Sunday, June 25, 2006

Christa Kirby: Giving an Actor Her Due 

I opened up Time Out NY late Thursday night and read the following:

"...Kirby may be the best NYC actor that almost no one has heard of..."
The actor in question here is my friend, Christa Kirby. She is indeed a brilliant actor and I was certain that I'd already blogged about a mind blowing performance I saw her give in Burning Habits back in 1993. In fact, I was 100% certain I had covered it in The Price of Admission because it was a moment that entirely changed my perception of what I like about theatre; indeed it changed my perception about what is possible in the theatre. So when I read the review, I thought, "HA! I am two years ahead of Time Out!" But if I ever Evangelized Christa's brilliant performance, I myself cannot find it amongst my posts. It's high time I corrected that.

Christa and I met back in the hot, steamy summer of 1991 at The Astors' Beechwood. We did "living history tours" together. We spent day after day pretending to be robber barons from the 1890's; giving tours of one of Newport, RI's mansions on Bellevue Avenue.

It can be a dizzying experience spending your day as someone else, not breaking character for hours at a time. But we pretty much thrived on it, especially Christa. (For careful readers, this was the same summer I ended up pretending I was someone else for money during my off hours, too.) She was great at deep character work and frighteningly daring. She really loved to push the envelope.

In fact, I always knew if we were at a party and someone was referring to her by any other name than her own (most often she went for the stupendously unlikely name of "Bathsheeba"), that she hadn't liked them and decided to "enjoy" their company by pretending to be someone else. (I don't want to give the sense that Christa was kooky. Just too smart not to seize the opportunity to goof on a drunken oaf trying to pick her up and to use it as a chance practice her acting skills at the same time.)

We were both young and inexperienced actors, but I had a lot of work to do on my craft. So I went to spend the next two years at Trinity Rep Conservatory and Christa was drawn to the actor-magnet that you call New York and I call (with as much joy and pretension as all of the millions of thronging co-habitants call it) The City.

By the time I arrived in NYC, I was a competent actor. Not brilliant by any stretch, but given my past history as a yawner, a vastly improved actor thanks to Conservatory. In the meantime, Christa had flourished into a force to behold onstage. Agents weren't flocking to her door, but her choices weren't likely to allow that. She was doing very downtown theatre and agents don't generally have much interest in that. There's no percentage for them in it.

During its original run, Burning Habits was being performed at a tiny gay bar called Crobar (or maybe Crowbar). Young actors generally flock to each other's shows to be supportive, and so I trekked from the Upper West Side down to the Lower East Side and then walked East for blocks into Alphabet City. The decor of Crobar, like many gay bars that I recall from the era, consisted mostly of black paint. There were never enough chairs for Burning Habits and I recall sitting on the floor for at least one performance, maybe several.

The night in question - the night that should have been hallowed in The Price of Admission post - was a night where Christa was forced to switch back and forth between her evil nun character (Sister Godelieve Machiavelli) and her sweet Southern housewife character (Thelma D'Gretts).

If it isn't plain from this introduction that Burning Habits is a campy soap opera, I think the character names spell it out pretty plainly. In fact, BH is performed as a serial every Monday night. (Monday nights are when most theatres are dark, which means that actors can do labors of love - e.g., perform in shows like BH - and the rest of the theatrical denizens can go see them. If you have any interest in seeing "insider" performances, find shows that only run Monday nights.)

So...returning to the performance. I cannot give you all the plot details. But I will give you a summary of what I recall and tell you why it mattered to me.

The parts of the show where Christa was performing as her evil nun character were raucously funny. I recall hooting and hollering until I was in a sweat. And the crowd was going nuts in response.

In a scene immediately following the mayhem, Christa came out as sweet, loony Thelma. In a typical plot twist, her no-good husband Otis began to brick her into the basement. At first, this nonsense was funny. Thelma was standing still. In her childlike way, she had fallen under some simply ruse of Otis' and was simply standing still while he began to build the brick wall.

As the wall came higher, it began to dawn on Thelma that she could not escape. And suddenly, the room lurched from comedy to deep tragedy. Thelma began to cry and I found myself weeping for this poor imaginary character standing not ten feet in front of me. To make matters more interesting, my memory says that there was in fact no wall being built on the stage. The wall getting higher was represented by a spotlight that got smaller and smaller until it was only on Thelma's face.

I recall leaving the performance that night with a sense of catharsis I'd never experienced before. Something about ricocheting back and forth from hysterical laughter to crying left me feeling free and alive. It had never occurred to me that these states could be created in such close proximity by a stage performance. It opened up my eyes to a whole new variety of theatrical possibilities.

Soon after, I rushed off with my friend Robin to see her friend Sturgis Warner in Jeff Weiss' Hot Keys after it moved to PS 122 from Naked Angels. Talk about pushing boundaries! From a description in the New York Times in 1993:

In Jeff Weiss' "Hot Keys," recently reopened in the East Village, a father and his teen-age son, both amateur wrestlers, strip off their shirts to debate the need for brutality in their incestuous relationship. They also reminisce about the various boys -- schoolmates of the son -- they have raped and murdered.

And by the way, the scene is played for laughs, as this continuing soap opera -- with a new episode presented each weekend -- spoofs the stuff of tabloid headlines and the outlandish daily parade of confessions on TV talk shows that are no less disturbing for their ludicrousness.
I recall that Weiss ended each performance of Hot Keys that I saw by singing "Where or When" with a ferocity of raw emotion that poured out over the audience and left everyone in tears. It was truly shocking.

In any case, this all started as a paean to Christa's remarkable talent. She's turned it into a true force for good. She rarely acts in public now. Instead, she does drama therapy in war torn lands, helping to heal individuals and society.

I know this is a higher calling, but I can't help hoping that the current slew of positive notices for the Burning Habits revival will attract the attention of the right kind of producer. Someone who will find a great piece for more people to experience Christa's talent on stage. Because I know that for me, ever since I saw what she could do in that 1993 performance of Burning Habits, I go to the theatre in the hope of feeling the unexpected. A possibility I had never considered until that time.
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Sunday, June 18, 2006

More Fun with the Web 

Way back when, I wrote a post titled The Oracle is In, which detailed some of the sites I file in my bookmarks under "Utilities". These are sites that I use to save time and money and make me marvel at the usefulness of the WWW.

Here are a few more I've added since the last post:

Kayak aggregates pricing from the major online travel sites, so you don't have to check them individually. Call it a "mega-aggregator" for travel prices.

It also has one of the tighest interfaces in the online travel space. Checkout the cool functionality that allows you to give a price range and then use sliders to broaden or narrow it. (For our dweebier readers, Kayak is a smokin' example of a Web 2.0 AJAX application.)

Next time you're doing travel planning, try taking Kayak out for a spin.

There's nothing new about Trip Advisor. It's been around for quite a while. But the truth of the matter is, no matter how much similar functionality seems to get duplicated in other online travel sites, Trip Advisor seems to provide just a little bit more of what I need both when I'm in a purely speculative mode, i.e., "Where might we go?" and when I'm trying to select an accomodation on a site like Kayak.

Trip Advisor aggregates newspaper articles about a destination, major guidebook information (i.e., Fodor & Frommers), and independent user reviews. There seem to generally be a greater quantity of reviews on Trip Advisor than on other sites, too.

I also enjoy that reviewers can post their vacation photos on the site; showing you what the location in choice looks like without any of the misrepresentations often generated by a professional photo shoot. For instance, check out the latest review for my friend Robin's nifty French hideaway, complete with a recent visitor's pix. That's definitely high on my list of places I need to get to!

My friend ShawnBoy just told me about this site. It's very cool. RedRoller does price aggregation for shipping services, e.g., FedEx vs. UPS. And hardcore eBayers will be glad to know that RedRoller fully integrates with eBay. How cool is that?!

As a long term denizen of The City, I hate to confess that I use HopStop. *sigh* But I do. It's not a frequent thing, but you know when your friend invites you to her cool comedy club down on Essex and you just don't hang in that 'hood much? ("Essex? As in Henry V?") That's when you need HopStop.
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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lee Evans: Gracious Monkey Boy 

A week ago on Friday night - a particularly dark, rainy night - K. and I went to see Lee Evans perform down at 37 Arts.

Most Americans know Lee Evans as Tucker from There's Something About Mary, but I got interested in him when I originally caught the strange little gem that is Funny Bones. Directed by Peter Chelsom, it seemed to herald the arrival of a truly original writer-director. Chelsom did nicely on his follow-up with another little-seen film, The Mighty. Unfortunately, it was pretty much downhill from there.

(I must confess, however, a weakness for Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack and therefore follows an unpardonable weakness for Chelsom's saccharine Serendipity. It's chockablock with awful and out-of-place performances - e.g., John Corbett and Eugene Levy - but...well...*sigh*...I'd watch it again anyway in a heartbeat.)

Evans' Funny Bones performance is truly offbeat. I immediately wanted to know, "Who IS that guy?" Is he retarded or a genius? (I famously remarked to K. about Benecio Del Toro after seeing The Usual Suspects, "There's this guy I've never heard of in the movie and if his character is not really who he is, he's amazing." It's since been established in my mind that he's the latter, not the former.)

So I went out and began to research Lee Evans and discovered in watching videos of his live shows that he is a kind of physical genius - more an heir to Jerry Lewis that even Jim Carrey in that Evans' lines can be irrelevant to the plot or story he's telling. It's his physicality you cannot forget, nor help but respond to.

So when he scheduled some dates in NYC recently, I got tickets. I wanted the live experience for myself. What I got was the kind of singular experience that live performances can bring, but that no performer can truly plan to provide.

It started something like this: K. and I were in the third row. The curtain was delayed because of the torrential downpour. As we sat waiting, we were observing the audience around us. Arriving very late was a couple who sat in the front row center. I pointed out the female half and remarked rather mindlessly to K. "Well, obviously she must be lucky." The woman had a tiny clover tattoo on her back. K. responded, "Is that a liquor bottle?"

The gentleman had some kind of clear-necked bottle in his hand, but I couldn't tell the scale of it. The theatre has a open bar and allows beverages of all kinds to be taken to your seat. There were lots of folks with beer bottles around us, but we couldn't make out what he was drinking.

Before we could learn anything more, Evans kicked off his hyperkinetic performance. It was maybe 3 minutes into it before he needed to swab himself down with a towel. Seriously. You have NEVER seen anyone sweat onstage like Lee Evans. He flings himself with abandon, his comic patter sometimes highbrow, more often pedestrian, but always accompanied by remarkable, high speed feats of transforming his rubbery body and face to suit his purposes. Given his animated physicality, it's not too surprising that Evans often refers to himself as "Monkey Boy" during the show.

I think one of the moments I prefer most is his impersonation of his grumpy suitcase going around on a carousel. Bizarre, original and wonderful. In fact, in the midst of rather standard bits about coming home drunk and trying to be quiet, Evans throws in conversation between himself and inanimate objects, such as a creaky door. I think he might be one of the best impersonators of inanimate objects with personality in this or any other time. (Perhaps this is a sense of humor peculiar to the U.K. Think of T.H. White's description of Merlin's walking mustard pot in The Once and Future King which was always "giving itself airs".)

Partway into the show, the man in the front row took a photo of Lee Evans with a digital camera and full flash. Evans was unperturbed and continued. But after a while, a security guard stood at the end of the row and motioned the front row patron to follow him out the side door.

Evans seemed to have missed the crucial part of why the man was walking out. He stopped his bit and turned to the woman. "Where's he off to?" Evans asked and began to work with the woman in the front row. She was unresponsive. Evans played the bit solo for a while and when the man came sauntering in, it seemed apparent that the guards had made him delete the photo. Evans inquired, "Where did you go? Is everything alright?"

Trying to make some humor, the gentlemen responded in a thick Liverpudlian accent that he had "the runs". Evans gingerly stepped around this, playing it only slightly and then diving back into his material.

About 10 minutes later and apropos of nothing in particular, the man suddenly yelled out, "Superstar!"

Evans responded, "What?" It became apparent at this point that the guy was completely blasted out of his mind by now. Drunk Guy blurted out some unintelligible phrases and Evans decided to work with it. Mr. Evans began asking questions, "Where are you from? What brings you to New York?" And so on.

Drunk Guy claimed that he'd come from Las Vegas, where he's just married his girlfriend of eighteen years. Evans was a genial interlocutor, but Drunk Guy was suspicious: "You're taking the piss."

"I'm not!" exclaimed Evans. "That's not the kind of show I do!" Evans then used Drunk Guy's recent travels as a way to seque back into his routine. "So that's how you got here, let me tell you about my trip over." Quite a graceful transition and the audience was grateful for it.

So back into his spastic routine then when not another 15 minutes later, Drunk Guy yells out something else. Once again, Evans decided not to ignore him and requested some help from the tech crew. "Let's get the spotlight down on this gentleman, shall we?" Rather gently, Evans explained to Drunk Guy that he was going to allow him some attention since he clearly craved it. Evans said, "Here. You want to say something?" He handed Drunk Guy the microphone and once it was out of his hand, Evans said, "I need a break." And he skipped off stage left, leaving Drunk Guy with the microphone.

At this point, Drunk Guy was out of his depth and he climbed on stage protesting, "Lee. No. Lee. Go on with your show. LEE." As soon as he was onstage, two security guards came hustling down the aisle, jumped up onstage, dragged Drunk Guy down and walked him out the side door.

Evans was quite perturbed and protested all the while. "No! Hey! We were only having a bit of fun. He didn't mean any harm. Hey! Don't! That's not necessary!" But it was too late. Evans turned to the audience and said, "Look. I can't live with this. He's not harming anyone, is he?"

"I'm from the British Consulate, Lee!" volunteered a woman sitting two down from me. "If he's really in any trouble here, I can help."

"Ooooh! Great!" Evans cheered up. And he chatted with her and made light of the situation. But clearly he was unhappy with Drunk Guy not having been returned. "Look," he said to us. "I can't have this. I won't be able to sleep tonight." And so he put down the microphone, jumped off the front of the stage and zipped out the side door to intervene.

Moments later, he returned escorting Drunk Guy back to his chair. The audience made approving noises for Lee's gracious behavior (at this point, we all felt on personal terms with him, so here on out I shall call him "Lee"), although some of us were not sure how great an idea this was.

Suddenly, Lee reaches down by Drunk Guy's seat and pulls up a nearly empty white wine bottle. "Here's the problem then!" Now K. and I finally understood both the size and the consequences of the bottle we'd half glimpsed just before the lights went down.

He put the wine bottle out of reach onstage. "You have to be careful with this. This will get you every time. I know. I'm Irish. My mother used to finish one of these before breakfast." This was said matter of factly in a direct address to Drunk Guy, not at all for laughs and not lecturing. Rather kindly said, in truth.

He continued, "Seriously, friend. You have to watch out now, haven't you?" Then turning back toward humor, he said, "You can't muck about like that in New York, right?" And he picked up a comic theme he'd been following earlier in the evening about the size of New York police officers and similar observations about New Yorkers, crime, and terrorism.

Lee continued on through the evening and when it was time for curtain, he thanked everyone, reached over the edge of the stage to shake hands with all comers and made a special point to sincerely thank Drunk Guy and shake his hand, too. "You've had an real New York experience now, haven't you? You'll remember this night."

I think many of us will. Not because of Drunk Guy's behavior, but because of Lee's grace under pressure. Most comedians would have let Drunk Guy spend the night in jail. (Personally, I wouldn't have minded.) But it was clear that Lee is a surprisingly gentle soul and he couldn't live with anyone having a bad experience - even of their own making - at one of his performances.
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