she does talk, who sometimes has trouble expressing herself because she's stumbling over words, and who seems embarrassed and slightly lonely in crowds
I'm typing these descriptions, trying to get them right, and thinking, "That doesn't sound like two sides of one person; that sounds like one side of two different people." But it's true ... my family, friends and some acquaintances think of me as #1, while other acquaintances could never believe that I am anything but #2.

When I was at Penn State, I decided that I wanted to be part of the Penn State Thespians. (If you don't know about the Thespians, it's like a co-ed fraternity for theater geeks.) I can't really remember why I wanted to join, but I did, and I put in my time, and I became a member. Around them, I was #2 all of the time; I just never felt comfortable enough around those people to be #1. (At this point, you're forgiven for asking, "So WHY did you want to join?" And again, I can't give you an answer.)

It's not that I was intimidated - or the opposite, that I thought that they were beneath me. They just weren't really the kind of crowd that would "get" me, so I never bothered to fill them in on what they weren't getting. At one of their parties, some of us were playing a game where a person in the room would be described using a Disney character, and you'd have to guess whom they were describing. The clue for me was Belle from Beauty and the Beast ... quiet, bookish, brunette - yes, I can see that (and will certainly accept it because she's pretty!), but that doesn't capture what I'm really about.

After being around them for a little over a year, I was invited to "commune with Thespus," a secret late-night initiation process that is like hazing except that it's all silly and fun and you don't drink or get beaten up or feel degraded afterward. That year's proceedings had an Olympics theme, so during one part we were supposed to do an improv where two people were participating in a made-up Olympic event and two people would do play-by-play. I guess that the idea of doing improv (which at that time I'd been doing for two years) made me loose and confident because I launched into a veddy British (and very dry) sportscaster character.

Suddenly I was being myself, and they were laughing and looking at me like I'd taken off a mask and revealed myself to be someone else. (Guess I had.) If you will allow me a ridiculous comparison, it was like my very own Susan Boyle moment - the expectation and reality didn't match, the frumpy could could sing, or, in my case, Belle became the Genie from Aladdin. (Ugh, more Disney metaphors!)

And if this were a coming-of-age story, or a Lifetime movie, I would've accepted the accolades of my peers and been spurred on to be #1 from. then. on. But I didn't - I went back to #2, and in fact didn't hang out with them as much anymore because I didn't know the younger members as much as the older ones who had graduated.

So we come to now. I keep switching between those two sides, but as I age and spend an increasing amount of time in my own company and with the Kid, I am leaning on #2 more and more. Having worked as a receptionist for several years didn't help; being at a desk by yourself and talking to disembodied voices all day is #2's dream job.

I am having more and more trouble in social situations, and find them whirring past without really experiencing them ... Life gets stuck on the 2x>> button on my personal remote. This lack of self-confidence gets lackier as I replay conversations in my head and fret over talking too much, sounding too needy, behaving like a simpleton. It's laughable that I used to dumb myself down in certain situations for fear of sounding too smart, and now I'm having trouble smartening back up - or, at least, finding an equilibrium that's not off-putting.

Writing about it right now has helped clear my head a little. Didn't I used to write poetry, after all, to clean out the words gathered like cobwebs that cluttered the place, my mind? Perhaps I need to get back in the habit, using it to practice connecting to people where cold-calling them is failing ...

06 October 2009

post-part ... um, depression ...

Well, it's day two of life after the closing of the play I've been working on, and I'm settling into the old routine. "Settling" is a particularly appropriate word in this case.

It was really, really good for me to be in TRUST. The rehearsal process, the camaraderie, the theater war stories ... it brought me back to life.

Sometimes I feel like I'm playing the role of the stay-at-home mother because it sure doesn't seem like me, like who I was. Un-thought-out clothing, focusing my attention on someone else, mindless chatting with other women - who is this person that I've become?

Talking about things besides the Kid was nice. Talking about acting and films and plays was nice. You can't have those conversations with other moms. Most of the time, the only things you have in common are a zip code and menstrual cycles. Add to that the fact that I'm really more a "one of the guys" kind of girl, and it's even more ludicrous that, as the years go by, I'm going to be spending increased time with other women, talking about PTA politics, date nights and what stores just opened or closed on Austin Street.

Many have compared performing to a drug ... the highest highs, the lowest lows, and that need to do it again once the effect's worn off. But if it's like a drug, to me it's like insulin, or anti-seizure medication - it doesn't remove me from me, it brings me back to myself. Of course that sounds very dramatic - particularly in a blog, and while discussing drama to boot - but it doesn't feel like an overstatement of my case, in my case.

Well, it's going to have to be a drug I'll live without for a while. There aren't any shows for me on the horizon, only life, a husband, a baby, fall TV, and the internet. My next public appearances will be at the Adornaments booth at the Shops at Bryant Park fair this winter, where I'll be personalizing XMAS ornaments and piggy banks on Sunday mornings so I can get out of the house and make some money. It's not the role of a lifetime, but it'll have to do for now.