Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Barbie and Ken go to Weimar

File under "stupid quote for the day" -

From singer/pianist Amanda Palmer, the Barbie half of the Dresden Dolls, on their upcoming production The Onion Cellar at the ART:

"The director [Marcus Stern] has said from the beginning that we can create a piece of theater that rises to the level of a rock show rather than bring a rock show down to the level of theater."

Fer sure, Amanda! Like stupid old theater could EVER rise to the awesome level of you know, like rock and everything.

Next: Debbie Harry disses Beckett!

Have reports of her layoff been greatly exaggerated . . ?

According to the Weekly Dig (and then the Boston Business Journal), she was let go last week. But the unsinkable Terry Byrne pops up very much alive and kicking in today's Herald, with a review of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (see picture above) at Boston Theatre Works. Is it her last 350-word gasp? Or have rumors of her layoff been greatly exaggerated? Stay tuned. . .

Monday, November 27, 2006

Let us now praise local (and okay, New York) actors

Maureen Keiller and Kerry Dowling in The Women

This list began back on as a testament to the local acting community - but as it has grown, I'm afraid some New York names have crept in. Alas, not ALL the acting talent is in Boston! So without further ado, my favorite performances of 2006 (so far). . .

Marin Ireland, Michael Aronov, Laura Latreille, Robert Dorfman, James Gale (entire cast) – Mauritius, Huntington Theatre
Geneva Carr, Jordan Lage - Rabbit Hole, Huntington Theatre
Maureen Keiller, Alice Duffy - The Women, SpeakEasy Stage
Peter Carey - 1776, Lyric Stage
Noah Bean, Will Lebow – Love’s Labour’s Lost, Huntington Theatre
Ken Baltin – Brooklyn Boy, SpeakEasy Stage
Paula Plum – The Goat, Lyric Stage
Allyn Burrows – Five by Tenn, SpeakEasy Stage
John Kuntz – How I Got That Story, Nora Theatre

Conductors quite becoming

Ah, Grant Llewellyn. I admit, I miss Handel & Haydn's departed hunk. His brilliant job teasing out the subtleties in Beethoven's First and Second at the most recent H&H offering only made me miss him all the more. Now comes word that damn North Carolina Symphony he works for has locked him in till 2012! Apparently there are some smart folks down in the Research Triangle after all . . .

Oh, well! I'll simply have to console myself at the Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos concert at the BSO on Tuesday (Rachmaninoff's Fourth Concerto, the Rhenish, and the Firebird Suite, which should be particularly fiery). Rafael, in case you haven't heard, is da man - one of the greatest conductors alive, IMHO; frankly, his visits are usually the highlight of the BSO season. See you at Symphony.

Friday, November 24, 2006

And then there were none . . .

Rumor has it the Boston Herald has laid off Terry Byrne, their erstwhile theatre critic, whose job it was to vet shows for the Father Flanagan crowd. Details are murky (the Herald won’t comment on "internal human resources issues," according to the Boston Business Journal, and perhaps the tabloid intends to publish the occasional review by a stringer, but it looks like another print venue for criticism has shut down; indeed, with the departures of Ed Siegel and Bill Marx from the scene, the number of local “name” critics – the kind that could “open a show” - has suddenly been cut just about in half. And like characters in some Agatha Christie murder mystery, the survivors keep dropping, one by one . . .

Ironically, the theatre scene itself seems to be flourishing – many have warned that critics could kill theatre, but few anticipated it would work the other way around! Indeed, as I once pointed out to Bill Marx in a testy public exchange, as the influence of Boston reviewers has declined, the quality of Boston theatre has improved. This was probably because even in their heyday, the dead-tree media critics were a sketchy lot (I should know, I briefly was one): within recent memory, they often promoted the bogus (Peter Sellars), clung to long-lost hopes (the return of Sarah Caldwell), and in general delayed change and carried water for the powerful. In short, Marx’s self-image – that of a lonely intellectual warrior for truth – had little to do with either his own career or the scene in general.

So now said scene is obviously in ruins – but should we miss it? And will its passing matter to theatre? I’d argue not to major producers; “Big Theatre” will struggle on, as reviews are merely a form of publicity, opportunities for which continue to expand (and touring shows and the college houses can just rely on blurbs from New York). For the smaller companies, the disappearance of the local critic will have a more significant impact; there’s simply no one to notice when the Devanaughn or Whistler in the Dark strikes artistic gold, and while established companies may be able to grow their subscription base incrementally, they will lose the opportunity to “leapfrog” to larger prominence on the back of a hit.

Of course the leap Boston theatre people would really love to make, from second-banana-to-Manhattan to the level of a “new Chicago,” is hard to imagine without a team of functioning critics. Sure, it still could happen; the ART has all but abandoned its hometown (except for its rock bands), but the Huntington’s new play program, and BU’s Playwright’s Theatre, along with the development programs at the Lyric and elsewhere, could still engender such a transformation; but without mainstream critics, it will just be that much harder to do.

There are, of course, deeper questions left hanging by the disappearance of critics: theatre may survive, but it certainly won’t be the same. I imagine a plethora of web critics (like yours truly!) will rise to “take the place of” the MSM reviewers, but we’ll almost of necessity be a cacophony of more-or-less eccentric (and more-or-less trustworthy) voices. What the death of print criticism really lays bare is the death of what people are now calling “monoculture” – or at least the decoupling of monoculture from any kind of intellectual synthesis, or self-consciousness. In my view, what the digital age has done in one arena after another is simply create “spikes” where once there were “pyramids” – the middlemen of influence, of critical discussion, of publicity, will disappear (just as they did in the real-world industries the Internet has impacted), leaving only a handful of reviewers behind, who will perforce be drawn to the middle of the road (and, needless to say, the lowest common denominator) to maintain their audience. That is, until some crit-bot app is unleashed by Google to tend to each of our personalized media spheres. Sigh. It’s not really a pretty picture, but I suppose it’s the future.

So long, Terry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rabbit redux

Donna Bullock and Jordan Lage in Rabbit Hole

Grief is a house of many rooms, several of which slide across the stage in David Lindsay-Abaire’s affecting Rabbit Hole, now in its local premiere at the Huntington Theatre. Critical reaction to the show slid back and forth, too; the Herald found it “void of heart,” while the Globe, in stark contrast, felt its weight of emotional pain was “almost unbearable.” The Phoenix split the middle, calling it “poignantly acted” yet “nicely manicured.” There was a general feeling that the author (a Southie native) had tiptoed up to the sentimental verge of television drama, but not gone over the edge (one web critic, however, offered a single-sentence review: “Rabbit Hole is television-as-theatre.”). The critical consensus on television writing versus stage writing, of course, has yet to be reached, but in the meantime some commented on the shift in tone that Rabbit Hole represented for Lindsay-Abaire, whose previous works were the surreal Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo; with Rabbit Hole, as the Phoenix quipped, it seemed that “Craig Lucas had gone to bed and awakened as David Margulies.”

But none of these critics seemed able or willing to grapple with the structure or intent of the work itself; several sniffed at its resemblance to “Lifetime drama” while naively critiquing it solely in terms of - yes - Lifetime drama, a case of cognitive dissonance if ever there was one. In fact, as witty as the Phoenix quips were, its critic missed the salient point about Rabbit Hole; the play’s structure still quietly echoes the surreal anatomy of Fuddy Meers and Kimberley Akimbo, only this time disguised as metaphor.

For Lindsay-Abaire’s conceit is that grief operates in something like the many-worlds mode of quantum mechanics (where probability rules) and string theory (which depends on parallel universes). His characters – a yuppie couple who lost their child in a car accident – don’t literally vanish down a wormhole with Steven Hawking, of course; they are, instead, locked in a cycle of bereavement as they slide down “rabbit holes” into new versions of their grief. The trigger can be anything – a random comment, a rediscovered sneaker, a video that’s been recorded over – but, like a collapsing wave function in some physics lab somewhere, their grief suddenly comes back into sharp focus, in a new, parallel world-of-shit right next to the old one. The process is largely fed by issues of causality and blame. Who is responsible for the little boy’s death? The teenager who “may have been” slightly speeding down the street? The parent who for a moment wasn’t watching the front yard? Or perhaps even the dog the child was chasing?

Or is no one to blame – meaning that no one need suffer retribution, but also that no one can work toward redemption? This is the deep chill that suffuses Rabbit Hole – and one that has all but frozen mother Becca (Donna Bullock) in her grief, because there is simply no thread of meaning to lead her out of it. For Becca, moving on will require eliminating not just her son’s death but his very existence from her life; thus we see her cleaning out his toys and clothes, then demanding that the house be sold, and then even “accidentally” erasing a videotape of him. Meanwhile her husband, Howie (Jordan Lage) seems at first healthier, if more sentimental, in his grieving process; he clings to memories of his little boy, while already thinking about having another. But Becca insists he’s not “in a better place,” just “a different place” (those parallel universes again), and indeed, when Howie unexpectedly runs into the boy who accidentally killed his son (Troy Deutsch), we can see from his buried rage that, indeed, he really hasn’t gotten past anything at all.

Yet this gawky young teen (convincingly impersonated by twenty-something Deutsch) unexpectedly provides the key to Becca’s parallel prisons. His take (or maybe toke?) on the multifoliation of time and space offers Becca a sense of equipoise that, in turn, makes her trips down the rabbit hole less harrowing – for perhaps in some parallel universe, her little boy never ran into that fateful street, and that car never swerved.

Whether this slim “Tao-of-Pooh”-like reed is strong enough to serve as the crux of the drama (or is, instead, just another kind of pooh) is debatable; I tend to think the author has dodged the requirements of his climax, which should have included a confrontation - and renewed connection - between Becca and Howie. This failure, however, hardly dims the power of much of what has come before – Rabbit Hole is about as accurate a guide to grief as one is likely to find, and director John Tillinger has guided his capable cast through its anguished arc superbly. The supporting cast is particularly strong - Geneva Carr, in particular, all but nails Becca’s friendly floozy of a sister, who has thoughtlessly gotten pregnant just as her sister is dealing with death (another parallel, in a way). Maureen Anderman, meanwhile, is slightly miscast as Becca’s trash-talking mom (Anderman’s just too sveltely high class for the role), but has clearly worked her way through the character in an amusingly blunt-yet-scattered style (it turns out she lost a son, too, in yet another – well, you get the idea). Meanwhile, at the center of the drama, Jordan Lage and Donna Bullock manage to quietly keep their balance, both against each other and the conflicting requirements of the play. Like Anderman, however, Bullock is slightly miscast – she hasn’t been able to scrub all the glamour from her persona, and she’s a little too self-controlled to tap into the obsessive fear that must underlie Becca’s anger. Lage is actually more skilled at the fine art of emotional collapse; both his Act I breakdown and his Act II slow burn are among the best stretches of acting seen in Boston this year.

The physical production, as usual for the Huntington, is impeccable, although the point of James Noone’s sliding set seems to have been lost on many. (Perhaps the slowly rolling “worlds” are almost more trouble than they’re worth.) Elsewhere director Tillinger hints at the metaphysical (over the central staircase night-time shadows play that might belong to Becca – or someone else), but for the most part hews closely to the play’s naturalistic surface. This isn’t fully satisfying – but then, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it goes wrong, either. Perhaps Rabbit Hole is a transitional play for Lindsay-Abaire, a step towards a new synthesis of the real and the surreal - or then again, perhaps it will be remembered as merely an odd cul-de-sac in his burgeoning career. It certainly is not a wholesale leap from one dramatic universe to another, much less a step down from the stage to the small screen. But whatever its long-term import, it retains its power to move us; Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is a genuine writer for the stage, and Rabbit Hole is a genuine contribution to it.

I haven't always been a fan of Robert Altman, who passed away today at the age of 81. In fact, I have to admit I'd say he hadn't directed a great - or even particularly interesting - movie in a quarter century (The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park are all hopelessly overrated, often by young critics longing for a return to both his heyday and that of their mentor, Pauline Kael). But for a brief period, in the early 70s, his career burned with an unmatched brilliance, and those films (Images, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, and particularly Nashville) will remain his true legacy. Why, for a while, did he work with a genius that he would never again rekindle? This is a question for a far longer essay - one that would ask the same question of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and many others. But in the meantime, I thought I would reprint an appreciation I wrote several years ago upon the DVD release of Altman's masterpiece, Nashville.

Nashville Now

by Thomas Garvey

Perhaps the greatest scandal of the much-ballyhooed AFI Top 100 was that Robert Altman's Nashville was nowhere on it. Most thoughtful people would plunk it in the top 10 (there's plenty of room - Schindler's List could certainly go); but the real shock was Nashville didn't make the list AT ALL - of the entire Altman oeuvre, only the inferior M*A*S*H made the cut, despite the fact Altman's still a working force in Hollywood, and Paul Thomas Anderson has virtually made a career of recycling his moves.

Ah, well, Nashville always foundered with the masses. It appeared in 1975 along with an array of other brilliant films - the competing nominees for Best Picture that year were Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Had there been a year like that since 1939?) Of course arguably the weakest movie (Cuckoo) won, because it was neither too commercial (Jaws) nor too artistic (Nashville and Lyndon) - after all, the Academy likes its porridge "just right".

So Nashville joined the hallowed ranks of best pictures derailed by other best pictures - Cabaret, Chinatown, et. al. But unlike those movies (including even Lyndon!) it somehow sank from sight. Part of the problem was that it was a gigantic bomb (Pauline Kael famously predicted it was going to be "huge"!). Then Altman sank, too, producing turkey after turkey, each gobbling louder than the last: first Buffalo Bill and the Indians, then Three Women, then A Wedding, Quintet, H.E.A.L.T.H. . . . he seemed to be digging his way to China. After five disasters in a row, even the mild commercial success of Popeye couldn't turn things around, and he was soon directing TV movies and stage-to-screen fare like Streamers. Slowly but surely, though, over the last decade, he's been working his way back to viability - and visibility.

To my mind, however, he's still pretty deep in the hole. His first "hit" of the 90s, The Player, was wildly over-praised, though it did include the classic scene of the Hollywood exec literally killing his screenwriter. Then came Short Cuts, which misrepresented Raymond Carver, but at least featured Julianne Moore trying to steal a scene back from her own muff (stripping actresses bare is something of an Altman motif) - all the while, of course, reminding people of Nashville. Reminding people of Nashville did the same trick for Paul Thomas Anderson, who turned said trick not once but twice (Boogie Nights AND Magnolia). And now, here's Nashville itself, all over again, re-issued in a commemorative DVD edition.

Well, whatever else Robert Altman may have done in the last twenty-five years, Nashville still stands as a movie like no other. With its sprawling stories and umpteen characters crawling all over each other in our corny country capital, the movie defies every rule of narrative. It's completely allusive, completely atmospheric; it's a kind of naturalistic pointilism. Every second has to be compelling, because there's no suspense whatsoever: we're never really looking forward to anything - we're just struck by the dead-on accuracy of what Altman's giving us here-and-now. We realize the movie is building to a campaign rally, to be staged at Nashville's "Parthenon" for a Eugene-McCarthy-like presidential candidate - but we're not exactly on the edge of our seats about it, and nobody in the movie is, either - they seem to know themselves that it's just a handy frame for their own sprawling canvas.

But who, we have to wonder, is the painter? A quarter of a century after the film's release, Joan Tewkesbury, its writer, looks more and more like the "auteur" of Nashville - if there is one. Altman's sets were famously collaborative, and many of the lines we hear aren't Tewkesbury's - they're either remodeled by the actors or freshly improvised. But actors can't improvise the structure of their scenes, or how they fit together - and Tewkesbury has done an incredible job of structuring "Nashville". Although its overall arc isn't exactly a "story", each of its tiny dramas is about as tight as it can be. And the tapestry they're woven into is rarely dull - it's just entirely thematic, like a college girl's journal - in fact, Nashville comes closer than any other movie to distilling the distinctive, disaffected voice of the smart, gimlet-eyed young thing into something like an epic.

But what, as Roger Ebert has wondered aloud, "is it really about?". Well, like very few American movies, it's about politics; the first shots are of loudspeakers on the "Replacement Party" van, telling Nashville - and us - that we CAN do something about our country's plight, that like it or not, we are per force involved. Next comes Henry Gibson fervently singing "We must've been doing something right, these last two hundred years" (only in a voice that rings more with control than freedom).

We soon realize that indeed, this is one hell of a reactionary town - even the majorettes twirl rifles! But then the movie's Democrats don't come off much better than its Republicans; "Opal from the BBC" (Geraldine Chaplin) has drifted in from Yellow Submarine, and babbles on about liberal totems in a way that's fatuously self-dramatizing. And the Eugene McCarthy stand-in, "Hal Philip Walker", spouts enlightenment and eccentricity in almost equal measure, with a campaign slogan - "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" - that exquisitely skewers the counterculture.

Not that the good folk of Nashville are paying much mind. For them, and their stars, politics (even conservatism) doesn't really exist. (Tewkesbury predicted this alienation long before anybody else.) What they have instead is country music, which with its simple chord changes and repetitive rhythms, sticks to either good times or tragedy - it's all personal, not political, and its stars learn not to create their own persona so much as mind-meld with their audience's. They're like outgrowths of the crowd, re-feeding it what it long ago digested. At the Grand Ole Opry, the stars' friends are on stage with them, and more friends are in the audience - and the whole thing is being broadcast to an even larger audience of friends - it's like one of those Russian dolls-within-dolls that recurse down to nothing. Who - or what - is performing for whom?

But the pain within this hall of mirrors is still devastatingly real. With its forced peppiness amid squalor, the country mentality is at bottom disassociated - and the result is an undercurrent of floating, impotent lament. The saintly star of Nashville, "Barbara Jean" (Ronee Blakeley) personifies this - except that she isn't really a person, she's more like a puppet. When she tries to reminisce, she collapses into incoherence; yet when she opens her mouth to sing, she channels a wail of real torment. She's in the midst of yet another nervous breakdown, and even has her own guardian angel, in the person of a soldier (a very young Scott Glenn) who keeps watch outside her hospital room. But we know his cause is hopeless. Nashville is, in part, the story of her crack-up - and how the American lust for violence, crossing paths for once not with politics but its replacement, takes her as its next victim.

But in the meantime the town's various schemers and dreamers have their own show to do. Tewkesbury opens the film by piling them all into a traffic jam - the perfect metaphor for the movie, busy yet static - and then does a beautiful job of following the different threads that spin off from this honking knot. There's Gibson and his bitchy sex mama, Barbara Baxley; spooked wife-on-the-run Barbara Harris; tin-eared wannabe Gwen Welles; smooth operator Keith Carradine; gospel singer Lily Tomlin; mourning husband Keenan Wynn, his wandering niece, Shelley Duvall; and of course, Michael Murphy and Ned Beatty, the political operatives for Hal Philip Walker, who pull all these characters into either the performance or the crowd at the Parthenon.

There's one more wild card, the "twin" of Scott Glenn's soldier - a gawky kid with something mysterious in a fiddle case - something we guess is probably a gun. With his nervous sensitivity and jumpy reactions, he's a new Holden Caulfield - the flip side of American adolescence, the innocent voice of assassination, who perhaps has already targeted Hal Phillip Walker.

Tewkesbury deploys many a hidden structure to keep this wild tangle straight. Loose "families" of characters develop, often clustered around an audition, or a party, or just a bar, interacting not so much to push the "plot" forward as to shade, enhance, or undercut each others' stories. Thus Tewkesbury seats her soldier and her assassin right next to each other at the Grand Ole Opry: each one's existence confirms the other's. (Perhaps the would-be assassin keeps his pistol in a fiddle case because it's his instrument, his ticket to stardom.) Other groupings conceal similar parallels within seeming opposites: Tomlin, who is most in touch (of the movie's whites) with musical ecstasy, has children who are congenitally deaf - although she - and we - can tell they're the happiest people in the picture, with no barrier whatsoever, it seems, between them and music. (What other musical, by the way, includes deaf characters?)

But perhaps Tewkesbury's most audacious gambit occurs when Keith Carradine takes the stage to sing "I'm Easy". In his audience are not only his conquests of the weekend (one of whom left "I love you" scrawled on his mirror) - but also his current targets of seduction, Shelley Duvall and Lily Tomlin. He's the personification of allure - everyone wants to either be a singer or bed one, and he's become as mechanized as the star-maker machinery he works with. The song itself is a masterpiece of hypocrisy: "I'm not much good at playing games, and this one's driving me insane . . ." In his eyes, he's the innocent, he's the victim. Of course, at least some people in the audience know better: the female singer in his trio (the one who wrote "I love you"), was about to leave her husband for him - but suddenly sees right through him. Likewise Tomlin, seated in the back of the club, isn't foolish enough to believe in either the singer or the song. But the old romantic lie still tugs at her, and her face, knowing better but still slowly letting go, has just about become iconic.

Much has rightly been made of the film's unusual concern with musical performance in and of itself - what it is, and what it means. Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film occurs when Tomlin's deaf little boy sings silently in church; he's purely "into" the music, or perhaps something even beyond music - it's just him and God. With everyone else, the motives (and the outcome) are a bit more muddled, though we're often struck by the nobility that even the most naïve of these singers can achieve. Of course the fun is sometimes in how banal the music is - at least until it begins to wail. But we slowly realize that the tunes are not actually as calculated as they seem; or at least, they're only as calculated as the lies we tell ourselves.

For this is the essence of both the town and the film - Nashville is exactly what it says it is. When Gibson sings, in a tone of hilarious sanctity, that he must break off an affair "for the sake of the children", we never expect that this is exactly what we'll see of Lily Tomlin, who seems to be one of the few hip people in town. Gwen Welles, who ends up having to strip for her chance to sing at the Parthenon, has written her own song, "I'll Never Get Enough" - and indeed, even after her abject humiliation, she still comes back for more. The whole gambit of having the stars write their own songs is interesting on the conceptual level - it's a quiet, subtle comment on how everyone "gives away" their inner life in the disguise of performance.

Which leads to Nashville's ultimate theme: disillusionment (Altman's great theme, actually, and probably the great theme of the 70s). Every story in this movie ends either sadly or ironically. There's no happy ending for anybody. Life is cruel, Altman and Tewkesbury say, and if you hope for things, you're just setting yourself up. Tomlin realizes her affair is simply impossible, and leaves her lover just before he describes her as "room service". After stripping naked for a chance in the limelight, Welles watches her big moment turn into political murder. Ronee Blakely finally gets it all together, and sings her best - only to be literally shot down - which leaves Scott Glenn, who has spent the weekend protecting her, simply staring into space. Of course all these disappointments are subsumed by the disappointment of the rally - and of the country itself: the Kennedys were shot, liberalism failed, and all we've got left is a clueless, blindly happy conservativism. So just get over it.

It's a cruel vision, perhaps cruelest in its intimation that it's all our own fault. Throughout the movie we can hear Hal Philip Walker's van in the background, like the rational voice of God, asking us insistently about justice, and fairness, and right and wrong. But nobody listens - in fact, all the performers make it clear they're doing the rally for non-political reasons, just for the sake of their careers. When Henry Gibson is wounded, we're struck by his cry - "This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville!", and even as he tends to Barbara Jean, he rallies the crowd to sing: "Go on, sing! Keep singing!" Only singing is part of the problem. He hands the mike to the barely-coherent Barbara Harris - she's been trying to "become a singer" through the whole movie - and she knows this is her big chance. But what does she sing? "You may say/that I ain't free/but it don't worry me!" she cries - and we realize we've been hearing this (by Keith Carradine) in one form or other throughout the whole movie - this is the real American anthem - You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me! We're not about to do anything about our freedom, and don't try to make us. If the reformers are stars, like the Kennedys, then we'll shoot them down - and if they're NOT stars, like Hal Phillip Walker (who escapes in a limo), we'll just shoot the stars themselves - thus making ourselves a star, if only for a day. We're never given a reason for the assassination; the young killer simply looks up at the huge American flag rippling across the Parthenon - and opens his fiddle case.

So Nashville ends darkly, like so many of the movies of its time - but this doesn't necessarily mean it's dated. Instead it feels more like a relic of a lost age of exploration - today we touch it the way someone in the dark ages might have looked at the Pantheon, wondering, how the hell did they do that?

Of course to give all the credit to Tewkesbury is unfair to Altman, but it's important to sort out exactly what's what about Nashville. Tewkesbury's script, we realize in retrospect, is probably the kind of project best-suited to Altman's techniques - his ensemble scenes, his composite soundtracks, his inherent ramblingness. Here the script always works with him, not against him - it's a semi-documentary, it's essentially literary, not visual, and it hides within its shagginess a series of tightly-written vignettes. Altman never found a script like this again - and he's been foundering ever since.

One last thought - the success of Nashville depends, perhaps more than any other movie, on its soundtrack. Unlike most other great directors, Altman never goes for synthesis - that operatic moment when sight and sound come together overpoweringly, like the last moments of 2001. Instead he lets his images and his sounds drift loosely together, usually making points on their own. Nashville, appropriately enough, deserves more than one hearing , rather than more than one seeing. The sound can be a bit muddy, but is still a marvel - conversations float above and below each other, pertinent bits of background noise pop through at just the right time, and we sense whole metaphors forming aurally. Sound as the source of cinematic expression may have never gotten such a workout - and one can only hope, with today's advanced audio systems, that Altman someday finds another writer like Tewkesbury - and another script like Nashville.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Too gay at the ballet?

I think few who attended the Boston Ballet’s Gala back in October will ever forget the searing solo from Edward Stierle’s Lacrymosa (set to music from Mozart’s Requiem) performed by Jared Redick. From its opening image (Redick in a twisted headstand), this was clearly a cri de coeur from the “inverted,” and its subsequent tortuous vocabulary (at one point, Redick rose en pointe without the benefit of toe shoes) made its subject obvious: personal suffering, most likely from AIDS, the disease which felled the brilliant Stierle a few years after he composed the piece. Certainly the audience “got it” – or at the very least perceived the utterly personal, and seemingly total, commitment from Redick to a piece constructed around physical pain. But to the Boston Phoenix’s resident arts mandarin, Jeffrey Gantz, Lacrymosa was no more than “studied melodrama, the orchestra’s no-nonsense tempo notwithstanding.”

To which I can only say: the fucking tempo notwithstanding??? At first I thought that comment had to be self-parody - Gantz’s work on dance is always chock-a-block with pedantic rapture over key changes and tempi, and he tends to slobber over ballerinas while giving danseurs short shrift. I’ve even heard whispers that he’s homophobic, and I have to say there’s something to back that up in his writing, however oxymoronic "homophobic balletomane" may sound; Gantz does often sniff at Mark Morris (who himself sometimes snickers at the heterosexual angst of ballet), and he recently described Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake as “a gay Harlequin romance.” And don’t I recall (I couldn’t find it on the web) some snarky comment from either Gantz or Marcia Siegel about the supposedly androgynous women who dance for Morris? Okay, not proof positive, I admit – but it goes to pattern, your honor. I’d be more forgiving if Gantz were a more talented dance critic, instead of merely an academically-informed one. This year alone, he steered readers toward the Boston Ballet’s clumsy Les Noces (he even praised the corps in that one – ouch!) and actually dissed the Royal Ballet’s Manon, which was, simply put, the most virtuosic display of dancing seen in Beantown in years. Gantz even went off the rails elsewhere in his review of the gala; he snorted at Heather Myers’s One Constant ("a middling Jorma Elo knock-off"), which actually proved an intriguing find (Myers is herself a Boston Ballet dancer). Please keep making dances, Ms. Myers, and Boston Ballet, please keep producing her – if only to make up for ignoring Viktor Plotnikov! In short: Boston Ballet – more, please; Jeffrey Gantz – less, much less!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Return to Sender

I feel that I should be a big fan of the Huntington Theatre’s new play development effort; after all, under Nicholas Martin’s guidance, it would seem this local giant has done everything right (while the ART, frankly, has done everything wrong; more on that in later posts). The Huntington now offers fellowships for local playwrights, stages readings of new plays in the spring, and has tipped its season heavily (in fact, almost entirely) toward new and recent work - this year’s schedule includes August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, Lisa Kron’s Well, and Noah Haidle’s Persephone; the only “classics” on tap are Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and David Rabe’s Streamers (itself just thirty years old). Two years ago, Martin even risked a full production on a local playwright, Melinda Lopez, whose Sonia Flew successfully spread its wings at the Calderwood, and soon migrated to regional theatres across the country.

Yet there’s a small, struggling fly in this shiny sea of ointment. Despite all its ongoing “development,” the Huntington has yet to present a new play that’s truly challenging or edgy, and its most recent premiere, Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, is so derivative that I hesitate to call it a “new play” at all. It’s something else entirely – more an “episode” than a play (Rebeck was a writer on “Law & Order,” among other shows) that neatly reconfigures and then regurgitates the audience’s shared assumptions – with, of course, the requisite twists to disguise its conventionality. Don’t get me wrong; Mauritius is one gleaming machine, with a cast that understands just when and how to press its levers; but any spark of individuality long ago disappeared into its gears. What it represents is not the artist’s voice, but the collective voice – that is, the hip collective voice. In a word, it’s premium cable – on stage.

Some might argue “What’s wrong with that?” - and the first answer is, premium cable is a lot cheaper than Huntington tickets. The second answer: it’s redundant. Ms. Rebeck has found her natural perch in the law & order of things, as it were, and she seems to have little to say that can’t be said within its confines. Simply wanting the prestige of a playwriting career doesn’t mean you should be granted one, however clever you are, and however much your glamour may rub off on the organization that produces you. The salient feature of Ms. Rebeck’s dramatic career, in fact, might be her very careerism – it’s hard to believe this woman, who has yet to have a major hit, and who doesn’t really have her own authorial voice, is currently working her way through three separate commissions (from Playwrights Horizons, Denver Theater Center, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), while juggling consulting producer duties on the TV show “Smith,” and preparing for the publication of her first book of essays. (She’s also found time in recent years to write seven screenplays.) Whew!

No wonder Mauritius feels so pre-processed; it was probably assembled on quite a schedule. The play concerns two rare coins – oh, sorry, stamps! – that may or may not be genuine, and that may or may not be owned by two half-sisters, whom three unscrupulous businessmen may or may not be trying to swindle. The whole caper is cleverly constructed (though the central premises are pretty hard to swallow), and there are, I admit, brilliant acting turns from Marin Ireland and Michael Aronov as the damaged “bad girl” and her hustler consort (both should be nominated for, and win, IRNEs and Elliots). The rest of the cast is, likewise, far more compelling than the play; it’s certainly the best ensemble seen in Boston this year, and possibly for several years (in fact I can’t think of a stronger one offhand).

But in the end, all this is essentially for naught; once the curtain falls, nothing in Mauritius hangs in your mind, or has any resonance – just as you don’t lie in bed pondering "Law & Order." None of the 'unpredictable' twists goes anywhere new, and the show ends on a note of standard-issue commercial rue. Mauritius is entertainment, and nothing more – not that there’s anything wrong with that; but the play – and the Huntington - are pretending it is something more.

And unfortunately the critics were only too happy to go along with the charade. Of course all were careful to point out the play was an obvious cross between David Mamet’s American Buffalo and Arthur Miller’s The Price (with the villain thrown in from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). But a simple gender switch in the leads was apparently enough for it to pass muster as original; in fact, the show was given a funny gender-triumphalist spin: “Imagine what American Buffalo would be like if it had been written by a woman -- and a funny, wise, and warmhearted woman, too,” Louise Kennedy cooed in the Globe. “That's Mauritius." (Actually, imagine American Buffalo diligently rewritten by Hillary Clinton – THAT’s Mauritius.) As if to paper over something nagging her subconscious, Kennedy went further: “…unlike the stamps at its center, it never leaves its authenticity in doubt. Mauritius is the real thing.”

Oh, please, Louise. Mauritius, for all its intricate craft, is basically what comes out of the business end of an American buffalo. And something is clearly rotten in the state of development when a retread script by a producer from "Law & Order" is what the Huntington comes up with from its new play program. This outcome seems all the more suspect when one considers that the best new plays around (The Goat, A Number) have had their Boston premieres at small theatres like the Lyric Stage! The Huntington has ignored the latest from Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill, yet has found time to develop The Hopper Collection, Carole Mulroney and Mauritius? Somebody get me rewrite.

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