Hark now to the tale of my two trips to the 1920s, to unravel a mystery with a seductive PI in the making.
We’re spending more time on this than, say, The Lifespan of a Fact because in that case all I can do is give a synopsis and maybe try to recall the better lines, and that’s less satisfying.
Minky Woodcock, on the other hand, was an experience.
Minky Woodcock. Would-be private eye. Sharp mind, crafty in a fight, able to talk her way almost anywhere, and with a body that gets her anywhere else. Stuck in a time period that doesn’t appreciate her.
And the main character of the graphic novel-turned theatrical experience that lured me to New York eight days after getting back from LA.
Although Minky had some help getting my attention.
For the uninitiated, this is Robyn Adele Anderson.
The original singer for Postmodern Jukebox, way back when they turned contemporary hits into vintage ditties in a small apartment.
She has her own channel now, since Postmodern Jukebox now juggles many, many singers and possibly is based in LA now, not New York where they started.
I suppose my lo– chaste and respectful admiration for Ms. Anderson began the first time I saw Postmodern Jukebox live, June of 2015. All five vocalists brought the house down that night, but I became fond of Ms. Anderson in particular.
I was already quite fond of Ariana Savalas and this performance only solidified that so my above statement remains true.
A year later, I’m following the Twitters and Instagrams of both Ms. Anderson and Gracie Terzian, a jazz singer with a harp ukulele and a voice so beautiful it defies description, and she has nothing to do with this story, really, but here’s a video anyway.
Back on track… Both Robyn and Gracie seemed to be doing zero-cover gigs at jazz clubs across Manhattan, while I was stuck on the far side of the continent like a chump. That’s what got me thinking about a third New York trip back then… go to NYC, meet up with Maria, one of my Peru travelmates, then find some rooftop jazz bar and hear Robyn or Gracie sing live. Of course when I actually went to New York in the fall of 2016, for an ill-fated Brooklyn pizza adventure we’ll discuss another time, both were on tour and nowhere near the city and Maria was in Russia. So it goes.
Two years pass. As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Anderson plugs a show she’s doing with a group called Speakeasy Dollhouse. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The title has my attention, so I check out their page.
An interactive theatrical experience… based on a, let’s be honest, pretty sexy-looking graphic novel… about Harry Houdini… that uses true facts about his death to construct a conspiracy involving spiritualists and the creator of Sherlock Holmes… featuring one of my favourite singers as Bess Houdini.
Other than the “audience participation” of it all, this was ticking a lot of boxes for me. It seemed like, were it playing remotely near me, it was exactly the sort of show I’d want to see. The Kickstarter was a fair distance from its goal, so I thought, what could slipping them $100 hurt? Other than $100 plus exchange rate. That’s two or three nights at home instead of a pub. Maybe they wouldn’t make their goal and I wouldn’t even be on the hook.
Anyway a week or so later I get an email saying they’re funded and asking when I want to see the show.
An interlude in my travel diaries to cover the many shows I caught during my two trips to opposite corners of America. I’m glad I saw each of them, to varying degrees, but some were definitely better than others.
As we move from LA stories to tales of New York, I present, in order of preference, a summary of my theatrical experiences abroad.
Just behind Harry Potter world, down the closest thing a theme park has to a back alley, is the corrugated metal wall of the Atoll, a miniature recreation of one of the floating cities from Waterworld, a Kevin Costner movie people absolutely still talk about. I guess once you have a giant water-based stunt show with an elaborate set, you keep it.
Besides, stunt shows have always been a part of the Universal Studios experience, since the days when the only ride was the backlot tour. So who cares if Waterworld came out closer to the Vietnam War than today? There are fights and dives and aerial stunts, pyrotechnics and jet skis. A plane crashes in the middle of the set at one point. It’s a stunt show. You’re there for the action, not the razor-thin narrative of “The Deacon, who we all remember was the bad guy in the movie, attacks the Atoll, but iconic and not at all obscure action hero the Mariner arrives to save everyone! Well, most of them. Some of them. Okay, just the one woman.”
Some of the cast warmed up the crowd by demonstrating that the splash zone isn’t an idle threat. There were water cannons, pails of water hurled at the crowd, and audience members being selected to get buckets of water dumped on them. Which was pretty funny for all of us in the dry section, and before anyone says “Aw, that’s so mean,” they were pretty clear– sit in this section, you’re gonna get wet. They didn’t say how, but they warned it would happen.
Things went boom and splash and there were jet skis and the foley on the punches was well timed. Absolutely worth the 40ish minutes of my day it took up. As an express pass holder, I could have stuck around for a behind-the-scenes presentation by the guy who played Deacon, but I still had… I want to say… three rides left to go on, two of which were down a couple of giant escalators in the lower section, and the 3D Kung Fu Panda short to see, and the park closed at 6:00, so I had to hustle.
Fun. Simple, but fun enough.
6. King Kong
There were several shows I kind of had my eye on in New York, aside from the two I already had tickets for. I’d even put Network, starring Bryan Cranston, into my calendar, hoping that the prepaid Visa I’d recently received would cover a few Broadway shows. And it absolutely would have, except that the first one I used it on was hell of pricey and now there’s only $24 left, which is an awkward amount and this isn’t the point.
King Kong wasn’t on the list because I didn’t even know it existed until I walked past the theatre it’s showing in. And even then I had to investigate before I was sure this was a legit Broadway musical and not, like, a museum or a walkthrough thing, where actors lead you through a series of rooms simulating a giant ape attack.
No, legit musical, with the book written by the same guy as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I had nothing vaguely resembling the budget to see), and I thought I saw a connection to La La Land but I can’t find anything to corroborate that, so maybe I imagined it? A connection certainly doesn’t seem to exist. I did find out that this show originally debuted in Australia five years earlier, before getting some touch-ups to hit Broadway.
Man, I’m getting distracted on this one. Gotta focus, instead of segueing into wondering how, exactly, “City of Stars” won an Oscar for best song of the year when it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land and goddamn it focus right, here goes…
It’s King Kong, so I doubt I have to describe the story.
First off this was worth it just for the staging. The giant Kong puppet was incredibly impressive, with an expressive face, and arms capable of scooping up and carrying the female lead, and that was worth seeing on its own. But also of note is the way parts of the stage would lift up and become the front of a ship, or the way they simulated the top of the Empire State Building with a few smoke machines and a circular platform that rose out of centre stage. And then there were the multimedia screens in the background that created the locations, and the lighting effects that represented gunfire.
I also quite liked what they did with Ann Darrow, the female lead. Not only because they cast her African-American instead of the typical white and blonde, which added subtextual depth to her struggles to make it in 1930s New York. It’s best summed up in a line in mid-act one, when the male lead is trying to get her to scream on camera. After a few false starts, where she just gives startled but amused shouts, he tries to direct her into a huge scream of terror… but instead she delivers a powerful roar of fury.
“I know what you want from me,” she tells him, seeing his displeasure. “But I’m just… not a damsel in distress.”
It made for a fresh take, with a truly impressive and expressive giant puppet ape at the centre of it all. Some people snuck photos of Kong during curtain call. I guess I took the “No photos in the theatre” rule a little more seriously.
5. Grindhouse: The Ballet
If you can look at that poster and not think “I need to see what this is,” we see the world very differently.
We have multiple 70s exploitation genres all happening at once, all expressed through dance… and a few expository voice overs that played between scenes. We find ourselves in the seedy underbelly of a city under the grip of aerosol opioid the Scent, a few sprays of which is a quick and easy way to incapacitate someone or someones hostile, or boost the libido of someone, shall we say, friendlier.
The Scent is controlled by club owner Jorogumo, ruling over the underworld with her sexy and sinister lover Dixie Mason. Isis Aphrodite sings in Jorogumo’s nightclub while battling Scent addiction and earning the ire of Dixie, while Isis’ Shaft-looking lover Osiris Blaze tries to free her from that life. Cheerleader gang the Tough Cookies find themselves in servitude to Jorogumo after getting in trouble with the Fuzz, a popping-and-locking B-boy quartet of cops. And it all progresses to a violent, grand Guignol finale.
There’s mayhem and betrayal and revenge and death and the entire plot is conveyed so well through only dance and movement that I just described it thoroughly and accurately to you without needing someone to explain it to me. Well, I got the character names from the program, but I’d have to, wouldn’t I? Try dancing the name “Isis Aphrodite” into someone’s mind.
It was quite the spectacle, blending classical and modern dance styles, and it was in the same speakeasy-turned theatre as our next contender, which meant cheap Guinness before the show.
4. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini
This is why I was even in New York in the first place. Hardly the only thing I did, because I was in town a whole week after seeing it, but I never would have considered this New York trip if not for this show.
Set during the last month of Harry Houdini’s life, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was written and directed by Cynthia Von Buhler, based on her graphic novel. It sees would-be private investigator Minky Woodcock (played by burlesque performer Pearls Daily, who modeled for Minky in the graphic novel) hired by Bess Houdini to keep an eye on her husband, who Bess fears is being targeted by spiritualists tired of being debunked by the famous magician. Spiritualists that may include the famed medium Margery of Boston and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s an interactive theatrical experience: rather than just sit in the theatre and watch the show, you start there and then follow an assigned character through the events of Houdini’s last days. As a spiritualist, you follow Margery or Doyle or possibly the guy who punched Houdini, maybe? As a pragmatist you follow Bess or Houdini’s doctor or maybe the guy who was drawing Houdini when the other guy punched him, I don’t… look, I don’t know every possible path. With a VIP “friend of the magician” ticket, you follow Minky or her brother or maybe Harry, hard to know, I just know that VIPs started the show thirty minutes earlier and had more time with Minky, which I envied.
Bess Houdini was played, for most of the run, by Robyn Adele Anderson, the original singer for and ongoing contributor to Postmodern Jukebox. I am… a bit of a fan, let’s say. When her Instagram started plugging the Kickstarter for this show, I was quickly sucked down a rabbit hole. The show seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me. Minutes later I’d pledged enough to get a “Pragmatist” ticket, which boosted my odds of being around Bess Houdini, and before long I was being asked what night I’d be seeing the show.
“Excellent question,” I thought. At which point is was time to plan a trip to NYC.
Later, I found out that the day I was supposed to attend, Ms. Anderson was starting her solo tour in earnest, and would be in Niagara Falls. Her last performance in the show was going to be the night I arrived in NYC.
Which called for a second ticket (something I was actively considering anyway) and a mild race against time.
Okay. So. It’s turning out I have a lot to say about this show, so it’s probably getting a separate entry, because we still have three shows to cover. Suffice to say, it was an impressive experience, worth doing twice, although I wished I’d been able to get a VIP ticket, because neither group I was in encountered Minky as much as I’d have liked.
Stay tuned, we’ll be coming back to this. Moving on. Fortunately, this next one should be fast.
3. The Play That Goes Wrong
In the spring of 2013, as part of the trek known as Dan and Ian Wander Europe (the long-awaited sequel to which is expected in June of next year), Ian and I picked up tickets for a small show called The Play That Goes Wrong that was showing in the basement rehearsal hall of a West End Theatre. It was one of the best things we did, and one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
That was then. Now it’s an international hit, a full-on franchise in the UK, and is wrapping its run on Broadway in a couple of months.
This was the third time I’d seen it, and the third cast, and it’s never stopped being funny.
What a delight this show is. If whoever brings this show to Calgary for the first time isn’t me, they’d better be great.
We didn’t get off on the best foot, since they started about 45 minutes late and I did not have a chair, but man they made it up to me quickly, opening with a woman doing a burlesque striptease while singing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a song I’d heard of but never heard.
Soon enough, the intros were done and the wrestling began. I had to piece together who was the face and who was the heel strictly through context, as the announcer who introduced the fighters spoke only Spanish. And in fact was the only person who spoke Spanish. But it maintains the luchador traditions, so sure. Sometimes it took a while to figure out who I was supposed to root for, as someone I went with noted that the faces and heels all used similar moves. In other cases it was clear. If you can’t figure out that the guy using vampiric hypnosis on his opponent is the bad guy, I really can’t help you. However, I certainly didn’t guess that I was supposed to root for the two guys dressed as psychedelic chickens over the guy who entered to the Doctor Who theme, but I got there eventually.
I think even before they were joined by some Andy Warhol-looking “famous German singer” named Heino, who literally swung into the ring to lead them in the chicken dance, before hurling himself into the crowd to escape retribution from Lil’ Cholo and Dr. Maldad.
I don’t know why any of that happened but gosh I was somehow glad it did. I think even the ref hurled himself into the audience during that match. His name is Platanito, and he was celebrating 45 years as a lucha ref that night, and Lil’ Cholo was celebrating 20 years as a luchador.
And yet, for everything I just described, that wasn’t the “wacky” fight.
A little person dressed as a pinata, a second little person dressed as a devil, and a fighter named “Dirty Sanchez.” I was not expecting this match to be big on dignity.
It was not.
And of course the burlesque performers were great. Hoop tricks, aerials, a fan dance… all great.
It was just a spectacularly fun night, and only $40. I’d go all the time if I lived in the same city.
A lucky break I was able to see it this once… and not the only lucky break on this list.
1. The Lifespan of a Fact
A non-fiction author named John D’Agata submits an essay on suicide and Las Vegas to a magazine. The editor-in-chief tasks an intern named Jim Fingal to fact-check the article before they publish, knowing that D’Agata tends to takes liberties. Jim takes this job more seriously than she was braced for.
What follows is a knock-down, drag out fight between poetic truth and factual accuracy, as Jim digs deep into every fact, figure, name, date, and claim in the essay, from the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas to what constitutes a “traffic jam” on the Vegas Strip, to the exact origins of tae kwon do.
That’s a real story about a real essay, which was compiled in a book, framing the text of an early draft of John’s essay with Jim’s notes, questions, and suggested corrections… and where it existed, the debate between the two.
And now it’s an absolutely riveting play, as Jim (Daniel Radcliffe*) ends up at John’s (Bobby Cannavale*) Las Vegas home, with their editor (Cherry Jones*) playing referee between them.
*The cast when I saw it. Theatre being theatre, they won’t be playing those roles forever. In fact, not past mid-January.
Radcliffe was brilliant, bringing a twitchy, awkward energy to Jim, both eager to please but unrelenting in his pursuit of accuracy in every line. Cannavale brings a harder presence to D’Agata, menacing Jim from line one, making it all the more impressive when Jim digs in and stands his ground against his more respected opponent.
“Don’t try to stare me down,” he says, in a perfectly even tone of voice. “I have two older brothers. I will fuck your shit up.” Not a threat. Not bluster or posturing. A simple statement of fact.
Was there a scandalous pleasure in hearing Harry Potter deliver that line? No. Because Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen. Radcliffe nailed the role so thoroughly that there was barely even a trace of Daniel Radcliffe. There was only Jim Fingal: awkward, nervous, but ruthlessly thorough fact-checker.
I must also praise Cherry Jones, who consistently got laughs as her character becomes more and more frustrated with the situation between her intern and this star writer.
The direction was also excellent, and the script incredible. Frequently hilarious, powerful in places, deeply compelling, and leaving you unsure exactly who was right. John, and his fudging of the details in pursuit of a greater truth? Or Jim, and his claims that in these times of fake news, conspiracy theories, and cries of “crisis actors,” journalism must and can only be based on facts?
(I don’t recall the exact phrasing of the line where he says this, I wish I did, but I know they had to wait for the audience to stop clapping before moving on.)
(The audience also did that thing where they burst into applause as soon as a famous person enters. I find that tacky. Maybe they just want to do the scene, people.)
Not a moment was wasted. Every line, every transition, every moment was just riveting. I was glad it didn’t have an intermission, sad that it was only 80ish minutes. I savoured every moment of this story (live in the moment as hard as you can, remember?), every masterful beat of it. I walked out into the New York streets afterwards, bursting with gratitude that Robyn Adele Anderson had plugged a Kickstarter for her show, that my lack of impulse control caused me to back it, that my internet provider gave me a $300 prepaid Visa for sticking with them a while longer**, that Aeroplan is winding down and I had points to burn. For every twist of fate and lucky break that brought me here, to this incredible city, to be in that room, watching this amazing piece of theatre. For one night, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
**Which was very necessary, I spent more on my ticket to this show than both performances of Houdini combined… possibly including all the drinks.
Naturally I bought the book. It’s not the script, no, but the textual battle between real-life Jim and John is just as interesting as the dramatized version starring Radcliffe, Jones, and Cannavale. Well, almost. Those three really nailed it.
Every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, I’m blessed with a night like that one, with a show that leaves me walking on air for having witnessed it. May of 2013, seeing the original cast and creators of The Play That Goes Wrong bring down the house years before they became an institution. June of 2017, seeing David Tennant’s stellar closing night performance in Don Juan in Soho. 1993, the premiere of Blackpool and Parish. And now The Lifespan of a Fact. Nights that remind me why I love what I do, why I stay in theatre through all the tedious production meetings or thin crowds and the times when I don’t know if I have another script in me. Nights that prove the magic of theatre.
Also seeing the divine Ms. Sara Niemietz live in concert with Postmodern Jukebox but that’s less about theatre, soooo…
I had a play of mine open just in the last couple of weeks, a pocket-sized pantomime called Peter Pan and the Fairy’s Tale. I’m seeing what they did with it in a few days, as of this writing. My parents are bringing my niece out to see it. I hope my show can give her even a taste of the wonder I felt at The Lifespan of a Fact, a hint of the joy I felt when Bess Houdini shook my hand at The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, a portion of the laughs from The Play That Goes Wrong. If I do, I’ll have done my job one more time.
Next time, we dig deeper into The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini as my New York adventures begin. Or maybe I talk about Doctor Who a bit as a palate cleanser. We’ll see how the week goes.