Sunday, July 24, 2011

Death sits a few rows back to avoid the splash zone

Now I know why the best seats in a theater aren't right up front, but a few rows back. Actors spit, especially when they sing. It's a little like going to the orca show at Sea World.

My very first autumn in New York--I guess that would be 2008--the BF and I went to a reading of a musical in progress called "Death Takes a Holiday." About a month ago we saw a preview of it, and last Thursday, we went to opening night. "Death Takes a Holiday" is exactly what it sounds like: Death, feeling professionally drained after the slaughter of World War I, decides to kick back at an Italian nobleman's villa and take the weekend off. To quote Futurama, Death does "human stuff. He learns, he laughs, he loves." I suppose you could classify this musical as a romance, but like many works set in the period between the world wars (the show is based on a an Italian play by Alberto Casella from 1929), there's something melancholy and almost hopeless at the heart of the story. The gaiety of the 1920s is a deliberate rejection of the horrors of war, a sort of "No, we're going to have FUN now, damnit!" frolic intended to mask the existential crisis many faced in the aftermath of the years of senseless slaughter and pain. In the show, Death is a handsome, somewhat kooky Russian prince, but beneath that, he is also a stand-in for the nobleman's son Roberto, who died in the war. "Death is in the house," sings the nobleman, speaking of the actual Death vacationing at the villa, but also perhaps alluding to his absent son, dead but still lingering in the memories of the villa's other occupants: mother, father, grandmother, sister, widow, the younger sister of his war buddy. And although the nobleman's daughter Grazia falls in love with the man Death, on a symbolic level Grazia's love of death can be read as a kind of despair. Nothing lasts forever except death, so why not love Death? It's the only constant you'll ever get. The show I saw doesn't play this angle at all--it's a pretty straightforward love story that reads more as an affirmation of life than a rejection of it. "Life's a joy/Life is apples and lemons and lime trees" is pretty far from the ideas I've outlined above. But every American writer worth her salt has spent time in Paris in the 1920s, sucking up the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways and Steins like so much Prohibition champagne. Woody Allen just released a movie about that whole scene, "Midnight in Paris," which addressed the concept of nostalgia without touching much on the deeper fears and anxieties that everyone felt as they tried to return to some kind of normal life after experiencing a war that made literal mincemeat of concepts like "normal." So whenever I experience art from or about that period, I can't help but remember what's going on beneath the joy and the smiles.

Enough of that, though. Life's a joy! It's summer in New York and I got to put on my big-girl shoes and go to the theater!

Here's what I like about theater people: many of the agents, producers, and various creative and financial associates I saw on opening night remembered me from the reading. The reading that happened almost two years ago. How is that even possible? I can barely remember what subway to take to work in the morning. (Just last week I got on the F instead of the G and was 10 minutes late to the office. I was distracted thinking about the unknown creature currently living in my bedroom ceiling.)

We got to go backstage and visit with the cast and crew before the show started. There was a table covered in pastries and cheesecake, but when he saw me looking at it, the BF whispered, "That's not for you." He knows me well. The musical director, it turns out, lives in the BF's neighborhood and is hapa-Hawaiian. The island diaspora. We're everywhere!

My favorite part of the evening was meeting Death's understudy, who was called upon at the last minute to step in and play the lead on opening night. The actual lead had to stay home that night because he lost his voice. As the director said, "Death takes a medical leave of absence." And having seen the lead in the roll in previews, I have to say that I prefer the understudy's Death. "It's straight out of '42nd Street'!" said the BF. "The lead breaks her leg on opening night and the young understudy has to sing her part. 'You're going out there a nobody, but you have to come back a star!'" I don't know if the understudy gets to be a star now, but he definitely deserves to be. His Death was whimsical, unpretentious, and sweet. There was a lightness, a bounciness to him that the regular Death lacked. Understudy Death felt like he was actually on holiday; Regular Death felt like his mind was still back at the office.

Speaking of the office, New York and the surrounding areas are currently in the middle of a heat wave. On Friday, the heat index, which is like wind chill and basically means "what does it FEEL like," was 115 degrees. Today, it's only (ha) 89 with a heat index of 97. I know I really should go downtown to get all happy-weepy at the county clerks office, since today is the first day of New York Plus Gay Marriage, but it's nice and air conditioned in my apartment, and I've got blueberry beer. How would Captain America handle this situation?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Undulating Wall of Sound

Summer is here! This is my fourth summer in New York. I moved here on July 8th, 2008, which means today is my 3-year New York anniversary soon. Praise me!

This is my first summer NOT doing gigs with the Village Voice street team. On the one hand it's nice, because I don't have to haul 30 pounds of earplugs and condoms around in 90 degree heat and listen to band after shitty band play the same bad indie music at the Knitting Factory. But on the other hand, street teamstering did get me out of the house and all around the city, and it gave me some good stories to tell at the bar.

Looking back, I would recommend that any young person moving to New York City get themselves one of those part-time jobs in promotions of some kind. It's like New York boot camp, where you have to find your way around using public transit while loaded down with massive amounts of crap, make nice with the mouth-breathing freeloaders that come to free crap like bears to a campsite, and learn to withhold free crap from said bears until they cough up some personal information so your parent company can bombard them with offers for more free crap. It's the circle of life, and it moves us all down the bowels of this great city we call home. You learn pretty quick whether or not you can hack it in New York once you've worked Electric Zoo.

All of this is on my mind lately because one of my coworkers recently said good-bye to a young relative who lasted exactly 5 days in New York City before she moved back home. She didn't even make it a week. Poor soul. I can relate. I was so freaked out my first night in New York City that I threw up in a Polish restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. I probably wouldn't have left my room at all if the BF wasn't there to hold my hand and show me around. A lot of credit also goes to my old housemates at 187, who took me to parties at the Tip Top and let me drink with them on their roof. New York is a scary place, and you need nice people to hold your hands while you paddle around in the shallow end, but eventually you need to just dive in there on your own and swim for all your worth.

Shoots, all that talk and I haven't even gotten to the subject of my post, which is a picnic I had with some friends on Governors Island last Saturday. I brought a shower curtain to put under my picnic blanket to protect us from getting swampass, which I feel was pretty clever, and in true Hawaii-style, there was WAY too much food, even with 3 friends showed up unexpectedly and doubled the size of our party. We were ostensibly there to listen to a free classical music concert, but instead of a little Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel and we'll call it a day, the orchestra played with minimalist, experimental composition from 1964 that the program described as "an undulating wall of sound." In my opinion, that phrase should only be used in a bedroom context. We listened for about 10 minutes before we completely tuned it out and talked about cheese. Apparently you're supposed to treat cheese like a live cat, and not put it in a body bag and stick it in the fridge.

Who knew?