Sunday, June 27, 2010

Taking the Bear to the Theatre

This past week was a busy one for the bear's social calendar.  While his mum was out gallivanting in Utah , we were attending the theatre.  Two very different plays/shows, and the bear passed through both with mostly flying colors.

As many of you might know, I'm a professional clown and actor, so it should come as no surprise that my son has had a big exposure to clowns, theatre, and the circus.  He's been to three or four circuses, not counting shows that I've performed in. (as well as a ballet performance that my brother choreographed)  He enjoys them, and that gave me some confidence to take him to these plays that I wanted to see by myself.  Of course I was nervous that if he acted up, I'd have to leave (and thus miss the plays) but hey, that's life in the big city.

So here's the shows that we saw this weekend, along with a brief review by me, as well as a Bear Report.  This is long, so if you are interested, see it after the break


This was a show that I'd auditioned for as the understudy, and didn't get the role.  Instead, a good friend of mine (and wonderful clown) Joel Jeske got the role.  The show was closing this week, and Joel got his first performance (hopefully of many, as they are planning to take the show on the road, and hopefully him with it.

I was a little nervous about taking him to the theatre ( had to take him on the subway for a 2 pm show, and he got up around 12:30, no lunch) but he was a real trouper.  We got there early and picked up some fries at Big Nick's right across the street.  Fries are a go to food for the bear, and a special treat.  Of course, they were too hot for him, and so between me and a couple of friends in front of the theatre (Adam Auslander, Michael Bongar, and a few others, there to cheer Joel on) the fries were devoured in time to go into the show.

I had requested a seat in the back on the aisle, in case I had to make a quick getaway, and that seat was perfect.  No one around us, so I had a lot of space to stretch out, put the bear on my knee and wait for the show to begin.  (I had done most of my waiting outside, so he didn't have time to get bored on the inside)  The bear was rapt throughout the show, and danced in his seat when there were dancers, kept on pointing out the clowns, and was particularly enamored of the man dressed as the Tiger.

The show was very good, very professional, but cliched with a capital C.  All of the actors were quite good, and Joel, well he was terrific.  You'd never know it was his first performance.   The writing, on the other hand, was not so good.  The director David Shiner is a genius clown and actor, but to paraphrase my grandmother talking about my landlording skills, "A writer he ain't."

I had long maintained before I'd seen the show that it was going to be very difficult, because Broadway style and Cirque style are 2 very difficult things.  Marrying the comedy of a well-made Broadway musical with the astounding physicality of Cirque on the surface seems like a great idea, but it's nailing down the details that makes it good, and they just didn't have it down.

It takes a certain genius to write the book of a well-made sappy musical, with the right amount of sappy jokes that don't seem like they are too much, and characters that we care about, and at the same time aren't so strong that they run over the songs. This show didn't have it.  We never really cared about Shmelky (the producer of the show, who starts off as a jerk, makes a decision to not be a jerk anymore, and then is brought back to a boiling point by mentioning Paris, which, in a grand denoument, is revealed to be the place where he got his heart broken. But by the time we find this out, we could care less.  We like watching the antics of the clowns, but their inner turmoil just didn't have it (at least for me.)

I also think that because Cirque has done so many astonishing shows, they felt they needed to put their imprint on this show, to the show's detriment.  I have heard more than one person say "How come they just didn't put on a straight up vaudeville show?"  Which is a very good question.  I think if this show had been less with the story and more with the acts, we would have been better served.  (Or a much better story)  (And now I'll NEVER get hired by Cirque!)

After the show all of my friends at the show raved after how great Aaron was at the theatre, and even the ushers got into the act.  He was a real trouper!

On Saturday we attended a second performance of a decidely different nature.  Aaron and I went to see the last performance of "The Wedding of Berit Johnson and Ian W. Hill" at the Too Soon Festival at the Brick Theater.  The theatre, which generously seats 75, was about a quarter full, and we got to sit in the front row, which might have proved our undoing, but was by far the best place for us.

The show was the actual wedding (and a play about the wedding) of Ian and Berit, two theatrical stalwarts who have been making theatre in the downtown (and now Brooklyn) scene for the last 10 years.  Ian was the former managing director of Todo Con Nada (right hand man to Aaron Beale) and that's how I met him, when I performed my flea circus at the Pure Pop Festival in 1998.  Ian was also my stage manager for my show at the venerable Pink Pony, and we struck up a kinship that hasn't really died, although we rarely cross orbits nowadays other than on the great orbit-crosser Facebook.  You can read more about Ian (and his very wonderful blog at

Ian and Berit are the technical directors for the Brick Theatre, for which in exchange they get 1 month a year to do their work.  Berit is a consummate techie, almost always in the tech booth running shows or building sets, and Ian is a polyglot of the theatre, being a writer, director, actor, lighting designer, and publicist, along with all of the other jobs involved in running a theatre.  (During the show, he talks about being branded the Orson Welles of downtown theatre, as if it were a negative-- to my mind it's mostly a positive, as Orson Welles created an astounding body of work, mostly on his own vision, before he somehow ran out of steam and started serving no wine before its time.  To be that Orson Welles is a good thing.  They are a great team together.)

 We got to the theatre with plenty of time, and amazingly found a parking space within a block.  The show started off well for AA, and he was mostly excellent through out.  However, during the actual wedding ceremony (performed ably and drollly by another friend Trav S.D, replete with painted on eyeglasses and Groucho painted moustache)  is when the bear started to get a little punchy.   60 minutes into a 75 minute piece with lots of talking-- I think a 22 month old is allowed a little slack.

We took a walk to the back of the theatre, and that seemed to clear his head, and we watched the rest of the wedding from the back (including the I Do's.)  Several cast members after the show also remarked on how great AA did, and I have to concur.

The show itself was quite interesting-- kind of a processing between the two lovebirds about why have a wedding at all, and why go through the motions of the ritual. Berit is (to be understated) not a sentimentalist, and appears throughout most of the play as a disembodied voice.  Ian, replete in top hat and tails, along with a cast of actors from his many shows (in the show he numbers this one as #64 or 65 since 1997)  Ian and Berit engage in a conversation about the planning of their wedding.

It makes perfect sense for their wedding to be a theatrical play (that's what they do together). And as they rightly point out, a wedding is one of the few theatrical experiences that most straight people go through.   Although this certainly wasn't the conversation that my wife and I had when we got married (which was also a bit of a theatrical event, in a completely different way, as can be read about in the NY Times ) But after all, Stephanie and I aren't Ian and Berit, and we have different ideas about what we wanted our wedding to be.

I loved the idea of the show, and there were great moments of comedy in the execution.  The most moving moment was probably the "I do " moment, which is exactly right for a wedding.

The second most moving moment was at the end, where Ian tells the audience that it is a pleasure and a privilege to serve them.  Something about it chilled me, in a good (and Orson Wellesian ) kind of way.

A much better dissection/review of the play is online at

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