Sunday, August 30, 2009

Standing Ovations (response to Ari Roth).

I wrote up the blog entry below about Jim's standing ovation after the initial preview of "Zero Hour" here at Theater J in Washington DC. Ari Roth, the artistic director, expands on the point in his blog entry on their site. I thought I'd make a few comments. Ari says:

We’re not a theater that’s big on Standing O’s. Maybe cause our ticket prices aren’t expensive enough (there often seems to be a direct correlation between the amount of money an audience has paid for a ticket and the extent to which they wish to congratulate themselves — and the performance — when it’s done, as if to say, “thank God it was worth it!),

If you read theatre sites like Talkin' Broadway, the regulars there constantly bemoan the fact that "standing o's" in Broadway houses are so constant that they've become mundane -- as if the audience feels obliged to stand (usually without energy) -- in order to, as Ari points out, to justify paying over $100 a ticket, as if trying to "prove" how good the show is by applauding madly at the end, even when the show is a crushing bore, as so many of them can be.

I noticed when we got here that Theater J does have uncommonly reasonable prices for their shows. And considering the world class talent Ari manages to attract to the venue, this was a great and welcome surprise. I think theatre needs to be seen, and I feel it should be populist in its reach, while challenging in its subject matter. He continues:

...what becomes a standing ovation most is the recognition that we’re in the presence of a legend — or a legendary performance in the making. Recent standing ovations on a nightly basis at Theater J have gone to Sandra Bernhard, Theodore Bikel, and Robert Prosky; though by no means the only hits we’ve had, the ovation has gone to bravura perfomers who come with a history.
His point is that the Theater J audience is discerning. If they're going to stand and applaud, it's because the performer EARNED it. It's because they feel they've seen something "legendary" and worthy, not just because the show is over.

Last night was the first DC performance of ZERO HOUR. It clocked in at an hour and twenty four minutes of bravura performance (not including the 15 minute intermission) and audiences LEPT to their feet at the conclusion.
They sure did. And they almost wouldn't let Jim leave the stage. In spite of this being a new work for them, they treated Jim as if he were a returning champion.
Which legend were they congratulating? Zero Mostel, with whom we thought we were in the presence of over the course of the evening, or was it the larger than life performance of Jim Brochu who offers a marathon tour de force? Or was it the inevitable fusion of both, as we paid respect to Zero’s legend and legacy and Jim Brochu’s stunning feat of recreation?
I believe Ari's point, which he puts in the form of an academic question, is that you can't really have one without the other. Perhaps like Meryl Streep "recreating" Julia Child, Jim doesn't so much imitate Zero as embody him. Or, as the great theatre legend, Theo Bikel put it, Jim "brings back a volcano we thought was extinct."

Audiences never feel for one moment that they're watching someone "try" to pretend to be someone they're very familiar with from stage and screen. It's as if the spirit of Zero descends from the hereafter and, perhaps out of sheer stubbornness and anger and will and humor, possesses Jim.

Last night, after the performance, Seth, the stage manager, asked Jim about his stage exit, questioning him which side into which he'd be going off, and how he wanted to handle the technical aspects of this moment.

And Jim looked up at him and said, "I don't even remember the last 10 minutes of the show. I have no idea where I exited or how far I went. All I know is the applause wouldn't stop, so I came back out and took another bow."

And that's when you know you're in the zone. Zero Mostel's story, no matter how hilarious he could tell it, is not a "light entertainment." Zero was a feisty, angry, sophisticated man whose baggy pants comedic fulminations belied his intelligence and his well-read involvement in politics and social issues. Yeah, he could make you laugh. But he could have you weeping like a child, too. The pain of being rejected by his parents, the ten years he spent almost penniless because of the blacklist, the suicide of his best friend, Phil Loeb, and his agony at being rejected for the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof," a role he created, inform his every punchline and funny face.

Jim lives these things every single night. By the time the night is over, he doesn't know where he is or even who he is. He needs at least 15 minutes to just sit in the dressing room and recover.

Ari finishes his observations:

There certainly wasn’t anything cynical or self-serving about this standing ovation. It came from the heart. It came because people laughed and marveled, and were deeply affected by the tale of a genius artist put out to pasture prematurely by a government-initiated hysteria, and how Zero recovered after his blacklist ordeal and pushed his career to new heights.

Inspiration abounds here. As does political relevance. How glad I am that we waited until now — until this very moment — to bring Jim Brochu’s important play — and his stunning recreation of an American-Jewish genius — to our stage.

Zero was a great admirer of Franklin Roosevelt ("One of the greatest Jewish minds in the history of the world"), who he felt brought compassion and humanity and justice (highest of Jewish ideals) to the office of the president.

As the health care debate rages here in Washington, I don't think any play more capably addresses the issues right here, right now. And it's done with a laugh and more than a few explosions.

We appreciate Ari Roth's visionary leadership, and marvel at the timing. Funny and amazing how the past can tell us so much about the present.
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The Steve Show #screamcry

My first show since my surgery. With Blake Zolfo.