The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Shifting perspectives

First Sunday in Lent, year B
Mark 1:9-15

See - it's not just a Broadway blog now - I still preach :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

FCS: Prima Donna

Quick facts:
  • Show: Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna
  • U.S. Premier Opera
  • Date: Thursday, February 23, 2012
  • Time: 7:30 p.m.
  • Closing date: February 25, 2012
  • Venue: Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House
  • Running time: 2:25 (one intermission)
  • My seat: awesome!
  • Ticket source: Discount tickets available to the general public through a gift of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation
  • Understudies: None
Know someone working the show?  No.

Synopsis: Imagine a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera -- something AFTER Love Never Dies -- so far after that Christine Daae has somehow become Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard) - a has-been opera star planning a "return".  Got the picture?  Then you've got the whole story line to Prima Donna.

My thoughts: Part of how that synopsis came to me was, I kept swearing I was hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber in the score - far more than I could hear what I recognized as Rufus Wainwright.

While I admitted in my introductory post that I'm boldly stepping out on this journey with the full knowledge that what I don't know about the theater far eclipses what I do know, I should admit upfront in this post that I know even less about opera.  Even so, some thoughts and observations emerged.

Throughout the show time seemed to pass very quickly.  It had been a long time since I'd seen an opera, so I feared that I'd be bored.  It's been a bit of a busy week, so I was even a little nervous that I might fall asleep.  As I mentioned above, my seats were incredible!  I was in the second row on the center aisle.  It couldn't have been better!  But falling asleep would have been pretty embarrassing!  Fortunately, that was never even a temptation.

The first act opened with a beautiful and delicate overture that slowly dawned into something more.  During most of the first act, however, my attention seemed mostly focused on technical aspects of the show.  Most of the music was fine, but was not very engaging.

The set was peculiar.  It could best be described as a kind of sheet metal damask.  It was interesting in that it reflected different lights at different times in some interesting ways, but at times it was almost painful.  Strike that.  It was ACTUALLY painful.  There were an ornate set of doors (stage left) that opened and closed periodically and were to be the main entrance to the main character's house.  Furthermore, they were lit from the wings.  Due to the reflective nature of the doors, each time they were moved there was an excruciatingly blinding light.  It happened with such frequency that I learned to close my eyes throughout the show any time someone made their way toward them.

One of the things that I've learned about the theater over the last several months is that the theater and the stagecraft itself shouldn't be distracting from the performance.  We shouldn't hear sets move.  We shouldn't be thinking about the lights - that is, they should be designed to enhance the experience, not (generally, anyway) steal the show!  Theater has the power to transport you to another world.  Distractions can take all of that effort and render it dead.  So one of the harshest criticisms that I could make of any aspect of any show would be that some aspect of the show was distracting - it kept me from immersing myself into the world that is being created for me.

Being blinded by the sets and lights is the perfect example of such a distraction.

Otherwise, the lighting was interesting.  It was understated, to be sure, but occasionally a soft glow would emerge, reflected on the metallic walls of the apartment - as if the damask were a kind of mood ring sharing the aura of the apartment with audience.  It was an interesting effect.

The opera was performed in French with English super titles.  While I've studied French, and can hold my own, it was helpful to have them there.  Throughout the first act I kept noticing that the projected words were wildly out of sync with the performance.  As the show progressed, however, I relied less on the super titles, so the distraction waned.

The second act was much more enjoyable.  The score grew increasingly creative, and several of the performers began to shine.  Most notably among them was Kathryn Guthrie Demos in the role of Marie.  Her first aria in the second act blew me away.  For the first time in the show, I really began to see what she was capable of - and it is quite a lot!

The other performance that really blossomed in the second act was that of Taylor Stayton, the young tenor in the role of Andre Le Tourneur.  Le Tourneur is a journalist who has come to interview Regine Saint Laurent in advance of her return to the stage.  He also happens to be a great fan.  He also happens to remind her of the man she played opposite in her last (and next) role.  In the second act she listens to the recording of that final performance and is transported back into it.  Her apartment becomes the set of that last great performance and Stayton's character emerges as the king to her queen.  It's in this context - the opera within an opera - when Stayton shows his true vocal brilliance.  I found myself wishing the scene was the actual show!

As Saint Laurent's apartment became the set of the other opera, Prima Donna developed some much needed depth.  From this point the music grew increasingly interesting and the characters each developed into something worth seeing.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Yes.  It's the kind of music that typically works best as you get to know it.  I'd like to give it that chance.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Probably.  Even though it's new, and by a somewhat popular singer-songwriter, opera still isn't for everyone.
  • Twitter review: Better than you might expect from a B-list pop star turned opera composer, but still sometimes a little uninteresting.  If Rufus Wainwright continues on this line, I'd be very interested in seeing how his work grows.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

FCS: Silence! The Musical

Welcome to my first attempt at a theater review from an outsider's perspective!

Quick facts:
  • Show: Silence! The Musical
  • Off-Broadway
  • Date of performance: Monday, February 20, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended 
  • Venue: P.S. 122 (in the East Village)
  • Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
  • My seat: awesome!
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: Jan Javier in for Ashlee Dupre, Pamela Bob in for Deidre Goodwin
Know someone working the show?  Kind of...  Brian J. Nash is the musical director and orchestrator of the show, and we've recently met and have been getting to know each other a little.  He's a really nice guy!  I basically sent him "fan mail" after being WOWED! by his talent at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, and he actually responded!  But I don't actually know him well enough to seriously influence my opinion of the show.

Synopsis: Silence! The Musical is...  wait for it... The unauthorized musical parody of Silence of the Lambs!  Sometimes it's just great living in the New York area....

My thoughts: Well, I don't usually like comedies.  Basically, I'm kind of a nerd, and I don't tend to find things funny that most people tend to find funny.  But MY LORD, was this funny?!!  The music wasn't life changing, or the kind of thing I found myself walking away humming, but I didn't get the impression that the music was really the point.  It's a spoof.  Even so, I bought the cast recording and look forward to listening to more!  If you know and love the story of Silence of the Lambs, you'll enjoy poking a little fun at it.

Jenn Harris in the role of Clarice Starling was absolutely brilliant.  She is like a living caricature of Jodie Foster.  Furthermore, she's a genius of comic timing, and she controls her face like it was Silly Putty... Similarly, Annie Funke gave a standout performance in the role of Catherine Martin.  The unexpected star of the show, however, was Topher Nuccio (Sgt. Pembry).  This man is truly a star.  This is his off-Broadway debut, but I'd look for more from him soon.  He has a commanding stage presence - it's hard to take your eyes off of him, but with talent like his, why would you want to?!  Set up your Google alerts now, because this guy's gonna do some cool work!

If you haven't been to P.S. 122 before - seek it out!  It's a former Public School (that's what P.S. means, to you folks outside of the New York area - at least this is the only place I'VE ever seen it...), but it's become a Performance Space.  Neat!  They got to keep the P.S.!  This was my first show to see there, but it was a perfect setting for going into the Silence of the Lambs story.  The building is old, and creaky, and has been modified within an inch of its life - so walking in I felt like I was walking into Buffalo Bill's basement.

The theater itself is very small, so it's hard to imagine that there would be any really bad seats in the house, but my seats happened to be incredible!  It happens every now and then, even with TDF!  I was in the center section, on the fourth row, on an aisle.  It couldn't have gotten much better than that!

Well...  Actually it could have...  Theaters are known for having VERY uncomfortable seats, and the dear people at P.S. 122 seem to have stretched the bounds of even that unpleasant reputation.  These were just standard issue banquet chairs, crammed together as close as possible.  On my row there were several full grown adult men side-by-side - each of us with broad shoulders.  By the time the shoulders lined up down to me on the aisle, I was practically falling out of my seat.  It was very uncomfortable, and often distracting throughout the show.

But on a bright spot, there was a bar with good beer, and we were actively encouraged to buy extra drinks and bring them into the house (not wanting to be a bad guest, I complied...).  Of course, the down side of that is, there's no intermission, and with the layout of the house, you can't really "slip out" for a break...  So there was another bit of a distraction by the time we got good and into the show.

There's lots of great merchandise for sale in the hallway that functions as a lobby.  Normally I wouldn't mention this, except the lady staffing the table was really quite friendly and wonderful.  When you do see the show, be sure and say hello!  You won't regret it!

Since my "nearly friend" Brian J. Nash was on the keyboard, I do have to say a word about him.  He's truly brilliant on the keys.  You've got to see him play sometime.  Obviously, the pit was out of sight, so I didn't get to see him work, and, as I would expect is true in most musical theater accompanying, there's not a lot of room for variation and creativity from performance to performance - you don't want to trip up the folks on stage!  So I didn't have much of a chance to hear Brian work his magic as I've come to appreciate it -- with one very notable exception!  During the music that was being played as we were walking out, I could definitely hear Brian on the keys.  Even though he was out of sight, I could tell it was him.  He was playing.  And not just in the "playing the piano" sort of way, but he was being playful.  It was great.  If my couple of beers hadn't had me rushing out the door, I would have loved to have just sat for that part to appreciate his talent!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Probably not.  It's really not much of a see it again and again show for me.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  DEFINITELY - you know, people who could take it....  People not easily offended.  People with a little edge.
  • Twitter review: A really fun show!  Laughed lots.  Good music and amazing talent!  Definitely worth your time!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An act of vulnerability on Ash Wednesday

So a funny thing happened tonight...

A theme that's been emerging for me as I've moved toward Lent has been vulnerability.  I think it's significant that God became vulnerable before us in the person of Jesus, and I believe that God is calling to us greater vulnerability in our spiritual lives and in our prayers and in our interactions with each other.

This year, at least, that seems to be what Lent is about for me.

As I was trying to preach that tonight, however, I lost the word.  In the middle of my sentence I had NO IDEA what I was planning to or trying to say.

After what felt like about 20 minutes of stammering it finally came back, but not before I had accidentally made myself a living example of vulnerability.

Our Interim Music Director and I were laughing about it after the service, and he said, "I'm sure you won't be posting this one!"

Well, of course, I am.  I think it actually turned out okay in the end; but, really, it would be somehow a failure of integrity if I only posted some of my sermons.  So here it is.

The service tonight was in the side chapel - so being in a different place, the sound isn't the best and the framing is a bit off, but you'll get the idea...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

FCS: Inaugural Post!

On Twitter we have 140 characters to describe ourselves to the world.  Here's how I describe myself to anyone who stumbles across my profile: "An Episcopal priest in search of the Body of Christ and a theater junkie in search of his next fix."

While that may seem like a trivial way to interact with the world - in 140 character snippets - I think my description really captures more than 140 characters' worth of who I am, and (perhaps more importantly) who I am discovering myself to be.  It is both dominant sides of me: work and play.  And as is true of the nature of my work, work and play have a way of intermingling.  My love of the theater certainly informs my preaching - sometimes explicitly, but always in subtle ways.  At the same time, my perspective as a priest shapes how I see the theater.

For several months now, I've thought of adding a "theater review" section to this blog.  I'm not sure if "review" is actually the right word.  I'm an amateur in every sense of the word.  What I don't know about the theater world far eclipses what I do know.  So I'm probably not the best source if your looking for professional criticism.

What I do bring to this discussion, however, is the perspective of an outsider.

I'm calling this section "From the Cheap Seats" because, quite frankly, that's where I usually find myself.  I'm a priest.  I don't have a lot of disposable income, so when it comes to the theater (and pretty much everything else, really) I try to get the best bang for my buck.  Several months ago, a friend introduced me to the Theatre Development Fund.  You probably know them best as the people who set up that discount ticket booth - TKTS - in Times Square (though there are a couple of others out there).  But if you're lucky enough to qualify for TDF membership, you can get tickets to shows at a substantially reduced rate without having to stand in line!  Since I've learned about this program, I've been the show-going fool I've wanted to be, but couldn't afford to be, all my life!

So the downside is, I usually have no control about where I'll be sitting in the theater - and it's usually nowhere near the best seats in the house.  But the upside is, my reviews - amateur though they may be - offer the perspective of most people in the theater.  Perhaps I'm a little different, being the "junkie" that I am - but mostly, those of us who who go to the theater really don't know what we're doing.  We just know what we like.

So while the professional critics whose reviews you read may be more learned than anything I can offer, I can offer you a typical audience member's voice.  That's what I bring to the table, and I think it's really nothing to sneeze at.  I know the church can always benefit from an "outsider's" perspective, and I think the theater (and it's audience) can, too.

Here's just a few points that inform my perspective:
  • I really prefer musicals.  Snicker if you must, but it's just the way it is.  I do, from time to time, see straight plays; and, I'll offer my thoughts when I do; but, I'd choose a musical almost every day.  I've often said, "A good play can help you to see the world you live in through a different lens.  A good musical, on the other hand, transports you from the world you live in to see another world altogether."  That's why I like a good musical.  I like the escape.  I like to see something entirely different.
  • I am somewhat trained as a musician.  While I'm not a professional, I do kind of know what I'm talking about when it comes to music.  Though I didn't earn the degree, for a couple of years I was a Vocal Music Performance major in college.  I realized it wasn't the right career path for me, so I moved on, but the learning persisted.  Additionally, music has always been a part of my life in one way or another.  I began playing the piano by ear when I was four years old.  I took piano lessons more formally from 1st grade through college.  (But, admittedly, I'm still not all that good).  I also took private voice lessons in high school and college.  So again, while I'm not a professional, I do know a thing or two.
  • I value creativity.  REAL creativity.  I will always give bonus points to any person or production who truly does a new thing.  Too often we just go along, doing what has always been done.  People and productions that work to shake up the norms will always have a special place in my heart.
  • I have several friends who work in the theater world.  This is GREAT, because sometimes they give me complementary tickets (or upgraded tickets) to see shows that they're working on.  When I'm seeing a show that a friend is a part of in some way, I'll state that up front, but I'll try not to let it influence my perspective too much.  I mean, lets be honest, it probably will to some degree, but I'll try to be honest and to keep it in check.
  • I love Broadway - I try to see everything on Broadway that I can.  But the theater world is so much more than JUST Broadway.  I also often see off-Broadway productions, off-off-Broadway productions, regional theater, amateur theater, and lots more.  So this isn't just a "Broadway blog".  I'll let you know whenever I see something and what I thought about it.
  • Some of my reviews will be good, and some will be bad.  I'm not a mean person - so I won't just look for things wrong in each show.  In fact, sometimes the mistakes and the unforeseen are part of the magic of live theater!  But I am human...  Sometimes I like things and sometimes I don't.  You may or may not agree, and that's okay!
There may be more, but that's a good enough starting place for now!

Now a word about now!

Why now?

As I said, I've been thinking about this for a long time, but I've decided to start now as a kind of Lenten discipline.  Lent is, to my mind, largely about getting to know ourselves better - about delving deeper into our spiritual lives in such a way that our relationship with God grows stronger.  And "play" can be an important spiritual discipline.  We're often too serious.  We often neglect ourselves.  The theater is one of the ways that I take care of myself, and I want to be intentional about that, and about the ways that it makes me a better, stronger, and more spiritually alive person.

My goal during this Lent will be to produce one "review" per week - probably on Wednesdays, but I make no promises about that part.  There are a couple of weeks (the next couple, actually) when I'll be unable to post them because I'll be out of town and largely out of the reach of the internet.  I'll work on them while I'm away, but they won't be posted until after I'm back.

For now my plan is to post reviews as I see shows (which very often comes out to more than once a week), but I've also got a pretty large back log of shows that I've seen in the past, and I'd like to offer my thoughts on those shows as well.  Just please understand that some details of my perspective may have been lost on some of the shows - particularly if it's been a while since I've seen it.

Thanks for joining me on this new adventure!  I hope you enjoy, just as I expect I will!

Monday, February 20, 2012

At the crossroads of the Transfiguration

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
Mark 9:2-9

Moved with ANGER?!

Epiphany 6B
Mark 1:40-45

A slightly revised version of an older sermon for this occasion used in a previous position - but this time, with the fancy new video!

It's posted a little later than usual this week (a week later, actually!) but it's been a busy week in the fields of the Lord, so I'm just now getting around to it.

For this sermon, I temporarily went back to the pulpit.  I hadn't done that in quite some time.  Strangely, I found that I didn't particularly like it...  Hmmm....

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Stepping back to see the bigger picture

Epiphany 5B
I Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Dear Friends,
So...  Here's a sermon again!  I know, it's been a long time.  Thanks for sticking it out with me while I was figuring out how to share my sermons as an extemporaneous preacher!  I recently bought a little video camera and have trained a couple of members of my congregation in how to operate it, so I hope to be able to regularly post videos of my sermon here from now on.  It's something of a different experience than posting a text.  I hope you enjoy!