In Honor of Billy Shakes

April 23, 2008

William Shakespeare

Hey, guess what? It’s William Shakespeare’s birthday today. Damn right. In honor of Mr. Billy Shakes, my sister sent me this online quiz today, testing one’s knowledge of The Bard of Avon’s life and times. Pretty fun. She scored 5 out of 10. I scored 8 out of 10. See how well you do.

And pay tribute to The Western Canon’s greatest dramatist by saying something Shakespearean. Like this…

“Exeunt, pursued by a bear.”

(The best stage direction of all time – Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Shaw – eat your hearts out!)


Jeff Lewonczyk Goes Babylonian

April 21, 2008

Jeff Lewonczyk

Last month, I wrote the following blog post about my current theatrical endeavor, Babylon Babylon, the latest extravaganza from Piper McKenzie Productions. Writer, director, and co-star, Jeff Lewonczyk, responded on the show’s official blog with tongue firmly in cheek. With the show’s opening weekend firmly under his belt, Jeff finally dropped by the ol’ blog to talk about his much-talked-about  opus and to refute those salacious claims he talked about.

Okay, let’s get the basics out of the way: what the hell is this show?

To state it in layman’s terms, it’s 31 actors onstage recreating events in the Babylonian Temple of Ishtar in the year 539 B. C. as the Persians prepare to invade the city. To put it in a more technical vein, it’s f%#$-ing nuts.

You’ve apparently been wanting to do this show for years. How’d you come up with the idea and what took you so long?

The original idea came from Herodotus – I was fascinated by his description of the practice of ritual prostitution in the Temple of Ishtar , and how pervasive he claimed it was. According to The Histories, every woman in Babylon had to visit there at one point in their lives and have sex with a stranger. This claim seems to be pretty well debunked (Herodotus is called both the Father of History and the Father of Lies, after all), but it set my mind in motion imagining a world in which such an activity would be seen as normal. Of course, I was reading Herodotus on the subway during the weeks leading up to 9/11, and so his description of the Persian sneak attack on the oblivious city of Babylon carried great resonance, and allowed me to sort of expand the vision into a meditation on the joys and dangers of the urban experience. As time went on, I drew from sources as diverse as The Bible, D. W. Griffith ’s Intolerance, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and the oeuvre of Kenneth Anger for inspiration and material.

You’ve used a lot of improvisation to help develop and write the script. Tell us a little bit more about that process and what it means exactly.

Well, I had always conceived of this is as a large-scale show with a sizable cast. I’ve never written a play for 30-plus characters before, and so I never actually sat down to write a script during the whole time I was thinking about it – the prospect was just too daunting. Piper McKenzie’s work in recent years on the Bizarre Science Fantasy dance-theater series helped to pave the way, because the pieces were wordless, and so it taught me a lot about how a piece can be developed in the absence of a written text with actors in the room. Of course, I’d never worked with 30-plus actors, and never used dialogue in those projects, so needless to say there was a bevy of novel challenges when we started work on Babylon Babylon. But the gist was that I had a long list of characters and incidents that I wanted to see. I wrote down character descriptions on index cards and passed them to the group – randomly at first, but with more careful selectivity as we proceeded – and then had everyone get up and do improv exercises as these characters, with a few simple rules to try to keep chaos at bay (the jury’s out on how well we succeeded at that last part). This led directly to casting, after which we did more exercises in character and made recordings, some of which became the basis for certain scenes in the script. Between and around all this work I was also building other scenes and text, and we ended up combining everything into a huge script that got whittled down throughout rehearsals to its current state.

The show is being done with a cast of 30-plus and environmental staging. What made you go with both?

Well, in the first place, I don’t think 30-plus actors would even have fit in The Brick’s proscenium setup, so it was partly practical. More than anything, though, for me the visual hook of the show had always been a grid of mats, or “stations” as we call them, on which the women in the show wait for their co-worshipers to choose them and take them out to the Holy Ground where, well, you know. To me the grid was a symbol of our own city – I’ve always been inspired by the variation and creativity that occurs within the tight geometric frame of Manhattan . And like Manhattan , you can never see the whole thing at once – you have a section, a home territory, that you call your own, and even if it changes (by the day, hour, minute, whatever) you look out at the rest of the city from that vantage. That’s the audience experience I wanted to provide – I wanted the audience to feel that they were somehow part of this world, implicated in it, rather than holding it off at arm’s length.

How did you initially go about casting such a large group?

At first, back in November, I sent out an APB to a large group of actor friends describing the project and asking who wanted to get involved. We had a preliminary rehearsal/meeting in November, and most of the people who attended are still with us. When I realized I wanted the cast to top 30 I started reaching further afield, to people I had barely met or whose work I had enjoyed in a show. I received a few personal recommendations from friends along the way, and trusted them even when I didn’t know the person’s work. In general, my rule was no auditioning – I wanted to meet and talk with people and make sure there was a personal connection at all times. Despite the various places everyone came from, a project like this would never work if everyone didn’t have some sort of common ground, no matter how tenuous.

In addition to writing and directing Babylon Babylon, you’re also in it. Are you nuts?

You’re in the show too, you tell me.

So far, so good. Now tell everyone who you’re playing.

My character is named Logios – he’s sort of the narrator/storyteller who sets the whole thing in motion.  He’s based on Herodotus, but a young Herodotus, who’s still trying to earn his chops regaling audiences with outlandish stories. The depiction is in no way autobiographical.

Your wife, Hope Cartelli, is also in the show. You two have worked together frequently for a long time now. How have you both managed to successfully balance your lives together on stage and off?

Well, if she wasn’t my partner I wouldn’t even HAVE a life on stage – she’s essential to everything that I do, and without her support, imagination, talent, and madness I’d be lurching around half empty. As for the offstage life, well, doing shows together means that we never run out of anything to talk about. Casting her as the High Priestess of Ishtar was no accident – she holds the action together much the way she holds the show and our lives together.

Do you mind telling us a little bit about the history of your theater company, Piper McKenzie Productions – for instance, where’d you get that name?

When we graduated from Bard in winter 1998 we stuck around to put together a show with some friends during the break. It was actually our first – and for many years last – attempt at creating something improvisationally with a group, and as such we were still figuring out what the hell the show was about when the producer of the space asked us to come up with a title for the press release. We sat around for fifteen minutes trying to devise the dumbest name we could come up with, which ended up being Piper McKenzie Presents the Tinklepack Kids in the Great Yo-Yo Caper. When we did a production of The Tempest in the same theatre that fall, we decided, what the hell, let’s keep the “Piper McKenzie Presents,” and after that it just stuck. We moved to the city in 1999 and have been churning out a show or two every year since then, getting ever more hubristic as time goes on.

How the hell can you possibly follow this show up?

I’m hoping to do our next show on a Russian space ship, for a select audience of thrill-seeking millionaires. It will integrate most of the major works of the Western Canon and run for forty-seven hours straight, with a full orchestra and live animals (bears, mostly, but also a shark), all performed in zero gravity.

Are you already thinking about the next show or are you going on a long vacation after this?

Oh, I’m thinking. Always thinking. If I stopped thinking my molecules would unravel. We have The Film Festival: A Theater Festival coming up at The Brick in June (for which I’ll be directing a staged reading of William Peter Blatty’s new play, Demons Five Exorcists Nothing, which is quite possibly more insane than Babylon Babylon), and in December we’re hoping to mount something called The Granduncle Cycle, a series of linked short plays that take place in a mythical Arctic society. If theatre offered benefits I would be happy to take some vacation, but Piper McKenzie is a cruel taskmaster.


Dispatch From the Babylonian Trenches

April 18, 2008

Babylonian Ultra-Violence

I could sit here and tell you all about everything that’s been going on lately – tons of rehearsals and preview performances for Babylon Babylon. But instead of getting into the particulars of all the many changes we’ve been making over the past week (all for the better, I should add), I thought I’d just show you what we’ve been up to. Come see the show and you’ll get much, much more. (Photos courtesy of Ken Stein and Ian W. Hill.)

Lily Burd and Elizabeth Hope Williams

It’s our official opening tonight, and I’m very excited. We have a sold out house and an after-party to follow. The Companion will be in attendance, and will finally get to see with her own two eyes this crazy show I’ve been telling her about for the last two months.

Babylonians in Peril

I’ve been outside in the beautiful weather for a good part of the day, and I can’t imagine a more perfect day for an opening. And especially for this show. Working on this project has been such a rewarding experience for me on so many levels – the artistic challenge of it, the opportunity to work with so many friends and colleagues whose work I’ve admired forever – and I am so goddamn proud to be a part of it I can’t even begin to tell you.

Hope Cartelli

Now, since I was such a slacker last week, I’ve got a double dose of the Random Friday Top 10 for you all. Here’s Part 1, courtesy of my current iTunes “Springtime 2008” playlist…

  • “Comfortably Numb” (Live Edit) – Van Morrison & Roger Waters (Van Morrison – The Movie Hits)
  • “Frank & Ava” – Suzanne Vega (Beauty & Crime)
  • “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” – The Black Crowes (Warpaint)
  • “Stay With Me” – Faces (A Nod is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse)
  • “O.P.P.” – Naughty by Nature (Naughty by Nature)
  • “Main Theme from Silverado” – Bruce Broughton (The Wild West – The Essential Western Film Music Collection)
  • “Angela (Theme From Taxi)” – Bob James (The Genie)
  • “Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne (Blizzard of Ozz)
  • “Why Have They Gone” – Starcastle (Citadel)
  • “North Bronx French Marie” – Stew (The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs)

Marisa Marquez and Fred Backus

And now for Part 2, from the same said playlist…

  • “Angry Young Man” (Live) – Billy Joel (12 Gardens Live)
  • “Amoreena” (Live) – Elton John (11-17-70)
  • “Goin’ Crazy” – David Lee Roth (Eat ‘Em and Smile)
  • “Dance, Pt. 1” – The Rolling Stones (Emotional Rescue)
  • “Way Down Now” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo)
  • “Overture” – Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • “Watching the Wheels” – John Lennon (Double Fantasy)
  • “Luka” – Suzanne Vega (Solitude Standing)
  • “The Bridge is Over” – Boogie Down Productions (Criminal Minded)
  • “Peace Attack” – Sonic Youth (Sonic Nurse)

nytheatre mike

And one more bonus track for good measure…

  • “Age of Consent” – New Order (Power, Corruption and Lies)

Happy Friday, everyone. Welcome to Spring. Get outside and take a walk around the block. Or come see my show. (Speaking of which: I have to go put my eyeliner on. ‘Scuse me…)

Adrian Jevicki and the Babylonians


Julie Shavers Bites the Silver Bullet

April 16, 2008

Julie Shavers

Actor-writer Julie Shavers has been described as an “indie theater all-star” by nytheatre.com, and her resume reflects that. Her plays have been seen at both the New York International Fringe Festival (Go Robot Go) and the American Globe Theatre (The Secret Life of Plants). On stage, she played the title role in The Flea Theater’s production of Margo Veil by Len Jenkin, and has appeared in Adam Bock’s Three Guys and a Brenda and Julia Lee Barclay’s Word to No One.

Her latest writing and acting endeavor, Silver Bullet Trailer, recently opened at The Ohio Theater to universally positive reviews (click here for an example). With the run finally winding down this weekend, Julie stopped by the ol’ blog to discuss the play, weird dreams she’s had during pregnancy, and what it’s liked to be married to the play’s director, among other things. Here’s what she had to say:

The press release for your show describes it as the story of “an expectant mother and her unborn child travel[ing] through a dreamscape of the American West meeting casualties of American ambition.” Could you expound upon that a little bit?

While Sari (the expectant mother) is trapped in nightmares her unborn child runs off into a desert dreamland of his own. This play is full of hard lucks, bar whores and imaginary things. I like to think of them as more archetypal than specifically American and I’m not sure how ambitious they ever were, but there are casualties.

Where did the idea for the play come from?

When I was pregnant with my son I had dreams that would curl your hair. What if his head fell off? Would I know how to fix that? I saw myself nursing my sister’s chihuahua. It was gnawing on me with it’s sharp little teeth.  My son was born ten days late. By the end I was convinced that he would never be born and that I would die fat. Or that he would consume me slowly and take over where I left off. I was a mess. 

I was also curious about the journey he was taking in utero. If he too had dreams. Or saw mine. I wondered if he was freaked out when I watched violent movies or went to rock shows because I’d feel him thrashing around. I was playing Cavale in Cowboy Mouth in my ninth month of pregnancy. I was wondering what Sam Shepard does to a fetus? I do think they hear things in there.

You are also acting in the show. Who do you play, and what made you decide to pull double duty as both writer and actor?

I play Sari. A pregnant ex-stripper. Because I couldn’t resist.

How does it influence the writing process for you when you know you’re going to be in the show?

I don’t usually write a show thinking that I’m going to be in it. Especially this one. I figured with a one year old in tow I’d never have time. I do tend to write southern female protagonists though. I guess that’s just the voice in my head. I blame my sisters.

I did find myself carving up the monologues once I realized it was going to be me. It’s nice to have the opportunity to live in the character, say the words and feel which ones work and which ones need to be changed.

Dan O’Brien

Your husband, Dan O’Brien, is the director of the show. How do you two manage the balancing act of both living together and working together at the same time?

He sleeps in the bathtub. It works amazingly well. And I have absolutely no desire to direct my own work so I’m really grateful that he wants to do it. His ideas always surprise and delight me.

The show is being produced, in part, by The Present Company, a now legendary organization in the annals of New York indie theater history. How did you first get hooked up with them?

One of my first acting jobs in New York was with The Present Company. They were producing Julia Barclay’s Word to No One, which we performed in New York and in London. We spent nearly a year creating a piece of theatre unlike anything I’d ever done before. I was living in a flat in London with seven other actors. It was one of the best times I ever had. Since then I’ve produced one of my plays in the Fringe and become a part of The Pool, which is a sort of theatre artists collective sponsored by the Present Company. I did a most of my work on Silver Bullet Trailer in that group. Elena Holy has become a great friend and mentor. Thank God. We were pretty clueless when it came to producing so the advice has been invaluable.

How did you first get your start as both a writer and an actor?

The first play I wrote was an adaptation of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I was eight. Then I took a break until college where I started writing again. I was working with Blue Moves Modern Dance Company as a dancer/choreographer and we needed something to go between the dances so we could change costumes. I started writing monologues and ten minute plays to fill the space and it just grew from there.

I’ve been acting in plays since high school. I’m pretty sure I did the first one to get out of class. I started dancing very young though, and my parents are musicians so we were always singing somewhere. I guess it was a natural progression.

Do you have a preference between the two?

Depends on the day. I love and hate both.

Are there any particular artists who you think influence you? Or who, at least, inspire you artistically?

I don’t know. Every time I try to make a list like this it starts to feel like a MySpace profile and I want to kill myself. I am inspired by everything. Music, books, plays, movies, conversations I hear on the train.

I think I’m most inspired theatrically when I see something really wonderful. Like a couple of years ago I saw a play called Three Dark Tales by the British troupe Theatre O. I left that show so excited and hopeful. I also think Cynthia Hopkins’s stuff is great. Au Revoir Parapluie, which was recently at BAM, made me want to go get a fork lift and 800 yards of fabric and go to town.

What have you got going on next after this?

Well. I’m about 4 months pregnant so I’ll probably go ahead and get that out of there and then who knows.


Henceforth Into Babylon We Go…

April 10, 2008

Crazy Babylonian Projections

Babylonian Ultra-Violence

And so it is finally upon us: the beginning of previews for Babylon Babylon, which start tomorrow night. It has been an exhilarating and breakneck couple of weeks for all of us, integrating all the show’s many different aspects, working out fine details, making ruthless-but-helpful script cuts (nearly 25 pages went out the window a couple of days ago), etc. I’m pretty confident that the finished product will be as streamlined, audacious, and inspired a piece of fervent spectacular lunacy as you will ever see. (Please refer yourself to the photos above for glimpses of our crazy projections and our ultra-violent battle royale.)

Don’t take my word for it, either: Time Out New York just picked us one of only four Off-Off Broadway events to see this Spring season. Those guys have good taste.

In other words: if you only trek out to Brooklyn to see one show this year, make it this one. Here, once again, are the details…

 
Piper McKenzie Productions and The Brick Theater present
 
BABYLON BABYLON
(Undoubtedly the most arrogant, grandiose theater project ever attempted! You will be blinded by its magnificence!)
 
Experience the Fall of Ancient Civilization in an intimate Brooklyn performance space as a cast of dozens recreates the Temple of Ishtar, home of ritual prostitution, gyrating priestesses, doomsday prophets, grasping plutocrats, undercover lovers, displaced Jews, seekers of bloody vengeance, invading Persians, and a lion.
 
Written and Directed by Jeff Lewonczyk
 
Created with and Starring
Gyda Arber, Fred Backus, Aaron Baker, Ali Skye Bennet, Eric Bland, Danny Bowes, Katie Brack, Lily Burd, Michele Carlo, Hope Cartelli, Maggie Cino, Michael Criscuolo, V. Orion Delwaterman, Siobhan Doherty, Marguerite French, Melina Gac-Artigas, Adrian Jevicki, Gavin Starr Kendall, Kamran Khan, Angela Lewonczyk, Jeff Lewonczyk, Toya Lillard, Marisa Marquez, Roger Nasser, Robert Pinnock, Robin Reed, Iracel Rivero, Heather Lee Rogers, Adam Swiderski, Elizabeth Hope Williams, and Rasha Zamamiri
 
Choreographer: Amantha May
Fight Director: Qui Nguyen
Assistant Director: Jessica McVea
Stage Manager: Lindsay Vrab
Costume Designer: Julianne Kroboth
Lighting Designer: Ian W. Hill
Video Designer: Jason Robert Bell
Technical Advisor: Chris Connolly
 
OPEN REHEARSAL: Fri. 4/11 at 8pm – FREE! (just show up and walk in)
PREVIEWS: Sat. 4/12 and Thu. 4/17 at 8pm – $5
OPENING NIGHT with Wine Reception Afterwards: Fri. 4/18 at 8pm – $25
PERFORMANCES: Thu-Sat, 4/19-5/10 at 8pm – $15
 
At The Brick Theater
575 Metropolitan Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn (L train to Lorimer Street, G train to Metropolitan Avenue)
 
Tickets are available online at www.theatermania.com, or by phone at 212-352-3101

The Babylon Babylon Video Trailer

April 8, 2008

To give you all an idea of the inspired lunacy that will soon be Babylon Babylon, I thought I’d post the show’s official video trailer, directed by trusty Brick Theater regular Art Wallace. There are two versions of said trailer: the short version here…

…and the longer version here.

The scope and magnitude (and insanity) of the production are conveyed in both versions. Enjoy!


The Best Movie Performances of All Time(?)

April 7, 2008

Peter O\'Toole in \

I was at home throwing out some old magazines earlier this morning, and came across the April 2006 issue of Premiere magazine, which featured their list of “The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.” Their top choice? None other than the man pictured above – Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

Now, I love Peter O’Toole, and there’s no denying that his portrayal of Lawrence stands as one of the high watermarks of his extremely distinguished and memorable career.

But, the BEST movie performance EVER? Personally, I think not.

This sort of thing is, of course, highly subjective. No one can ever have the definitive word on it. Nevertheless, as a list whore from way back (looooooong before they ever became trendy and popular), I find these types of things endlessly fun to think about.

For instance, my list of The Best Movie Performances of All Time would start with these four from Marlon Brando, in this order:

  • Last Tango in Paris
  • On the Waterfront
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • The Godfather

Next up would be Orson Welles as the title character in Citizen Kane. After that, it becomes a virtual free-for-all. Here are some other favorites off the top of my head, in no order whatsoever:

  • Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie
  • James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life
  • James Stewart in Rear Window
  • Bette Davis in All About Eve
  • Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
  • Christopher Reeve in Superman
  • Harrison Ford in Star Wars
  • Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future
  • Robert De Niro in Midnight Run
  • Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday
  • Paul Newman in The Verdict
  • Paul Newman in The Color of Money
  • Peter Sellers in Being There
  • Holly Hunter in Broadcast News
  • Gene Hackman in Hoosiers
  • Laurence Olivier in Hamlet
  • James Dean in East of Eden
  • Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz
  • F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus
  • Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers
  • Robert Shaw in Jaws

Highly idiosyncratic, as you can see.

What are some of your favorite all-time performances? I’d love to hear what the blogosphere has to say about this. Let ‘er rip, people!