Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Digital Couch: A Conversation with Renaissance Woman Emily C. A. Snyder

Photo by Lisa LaGrande.
Emily C. A. Snyder is no stranger to the stage, exploring and creating theater as an actor, singer, playwright, director and producer. She founded her own company, TURN TO FLESH PRODUCTIONS, dedicated to developing and producing new plays in heightened text. In February Snyder will be starring in TTF's new production, Juliet and Her Romeo, a re-examination of William Shakespeare's famous tragic romance, written by Snyder herself. She sat down with me on my digital couch recently to talk about her journey to this moment.

This interview has been edited for length.

Z: Emily, let's start with your writing background. How long have you been writing verse plays, and what drew you to that particular style of storytelling?
ECAS: It's funny: I started writing verse plays because the director I was collaborating with wouldn't let me write an opera!  That was in 2008, when I first started writing Cupid and PsycheThe themes of that story were so huge, they had to be in music or verse - and she chose verse.

Working in this heightened text, it felt like it burst me open at the seams.  Prior to that, I'd made a career of writing fairy tale and farces, but all of those prose plays remained fairly light.  Working in verse required me to bare parts of my soul in epic poetry that hadn't been open to me before.  It was the opportunity to work more truly, more rawly, more universally, to go into the dark in order to find the light. 

Because characters can speak in soliloquy, too, we have the opportunity to really delve into a person's psyche: thoughts that they'd never dare express out loud.  There's something intimate and exciting in that. 

Z: Ah, so you turned your arias into soliloquies! Neat trick. :)
ECAS: Haha!  Yes, basically arias become soliloquies!  And I definitely hear verse as spoken music: tempo, changing time signatures, etc.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Weekly Margin 2020, W4: Grand Horizons, Harry Townsend's Last Stand, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation

1/22/20: Grand Horizons
What: Second Stage presents a new play by Bess Wohl about an elderly couple who casually decide to divorce, and their adult sons who refuse to accept this decision.
And? Yikes but I did not like this at all. I felt like I was watching a family of half-sketches making mean-spirited jabs at each other's expense, all played for laughs, like I was at a live taping of a CBS three-camera comedy, because also I laughed exactly once. Michael Urie and Ashley Park were both good (Ben McKenzie, for the record, was not), but I was so bored, annoyed, and disengaged that I instead started longing for the earlier, better plays I'd seen them both in. Why were we subjected to this? I saw playwright Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds at Signature and it was engaging and unusual; how did she then turn out this predictable, conventional unfunny comedy?

Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, and James Cromwell as Jess, Brian,
Nancy, and Bill. Photo by Joan Marcus.

1/23/20: Harry Townsend's Last Stand
What: MTC presents George Eastman's play: Harry Townsend values his independence but is in denial about his own inability to look after himself--a contradiction which comes to a head when his adult son Alan comes to visit and try to convince him to move to an assisted living facility.
And? Not as bad as Grand Horizons, but not especially great. The play sometimes felt as scattered as Harry's mind. Craig Bierko did great work.

Len Cariou and Craig Bierko as Harry Townsend and Alan Townsend.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Weekly Margin 2020, W2: Jagged Little Pill, The Woman in Black, Judgement Day, London Assurance, The Inheritance, Parts One and Two

1/08/20: Jagged Little Pill
What: A new jukebox musical combining an original script by screenwriter Diablo Cody and the song catalog of Alanis Morissette to tell the story of a suburban family struggling for perfection--or at least the veneer of perfection--whose various crises come to a head when a student is assaulted at a party.
And? My dad and I wrote recently about how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and even Dear Evan Hansen owe a large debt to the Pulitzer-winning next to normal for its nuanced approach to struggling with mental illness, and the inability to achieve a perfectly tied bow of a conclusion. This show, too, is a descendant of next to normal, though it takes a different spin with Mary Jane, the suburban housewife and mother of two teens, addicted to pain medication, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, and unwilling to confront her own demons until they threaten to tear her entire family apart. There's more to the show than that, and that's actually a bit thrilling in itself--that it's not nearly so tidily and tightly focused as musicals--especially jukebox musicals--often are. There's also the all-star son Nick, struggling with his conscience over being a passive bystander; there's adopted daughter Frankie, angry activist, bisexual, and newly attracted to a boy; there's Frankie's best friend/partner Jo, watching helpless as Frankie drifts away; there's Bella, the victim of the assault, guarded and defensive and confused (there's also Steve, the husband, but his struggles are mostly surrounding his relationship with Mary Jane and hey, it's fine if he takes a backseat on this one). All this is interesting and at times even compelling, particularly when the rallying cry is finally sounded in support of Bella. However, the show still falls prey to that which plagues all jukebox musicals: how well do the songs actually fit the narrative--not just the emotional essence but the specific narrative beat? And that doesn't always work out. They come closest with Jo, as played by Lauren Patten, who charms with "Hand in My Pocket" and knocks it out of the damn park with "You Oughta Know," but in other numbers when two characters from vastly different angles and backgrounds share the same lyric, it loses some of its authenticity and specificity (understanding the lyrics when sung by the full ensemble is also an occasional challenge). I'm also not wild about Riccardo Hernadez's scenic design, especially with that many ambiguous entry and exit points (gonna call out director Diane Paulus for this too--I need consistent world rules), and the seemingly arbitrary sliding in and out of the band's platforms (coupled with the I-guess-this-is-a-concert-now? lighting work by Justin Townsend). Those complaints aside, this thing is badass in a lot of ways. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography is fluid and kinetic and performed seemingly effortless by a crazy gifted ensemble. The staging of "Smiling" and "Uninvited" are particularly hauntingly crafted, the voices are great, and the story is relevant.

Elizabeth Stanley and Kathryn Gallagher as Mary Jane and Bella,
with company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

1/09/20: The Woman in Black
What: The McKittrick Hotel (famed home of the long-running Sleep No More) hosts the even-longer-running The Woman in Black, this time sharkening back to the play's original pub staging, by hosting it in their upstairs Club Car restaurant.
And? I suppose when I saw the language that it was originally staged in a pub, along with the fact that it was hosted by the McKittrick, I assumed this would be immersive, so I'll say upfront that it is not. It is instead an intimate performance, but largely similar to that which is still running on the West End (some of the staging, like the staircase behind the scrim, or the disappearance into the orchestra pit, had to be scrapped and replaced with something better suited to the space). It's marvelous. As my friends know, I am a longtime fan of this play, and the two stars of this run, David Acton and Ben Porter, are absolutely terrific. As an added treat: at times one can hear--and feel--the louder moments of Sleep No More's soundscape coming up from the floor (the Club Car is on the sixth floor); and then, on our exit, we took the elevator down to the lounge and got to pass through the maze. I hadn't been back to the McKittrick since August 2012, so that was a nostalgic return for me.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Weekly Margin 2020, W1: A Soldier's Play, Slava's Snowshow, The Inheritance, Parts One and Two

1/02/20: A Soldier's Play
What: Roundabout presents Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer prize winning play, about the investigation of a murder on a military base of a black sergeant in the American South during the second world war.
And? A wonderful cast, from the television stars to the Broadway debuts, ably directed and staged by Kenny Leon. The play itself is a compelling examination of the racial tensions and nuances of what it meant to be the "right" kind of black man at the time in order to earn respect from white colleagues, and a sobering reminder that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

1/03/20: Slava's Snowshow
A lovely revisit before the run concluded, and this one had Slava himself stepping in for part of Yellow's track (namely, the opening rope sequence, and the second act), as well as the cutest child Green in the world.

1/05/20: The Inheritance, Parts One and Two
a repeat visit