Tag Archives: theatre

A Good Night For Ghosts: Early Thoughts On Then She Fell

Photo by Adam Jason Photography.

In large part due to an addiction to Kickstarter that has been described as “compulsive”, I recently backed the production of Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects, an immersive theatre experience that revolves around Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. As part of my backer perks, I was invited to a dress rehearsal last night – below are some broad thoughts and observations about the performance (mostly contrasted with Sleep No More as a reference point) in advance of the opening later this week.

A few introductory notes:

1. I’m staying away from detailing specific scenes/sets/story points; this will mostly be about the experience. Some might consider this spoiler-y, so if you want to go in with no preconceptions at all, stay away from the rest of this post. SPOILER WARNING.
2. This was a dress rehearsal, which meant the show wasn’t quite ready. There are a handful of minor complaints I’m leaving out of this post as the team gave every indication it’ll be tightened up for the opening. (We were allowed to give feedback at the end of the show and those points have been lodged there.)
3. The show is already sold out for the entire run and it seems unlikely that they’ll be extending it into perpetuity as Punchdrunk has with SNM. If this interests you and you don’t already have tickets, you are most likely out of luck.

Down the rabbit hole we go.

Continue reading A Good Night For Ghosts: Early Thoughts On Then She Fell

Games of 2011: Sleep No More

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. This is the last post in the series. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Surprise: my Game Of The Year isn’t a video game. (I never said they were all going to be electronic.) And yes, it’s Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which I’ve talked about on this blog twice before, and is perhaps the closest thing to a real life video game I’ve ever found, and perhaps ever will.

Those of you who follow me on social networks have probably missed out on the incessent gushing about the show I tend to do in person. It has become an all-consuming experience; I have made a somewhat absurd four visits to the McKittrick Hotel for performances, including one just over a week ago. Some might feel this is three times too many. (Others might argue it’s four times too many.) I am fully and well hooked on this thing, and I won’t be surprised if I notch a fifth trip sometime in 2012. The friends who have been tend to be understanding and share a desire to go back. Here’s why:

People who have played games for a significant length of time have certain behaviors become hard wired into their play style. If you grew up with Wolfenstein and Doom, you become accustomed to pressing on every wall, hoping for a secret passage to open. RPG addicts know to search every container in the hopes of finding something useful or interesting. Stealth-action gamers are used to slinking along behind characters, hoping to figure out their secrets. And so on.

These skills are generally not acceptable to use in real life; most of us don’t spend our days exploring strange spaces, investigating someone’s bedroom, or following strange people about their business. This is where Sleep No More fits in perfectly – it’s a meticulously designed playground where you can make use of these habits and skills. This is a space where you want to be looking, touching, feeling, and exploring at every turn.

There’s no way to win this game, of course – the show ends after three hours, and you are gently ushered out of the hotel space. There’s also no way to see every last thing that happens during the show in a single visit. But you may have pieced together how some characters interact, or found a secret passage, or even helped run messages between characters.

Punchdrunk has designed the show to allow the audience the freedom to indulge in anonymity and voyeurism – the masks, the mandate that there is no talking inside the space, the use of light and shadow. The experience makes it easy to detach from yourself and become your own avatar, so long as you can break down some of the psychological barriers that tend to prevent people from doing the things you should do in this world. (More on these later.) The cast has a trick up their sleeves, of course: they are fully allowed to interact with you, and will choose to do so with those that are clearly engaged and unafraid. As you are told in the elevator, fortune favors the bold.

This is not a world for the faint of heart. The company now warns that the audience may experience “intense psychological experiences”. There is violence (multiple murders), nudity (both genders), and absinthe served at the bar. There are strobe lights, smoke machines, and in one scene, some incredibly loud drum and bass music. There is running up and down flights of stairs, and the slight-but-ever-present danger of being hit by one of the staff as they perform their dances (as Katie learned when she was kicked in the arm during our last visit). The show lasts at most three hours, which may be more than those with low stamina can withstand.

But no matter how much my feet hurt when I exit back into the streets of Chelsea, there is nothing else like it I’ve ever experienced in my life. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to go as much as I have, and yet I always want to go back as soon as I can. Everyone who enjoys games as a hobby should make a point of going before the show ends its run, whenever that may be.

The remainder of this post, as some sort of twisted holiday present, are essentially my complete set of notes about the show – how it’s structured, how to plan your visits, and even a set of imaginary achievements. The information in that section is extremely spoilery, and I agree with the common wisdom that you should take in your first visit to the show essentially blind – it’s more fun that way. So save the details in the rest of this post until you’ve gone once.

Sleep No More is currently extended through February, and may continue to extend as Punchdrunk sees fit.

Continue reading Games of 2011: Sleep No More

The Witch In The Green Dress: Thoughts on Sleep No More

Sleep No More

On Saturday night, I stepped into the McKittrick hotel with five friends. Three hours later, I found myself back on the sidewalk of 27th Street, catching my breath, my heart still racing, my mind still spinning.

If you keep an ear to what’s going on around NYC, then you may already know that the McKittrick is home to Punchdrunk’s “immersive theatre” experience, Sleep No More. Audiences are invited to don a mask and explore 100,000 square feet of a recreated abandoned hotel, while a cast of twenty-three actors stride from room to room and silently act out Macbeth by way of Hitchcock. Some audience members choose to follow one or two characters and see what happens; others opt to explore on their own, rifling through drawers and cabinets and suitcases. The choices are up to each attendee.

Much has been written about the experience, and I am loathe to rehash. You might want to heard the observations on the inherent voyeurism from Ben Brantley at the Times, or Michael Abbott’s lovely argument as to why anyone who calls themselves a gamer needs to go see it. You may be interested in the amazing set and prop design, which would lead you to this NYT slideshow. And there are plenty of other impressions around the web, almost all positive.

My normal way to talk about these sorts of experiences is to meticulously walk my way through everything that happened, trying to gather all the details so they form a single authoritative post. I am going to skip on that method for Sleep No More. I may have caught multiple scenes, I may have followed most every character at least once, I may have dug through a lot of drawers – and I may have even found an easter egg or two. But that experience was mine, and when you go, you will have your own – and it will be different, and unique, and yours. I do not want to taint that or come across as recommending a course of action.

But I will share one story from last night, after the jump. (This might constitute a spoiler, so if you’re looking to go in blind, stop reading here.)

Continue reading The Witch In The Green Dress: Thoughts on Sleep No More

Bucket Of Tears: A Review Of Dance Dance Revolution The Musical

Buckets Of Tears

It is a strange experience to watch something you once obsessed over – but no longer care for – get bastardized. You can tolerate much of it, perhaps even find some humor in it, because it’s no longer something you care for. But part of you can’t help but recall how strong that obsession once was, and feel that sharp taste of injury in the back of your throat.

I sat for 90 minutes last night in the Ohio Theatre, taking in the third public performance of Dance Dance Revolution, a new musical by Les Freres Corbusier.

For context: I started playing Dance Dance Revolution in September of 2001, and played at an unhealthy clip until the end of 2004, at which point things started to tail off. By this year, I’ve played less than 3 rounds worth of arrow smashing; I have moved on to other games to fulfill my music game addiction. But if I find myself near an empty DDR machine, chances are I will find my way back onto that stage and stomp through a few songs for old times’ sake.

Also: I am not a professional theatre reviewer. I do not frequently go to the theatre proper – I average 2.5 plays/musicals a year. This review should not be taken as anything more than a gamer opining on a show claiming to be inspired by a game he used to play.

Also: I ingested no alcohol or drugs prior to, during, or after the show.

Continue reading Bucket Of Tears: A Review Of Dance Dance Revolution The Musical

Review: Spamalot

Last night, Katie and I joined my parents at the fourth NYC preview showing of Spamalot, “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail'”, at the Shubert Theatre. This is my best attempt as a full-fledged review.

There are light spoilers below, so don’t read on if you want to be completely surprised when you see the show.


General Information

The story runs very much parallel to that of the movie, although with a fair number of changes. The introduction of the knights are consolidated into characters from other bits, thus streamlining the first act. There are a number of bits removed from the story just because it’d be difficult to cram it all in *and* add musical numbers – more on this later. Finally, as there is a large amount of riffing off musicals in general, there is a subplot involving…well, Broadway.

Tim Curry plays King Arthur; David Hyde Pierce takes on the role of Sir Robin and some ancillary characters; Hank Azaria (in his Broadway debut) plays Sir Lancelot, Tim the Enchanter, the primary Knight of Ni, and the French Taunter. There are five other primary cast members, most noticably the newly-added Lady Of The Lake, played by Sara Ramirez. There are sixteen ensemble members in a variety of roles. The only Python member actually used in the musical is John Cleese, who provides the voice of God (admittedly, not live).

The show runs just over two hours, including a fifteen minute intermission. Tickets are currently ranging from $35 (back of the upper balcony) to over $100 for orchestra.


Repeating Material – The Purist Problem

There are very few people who only merely like Monty Python. Most every fan can quote excessively from the shows and/or the movies. A large number of the purists will, by this point in their lives, know Holy Grail by heart and frequently bother their co-workers by quoting it at great lengths. I am a moderate purist, able to riff on most sketches and movies and even some of the CD material. I feel I have a good grounding in Python.

A lot of purists will be confused by this show, because a number of very famous bits from the movie have been cut out. Here’s a quick breakdown:

In The Musical: The Opening Credits (see next section), You’ve Just Got Two Coconuts, The Monks With Boards, Bring Out Your Dead, Dennis the Peasant, The Historian, Camelot, A Blessing From The Lord, The French Castle / Wooden Rabbit, Sir Robin and his Minstrels, The Black Knight, The Knights Who Say Ni, Prince Herbert, Tim The Enchanter/The Killer Rabbit

Not In The Musical: She’s A Witch, The Three Headed Knight, The Castle Anthrax, The Old Man In Scene 12, The Bridge Of Death, The Great Black Beast Of Aaauugh, The Castle Aaaagh

Note that a handful of those bits listed as still being in the musical have been modified from what you remember, especially Camelot and Prince Herbert, but also The Knights Who Say Ni, The French Castle, and much of Sir Robin’s material.

Of also questionable effect to the purists is that a number of portions of other Python bits have been inserted into the musical. There are a variety of references to The Parrot Sketch, Silly Elections, The Fish Slapping Dance, The Lumberjack Song, and plenty of others I’ve probably forgotten by now. And strangest of all, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life makes not only an appearance but also gets a karaoke-sing-along reprise. (Having never really been a fan of the original song, I don’t think it’s a great choice here, but all the other references made me snicker at the least.

So the issue is this – if you are a hardcore Python nerd, you will likely hate this show, as many things you know and love have been changed or left on the cutting board floor. Your enjoyment of this show may hinge on one or two bits being exactly the way you remember them, or at least being in the show – please use the guide above and save yourself potential pain if you’re the sort of person I’ve been describing. Personally, I thought the changes were fine.

If you’re not familiar with Holy Grail or haven’t seen it in a while, there’s a good chance you will greatly enjoy the content of the show.

One final issue: There’s a lot of audience cheering in recognition of certain bits.


About Finland

This is a spoiler: There’s a great fakeout at the beginning where the cast misheard “England” as “Finland” and the opening scene is a full Finnish fish-slapping song (complete with appropriate dance), followed by some singing from Finland, Finland, Finland. There’s also a good four pages in the playbill written by Michael Palin about the show you’re seeing – “Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain’t What They Used To Be)”. In fact, there’s a lot of comedy scattered around the playbill – read it cover to cover.


The Cast

When I had originally heard the casting, I was strangely curious, as I couldn’t picture David Hyde Pierce fitting in with Tim Curry or Hank Azaria to mesh into a Python show. But as it turns out, the three of them are perfectly cast, and not because they’re all fine actors. The reason this show clicks so well is that each adapts into the roles of existing Python players seemlessly. Tim Curry perfectly captures the slightly arrogent royality that Graham Chapman played in the movie. David Hyde Pierce picked up the Eric Idle portions, and his mannerisms are spot on. Hank Azaria sort of draws a double duty, getting both Michael Palin and John Cleese’s parts, and as a guy with a huge range of voice talent, he swings through it all perfectly.

In fact, I’m going to throw an extra shout out to Hank Azaria, because for someone who’s entirely new to Broadway as of this show, he could’ve fooled anyone in the audience. He truly looked like this was old hat, and seemed to really be enjoying himself. He even threw in a “glaiven” at one point, much to the delight of the Simpsons fans. I will admit that occasionally the voices sounded a bit close to Moe, but that’s not the end of the world.

Azaria isn’t the only one in the cast who seemed to be enjoying himself – Tim Curry looked very close to breaking into laughter at least three times during the show, and David Hyde Pierce’s portions involved a heavy bout of hamming it up. So again, I have no quarrel with the three leads.

Another huge bout of respect goes to the one new part for the show – the Lady Of The Lake, played by Sara Ramirez. The woman has a simply amazing vocal range, great comedic timing, and fit in perfectly for her part. Cheers, huge cheers to Sara.

The ensemble cast all fit in well; the choreography was consistent, the voices were in key, and they flew from one scene to another without trouble.


The New Material

There are fifteen new songs for the show; one of them is a much revamped version of “Knights Of The Round Table”. There are also four reprises. A few of the songs are on the short side, but they all work well.
Three of the songs tie into a strong subplot that mocks the Broadway formula; “The Song That Goes Like This” mocks the Andrew Lloyd Webber-esqe sweeping balads that are staples of far too many musicals. Later, the Lady Of The Lake tells King Arthur that to find the grail, he’ll have to open a musical on Broadway. This is followed by the funniest number, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” has Sir Robin (DHP) singing to King Arthur about how there is no way they can succeed on Broadway without any Jews. The song spirals out of control with more and more Jewish imagery – jewish dancing girls give way to a jewish line dance which gives way to a giant lit-up Star of David that comes from the top of the stage. I’m not kidding. Finally, Lady Of The Lake makes her return in Act Two with “The Diva’s Lament”, where she loudly complains that she’s been offstage for far too long and inquires where her part went.

This subplot can be a little too inside-jokey at times (I don’t follow a lot of Broadway shows, so there were musical references I missed), but is routinely hilarious and doesn’t falter.

The Prince Herbert sequence has been radically changed with a massive twist which leads to a song and dance number; I refuse to spoil this. Trust me, if you see the show, the sudden change in direction of the scene will have you laughing pretty hard.


Summary

If you’re the sort of person who liked Avenue Q, who digs Python, or just enjoys some Broadway stylings that doesn’t take itself even close to seriously, go see Spamalot. It’s a good time for all.