Blogs > The Arts Whisperer

Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

the loss of the theater department at SUNYA just got personal

When I heard the report that SUNY at Albany was dropping its theater program it bothered me mostly on a professional level. I was disturbed because it was another sign of how most of society and too many educational institutions depreciate the arts. But, in truth I did not feel personally connected to the loss.

Not until last week did I fully realize the loss to this area. On Wednesday I went to a production at SUNY - Albany. It was "The First Time" a show I recently blogged on. I found the material lacking in certain areas but I was impressed with the student talent.

The four leads were Emily Billig (senior, Vocal Performance major), Robert Cervini (senior, communications major), Dana Goodnight (senior, theater major) and Wes Johnson ( junior, English major). They were impressive, as each was excellent, confident and aware.

The loss of a theater department means future theater majors will not attend Albany and those with acting talent probably will not be able to nurture those skills at the Albany campus.

Almost as important is that the local community will lose an opportunity to see unique work that will likely not be performed at local theater companies.

On Friday evening I attended the staged reading of "The Rainmaker" at Steamer No. 10 in Albany. It was an excellent show with a great cast made up of some of the best area actors. One performer I was not familiar with was Cornelius Geaney who played the youngest son Jim.

I was blown away by his performance. He was funny, confident and completely at ease working with some of the best performers in this area. You guessed it. Geaney is a theater major at SUNYA.

Incidentally, "The First Time" was directed by Yvonne Perry and "The Rainmaker" by Eileen Schuyler. Both women are on the faculty of SUNYA and each is a noted and respected local actress. They are talented directors as well as excellent actresses. The loss of SUNYA deprives them of a way of expanding their art just as it deprives future students the gift of their talents.

On Sunday I attended the Albany Civic Theater production of "Proof." It was a remarkable performance of a smart play. It continues through Feb. 27 and I urge everyone to see it.

One reason it was so good was the performance of Shannon Whalen in the lead role of Catherine. It was one of the strongest most nuanced performances I've seen by a young actress. It is a difficult role, but Whalen made her emotional transitions seem natural and - more important - reflective. I was again blown away by the work of a theater major studying at SUNYA.

It was a fluke that I got to see six marvelous performances of SUNYA students in the span of five days, but it made me realize the kind of actors the theater program is turning out. It also makes me realize what the loss of the theater program means to our community.

The loss of the SUNYA theater department just got personal.

thoughts on the grammy awards

Say what will about the Grammy Awards, it's the most entertaining award show on television. It's fast-paced and the winners generally don't dwell on thanking every person they've met in their life.

In the interests of full disclosure, I admit I watched on dvr and did not listen to every thank you, but those that I heard made me wonder why God cares so much about rap singers and pop artists.

Something else I'll never understand. Why do pop singers all have to wear costumes instead of clothing? I can understand flamboyant clothing but costumes when not performing?

If the dress is over-the-top what about the numbers? Each was bigger and more extravagant than the last. I think that has to do with most of the major talents today perform in arenas where big is not only better - it is necessary. It is no accident the presentations were made in Staples Arena.

It comes as a thought that sometimes production values can hide performance flaws. Watching the light shows, the back-up dancers and buildings burning, leaves less time to notice or care that the performer has limited talent.

It impressed me the way that Mick Jagger came out and just by the power of his personality and talent held the audience in the palm of his hands. No fancy effects just some powerful rock and roll. It was the only time the jaded audience seemed to be really having a good time as the cameras caught them all on their feet rockin' with Mick.

Probably the only talent that could follow that moment was Barbra Streisand and she did with the quietest of songs. Again the power of her voice and the majesty of her presence held the audience in quiet awe.

Rick and Barbra two talents on the opposite end of the spectrum defined star power.

On a less positive note, Bob Dylan was sad. He sounded terrible and looked worse. Time has not been good to Dylan and though a legend his aloof attitude will not make him a beloved figure as he ages further. Dylan is no Pete Seeger.

On the topic of looking bad, Kris Kristofferson didn't appear in full control either. At least he didn't attempt to sing.

As for the winners of the awards - my basic opinion is few will be remembered in ten years and many not even at the next Grammy Award show. Performers who have to depend on special effects instead of talent are not around for the long run.

One last note. Am I the only one who noticed performing on the show is a guarantee of winning a Grammy? Isn't the idea that no one is supposed to know the winners until they are announced. Yet, it was obvious that too many people won the Grammy minutes after they performed. Coincidence? Not a chance.

You might hate the music but you can't deny the Grammy Award show is a truly unique night of entertainment.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

the first time

I've long been an advocate of college theater. One of the reasons is that often you see work that local companies do not offer. And the college work is often of high quality.

Though not in the realm of "seldom produced theater" the recent musical productions of "Peter Pan" and "Spelling Bee" at Russell Sage College were as good as anything to be be found off-campus. Dramatically their recent war drama "A Piece of My Heart" was both well-done and seldom produced. Their next production will be "The Heiress" Feb. 23-27. When was the last time you heard of any local theater company doing "The Heiress"?

This week the theater department at SUNY-Albany is offering a show that I guarantee no area theater company will produce. It's titled "The First Time" and yes, it is a show in which four actors portray dozens of people who discuss how they lost their virginity.

First things first - this is not a prurient piece. There is a touch of vulgar language (it's hard to talk about sex without ever using the f-word) and there are what could be considered a couple of course situations here and there. However, this is serious look at people who have opened up on to discuss their personal experiences with their first sexual encounter.

I'm not sure why people want to share this with others, nor do I understand why Ken Davenport put some stories into a dramatic format. But the fact is the situations in the play are honest and true. But -as you might suspect - they are not always interesting. The sex act is after all the most natural of instincts and we all kind of know why people do it. So when we meet hormone driven people who "do it" for the first time it isn't exactly dramatic.

That said, when the situation is out of the ordinary it becomes touching. The most moving part of the evening is when two young women are taken without their consent. Another touching - actually creepy - moment is when a young man tells of his father buying him a prostitute and the father doing the same thing with another prostitute in the next bed.

These moments (and others) make you realize that a person's "first time" can either be a memorable experience or a damaging experience. The work has you realize the first time it is seldom casual, nor is it ever forgotten. The decision to do it or who to do it with is seldom made on a whim and most partners want the experience to be as sincere and loving as possible.

Because the play is so fragile the work done by the college cast is applaudable. The four performers Emily Billig, Robert Cervini, Dana Goodnight and Wes Johnson do good work in creating such a vast tapestry of characters. As important as the variety of characters they created, the performers always respected the dignity of the person they were representing.

Director Yvonne Perry does an excellent job in guiding their performances and keeping what is essentially a static play active. She uses the stage well keeping the performers in motion without forcing the movement. She frequently gives a solo story visual interest by adding a second silent character. It's a device that could be overused but Perry keeps it in check. The same is true about the use of humor in the presentation. There are more than a few very funny moments in the production, but rarely does the staging or the portrayals depreciate the person or the situation.

The play is only about 70-minutes in length but even this short time period seemed too long for the material which because of its limited topic is repetitive. Indeed, there is the feelings of voyeurism that cannot be be avoided as you listen to so many private experiences being shared with strangers.

To show how almost chaste is the material - instead of thinking about any of the acts of sex that were shared, my thoughts on the ride home were more about how little contemporary society cares about privacy. Not only was I wondering why people would share these intimate experiences on line, I wondered why audiences would be interested as to why people have sex for the first time - never mind how they do it.

I suppose my questions and quibbles bring me back to my original point. This kind of material is appropriate for college audiences. It might not be great drama, but it is great that theater can provoke discussion.