The Tuesday Boys Experience- Secret Shows at the Painted Bride

Amelia is one of those stupid people who believes art can save us.

The Secret Shows at the Painted Bride are a series that put the spotlight and focus on the artist, rather than the art. Every month until the summer of 2017, a new show is unveiled at the Painted Bride, but the audience coming to see them doesn’t know what it’ll be seeing – only who the artists are. All clocking in at about an hour long, the series aims to work with emerging artists on their marketing skills – how do you sell a show when all the audience knows about is you? In purely Philadelphia-like fashion, the artist becomes the primary entry point for the art, as opposed to convention, which uses the art as a window into the artist.

 

The danger with this, as I discovered at The Tuesday Boys Experience, is that if you don’t really know who the artist is (and I mean really know who they are as people, not just artists), you end up being on the outside of a very funny joke. I didn’t do my homework for The Tuesday Boys – I didn’t look them up or look at how the Painted Bride was marketing them. Instead I came to the show on Monday night looking forward to being thrust into an experience that emphasized – and welcomed my participation in it as a complete outsider. But instead, I just felt left out.

 

So, the show: The Tuesday Boys Experience wasn’t really a theatrical piece as much as it was an immersive, multi-media music show with theatricality placed on top. The two titular characters wear happy masks as they sing a “psychadelic ride through mid-level mundanity” – an hour long music explosion about Toni and Tabby Tuesday, who love going to work at a data-processing-type-nine-to-five office job. Their day is narrated and accented at times by a soulless, deadpanned employee named Doug, whose heavy lids and thick glasses remain immovable throughout the entire show. The most hilarious part of The Tuesday Boys Experience is Doug’s stony face as he updated us on Toni and Tabby in a thick Pennsylvania accent, or danced miserably behind them.

 

Keeping in mind that my background is theater and performance, not music, I will say that The Tuesday Boys music was fun and silly. The most dramatic moments of their show is actually when a virus has taken over Toni and Tabby’s computer, and the office world spins completely out of control both musically and visually. Lots of lights, lots of color, lots of slow, emphatic imagery. But other than that, there’s not a lot to critique about The Tuesday Boys Experience because the experience wasn’t taking itself seriously enough for me to really dive deeply into supposed “messaging.” Despite dripping with ironic irreverence about the joys and pleasures of “boss check-ins” or “hour-long commutes” or “the melodic hums of printers and fax machines,” there was nothing more substantial being said or even questioned. But it feels ridiculous to demand that out of the work – The Tuesday Boys Experience didn’t really want to say anything, it just wanted to laugh.

 

But unfortunately, sometimes I just couldn’t find it funny. Maybe it was because a lot of their jokes relied on some pretty cheap observations of life and people (their pseudo “kung fu” choreography about the zen of data entry is one such example). Or maybe it was because so much of their humor hinged upon a larger understanding of who these guys are and why it was so hilarious for them to be in suits. What I am discovering about this idea that the doorway to the art is actually through artist, is that unless the artist puts in the work to bring strangers through the door, I, the Jane Doe on the other side, will be scrambling to find the handle. So that was my biggest take away from The Tuesday Boys: I would have enjoyed myself so much more if I were best buds with these three artists, but because I wasn’t, all I had left to watch was a psychedelic electronic music light show making fun of office life. Not necessarily my jam, but it certainly could be somebody else’s.

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And Then There Were None- Allen’s Lane Theater

Anna is a director and a woman of color

I’ll start with what’s in my pockets. I am a queer female person of color living in today’s America. I have only encountered Agatha Christie through the loving, sepia-toned eye of PBS / BBC / and other “masterpiece theater”-type jawns.

 

Reading Josh Hitchens’ director’s note from the And Then There Were None program, you know you aren’t in for masterpiece theater, which I was frankly glad for. Whenever the production was in danger of straying too near the classic pitfalls of “period theater” — melodramatic looks, overlong pauses, and labored accents — Hitchens and his design team were there to yank you back from the precipice.

 

In pulling that off, enormous credit must go to J. Kenneth Jordan for what was a powerful and ambitious show design. Set, lighting, sound, and video were the knife’s edge that kept the play dangerous. A less provocative designer and director might have given us a plush sea-side resort; Jordan and Hitchens delivered instead the lighthouse of Tévennec, threadbare and white as a bleached bone. My favorite parts of the show were Jordan’s videographic interludes (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to). While the sound balance was at times painfully loud, the interludes added genuine depth to the characters — an early hint at the puritanical Emily Brent’s queer identity (a lovely moment, played by Carole Mancini) or a view into the General’s reminiscences of his wife (played by a truly excellent Ryan Walter).

 

But in trying to balance on that knife’s edge between period play and horror show, a little wibble wobbling occurred. In the first act, bizarro-world butler Thomas Rogers (Geremy Webne-Behrman) was in a completely different play, replete with its own sound and light cues. I actually would very much like tickets to this drag show/Rocky Horror homage, preferably featuring even more of precocious dandy Anthony Marston (Jacob Glickman). But as it stands, I’m left a little confused.

 

There was also a lot of screaming. Screaming in the theater can be an amazing bit of catharsis, but whether it’s serving the actors vs. the audience is something I always contend with. (For a way it can serve both, fully and beautifully, see Annie Wilson’s At Home with the Humorless Bastard.) While most of the show’s scream queens take the maxi-approach with full-throated hysteria, Vera Claythorne (Megan Edelman) delivers a cannier, foxier kind of mental breakdown. She does an excellent job of staying “Suspect No. 1” throughout the show. One really wishes that she had been given more to do in the final denouement than sustain a fever pitch cry/scream-fest at the feet of the old man (Robert Bauer as Judge Wargrave) taking a very long time to explain how he outsmarted her. I felt exhausted for her.

 

All-in-all, it was an ambitious show and I applaud Hitchens’ unabashed embrace of horror on stage. The Allen’s Lane Art Center is one of those lovely community institutions (like PBS!) that exists to nurture and support its artists. It is always a pleasure to see the many ways that proscenium gets treated; with And Then There Were None it was thoroughly unrecognizable, and for that, praise to the full cast and crew.

 

But we’re not just shade and pats on the back here at Bonaly. I couldn’t in good conscience write about this production without addressing a moment that left me disappointed and confused. And in this, I definitely invite a dialogue with the artists involved, who are welcome to get in touch. The problem can be summarized thusly:

 

  • At some point in his past, Captain Philip Lombard decided to save his own skin by abandoning 21 men to die, somewhere in the wilderness of East Africa. Location and identities of these men not disclosed, but with all the racial sensitivity typical of 1939, we know them simply as “Africans.” (Reminder to the modern audience: Africa is a continent, not an ethnicity. This is important.)
  • The play spends a brief moment chastising Captain Lombard for viewing these people as disposable and suggesting that their race makes them less than human. Something about “brothers and sisters despite color.” A great sentiment, but absolutely nothing about the play or production actually gives them person-hood. They remain exactly as Christie made them: an “other.” Fridged, so that we can all feel good about the murder of the loathsome Captain Lombard. Essentially, nameless, faceless, personhood-less people of color, moving the plot along for our white protagonists.
  • UNTIL SUDDENLY: these unnamed men get faces.   
  • Mid-romance with Vera, Captain Lombard steps out of time while a video montage begins to play. This visual internal monologue is a language which the production established with earlier scenes featuring other characters (again, great work on part of director and design team).
  • As Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit begins to play, we are cycled through images of what one presumes are Captain Lombard’s victims. The photos are modern, glossy black and white, meditative portraits. The sort of stuff NatGeo still gets high on. The people depicted are in traditional dress… of what cultures, what national affiliations, we are not given the remotest clue or explanation. It would seem that just as Christie figured in 1939, as long as the audience can recognize that they are “Africans”, good enough.
  • Then the final image… an older photo of a mass lynching that instantly evoked the Jim Crowe American South. A tree weighted with anonymous, murdered black bodies. All the while, Billie Holiday sings.

 

With all sincerity, I ask, what the fuck is going on?

 

Did you just choose to use anonymous people’s race and cultural identity as a prop in your show?

Have you decided to elide black Africans (whatever the hell that even MEANS) with black Americans?

What gives you the right to use Billie Holiday and the uncensored, abject horror of a mass-lynching image, in a play where you’ve done absolutely no work to redress racial violence and oppression in America?

Why did you highlight the topic of racial violence only to take a sensationalist, 10,000-foot, tourist view?

 

If there are good answers to these questions, they were lost on me as an audience member. This moment didn’t challenge the problem of using POC as props for white narratives. It doubled down on it. This moment didn’t respect a complicated racial situation. Instead, it tokenized a bunch of dark-skinned people in some of the wildest leaps of racialization I’ve seen in awhile. (“They’re all black right?” the photo montage seemed to say. “These things are connected because the murderers are white and the victims are black! It’s that simple.”)

 

If, as Hitchens’ director’s note states, this is a show about guilt, let’s talk a moment about white guilt. Back to my pockets from earlier, I’m an “other” (note: I’m not a black person, just to be clear. I am only speaking on behalf of myself but I deal with white bullshit all the time). A real hallmark of white guilt, in my eyes, is that when white people try to address historical prejudice but inevitably end up repeating it in the present. I’m certain that And Then There Were None intended to send me a message condemning racism, past and present alike. So how did this happen?

 

I believe we need to hold our white allies accountable, now more than ever. The Philadelphia theater community often has the best intentions, but just as often, it falls down, because intentions are not enough. Your intentions don’t make you an ally; your actions do. If you are a white artistic team about to use people of color in your plays, my advice is stop taking and start engaging. A one-sided conversation with a photo doesn’t count as engagement. I implore And Then There Were None to consider the nature of their ally-hood in this photo montage. Who exactly are you helping, and how?

One Man Apocalypse Now- Fringe Arts

Laura is a director.

I’ll start with what’s in my pockets: I had never seen Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s film, before I made plans to see this show. I watched the movie right before I drove to the theatre on Friday night. So the film was probably fresher in my mind than it might have been for my fellow audience members. I did find myself wondering throughout the show what the experience of watching it might have been like for someone who had never seen the film. I think there would definitely be a sense of missing some crucial references, but there is enough physical comedy, clowning of iconic actors and clever prop work to make it really enjoyable, if a little confusing.

Chris Davis is a lot of fun to watch and is a really smart comedian. I would have probably enjoyed this show if it was just a straight recreation of some of his favorite scenes from Apocalypse Now. And there is plenty of that. The joy in watching Davis’s impressions does not come from his accuracy in embodying his characters, but from the way he takes the most recognizable features of each performer and exaggerates—Martin Sheen’s thousand-yard squint, Robert Duvall’s yelling, the plodding pace of Marlon Brando’s raspy whisper.

But this show is more than just imitations. It also makes fun of the venerated film and of the way we worship it; it lays bare some of the absurdity of the gravitas associated with the movie and with its cast of revered white male actors. This is done, at first, by simple comparison. The film begins with Martin Sheen’s character waking up in a dingy hotel room and his voiceover lamenting that he is still in Saigon. One-Man Apocalypse Now begins with Davis waking up and mouthing along to Sheen’s recorded voiceover. Taken out of Coppola’s moody lighting and  placed in Davis’s brightly-lit playing space, the dramatic weight of the text is undercut. As the show proceeds, the lampooning of white male gravitas is even more explicit: there’s a solid and uncomfortable joke about the deaths of two of Martin Sheen’s crew members and a call-out to a Philadelphia actor’s Barrymore-studded career. Ultimately, Marlon Brando’s notoriously erratic behavior is held up as the quintessential example of actorly indulgence (with Dennis Hopper’s manic photojournalist character painted as his committed disciple).                      

Davis and director Mary Tuomanen do a lot with very little—the set is spare, essentially just a mattress that serves as both a bed and a boat and a few simple props and costume pieces scattered throughout the space to facilitate quick character changes. The show runs a tight 60 minutes and the pacing feels deliberate, never rushed. Some jokes are stretched out and splashed around in for a good long while; other times the humor comes from frenetic physical comedy. Adriano  Shaplin’s sound design brings just the film’s sounds into the room mostly through selected audio clips, but also with the whirring of a very visible onstage fan.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

One-Man Apocalypse Now is a deeply fun way to spend an hour, and it’s a good reminder to sometimes check your hero-worship. In the end, Brando, Duvall, Hopper and Davis are just pretending.