Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Putting a fresh edge on Sweeney Todd

Christopher Chew hones his edge as Sweeney.

I'll be honest: I found myself straddling a peculiar kind of critical fence as I watched the Lyric Stage's new production of Sweeney Todd.

On the one hand, I disagreed with many of director Spiro Veloudos's choices.

But on the other, I had to admit that more often than not, his show was working like gangbusters - largely because it features four remarkable supporting performances, a superb chorus, and in general showcases some of the most powerful singing I've heard on a local stage.

Still, when it came to his vision of the leading duo of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's macabre classic, I had my doubts. In the Veloudos version, the eponymous "demon barber of Fleet Street" returns to London (after escaping an unjust prison sentence and a shipwreck) a broken man, but perhaps not yet a murderous one.  Indeed, it took lead Christopher Chew most of the first act to rise to the  level of vengeful obsession that Len Cariou telegraphed from the opening scene of the show's premiere (which, like many others, I happened to see all those many moons ago).

But at the Lyric, Sweeney's razor-rampage was clearly a folie à deux of sorts - only half the mad pair in question wasn't nearly as crazy as usual. Instead, co-star Amelia Broome (below left, with Phil Tayler) pitched her Mrs. Lovett - who comes up with the idea of baking Sweeney's victims into meat pies - as something of a vamp;  the addled housewifery of Angela Lansbury seemed very far from Broome's essentially calculating nature.

Photos: Mark S. Howard
This somewhat compromised the parody of bourgeois gentility that Sondheim & Co. (working from a text by playwright Christopher Hampton) had embedded in the script. (And in some ways it made Mrs. Lovett more horrible than Sweeney.) But it actually enhanced the action's ghoulish atmosphere, which the physical production only emphasized: Janie E. Howland's set was literally a grindhouse, and blood sprayed like geysers from Sweeney's handiwork; for the first time, this grisly fable indeed seemed "a thriller" (as its initial marketing had promised), rather than a burlesque of one.

And at any rate, when a production is sung with this much power, I'm willing to forgive it anything. Broome seemed to struggle at first, but warmed up as things progressed; meanwhile Chew (an apt name, that, for this show!) reached a remarkable intensity as the chance of real revenge all but glittered before his baleful Sweeney.

But both leads were often upstaged by a startlingly talented and committed supporting cast. To be honest, there wasn't a weak link in this crew - everyone seemed utterly at ease with the score's unique mix of patter songs (drawn in equal parts from Edgar Allan Poe and Gilbert & Sullivan) and sudden flights into the melodic stratosphere. 

But special praise must go to Sam Simahk's passionate Anthony Hope, Davron S. Monroe's foppishly over-the-top Pirelli, and particularly Phil Tayler's hauntingly crippled Tobias Ragg (which probably counts as the most memorable Tobias I've seen).  And yet another set of laurels must go to the astonishing turn by Paul C. Soper as Judge Turpin. Soper's dramatic portrayal was as subtle as his vocals were grand - indeed, his Met-sized instrument proved so powerful I sometimes wished he'd modulate down in the ensembles.  Still, I can't quibble with the kind of performance that can send a shiver down your spine (and I don't think you will, either).

And while the action was sometimes a bit squeezed on the Lyric's intimate stage, Veloudos and company managed many a theatrical coup anyhow: the steaming oven center stage will stay with me for a long time - as will Pirelli's bloody descent into Sweeney's trunk. And I have to mention that this is the first time I've seen the sudden appearance of the Beadle's body in the grindhouse greeted by a genuine scream from the audience.  

On the other side of the ledger, there were a few vocal/instrumental balance problems - but with proper attention those should soon be corrected; likewise here's hoping the Lyric's talented music director, Jonathan Goldberg, will ease up on the gas on a few numbers ("Kiss Me" in particular), which on opening night were taken at such a clip that they got blurry even for someone like me, who practically has the lyrics memorized.  The evocative lighting was by Franklin Meissner, Jr.; the apt costumes, by the reliable Rafael Jaen.  I left the Lyric, I admit, in occasional disagreement with its director; but I could never deny his production's power.  In fact I doubt anyone could.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Back to Stratford, Feore's Lear - and "accidental" greatness

Colm Feore before the madness descends.
What makes a great production of Shakespeare great?

Sometimes it can be less than you might imagine.  

The Stratford Festival's gripping King Lear, for instance, has no breakthrough concept (just a subtle angle on what counts as the standard interpretation), and its monarch presides over an utterly traditional set. And while it's richly appointed (see above), there are a few costuming tweaks that go wrong (Edmund is unconvincingly styled as an ascetic), and none of the stage imagery struck me as particularly memorable.  Indeed, director Antoni Cimolino doesn't "do" anything in particular with the storm scene - nor is he tempted to pick at the braided identities of Cordelia and the Fool, or really any of the knotty fascinations of this grandly impacted text.

What the production has (instead) is a quartet of great performances - and a fifth nearly-great one. Basically it's carried by its Lear, Gloucester, Fool, and Edgar, who are all superb - while its Kent is damn good.

And you'll note this isn't even half the cast of the play. But it is very rare for any Shakespearean production - even a fine one - to breathe life into every great part that's available in the text. Indeed, watching two thirds of a cast reach greatness is like shooting the moon; seeing one that's brilliant across the board is like sighting a unicorn. The miracle is that for most of the major Shakespeares, a strong mini-ensemble within the larger ensemble is enough to guarantee a riveting evening (even with half the Bard's stunning material left, as it were, on the cutting room floor).

Maev Baety's Goneril.
Thus in Cimolino's Lear, I found myself pretty much ignoring all three of Lear's daughters (although Maev Baety, a new face at Stratford, showed potential as Goneril, at left).  Cordelia made little impression at all, but the director at least had the idea to shape her wicked sisters as political schemers, bound somewhat sympathetically to an irascible and increasingly senile father. But while this got him to the storm scene, it couldn't get him past it; eventually Regan and Goneril must begin plucking out eyes and poisoning each other, and that level of evil has to come from somewhere deeper than the plot outline of House of Cards.

Luckily, however, the core male performances often reached harrowing depths of Shakespearean feeling.  Although you could argue that it was Scott Wentworth's Gloucester and Evan Buliung's Edgar who dove deepest into this most tragic of texts; I've rarely seen their desperate wanderings over the deserted heath rendered with more heartbroken simplicity. Meanwhile Colm Feore's performance drew its power not from Lear's self-destruction but rather from the glimpses he afforded himself of his own descent. Feore remains one of Stratford's most technically gifted performers; and so Cimolino's stress on Lear's cognitive decline afforded him several striking coups de théâtre, as his performance leapt from dazzling control to abject drift and stammer.

Stephen Ouimette's memorable take on the Fool was, by way of contrast, almost mysterious in its means; indeed, Ouimette seemed to shrug off any and all attempt at comic display. Instead he underplayed everything, but with such quiet, unshowy confidence that the cumulative effect was devastating.  It was the kind of performance that it can take an actor a lifetime to achieve - and which exists as the product of a whole tradition rather than a single production or vision; it would be wrong to call its placement here "accidental," but in the end its greatness was more a gift from the tradition to the production than the other way around.  Which may be why it's also the kind of performance that's all but unknown in American Shakespeare.  Hopefully the Canadian tradition, still so much more vibrant than our own, will continue to produce "accidentally" great productions like this one for a long time to come.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Great public art is still possible: "The Kelpies"

This post - one of an occasional series on The Hub Review - was inspired by a random image someone sent me of "The Kelpies," sculptor Andy Scott's tribute to the workhorses of rural Scotland.

Completed in 2013, the Kelpies stand 30 meters high and weigh 300 tons each; they rear their heads in the center of "the Helix," a parkland project at one end of the Forth and Clyde Canal in Falkirk District, Scotland. 

The word "kelpie" refers to a mythological, self-transformative beast with the strength of 10 horses - one could construe the title as either a reference to the canals of Scotland, or the beasts of burden who pulled the barges down them.

Either way, the sculpture, which sports a gleaming skin of hand-crafted stainless steel plates, is quite stunning. Maquettes have toured Britain, and even appeared in New York.

This is not Mr. Scott's first noteworthy equine sculpture, however: "Heavy Horse," a rendering of a Clydescale standing on the main motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, is shown below.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Breaking through Wilson's Fences at Gloucester Stage

Daver Morrison swings for Wilson's Fences.
With Fences, the Pulitzer Prize winner which became a Broadway hit in 1987, playwright August Wilson seemed to swing for artistic pickets that had long been emblazoned with another author's name - that of Arthur Miller, whose seminal American tragedy Death of a Salesman looms behind Fences like a totem.

Small wonder, then, that Wilson claimed to have never read the play his own opus so often echoed. But who knows? Perhaps he never did. Or perhaps a sympathetic audience can understand that baldly admitting the influence of a leading white playwright might have undermined (or even undone) the effort of this author (of mixed race himself, though many assume otherwise) to achieve something new in the culture: the creation of a full-fledged African-American tragic hero - whose demonic "Iago" is nothing less than American racism itself.

That Wilson succeeded is by now evident, even if the play that corrals his hero, Troy Maxson, is often rough-hewn. Indeed, in terms of craft, Wilson perhaps never matched Miller (much less Shakespeare) - but in a way not unknown in the theatre, somehow the raw power of his voice punches through the rough finish of his play. Frustrated as I sometimes am by its meandering length, Fences never fails to move me - and it touched me again in the current production at Gloucester Stage (which closes this weekend).

It's not that director Eric C. Engel and his talented cast have uncovered new thematic depths in the script, much less "done" something with (or to) the play - they haven't; in fact from its opening moments, the Gloucester version announces itself as a round and unvarnish'd, but basically standard, edition of Wilson's work. Nor is the action overtly linked to the current tragedy in Ferguson, MO (which reminds us - if we needed any reminder - that honest rumination on racism in this country is always timely). No, Engel and his cast have simply attempted to do artistic justice to Wilson's complicated vision of a man half-guilty of his own downfall; and to that, as Miller himself might have said, attention must be paid.

Although that goal means sometimes negotiating (and at times transcending) the script's limits.  For Wilson granted himself few of the conceptual freedoms Miller enjoyed; there's no dream-state psycho-analysis to be found here, and likewise no phantom friends or doppelgängers of the kind Willy Loman encounters as that famous salesman shuffles toward his Death. Indeed, Wilson only gets "inside the head" of his lead through monologue - which lays heavy demands on any actor who takes up the mantle of the play's leading role.

Warren Jackson, Jacqui Parker and Jermel Nakia in August Wilson's Fences.  Photos: Gary Ng.

At Gloucester, that role is delivered by Daver Morrison (who I think still counts as a newcomer locally) with striking authority; Mr. Morrison is not only a believable athlete (Troy's personal tragedy was the racist destruction of his promising career in baseball), but is also blessed with a clarion voice that James Earl Jones himself (who originated the role on Broadway) might have envied. Indeed, Morrison's performance is coolly, almost elegantly, confident - but whether it fully conveys Troy's growing (if denied) awareness of his own spiral toward self-destruction could be debated, I think; likewise tricky questions regarding what disappointed forces his exterior bluster fences in - or what drives him to wrap the chains of racism around his own son (much less betray his faithful wife) - are perhaps never fully limned.

Still, Mr. Morrison remains focused throughout the eloquent marathon Wilson has written for him, and his personal magnetism sees him through the occasional interpretive gap.  And he is surrounded by a remarkably consistent supporting cast.  Jacqui Parker brings a smokily subdued warmth to the part of Rose, his long-suffering wife, while Jared Michael Brown exudes sensitive appeal (if perhaps not quite enough roiling resentment) as the son whose athletic career Troy sabotages just as his own was.  And elsewhere Warren Jackson brings a light touch (perhaps almost too light) to Troy's sketchily charming son from a previous marriage; but the most fearless performance in the cast is certainly that of Jermel Nakia, who daringly physicalizes Troy's damaged brother Gabriel.  Indeed, Nakia's final scene, in which he attempts to herald Troy's entrance to heaven like his namesake angel, is perhaps the most moving version of this scene I've yet witnessed, and caps this memorable close to Gloucester's summer season.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stratford comes out of the closet with Midsummer

Titania (Jonathan Goad) falls hard for Bottom (Stephen Ouimette) at Stratford. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

As gay marriage has swept the civilized world (and no, that does not include the Southland, or other Republican redoubts), I suppose it was inevitable it would catch up with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - as well as the rest of his comedies, as they almost all close with multiple marriages (Midsummer wraps with three, if you don't count Oberon and Titania's romantic reconciliation).

Still - who would have thought that Canada's venerable Stratford Festival would lead the charge out of the closet?  Yet that is what has happened with director Chris Abraham's landmark Midsummer, which has been devised as an entertainment for a gay marriage celebration in a Stratford backyard - much as  the burlesque "Pyramus and Thisbe" is performed for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta within Shakespeare's play. (So here "Pyramus" becomes a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, and Midsummer itself becomes something of a burlesque.)

Not everyone has been overjoyed about this. Indeed, this Midsummer has been met with vexed reviews - one major Toronto reviewer gave it four stars, but another not even one - and Chris Jones, down in gonzo/macho Chicago, likewise seemed a little uncomfortable with its anything-goes queer ethos. (Although Jones was careful not offend any political sensibilities: "Abraham is making a statement.  Good for him, say I. There is great value in a production that takes such joy in the sudden changes in the world. The moment should be marked."  Okay . . . thanks for letting us know, Chris.)

Now the subtext here (it seems to me) is a rich one, and has as much to do with Stratford as with Shakespeare. The Festival - which I've been attending for some thirty years - has long seemed to exist in a kind of glass closet; many of its leading lights were obviously gay, but a discreet veil fell over that fact in public discussion. And what Abraham has essentially done is tear that cultural hymen away - so there were bound to be ripples in the larger theatrical pond. He puts the Festival's most butch actors in drag, and the most femme ones in boots, and turns the romantic leads into lesbians for good measure. What's more, the production is so closely observed (the milieu of the hipster wedding is superbly realized) that it feels like the 'truest' update of Shakespeare I've ever seen. The actors really do just seem to be up there being themselves, evincing their own attitudes, gender-bent or not; there's a relaxed, funky vibe that's new at Stratford (and rare in any theatre). It has been said of many a production that the performers "seemed to be having a really good time" - but this Midsummer brings that kind of playful atmosphere to a whole new level.

Bottom and the mechanicals warm up "Pyramus and Thisbe" by the grill.

To be fair to the naysayers, however, I'd never argue that this is a penetrating exploration of the text.  It's a lark, not a lecture; a diversion, not a dissertation. Bottom wears an apron that reads "Daddy-o of the Patio," and Titania looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed for the prom; later there's a food fight, and the fairies (a happy band of kids who scamper over everything, and don't care who's gay and who's not) sing Bruno Mars in the moonlight, before a disco ball descends for a dance-along to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." So you don't brood over this Midsummer, you boogie to it (when you're not dodging the wedding cake) - but in a wholesome, basically Shakespearean way.

Why do I say "basically Shakespearean"? Well, because here you never feel that anyone is pimping the Bard to sell drinks (as you do in other disco Midsummers which shall not be named!) - but also because sexuality as performance is a deep Shakespearean concern; indeed there's a clear parallel between millennial attitudes and the mood of his greatest comedies (and particularly the travesty of romantic tragedy that wraps this one).

Yet other Shakespearean basics do seem to be missing; indeed, the flaw in this Midsummer may be that it isn't gay enough - or rather, that there's no real sex (either gay or straight) in it. For if Oberon and Titania are both genial macho dudes (who end the evening with a boo-yah! chest bump), it's easy to like both of them, but hard to find any romantic tension (or poetry) between them; and a great Midsummer should have both. Still, director Abraham could counter that his production offers political, rather than poetic, insights: here, for instance, Lysander and Hermia's cry to be free to marry who they choose has a new and poignant resonance.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to ponder a different Festival offering, which purported to dive deep into Shakespeare's text - Peter Sellars' "chamber" production of Midsummer, done with only four actors in a found space in Stratford.  (Yes, the Festival presented two opposing views of the same play this season, for the first time in its history.)

Only I actually can't ponder the Sellars Midsummer - because I bailed on it. The noises the director had made were discouraging (he said he was trying to find common ground between Shakespeare and Strindberg!!), and the local buzz was negative - while two friends who did see it gave it a thumbs-down. So while I had tickets, suddenly I just couldn't face it. The whole shebang - texts cut by half, whispering actors, arty installations, "intensity" - it all seemed so pretentiously dated. (And to be honest, it also sounded like an artifact from another kind of cultural closet.  If gay marriage kills off that whole theatrical faction, I found myself thinking, it will have really accomplished something!)

So I traded my ticket to the Sellars for one to King John - which I'll consider in the second part of this series on the Stratford Festival.

(To be continued.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad Habit takes on Translations

Patrick Varner and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard communicate via body language in Translations.

Bad Habit Productions has a habit of producing eloquent versions of literate, large-ensemble plays from the British tradition, and their current production of Brian Friel's Translations (through this weekend at the BCA) proves no exception to the rule - although Friel is of course Irish, not British, a distinction very apropos to Translations itself.

For the author's popular 1980 melodrama explores a forgotten episode in Great Britain's long domination of the Emerald Isle: sandwiched in between the Rebellion of 1798 and the Great Famine of 1845, the crown launched a covert effort to erase Gaelic - and airbrush away much of Irish identity - by "officially" mapping the landscape, while anglicizing the country's many (and often competing) place-names in the process.  Thus "Baile Beag" (roughly, "Small Town," a common enough name for an Irish hamlet) became the blunter "Ballybeg," while pungent tongue-twisters like "Poll na gCaorach" (roughly "The Hole of Sheep") were boiled down to the likes of "Poolkerry."

Friel sets this tale of indirect but deliberate cultural oppression in a rural "hedge school" of one of Ireland's many "Ballybegs," and his appealing central trope is that while his Irish and British characters are both intelligible to us, they can't understand each other. And perhaps inevitably, he works in an added audience hook: one sensitive soldier sent to eradicate Gaelic quickly falls in love with its mysterious music - and with the local lass who speaks it, too.

Sometimes this subplot makes Translations seem like little more than Ryan's Daughter Revisited - but to be fair, the soapy touches in the text also make the historical questions more accessible to a general audience, and Friel's handling of much of his action is subtle and apt. Perhaps more importantly, the script brims with strong character sketches - and luckily Bad Habit has pulled together a top-notch non-Equity cast for this production, from which director M. Bevin O'Gara has drawn mostly detailed and affecting work.

The standouts are Patrick Varner's lyrically smitten soldier, Greg Maraio's cheerfully knockabout local lug, and Gabriel Graetz's romantically frustrated school teacher - but they're given more than solid support by Kevin Fennessey, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Bob Mussett, and Margaret Clark in a variety of smaller but sharply etched performances. Alas, two of the leads - Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Matthew Barrett - struck me as appealing young talents who hadn't yet sounded the deeper dimensions of their characters; and another major role had just been re-cast with an actor who understandably wasn't quite up to full speed.  Even with these minor gaps, however, the Bad Habit ensemble once again impressed.

And O'Gara once more proved herself a superb director of individual actors, although she seemed to miss some of the larger challenges of this particular text. There was little sense of the unspoken, resentful threat that should move in the background of Friel's mise-en-scène, for instance - nor did the production manage to convey the playwright's suggestion that the incidents of his play had set off a gathering historical storm (it relied on literal rumbles of thunder instead). To be honest, these aren't minor points - but many of the performances on display here are charming enough that you'll find yourself tempted to forget them.

Friel's "hedge school" of 1833. Photos: Paul Cantillon.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The actors go the distance as 4000 Miles spins its wheels

Life looks better when you're stoned, and to be honest, so does this play. (Photo: Gary Ng)

I'm happy to report that with its current show, 4000 Miles, feisty little Gloucester Stage has once again showcased some of the best acting in the Boston area.

But I also have to say (once again) that all that talent has been put in service of a play that's only - well, serviceable. Miles is a mildly amusing evening, sure, but given the acting firepower assembled here - and the huzzahs for playwright Amy Herzog rising from New York and Washington - you expect the show to combust, rather than mostly sputter like a damp squib.

But what can I say?  I guess times are tough in New York and D.C.! Of course the critic who went gaga over it at the Times was none other than Charles Isherwood, and we all know by now to take him with at least a grain of salt (or maybe a whole shaker to be on the safe side). "The Ish" (as he's known) often loses his head over the protégées of favored gurus at certain egghead redoubts, and needless to say, Herzog has been launched from Yale, and has triangulated her little dramedy to appeal to familiar audience segments on the East and West Sides, two demographics very near and dear to the heart of the Arts section at the Times. (It probably helps that Herzog is married to Sam Gold, the director who has been tending the inflation of Annie Baker's plays of late - to similar acclaim from the Ish.)

But alas, in dramatic terms Herzog has also triangulated her script between a romcom and a sitcom - with the resulting hybrid tagging the sentimental conventions of both genres, only to little dramatic effect. Although we get the impression that Herzog is also signaling (via authorial semaphore) that her whole idea is to have no dramatic effect. (In this way she reminds me a bit of my awkward little niece, who announces after every unintentional spill, "I meant to do that!")

You see Herzog's 91-year-old lead, "Vera" (Nancy E. Carroll) - who's unexpectedly playing hostess to a crunchily conflicted nephew in her Manhattan apartment - has begun to "lose her words," and maybe some of her memory, too.  And so the playwright seems to think it's okay to lose her grip on story and structure in much the same way.  Thus weird inciting incidents arise, but then are dropped - and love interests come and go - while the plot, such as it is, hinges on not one but two deaths we never see, of characters we never meet; you could almost call these choices brave, if they weren't so meandering . . . but there you have it.  "The Ish" raved, so Herzog is The Next Big Thing, at least for a while.

And to be fair, she's not the worst Next Big Thing to be launched by the Times. Herzog does have a light touch with dialogue, and intermittently manages an atmosphere of eccentric affection between Vera and "Leo" (Tom Rash), the callow biker taking an extended break from a cross-country ride on her sofa - a ride, btw, that he saw no reason to end when his best friend was squashed under a truckload of Tyson chickens!  Oh, well - maybe he was distracted by memories of frenching his sister while high on peyote, as he recounts in an earlier scene.  Or maybe he was still fixated on memories of his mother doing the same thing!

What, that sounds like the opening scene of some wicked little satire of New Age mores?  Well, not in Herzog's book - move along, nothing dramatic to see here, and at any rate something even more bizarre is going to be dropped off-handedly in the next scene, trust me.  The whole graduate-school mélange does briefly come together when Vera and Leo trade war stories while wasted (at top).  My advice regarding an earlier new play at Gloucester was to come late.  This time, it's probably best to go stoned. And bring Charles Isherwood.

Even if we don't get to watch a great play, though, we get to watch a great cast, anchored by local star Nancy Carroll, who as Hub Review regulars know is kind of in a class by herself.  This isn't exactly news, of course, everybody agrees - I think it was almost seven years ago that I said Carroll should be given the keys to the city for her performances so far, and she has only gotten better since then. When people ask me what "truth" in acting looks like, I usually say, "Just watch Nancy Carroll." Because she is always honest, and never vain - and the sheer economy of her performances is legendary; Carroll does more with less than probably any actress in town. Her no-nonsense take on Vera's poignant decline almost saves this script all by itself, and she does manage to conjure, with little help from the playwright, a budding sense of connection with Leo.  But the rest of the (non-Equity) cast, under the direction of Eric C. Engel, is only a small step behind - although newcomer Tom Rash, while the perfect physical type for Leo (and an attentive foil for Carroll) manages to suggest less unspoken turmoil than perhaps he should. But as his two love interests (one long- and one very-short-term), both Sarah Oakes Muirhead and Samantha Ma do more with their roles than perhaps Herzog's rough dramaturgy deserves.  So everybody more or less goes the distance - if only this play were in gear!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lost in the stars of the 70's (Jamie Wyeth, Part 2)

Two obsessions - Nureyev and the color yellow.
(This is the second of a three-part series on Jamie Wyeth, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the MFA. The first installment is available here.)

It's not hard to imagine the curious crossroads that Jamie Wyeth faced in the early 70's.

On the one hand, he was the scion of one of America's most famous painterly families, and the inheritor of a superb realist talent (indeed, he already had a clutch of masterpiece portraits to his credit). The artist also had few financial worries; his family's fame (and his own skills) ensured him a stream of lucrative commissions, and moreover he had married into the du Pont dynasty.

So as he approached thirty, Wyeth was utterly secure in one way - but in another, he was completely at sea. For realism was all but ridiculed in the high artistic society of the 70's, and Wyeth found himself facing unrelenting critical hostility. And while his talent was undeniable - and his obsession with his craft all but complete - the object of that ability remained indeterminate.

For the legacies of his father (and grandfather) still loomed over his achievement so far. And their essentially literary artistic values had fallen on hard critical times. Sentiments, insights, impressions - the very meaning of "realism" - all this seemed passé, much like technical prowess itself. So by the 70's the Wyeths were being widely dismissed as illustrators rather than artists.

It's perhaps no surprise then that Jamie began to drift; and given his social position, that he drifted among the parallel demimondes of celebrity and wealth. What's almost too perfect an irony, however, is that he eventually found himself in the orbit of Andy Warhol. For Warhol, far more than Wyeth, really was an illustrator - in fact he got his start sketching shoes. Yet Warhol was already well on his way to iconic status, while Wyeth was all but being ignored; for he had done what Wyeth could not: he had brilliantly re-invented illustration as a new phase of the avant-garde.

"Jamie Wyeth," Andy Warhol, 1976
This was accomplished with just a handful of images - the famous soup cans and Brillo boxes chief among them. But the superficiality of these pop-art tricks only concealed the depth of the transformation their banality heralded. Somehow Warhol had instinctively known that retail all by itself could fill the vacuum left by society's various post-war liberations - indeed, that it had to fill it. Which proved arguably the most powerful insight since the forging of modernism; in fact fifty years on, we're still living through zombie-like revivals of Warhol's central idea. Still, it inspired only a brief flowering in his own art; the high period of Warhol's achievement stretches only half a decade, to the day the pop impresario was shot and nearly killed at his famous "Factory" in 1968.

Indeed, by the time Wyeth became a habitué of the Factory, Warhol was in artistic (if hardly financial) decline, churning out celebrity portraits and holding court at intentionally vacuous Interview parties. His portrait of Wyeth (above left) tells you as much: it's "fabulous" in its lipstick-pink way, but the color-field/wall-paint gambit no longer shocks, and the underlying silkscreen could be of Liza, or Liz, or anyone famous, really.  (Unbelievably, Warhol claimed to have spent two months on it!)

"Andy Warhol," Jamie Wyeth, 1976.
In contrast, Jamie's reciprocal portrait of Warhol (at right) spooks you with its psychological depth. Perhaps some of this derives from the artist's seeming awareness of the subtle parallels between himself and his subject (neither man was at home, really, in his own skin). Thus the horrified recoil of this startled corpse recalls (but intensifies) the mood of an earlier Wyeth self-portrait (see post below) - and the artist re-purposes tricks from his remarkable "Portrait of Shorty" to subtly suggest Warhol's inner disarray: his buttons are undone, and his attire and wig are clownishly askew; meanwhile his anxiously aroused dachshund seems to be emanating right out of his abdomen. No wonder Warhol (much like Helen Taussig before him) opined that he wanted to keep the painting in a closet! And no wonder an eventual show of the work in New York won its painter a little overdue prestige.

So while you'll only glance at Warhol's brand statement (it's part of the show at the MFA), you'll be drawn irresistibly into the Wyeth. And in the process, you may notice what I think counts as a small step in the artist's individuation from his father: Jamie's brush stroke is here thicker and more corporal than the Wyeth patriarch's famous featherbeds of dry pigment  - and Warhol's pallor is faintly, but uniquely, citrine.

Indeed, I realized while looking at this memento mori (as it were) that yellow was Wyeth's signature color, his acid answer to Warhol's gay lavender. Yellow actually grounds several of the early portraits (including "Shorty"); but it first fluoresces openly in Wyeth's 70's sketch of Rudolf Nureyev in performance (at top - an image so striking it was chosen as the poster for the production, Don Quixote).

You may also perceive here another of Wyeth's emergent obsessions - savage élan. For the searing sheet of neon gold before which Nureyev is poised ruthlessly heightens his attitude of attack -  he might almost be a bird of prey; and it's worth noting that the artist was far more entranced by the ballet star than he was by Warhol, the art star. Indeed, Wyeth reportedly executed hundreds of renderings of the dancer's vulpine glamour (here we even see a rarely-exhibited gouache of Rudy nude, with his imposing endowment scrupulously mapped by this most precise of painters!).

But the Nureyev portraits in the end are more dazzling than diagnostic; we see the dancer's skin, but don't get under it. The images instead hint at something about their painter, and his own fascinations. For the cruel confidence of Nureyev's pursed profile haunts Wyeth's output to the present day; you can see its echo in the beaks of his many gulls and ravens, and even in the cerrated edges of his shells, skulls and bones. Likewise the blanched alienation he captured in Warhol floats like a veil over the faces he was drawn to paint once he had retreated to redoubts in Pennsylvania and Maine.

These opposed presences are quite evident, for instance, in "Kleberg" (below), from 1984. On one level, the painting is just a sketch of the family dog, a yellow (yes, yellow) Lab; but its odd details transform the picture into yet another oblique self-portrait.  A painted loop around the pliant pup's left eye seems to "target"  him as a painter - or at least as a watcher of the world; and he's placed in a curiously Cézannesque space, bisected by verticals that seem to vanish, and a floor that slopes improbably; meanwhile the books on the tilted shelf behind him are all of significance to Wyeth or his family (even Treasure Island is there).

Stranger still is the fact that Nureyev is there too - at least in spirit - in the skep bee-hive that's inexplicably sitting next to the clueless canine.  Needless to say, its straw is Wyeth's signature yellow - in fact a sickly gold; and it's capped with a vaguely Slavic crown. It even sports two beady eyes, a smudge of a nose, and a boxy little mouth, spiked with spindly teeth. Most importantly, we can imagine it humming with internal menace - it's a sallow daemon, sealed away from us, but defiantly alive - and perhaps even patiently waiting.  And it heralds a new, self-conscious trope in Wyeth's art: after he withdrew to the Brandywine and Monhegan Island, he became obsessed with conjuring a sense of mystical presence - often non-human presence - in his images of the natural world.  But I'll consider that development more fully in the third and final part of this series.

"Kleberg," Jamie Wyeth, 1984.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Complete Bard, Abridged (again!)

Brooks Reeves cooks up some comedy as Titus Andronicus.
Just as the swallows return each spring to Capistrano, so it seems The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) returns every summer to at least one of Boston's stages.

And why not?  It's a cute show, ideal for a college town (it was first designed for the Edinburgh Fringe), with enough insider winks mixed among its broadsides to keep both Shakespeare's haters and adulators happy. 

And thank God, it never wades into the shallows of all that Oxfordian foolishness; indeed, beneath its Beatrice-and-Butthead snark, the show evinces a clear desire to sneak a sense of the genius of the Man from Stratford under the current generation's cultural radar, and into hearts and minds both innocent and ignorant of just how powerful great art can be.

And it helps that more often than not, it's just plain clever. My favorite bits in this valentine/raspberry to the canon are the snappy pastiches, like the mash-up of every comic gimmick the Bard ever borrowed into something like The Twelfth Night of Much Ado about the Merrie Wives of Venice (or whatever it's called).  I also always get a kick out of the chronicle of the history plays translated onto a football field (with the crown itself passed or punted over the gridiron of history).

I'm less tickled by the longer parodies of specific plays (although conveying Ophelia's confused state of mind through audience participation almost justifies an extended sojourn in Hamlet). And frankly these are not the most experienced Shakespeareans I've seen take on these sketches - so the yuks rarely have the wicked, knowing edge they can sometimes conceal. Still, the all-guy cast at Hub Theatre Company (no relation to the Hub Review, btw) always keep the blank verse bouncing, and director Lauren Elias knows to keep the gags coming - and coming (the broader the better!) - so the show has a friendly, go-for-it vibe that's consistently beguiling.

The standout in the cast was William J. Moore - the gonzo gleam in his eye, coupled with a sexily goofball grin, brought a shine to every skit he was in. But not far behind was smart, fussy Brooks Reeves, while  Patrick Curran - though he struck me as a bit more of a stand-up comic than a true actor - definitely gave good "dude" whenever one of Shakespeare's heroes said something particularly stoopid. I must also note that the stage management of this onslaught of drag and gags came off without a hitch, and the space - the cabaret at Club Café - proved surprisingly congenial. As a light, literate aperitif before a night of drinks and dancing (which was what was happening next at Club Café), it could hardly be bettered - and given that the Hub Theatre is committed to a pay-what-you-can policy, the price is right, too.  Through this weekend only.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Portraits by an artist as a young man (Jamie Wyeth, Part 1)

Jamie Wyeth, "Self-Portrait," 1969.
James Browning Wyeth (at right) - son of Andrew Wyeth, and grandson of N.C. Wyeth - never outgrew his childhood nickname, "Jamie."

And judging from his recent appearance at the MFA to open his retrospective there, "Jamie Wyeth," he never outgrew his fondness for knickers, either.

Which suggests there's a touch of Peter Pan to this third-generation scion of our first family of realist painters. Images like the one at right only re-inforce that impression: Wyeth was 23 at the time, but portrayed himself as younger - indeed, as almost adolescent. Diffident, sensitive, and sexually vulnerable, he's like a threatened waif out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped (which his grandfather famously illustrated in a career that kickstarted an entire dynasty).

What the painting also suggests - beyond a haunting theme of innocence lost amidst barbarism - is that the young Wyeth was one of the very greatest American portraitists. No less an eminence than Lincoln Kirstein declared him the best since Sargent, so it's no surprise there's a painting of Kirstein himself at the MFA that more than validates that claim - even though it's one of Wyeth's lesser achievements in the genre.  

"Portrait of Helen Taussig," 1963
Indeed, it's outshone by a half-dozen portraits that could rank among the most penetrating of the past century. Wyeth's notorious rendering of the eminent cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig is here, for instance (at left) - an image so stark it shocked the good doctor and her colleagues at the time, perhaps in part because it had been painted by a 17-year-old boy (it was the young Wyeth's first commission - he only got it because there's wasn't enough cash available to cover his father's fee, to whom it had first been offered).  

Although to be honest, "horrified" might be a better word for the official reaction to the portrait. The indefatigable Taussig had been refused a degree by both Harvard Medical School and Boston University,  but finally was awarded an MD by Johns Hopkins, where she took up residency. During her tenure there, she suggested a technique that saved the lives of countless "blue" babies, and eventually became chief of cardiology. Thus her colleagues hoped to honor her with a standard slab of "great man" flattery - much like the many canvases that gather dust in the halls of hospitals the world over.  

But instead they got this piercing picture of troubled, but undaunted, intelligence - biographers have since confirmed that Dr. Taussig had just lost a patient prior to sitting for it, and Wyeth captured that inner blow almost exactly. It should also be mentioned that at this point in her career Dr. Taussig had gone deaf  - yes, she "listened" for the heartbeats of the babies in her care with her fingers. Somehow I was unsurprised to learn that; Wyeth's artistry had already painted in an unspoken backstory for her of repeated gauntlets and obstacles overcome.

Helen B. Taussig, by Yousuf Karsh
But that's not why the doctor who unveiled it wept in dismay (somehow she could not see the calm fire in the sparkling sapphires of the portrait's eyes). Her colleagues likewise called it "evil," and the hospital blanched at hanging it - so it was offered to the great physician as a gift. She in turn was gracious to Wyeth, but wouldn't hang the picture; for years it gathered dust in her attic instead of her office. 

Not everyone was so shocked by Wyeth's round, unvarnished rendering - in fact The Lancet judged it "a brilliant masterpiece" - but it still remained under wraps for the coming decades. Friends and colleagues even urged Taussig to destroy it (a more conventional compliment was eventually procured from celebrity photographer Yousuf Karsh, at right). 

Still, somehow the painting survived in the archives at Johns Hopkins, and slowly became better-known, although its MFA appearance marks the first time it has been widely seen since the day it was unveiled.  Which may be why curator Elliot Bostwick Davis holds it back till the last minute as a kind of artistic lagniappe - although to be honest, perhaps she also senses in its depths some of the richness that only the first half of "Jamie Wyeth" consistently supplies.

For this retrospective does seem to wander far from the power of such images as "Portrait of Shorty," below, another early triumph for this precocious painter (who completed this at age 17 as well, along with another masterpiece not at the MFA, the heartbreaking "Lester", which is worthy of Velázquez).

"Portrait of Shorty," 1963.
But if determination was the subtext of "Taussig," then irresolution shadows "Shorty," although Wyeth explores this very different theme with even deeper and more patient craft (indeed it would be hard to overstate the subtlety of this portrayal). The subject was a local "character" in Wyeth's hometown, and the young artist suggests his lowly status with calm economy: Shorty is unshaven, and clad only in a "wife-beater," although his physique is slack, and skin sagging; meanwhile the smoothly upholstered throne in which Wyeth has placed him seems to comment ironically on both his tattered clothes and sallow complexion, while whispering of a richness he has never known (and never will know - "Shorty," we realize, will always come up short). In fact, if you squint a bit, you may even see something like scornful laughter in the Rohrschach blots of the wingback's satin pattern. But beyond the chair itself, there is only blackness - a void which Shorty himself seems to both emanate from and scan with anxious uncertainty. Indeed, his haggard eyes are the most touching thing in the picture: they seem to anticipate some new humiliation from the universe.

"Jamie Wyeth," by Andy Warhol
It's yet another startling achievement from a basically teen-aged painter. But you may have noticed that every work discussed so far was executed before the artist's 25th birthday; and indeed "Jamie Wyeth" leaves one quite sure that the artist's early years were his heyday. Still ensconced in the supportive frame of his family, and couched in their artistic tradition, he was operating at a level that was almost vertiginously high, and yet - by the critical standards of the day - also ridiculously low. 

For Wyeth endured repeated critical drubbings throughout the 60's, just as he should have been coming into his own.  So perhaps it's no surprise that he was drawn into the orbit of Andy Warhol, the rising critical darling of the era (Warhol's silkscreen of Wyeth, at right).  But we'll consider that encounter, and its fall-out, in the next installment of this critical assessment.

(The second part of this series is available here.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gloucester Stage floats some summer stock

The widow and the wiseguy at Gloucester Stage.  Photo: Gary Ng.

Summer stock still lives!

As a theatergoer, you may (or may not) be glad to know that - and of course "lives" may not be quite the verb I'm looking for in the case of Jack Neary's Auld Lang Syne, whose modest charms are currently spacing out the more ambitious productions at Gloucester Stage. Maybe "Summer stock is still mildly entertaining!" or "Summer stock is still a pretty good way to while away two hours on a hot night as long as there's air conditioning!" might be better opening salvos for this review.

Still, I have seen weaker new plays than Auld Lang Syne - its author has a talent for badinage, at least - although it must be said the value of this stock issue largely derives from its two stars, much-loved local acting couple Paula Plum and Richard Snee, who sell the rather predictable twists of Neary's plot with sure, subtle skill (and even swing his abrupt shifts in tone). Plum is the mousy widow from Southie who longs to join her departed husband in the hereafter; Snee is the wannabe wiseguy she hopes will help her on her way.  She's a good Catholic, you see, so suicide is taboo - but she doesn't want anybody to kill her while he's mad at her, either; meanwhile the hired hand, though he's been rehearsing for a whack job all his life, has some doubts about whacking someone quite this wacky, oh and another thing  . . .

You get the picture. It goes without saying that summer stock is long on exposition and short on development, but Neary pushes the envelope of dramatic delay so far that he all but tears it open; in fact we're almost an hour in before we get to anything like rising action - and then it's only a slight upward grade.

Still, the bright side of that strategy is that he only has to write half a play - and the upside for you is that you can come in late without missing anything. In fact my advice is aim for intermission, because things do improve in the second half, when Neary finally gets around to his actual exposition. Alas, we never reach anything like development, which is too bad, because the play's premise is a bit better than a mere gimmick; indeed, I kept thinking that if only the playwright had watched Plum and Snee in action, he might have been tempted to write them better lines! But Neary never explores the parallel ironies of these two basically wasted lives: the widow and the wiseguy (now there's a title for you) never achieve any new level of self-awareness, and they don't even build a real relationship (although Plum and Snee, through pure sleight-of-hand, may make you half-believe they do). And in a two-hander, those are basically your only options.

Oh, well. I must also report, however, that despite the script's shortcomings, many in the opening night audience at Gloucester were not displeased as the curtain fell. But I suppose it helped that the show was sprinkled with catnip for a Boston crowd of a certain age (if you remember Edith Bunker, and thought Nunsense rocked, you'll love this), and Plum and Snee do keep the ping-pong ball of the dialogue bopping lightly through the air. And under the capable direction of Doug Lockwood, both sketch in the backgrounds of their characters' journeys as well, even if this dramatic vehicle is basically stalled; Snee may have been the more compelling in this regard, although perhaps we've simply seen Plum go down this road too many times before. But then even a well-traveled path can be welcome if the destination is worthy. Maybe next time this playwright will provide one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The suddenly shrinking fringe

The world of Boston theatre just got a little smaller.

For word has reached us that the venerable Factory Theatre, a long-time tenant in the rear basement of the famous "Piano Factory" at 791 Tremont, will close its doors as of October 31.  A widely circulated letter from Greg Jutkiewicz, who has been handling the space since 2007, states that the building's management has decided to push the theatre out to make room for "amenities like a fitness center, gated parking lot, and a concierge."  Ah yes - just what the South End needs: a gym and a concierge!  After all they're so rare in these parts . . .

Oh, well. Gentrification is an old story, but every time it's told, it seems to have fresh teeth, doesn't it. The loss of the Factory will hit Boston's fringe hard, of course, as the space, though spartan, was in a prime location - close to the T, and only a stone's throw from the South End's lively restaurant and bar scene.  So it's no surprise that almost every smart new theatre company with big dreams (but a smaller bank account) at some point played its famously rough-hewn "stage." Beau Jest Moving Theatre, Whistler in the Dark, and Mill 6 Collaborative all were resident companies at some point or other - and the T Plays and Tales from Ovid both debuted there. The Factory currently hosts Heart & Dagger, Happy Medium, Fresh Ink, and many other companies - all of whom are scrambling for new homes for the shows they had expected to stage there this winter and beyond.

The good news - and there is a bit of it - is that the fringe is already trying to respond, and they're a much more supportive, idealistic, and connected crowd than the mid-sized and large company scenes.  Dawn Simmons at the BCA is reportedly launching a "Factory Theatre Orphans" initiative, and the folks at ArtsBoston are said to be reaching out to alternative spaces. A few people are even mulling bringing this to the attention of the Mayor's office - after all, hizzonah has often said how important the arts are to the city - maybe there's a little political muscle that can be put behind that promise. Who knows? Sometimes a crisis can pull a community together - and that could be the silver lining to this latest blow to the fringe.

Of course there is one thing about the Factory that will be hard to replace  - the space's sheer grittiness. Its unvarnished bricks and cold concrete floor were like nothing else in Boston - so basic you couldn't even pretend they were "funky" or "shabby chic." They were just real - a painted flat didn't stand a chance at the Factory - which made the space ideal for Beckett (a memorable Krapp's Last Tape just played there), Caryl Churchill, and other playwrights with a raw or probing edge.

So the Factory will be missed by many beyond the local acting community - yours truly included. Even though I'm confident the fringe will weather this latest blow, I'll miss that brutish, blunt old space. Yes, I know there's no nostalgia like nostalgie de la bout - but then again, did anyone ever wax nostalgic for a stairmaster and a concierge? Somehow I don't think so. Wherever the migrant birds of the fringe next settle - and don't worry, we'll be tracking their movements on the Hub Review - let's hope they don't forget the lessons they learned on the Factory's rough proscenium.