I have spent the past week watching one online theater piece after another that, for remarkably varied reasons, left me debating whether I should commit to saying anything publicly about them at all, much less whether I could write a full-length review. It gave me new reasons to ponder the strange task of theatrical criticism in this most challenging of seasons – and, frankly, to wonder why I keep doing it.
Clippy and Ms. U
“Clippy and Ms. U,” written by Ohnobu Pelican, performed by Ann Harada, Thom Sesma, and Olivia Oguma, and presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company is part of an international series created to mark the tenth anniversary of what the Japanese call 3/11 – which, like the American 9/11, was a moment of national tragedy. “10 Years from the Great East Japan Earthquake of 3/11: A Reflection Through Plays” is meant to reflect on the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
There was, however, nothing directly discernible to me about 3/11 in “Clippy and Ms. U” until the last eight minutes of the 37-minute video, and those first 29 minutes are full of scenes whose purpose is unclear to me and held little intrinsic interest.
In one section, going year by year in reverse from 2010 to 1970, the performers take turns announcing the year and then listing local events in each year that seem largely too banal to be described as historic (“’97. Ban-Etsu Expressway opens.”), although the recitation ends in 1970 with what might be taken as pointed: “Tohoku’s first nuclear plant begins operation in Fukushima.” During this narration, the screen shifts from the actor speaking to the camera, to glimpses of a cartoon-colored three-dimensional model of a modern Japanese village.
The two characters of the title never appear; they are, first, a person who collects newspaper clippings (which, presumably, the three seen characters are reading from) and second, a woman for whom all three of the characters on screen are searching.
The man knows Ms. U as a terrific professional cook, one of the women (Harada) says Ms. U is a childhood friend she met in kindergarten, the other woman (Oguma) says Ms. U sold her a ticket on Reddit to see a concert of Arashi (a Japanese boy band) but then disappeared. So, a cook, a crook or a kindergartner?
In those last eight minutes, we see somebody shaking the model of the village, Harada says “March 11, An emergency earthquake alert rings,” and Ms. U is presented as many different people with that name mentioned in the newspaper clippings as involved in some way in the catastrophe….including as a long list of obituaries. The cast helped invest this moment with a sense of poignancy, but the payoff wasn’t enough for me to forgive the half-hour of tedium that preceded it.
But here was the problem for me as a critic: How much of this play is wrapped up in Japanese culture, and thus how much of my failure to respond to it is because of my ignorance of that culture? In the past, this might not have given me pause: I’ve enjoyed other works originating in Japan, and, besides, I would have thought in the past that the onus is on this New York based company in presenting a work translated into English to make it accessible to an English-speaking New York theatergoing audience – if not possible in the show itself, then in material accompanying it.
I’m certainly always willing to do research (I looked up “Arashi” to identify it as a boy band), But there has been a heavy drumbeat of late from some quarters that’s been in effect insisting: If you aren’t of the culture, you have no right to share your views.
(I took a little bit of encouragement from a succinct comment by Harada about the play on her Twitter account: “Not linear, if that’s your jam.”)
“Before Fiddler” offered something of the opposite challenge.
Hershey Felder, an accomplished pianist and reasonable mimic who has made a career out of one-man stage shows about famous composers (mostly classical, but occasionally popular, like Irving Berlin), had announced his next show would be about Sholem Aleichem. This intrigued me, because the great Yiddish writer was not a composer. (Yes, his stories about Tevye the milkman became the basis for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof but he was not involved, given that he had died a half century earlier.)
This was the sixth show that Felder has produced online from his pandemic perch in Florence, Italy, tickets for each $55 — steeper than your average online theater, but the income was shared with theaters throughout the U.S.
As a critic, I’ve long expected to get “press access” (i.e. free admission), and this has been more necessary during the pandemic (although some publicists and producers haven’t seen it that way – and I suspect more won’t when physical theaters return.) So I wrote to the production company with my request, and almost immediately heard back…from Hershey Felder himself. He told me he remembered me well from a review I wrote of one of his previous shows, but any review of this show felt “scary”, because of all the challenges of pandemic art (although he asked me to keep the details “between us,”) “but I trust you will take it in as one can.” I’ll admit it, I was charmed – critics like to feel appreciated too; the relentless hostility from theater makers can be wearing – and I wrote back my thanks and ended the email with “I hope your trust well-placed.” (Yes, I really wrote that.) So, after that, how could I review it honestly?
It is worth noting here what UK theater artist Jack McNamara recently called the “low-key heroism” that it takes to put anything together during the pandemic, the “little miracles taking place on a daily basis” that the casual viewer (or even the serious reviewer) may not take into account.
As it turns out, “Before Fiddler” is two shows in one. One is of Sholem Aleichem, portrayed by Felder, sitting on a bed in a bright bedroom in Nervi in the Italian Riviera in 1908, where his doctor had sent him for the sun and air after he collapsed. Fearing this is his deathbed, the writer has decided to write his will. “After all, dying is our own pretty bad luck,” he tells us. “Dying without a will is everybody else’s” – which is typical of the Yiddish-inflected humor of the script.
The scenes of Aleichem’s composing his will while telling us his life story alternate with his narration and dramatization of Aleichem’s first novel “Stempenyu,” a story about a talented klezmer fiddler and amoral Lothario. This is how Felder works in the music, supplied (especially during an extended wedding scene) by an Italian klezmer quartet called the Klezmerata Fiorentina (Igor Polesitsky is the violist and violinist.) Unlike his stage shows, the 70-minute video involves several locations (including the Florence synagogue) and large cast, although the performers inhabit their characters without speaking any dialogue; Felder tells the story in voiceover – with one exception: the scenes where Felder plays not one but two different mothers-in-law.
Little Miss Perfect and House Rules
Both “Little Miss Perfect” and “House Rules” show great promise, as you can see for yourself in the video below, which is the 37th installment of the New York Theatre Barn’s New Works series — and (as I’ll explain in a moment) the reason why I can’t review them.
Joriah Kwamé wrote a song called “Little Miss Perfect” that was one of the winners of a contest called Write Out Loud co-sponsored by Taylor Louderman (the star of Mean Girls.) Louderman did a music video of the song, which is about a straight-shooting high school student
Straight hair, straight A’s, straight forward
Straight path, I don’t cut corners
I make a point to be on time
Head out the student council
Who is in fact not straight; when she sees a pretty girl
My heart gives a flutter but I don’t dare utter a word
Cause that would be absurd behavior for Little Miss Perfect
The video, as the expression goes, went viral — people commented that Kwamé’s song helped them come out to their parents.
So Kwamé decided to turn it into a full musical, but didn’t trust himself to write the book, instead reaching out to….one of the most produced playwrights in America, Lauren Gunderson (most recently, author of “The Catastrophist.“) And she said yes!
This is about all I can say about the musical because…it doesn’t quite exist yet (although Kwame says he’s put together a concept album that should be out soon.) There are a couple of new songs in the video below, but critics are taught it’s unfair to weigh in while a show is in development.
In the second half of New York Theatre Barn’s 70-minute video, we learn about “House Rules,” which is a musical based on (and named after) Jodi Picoult’s 2010 novel about a teenager living with autism who is accused of murdering his tutor. The songwriting team of Kate Leonard and Daniel Merzlufft put this aside when the pandemic hit, but resumed it after scoring a success with a musical created during the pandemic – Ratatouille The Tic Toc Musical.
These are both terrific stories….about the making of the musicals – which haven’t actually been fully made yet. Although New York Theatre Barn likes to call what they present on YouTube “pre-premieres,” it’s too early to know if the completed musicals themselves will get critical raves when they actually premiere. But it seems increasingly likely that critics’ reception might not matter. In the video below, Lauren Gunderson observes:
“As terrible as this pandemic is, people are turning to all sorts of ways that we can connect, and a lot of that is TikTok and Instagram, and also YouTube, Build a show, build a following, build a love for these characters.” And for that following, the show “is their show before it’s Broadway’s.”
Indeed it belongs to these fans (I add) before it even completely exists.
Will these shows wind up being “critic-proof” – will they prove the critics’ undoing?