Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Drawn to the light

The January shows aren't particularly strong over at the SoWa galleries this month, but one or two exhibits do stand out. The reliable Kayafas Gallery strikingly juxtaposes two artists who would seem to have little in common beyond a certain affinity for the drawn or painted rather than the photographed. Pelle Cass ("Light Bulb and Drawing," left) produces exquisite, old-school prints of pristine environments which he's literally scribbled all over. This may sound a bit art-school silly, but his superb technique bestows on the results of these compulsive episodes the same hypnotic, faintly psychedelic charge found in the repetitive glories of Arabic traceries and script. I'd recommend, I suppose, that Cass go on Prozac, but then we wouldn't have these weirdly gorgeous testaments to his obsession.

In the front room, meanwhile, Saul Leiter holds quiet, subtle sway. If Cass is a scribe, then Leiter is a painter - so much so that an air of the picturesque can at times settle over his work. But to dismiss him as some derivative, latter-day Impressionist would be a mistake. For one thing, there's more than a hint of Rothko and Barnett Newman in Leiter's best work (left). More importantly, there's an atmosphere of intimate, yet urban, melancholy to Leiter's images that's all his own; he's a kind of poet of lonesomeness and its aesthetic compensations (who else could make a color field painting of a street of broken snow?). In Leiter's New York (which seems timeless, yet existed specifically at Tenth and Third in the mid-fifties), pedestrians are always turned inward, coming and going from nameless places but never catching each other's (or the photographer's) eye. Leiter instead catches the odd detail of their passing - the bright umbrella or gray fedora - in muted tribute to the romance of missed connections. This quiet desperation finds its garish twin in a handful of images in which Leiter painted in acid oils over some girlie photos. The show's opposition between abstracted sex and wistful romance is both obvious and a little jarring - but then, perhaps Leiter's contrasting styles offer a sad dialogue between the two faces of a familiar form of masculine isolation.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Guess what . . .

This isn't a genuine Jackson Pollock! Harvard actually had to analyze the pigments (some of which, it turned out, hadn't been developed until the seventies - or even the nineties) to come to that conclusion. Funny, it seems obvious once you compare it to a real - or at any rate a good - Pollock (below, "Lavender Mist:No. 1"). You can read all about the Harvard analysis here; the backers of the painting's authenticity reply here, as well as announce that this and a cache of other fakes (okay, "maybes") will be shown at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art this fall. Then try your own hand at fooling the McMullen here.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Half-told Tale

The Winter’s Tale is famously split in personality – the new production from Actors’ Shakespeare Project, however, is also split in terms of quality. In fact, the opening acts of this brilliant hybrid of tragedy and comedy – in which a monarch destroys both his wife and family in a delusional fit of jealousy – are so miscast and ineptly interpreted that you may feel director Curt Tofteland, the star of Shakespeare Behind Bars, should be incarcerated, too.

Luckily, the tide turns for the production just as it does for the characters, when Shakespeare shifts from winter solstice to vernal equinox, and from destruction to redemption. The second half of The Winter’s Tale, a rough-and-tumble pastorale of sheep-shearings and tossed garlands, plays to this company’s strong suit: broad, clever comedy, led by the troupe’s chief zany, the exuberant, endlessly resourceful John Kuntz (at left, cooking in foil).

Alas, that doesn’t mean the first act can be redeemed; when Shakespeare returns to the scene of his tragic hero’s crimes, its uses seem just as stale and unprofitable as they did the first time around - and the miracles of restitution (and resurrection) the Bard has up his sleeve somehow fail to enchant. (This is all the more surprising given that in the last, mystical act ASP stalwart Bobbie Steinbach is in charge, rather than bluff newcomer Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.)

Still, the intervening rural scenes are often gems of comic invention, although they lack interpretive depth. Kuntz’s Autolytcus, for instance, is here largely a vehicle for this actor's signature channeling of multiple personalities; he should instead be more clearly tied to spring’s awakening (he’s Flora’s earthier – or rather dirtier - cousin); still, Kuntz is so ceaselessly ingenious and energetic you don’t really care if a few themes get trampled beneath his banana peels (after all, said themes were never set up in Act I, anyway). And he’s more than ably assisted by fellow comedians Doug Lockwood (the funniest Clown of any production I’ve seen), Richard Snee, Joel Colodner (an especially welcome new arrival), Christine Hamel, and Mara Sidmore; meanwhile James Ryen and Cristi Miles (above) do conventional, but credible, work in the young-lover department.

So, is this particular Shakespearean glass half-empty or half-full? Audiences often are struck by the strange tonal shifts of what may be the Bard's most original play; at least this version dodges that problem. But productions tend to be palimpsests, and ASP should, I think, look carefully at this one, because its contrasts reflect the company’s capabilities all too closely. In a nutshell, the ASP swaggers with comedy, but staggers at tragedy (in the current ensemble, only Richard Snee and Joel Colodner seem equally adept at both). But if the Actors' Shakespeare Project genuinely hopes to encompass the canon, it's going to have to come to terms with all of Shakespeare's seasons.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A sad tale's best for winter . . .

. . . and baby, it is cold outside - although an even bigger chill suffuses the first half of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The Actors' Shakespeare Project opens the Bard's fascinating late romance this weekend at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge, under the direction of Curt Tofteland, of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and the documentary film Shakespeare Behind Bars. For tickets, call 866-811-4111, or purchase online. And don't worry, things warm up in Act II.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

All in the family

Nero goes electric in Britannicus.

Legend has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned - but in the ART production of Racine’s Britannicus, he strums a Stratocaster instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – and what else would we expect from director Robert Woodruff, the rock star manqué who’s led this theater for half a decade? The ART’s anti-traditionalism is by now a hidebound tradition of its own.

But in this particular case, I have to give props to the props – Woodruff has found a compelling modern setting for this lost classic; for the most part, he makes the creaky ART clichés work. And after the stumbles of Olly’s Prison and Orpheus X, it’s nice to see this battle-scarred director back on track for his swan song (his artistic directorship ended abruptly, and with veiled acrimony, a few weeks ago).

Not that Woodruff has limned the depths of Britannicus; in fact, Racine’s fucked-up family dynamics largely elude the capable cast. But given the difficulties of reviving the play’s static grandeur, the ART doesn’t do half bad (and C.H. Sisson’s translation, though it dodges the problem of Racine’s poetry, does well by his playability). It helps that the stench of rotting empire is wafting so strongly from our own executive branch these days - so strongly, in fact, that Woodruff’s banners proclaiming “Empires Create Their Own Reality” aren’t really required for us to parse the parallel. And at any rate, Britannicus works best when we can forget about the Bushes (who are only elevated, anyway, by association with Nero) and let the play float in an intriguingly open-ended, extended-Brechtian space, with Woodruff doodling around the frame (sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not – as in his opening “the Emperor has no clothes” gambit).

It’s Woodruff’s conceit that the play is about surveillance (which is what gives his update to our security-driven age its resonance). Racine’s plot, loosely drawn from the poisoned well of ancient Rome, focuses on young Nero, who got his mitts on Caesar’s oak leaves through the machinations of mama Agrippina (who offed Uncle Claudius for his sake). But alas, there’s another contendah for the title – Claudius’s own son Britannicus, who could cut ahead in the royal blood line if he hooks up with Junia, the great-great-granddaughter of Augustus. Agrippina would like to hang onto her power by triangulating Nero's camp against that of Britannicus and Junia (Britunia? Jutannicus?); Nero, needless to say, has other ideas.

His resulting bursts of sadism drive what action there is in Britannicus, but Alfredo Narciso nicely plays against type in the role, giving us Nero as dude, an almost laconic new-media "player” who inches toward fratricide - and madness - in South Beach leisure suits and sandals (a nice little nod to Rome). Narciso’s cool also serves as neat riposte to Kevin O’Donnell’s candor as the trusting, brokenhearted Britannicus, but both actors, strong as they may be, are easily outshone by Merritt Janson in the role of Junia. This second-year acting student at the ART Institute seems to the classic manner born, quickly makes us forget her unfortunate costume, and rivets us in the play’s most famously perverse scene (above), in which she must reject her lover – or risk his assassination. It’s here that the production's vision of floating, paranoid power-lust suddenly coheres, as we watch Janson’s tortured image on giant screens as she tries to hide her pain from Britannicus – and us (there's one last meta-twist in the fact that we're cast as Nero).

So - rule, Britannicus? Not quite. Elsewhere this Orwellian Rome is less compelling - the video perspectives at first feed our sense of paranoia, but then, as the play sharpens its focus, Nero’s spying eyes begin to feel more like the director's. Still, Woodruff finds so many solutions to Racine’s special problems (his sense of poise, his emotional claustrophobia) that I’m almost loathe to point out that despite his thousand eyes, he’s missed the heart of the drama: a clan in moral, sexual and political meltdown, perhaps the central trope of Racine, whose shocking, unruffled amorality is sharpest when slicing into the bosom of motherhood. Even in his first play, the playwright described his twin heroes as hating each other while curled in the womb, and it’s that touch of malice beyond the pale, between brother and brother or mother and son, that’s almost the sine qua non of his work. Yet somehow it eludes the ART cast (except, perhaps, for David Wilson Barnes, in his laid-back but still slithering Narcissus).

Part of the problem lies, surprisingly, with the more experienced actors. In the pivotal role of Agrippina, Joan MacIntosh is all brittle self-awareness, which certainly makes her performance fun (and over time her sexual glamour has only steeped, not faded). But while this mother is (almost) as lethal as her son, MacIntosh never reveals the remorseless lioness within the sardonic lamb; even their incest - a power game if ever there was one - is here played for laughs. And MacIntosh isn't given much support by John Sierros, who only slowly gets a handle on the scheming General Burrhus, and even less by Adrianne Krstansky, who in the role of confidante Albina is just flat-out bad.

MySpace gone mad: surfing the panopticon in Britannicus.

Still, if the production sometimes stumbles in its sandals, it rights itself before the finish line, as a shell-shocked Nero, finally driven mad by his own guilt, strums a lullaby to himself on that lonely gee-tar - while he’s filmed, of course, for the big screen. I suppose the self-destructive rock star imagery is predictable, but from Woodruff it’s also heartfelt, and it’s certainly coherent with his idea that as our personalities are now “mediated,” our drama should be, too. Perhaps, of course, the scenelet even amounts to something like self-critique – but at any rate, it’s resonant, and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping it’s not the last Woodruff image seen on the ART stage.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why the Oscars are a joke . . .

. . . because Phillip Glass's score for Notes on a Scandal got a nomination . . .

. . . but Almodóvar's Volver didn't - even though Penelope Cruz did, and Letters from Iwo Jima (a Best Picture nominee) is actually in a foreign language (figure that one out) . . .

. . . because Mark Wahlberg got a nomination(!) . . .

. . . but Richard Griffiths didn't.

And finally . . .

. . . because a film without a screenplay (Borat) was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Really, you can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Kickin' rock critic ass

The kids from Straightener.

Cultural scripts, I suppose, by their very nature tend to last. Still, some seem to have outlasted their usefulness. The rock-as-rebellion script, in particular, is by now as old as (but with fewer teeth than) Methuselah. But even as its sustaining myth has fossilized, rock criticism has become almost insanely florid, an unbridled riot of idiotic superlatives (or negatives). Band after derivative band is either hyped or dissed (Hello, Franz Ferdinand! Goodbye, the Strokes!) in a chorus of critical voices as vapid as they are articulate. I'm reminded of this by an article in today's Slate in which crit and myth are tightly intertwined - "jTunes: The Insanely Great Songs Apple Won't Let You Hear," by one Paul Collins, which begins:

"Killer Tune" is just that: It sounds like the Killers, and it is killer. It's one of the most popular iTunes downloads for the band Straightener—but you haven't heard it.

can't hear it.

Ah, a clever 180, there, eh? You can't hear it. You're oppressed. It's time to - yes - RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (even if it's your Apple!).

And just what is it you're missing, exactly? According to Collins, the Japanese cuts you can't buy from iTunes (but can hear if you switch your country setting), are "by turns bracingly experimental and jubilantly retro . . . revelatory . . . blistering." Okay - I checked out Straightener on Youtube. They turn out to be a fun, smart little band that knows a good grunge hook when they hear one. But "blistering"? "Revelatory"? It's enough to make me want to kick some big fat rock critic ass - that is if I could stop laughing.

Classy films go wide, box office plummets

Oh, dear, the commoners didn't show.

According to the Internet Movie Database, "Despite the addition of numerous critically praised films to the marquees of thousands of theaters [i.e Dreamgirls, Pan's Labyrinth, Babel, The Queen, and The Last King of Scotland all went wide, or wider], the overall box office plummeted 20 percent from the same week a year ago." The winners for the weekend? Stomp the Yard and Night at the Museum. Just remember that next time you complain about what's at the multiplex.

Britannicus rocks!

Director Robert Woodruff with Britannicus stars Alfredo Narciso, Meritt Janson and Kevin O'Donnell.

I wanted to post a little positive preview for Racine's rarely seen Britannicus, which opens tomorrow as Robert Woodruff's swan song at the ART. But then the photo above (photo by Dina Rudick, from the Boston Globe) stopped me dead in my tracks. That's Nero and Britannicus in, surprise, a rock band - with Woodruff himself hanging out in high Frank/Mick/Patti mode. Damn - something about that picture is so embarrassing. The guy just can't learn, can he?

Still, to be fair, the production photos below look more promising. We'll soon see.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Silence isn't golden

Perhaps the less said about Silence, the better. Moira Buffini’s play won a British prize upon its premiere in 1999, and was well received when it jumped the pond; but frankly, it’s hard to see why. Perhaps all the gold stars were for good intentions: Ms. Buffini is a founder of the “monsterism” movement, which tempts writers (and theaters) to attempt sprawling scripts that grapple with historical forces, social forces, religious forces, and other, even bigger forces. And Buffini has the courage of her convictions: in Silence she can't stop talking about gender, God, the meaning of life, etc., etc., all while taking us on a guided tour of the bloody reign of Ethelred the Unready - a patch of medieval history as yet unplowed dramatically. Alas, it’s still pretty much unplowed dramatically: Silence is tolerably amusing, but little more, despite the New Rep’s solid production (and the sterling work of its design team).

The trouble is that despite her deep thoughts, Buffini has no idea how to develop - or even hold focus on - the dramatic ideas she stumbles across (such as the Sartrean love triangle of her second act) and to be blunt, she simply has no voice of her own - instead she’s borrowed that of Peter Barnes, author of the classic plague-year farce Red Noses. But why not just do Red Noses? I suppose because that tough-minded classic had no time for sexual empowerment and the other clichés which have become de rigueur on today’s stage. God (if you exist), when I think how tired I am of these tropes, I can only wonder at how bored my poor straight brethren must be – particularly when the postmodern grrl power is presented as baldly as it is here. Needless to say, in Silence, boys turn out to be girls, and men are pigs, and women in trousers save the day. It’s so predictable you can almost say the lines along with the cast, as if you’d stumbled onto some medieval showing of Rocky Horror.

But if the capable actors can’t wring any surprises from the material, at least they keep this rhetorical dog-and-pony show afloat. Hunky Christopher Michael Brody and spunky Anne Gottlieb are probably first among equals in the fine ensemble, which includes a memorably pissed-off Mariana Bassham (above, with Lewis Wheeler) and a reliably wry Michael Kaye, as well as the credibly gender-bending Emily Sproch. Only local stalwart Wheeler fails to satisfy as Ethelred – although much of the fault may lie in his direction. Rick Lombardo manages the three-hour (!) traffic of this stage with his usual capable, if heavy, hand – only he and Wheeler fail to define the play’s hinge moment, when Big Ethel is transformed into Cold Ethel. Wheeler hangs onto the fey, gay stylings of Act I (when Ethelred is only ready for bed) well after the King has got his bloody groove on and laid his own kingdom waste – while the play (and Buffini’s existential musings) depend on the dread of inexorable death that Ethelred is meant to supply. And without that ominous backbeat, these Dark Ages do seem to last for ages.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lost in the labyrinth

Here's looking at you, kid!

After watching Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (actually The Labyrinth of the Faun), audiences across America may find themselves wondering, as I did last weekend, is this really the “best movie of the year”? Is it “not only one of the great fantasy pictures but one of the great end-of-childhood elegies”(Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)? Is it “a deeply felt Spanish-language history lesson, an adult fairy tale, and an outstanding work of art all at once”(Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)?

Well, no, no, and no. Pan’s Labyrinth, instead, is merely Guillermo del Toro’s latest attempt at nailing down the implicit themes of The Spirit of the Beehive (below), Víctor Erice’s haunting ode to the fantasies of a little girl in Franco-era Spain (the director actually tried this gambit once before - and perhaps more effectively - in The Devil’s Backbone). It’s easy to see why del Toro is attracted to the Erice classic: its structure (which limns in an oppressive society the sources of Gothic fantasy) should, it seems, give his horror-movie sensibility the cultural heft it otherwise lacks.

Listening to the subconscious in Spirit of the Beehive.

But where Spirit is all subtle suggestion, Pan is flat-out illustration. It does occasionally achieve some atmosphere – there’s a good, spooky scene in which the heroines listen to the night-time creaking of their house, and a creepy little vignette about a monster with eyes in his hands; but that’s about it. The rest of this phantasm plods along its double plot with a kind of sullen lack of resonance. One of its storylines is “real,” the other “fabulist,” but they’re joined seamlessly, in the manner of so much magic realism (I wonder at how many reviewers found this all-too-common trope so striking). The film opens with 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arriving at her new home: the camp of a Fascist captain (Sergio López), who’s just married (and impregnated) her mother. Mom’s health is clearly secondary to that of the baby, however – and it’s definitely a boy, the macho capitán insists. Meanwhile Republican rebels haunt the hills, and even have spies (Maribel Verdú, in the film’s best performance) within the family compound.

A predictable set of intrigues (and torture scenes) develops, but these horrors share screen time with a more fantastic set of adventures Ofelia stumbles on in the forest. Here an ancient stone labyrinth leads to the lair of a menacing faun (Doug Jones, left), who explains that Ofelia is actually a lost princess of the underworld, who, to return to her throne, must perform three tasks. . .

Only I’m getting bored already, just as I was in the theatre. Something about the baldness of the exposition, both narrative and moral, makes this dark flower wither on the vine. And while we’re occasionally roused by possible parallels between the intertwined tales (Is the baby a metaphor for political rebirth? Is the blind demon a symbol of Fascism?), mostly we’re left to ourselves to grope for possible connections. Meanwhile the villains turn out to be sadistic cartoons (surprise), Ofelia’s own moral development gets short shrift, and del Toro begins to linger (as always) on the peculiar implements of inflicting pain; so by the grim/uplifting double ending, we really couldn't care less about Ofelia or Franco, much less the great god Pan.

I have to add my response was typical of the (large) audience I saw the film with; at its close, there was a smattering of uncertain applause, but a larger, very palpable, collective shrug. How, then, to explain the wild critical response? Perhaps the key to the mystery lies in a dropped comment from A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “Mr. Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete.”

Hmmm – obliterating the boundary between pop and art; is that really a worthy goal (and if so, why)? Or is it merely the goal of certain critics desperate to flatter their readerships?

For Mr. Scott, perhaps unconsciously, touches on the underlying problem of Pan’s Labyrinth: like most of pop culture, it’s recycled; its fabulism is somehow already familiar. This pastiche of Spirit of the Beehive, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Night of the Hunter, Alice,and a dozen other sources seems to depend on the assumption that bringing psychological terrors to the screen more openly, and with higher levels of technical finish, will somehow increase their potency. Instead, that potency depends on inspiration and emotional connections, both between actor and actor as well as between actor and audience (see the Lord of the Rings films), fields in which Mr. del Toro does not excel. (There are excellent actors in Pan, but each seems cut off from all the rest.)

And let's talk, for a minute, about comic books (for Mr. del Toro, in the end, has a graphic, comic-book sensibility). If there’s one cult cliché that I am truly sick and tired of, it’s the idea that film is somehow a cousin (or even a son!) of the comics. It doesn’t seem to matter that none of the great films have been based on comic books, or indeed, that comics have inspired so few decent (much less classic) movies. Somehow, the fact that movies can be storyboarded (like, yes, comics), combined with the fact that many people remember comics fondly, has through a middlebrow alchemy been transliterated into the comforting falsehood that films are essentially moving comics.

There are a lot of reasons for the widespread fealty to this misconception, but surely a basic one is the baby boomer obsession with youth. In the salad days of my own obsession with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four(left, an issue I actually bought that's probably worth a fortune now), I knew somehow that one day I’d grow out of comics - and whaddya know, I did. In fact (dare I say it?) I found in the realm of genuine art a depth and power that made comic books seem obsolete. But today, that assumption – in fact, that reality – is seen as somehow false; if I’d been true to myself, I would have resisted the siren calls of literature and drama and cinema, and clutched Doctor Doom ever closer to my chest. Or better still, I'd have made comic books with pretensions to art. I have a sneaky feeling this cultural current is what the critics are doing obeisance to; surely none of them (not even Stephanie Zacharek) really believe that Pan’s Labyrinth is up there with The Spirit of the Beehive, much less Forbidden Games. But the idea of a comic book movie masterpiece, a “graphic novel” with the depth of a real one, has become a kind of holy grail of our cultural assumptions – so when one doesn’t really come along, we have to invent one.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The sound of money

James Levine reacts to his paycheck.

Ever wonder why it costs over $100 to get a decent seat at the Boston Symphony? Here's why - (according to Alex Beam over at the Globe):

"The BSO paid James Levine $1.6 million, according to its most recent 990; James Taylor, $774,000; Keith Lockhart, $740,000. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe is the BSO's top-paid player, pulling down $353,000, according to the form filed in 2005.

Mothers -- do let your sons grow up to be timpanists! The BSO pays someone almost $200,000 to bang on those skins."

Meanwhile they're cutting the Pops in half at New Year's and laying off the non-artistic staff. Hmmmm . . .

They had a dream

When it comes to the issue of racism, I've always been struck by the phrase "liberal guilt" - I mean, isn't it the conservatives who were guilty? And since national holidays are all about remembrance, here's a little reminder of what the Republican party would like us to forget - courtesy of Brad DeLong.

From a description of the Reverend Martin Luther King, in William F. Buckley's National Review, in 1959:

"The soberly-dressed "clerky" little man... seemed oddly unsuited to his unmentioned but implicit role of propagandist.... Let me say at once, for the benefit of the wicked, fearful South, that Martin Luther King will never rouse a rabble; in fact, I doubt very much if he could keep a rabble awake... past its bedtime... lecture... delivered with all the force and fervor of the five-year-old who nightly recites: "Our Father, Who art in New Haven, Harold be Thy name"...

The history of Negro freedom in the United States... according to Dr. King, is actually a history of Supreme Court decisions... in each of these decisions "the Supreme Court gave validity to the prevailing mores of the times." (That's how they decide, you see? They look up the prevailing mores--probably in the Sunday New York Times)...

The Negro must... expect suffering and sacrifice, which he must resist without sacrifice, for this kind of resistance will leave the violent segregationist "glutted with his own barbarity. Forced to stand before the world and his God splattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of his Negro brother, he will call an end to his self-defeating massacre." (I don't think [King had] really examined that one, do you?)...

In the words of an editorial from next morning's Yale Daily News, "a bearded white listener rose, then a whole row, and then a standing ovation." Did you ever see a standing ovation rise? It's most interesting! Anyway, I rose and applauded heartily. I was applauding Dr. King for not saying "the truth shall make you free," because actually it took the Supreme Court, in this case, didn't it?...

[A] discussion period for undergraduates followed the lecture.... Here was no trace of the sing-song "culluh'd preachuh" chant, the incongruously gaudy phrases.... Martin Luther King... relies almost entirely on force of one kind or another to accomplish integration.... [I]t seems curiously inconsistent to hear him, time after time, suggest power or force--the force of labor, of legislation, of federal strength--as the solution...."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

More Notes on a Scandal

The idea that Notes on a Scandal is homophobic - as outlined by yours truly here - has been gaining ground; you can tell because the dead-tree critics have begun huffing about it. In last week's New Yorker, David Denby sniffed that moviegoers shouldn't deny themselves the movie's "pleasures" merely because "some reviewers have priggishly complained . . . that both women behave badly." (What people have complained about is that the straight woman has the film's sympathy, despite behaving rather more badly than the lesbian.) Of course having David Denby, of all people, call you a prig is a little funny, but his review itself is far funnier: "the suspense is nearly Hitchcockian in intensity . . . will Barbara succeed in gaining control of the younger woman?" I'm on the edge of my seat! And how about this doozy: "Sheba is . . . a careless demigoddess . . . she knows that having sex with a cheeky pale boy in a damp train yard is crazy, but she can't stop herself - she's thrilled as much by her own desire to transgress as by Steven . . ." (Funny, somehow I almost replaced "Steven" in that last line with "David"!)

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Caryn James (draping herself over what looks like a TV tuned to the Statue of Liberty) makes a more sophisticated excuse for the movie's tone: it's not the results of the women's actions that should count, but their intents. To her, Notes on a Scandal is "deliciously wicked" and "avoids creating unintentional distate" over its May/December (make that March/September) romance because "the film is so lucid." This lucidity seems to amount to the fact that "Notes gets what . . . other movies don't: the difference between predatory sexual attention (unsavory) and mutual sexual attraction (very savory)."

Yummy! Are you sensing a trend here? James is quite repelled by such recent May/December pieces as Venus (with a Cryptkeeper-like Peter O'Toole drooling over the luscious Jodi Whittaker) and History Boys (with its tubby, repressed gay schoolmaster - played by Richard Griffiths - tentatively groping 17-year-olds). Note that even though both men are sexually powerless (O'Toole is even impotent), James finds their desperate sexual gestures repugnant.

Unlike these films, though (and okay, maybe weakness is a rather lame excuse for their heroes' excesses) Notes on a Scandal has "a strong undertow of morality," even though the young man in question this time (left) is only 15. The difference, of course, is his intent: "He comes on to his beautiful teacher," James points out; "He even dupes her with a false sob story to get her sympathy." Well, who'da thunk. Meanwhile, poor Sheba is "struggling under the weight of a long marriage to an older man and two children." Poor thing - a looong marriage, to an icky older guy (plus two kids)! No wonder she falls for a 15-year-old's line. Who wouldn't?

Sheba's self-indulgence, of course, destroys her family and marriage; still, according to James, "Notes places creepiness where it belongs: not on sex and age themselves but on a predatory impulse." Odd, however, that these "predators" tend to be aged and/or gay, and that James un-self-consciously describes marriage to an older man as a burden. She gets even weirder, however, in her closer: "Barbara demonstrates that icky attention from an aging character can be bracing for a film, as long as the ick is intentional."

Uh - what? Methinks it's Caryn James who's getting a little icky - she seems quick to label Barbara Covett as a "predator" (when the only real predator in the movie is that 15-year-old). Of course Barbara's no saint - but as she stumbles on Sheba's affair, her "blackmail" is offered on the requirement that said affair must end, and as her sexual needs are unspoken even to herself, her machinations are more pathetic than menacing (as is the case in The History Boys - and even in Venus). Surely any subtle moral judge would see that. Yet Notes on a Scandal is structured as a stalker movie, and Caryn James, who seems to have kind of a thing about aging masculinity (and yes, Barbara Covett fits under that umbrella!) still applauds its "strong moral undertow."

Hmmm. Does James realize, one wonders, that reciprocal sexual attraction isn't actually the highest moral good? And that self-righteousness about such an ideal might make her seem like - well - a prig?

Monday, January 15, 2007

The whimsical mystic

Sir Roger at his 72nd birthday concert.

Sir Roger Norrington's debut with the Handel and Haydn Society this weekend had almost a religious atmosphere; Norrington is the acknowledged guru of the early music movement (an area in which the brilliant Grant Llewellyn didn't really have bona fides), and so his appearance had something of the air of a prophet's descent from on high. And he certainly looked the part, in a black Asian-style smock that somehow projected both Dalai-Lama asceticism and a certain 60's-era hedonism.

But it was immediately evident that Norrington also plays the part. His handling of the evening's program - Haydn's "La passione" and "Drum Roll" symphonies, as well as Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in E-Flat Major (K.365) - was superb without being showy (even if his whimsical onstage antics got a little hammy). Conducting completely from memory, Norrington's phrasing and articulation were characteristically crisp, but the results hardly lacked for - well - passion; in fact, I've never seen Handel and Haydn play with more fire. The first cellist, perhaps taking his cue from Pete Townsend, actually smashed the bridge on his instrument (the second cellist handed him his own, as protocol demands - but perhaps not without trepidation). The result, in the symphonies, was a startling rich, yet maturely balanced sound - something close to the classical ideal, one was tempted to imagine.

The Mozart was more problematic, although it was brilliantly played - pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, a married couple, sweetly suggested the camaraderie and the rivalry in the dialogue between its two fortepianos (the parts were originally played by Mozart and his sister). But the instruments' sound (to our ears, an intriguing hybrid of piano and harpsichord) was almost too small for the hall (in the post-concert discussion, even Norrington described them as "on the edge of credibility") - and they were often drowned out by the orchestra. In a way, the performance teased out a lingering question about "historically informed performance" - is it really suitable for all conditions? The increasing size of concert venues was a major force (though not the only one, I know) behind the evolution of the modern orchestra, and one wonders at the wisdom of forcing early instruments into environments with requirements they were never designed to meet. I would welcome the fortepiano into Sanders Theatre, or perhaps even Jordan Hall; but Symphony seems like a stretch.

Such caveats aside, the concert demonstrated that in Norrington, Handel and Haydn has found the perfect interpreter for at least half of its namesake composers; alas, he's only signed on as "Artistic Adviser" during its search for a new Artistic Director. (Perhaps this accounted somewhat for the players' intensity - are they hoping to tempt him to stay?) The good news, however, is that H&H could hardly find a better chaperone for that particular quest.

Brickbottom celebrates MacDowell

Redesigning Moment, by Suzanne Menon

Brickbottom Gallery is currently honoring the centennial of the storied MacDowell Colony with a show featuring local MacDowell fellows Karen Aqua, Toby Atlas, Michael Beatty, Erica Daborn, Liza Folman, Jane Goldman, Brian Healy, Catherine Kernan, Nona Hershey, Colleen Kiely, Suzanne Menon, Debra Olin, Amy Ragus, Lorna Ritz, Paul Santoleri, Jonathan Santos, Sandra Stark, Naoe Suzuki, Debra Weisberg, and Chantal Zakari.

The opening reception is this Sunday, January 21, at 4 PM, featuring music by the "Blues Cabaret" jazz quartet, with a 6 PM music improv by Ken Field and David Sholl, followed by a 7 PM animation by Karen Aqua. There will also be a Writers' Evening on Sunday, January 28, at 7 PM, with Herbert Krohn, Marsha Pomerantz, Monica Raymond and Joyce Van Dyke.

The Brickbottom Gallery is located at 1 Fitchburg St., Somerville. Hours:Thursday-Saturday, 12-5 pm, and by appointment. Wheelchair accessible; free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-776-3410 or log onto

Friday, January 12, 2007

Into the woods

Lebow, Rothenberg, Burton, Hudnut and Latessa ponder The Cherry Orchard.

Comedy and tragedy are like two sides of the same ruble; which one you see depends on your perspective. Only the perspectives are so legion, and so shifting, in Chekhov’s last masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard – now in a richly appointed production at the Huntington Theatre - that even defining the great play’s tone has remained elusive. Its central event (the destruction of that famed orchard) is so poignant that the play’s original director, Stanislavski, directed its premiere as tragedy, straight up. This only appalled the dying Chekhov, however, who insisted his swan song was “a comedy – even in places a farce!”

The debate continues – although because of it, sometimes we can't see the Orchard for the trees. And ironically enough, the opposing teams have switched sides: now it’s the educated middlebrow audience that has decided the show’s a comedy, and the highbrow one that longs to have its melancholy restored. The argument won’t be settled at the Huntington, however, where director Nicholas Martin takes a stab at balancing the play on a knife’s edge between the two forms. At first, you may feel he's taken the author's hint, and has framed the play as farce – or even sitcom - populated by denizens of the New York Theatre of the Absurd, who hit all the punch lines in Richard Nelson’s punchy new translation. But as the crisis for the Ranevskaya family deepens, so does Martin’s direction; the famous finale, with the house boarded up, the faithful retainer dying inside, and the echo of that relentless axe in the distance, is a harrowing coda – and as powerful as that of any production of The Cherry Orchard I’ve seen.

What’s curious is that Martin achieves this depth without the star performance the production promises: in the role of Ranevskaya, the lovely Kate Burton (left, with Mark Blum) shines like the star she is, but sometimes seems almost as wooden as her orchard. Martin guides this Chekhov veteran through the play’s paces well enough, but her cheery sense of denial between climaxes is just too sturdy to hold our interest – or make her ruined romantic history plausible.

For history is what she’s got: The Cherry Orchard opens with Ranevskaya dragging her baggage - in both senses of the term - back to the ancestral plot. We slowly learn (perhaps a bit too baldly here) that years before, she fled the horror of her son’s drowning; her life since then has been a series of failed affairs on the Continent, while the family ran through its money - in fact, her return coincides with the planned auction of the estate.

But there’s one possible out – as suggested by the blunt businessman Lopakin, the family can save its skin, if not its soul, by selling its orchard to summer tenants. This would mean chopping down their beloved trees, however, and to the noble Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev, that prospect is unthinkable; and so they dither and dally until the fatal day. In an unexpected twist, however, the estate is sold to none other than Lopakin – who grew up as one of their serfs (or rather slaves) – and thus in a single stroke Chekhov neatly sums up the fall of the gentry and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Will Lebow tries to talk sense into Kate Burton.
(Production photos by T. Charles Erickson.)

That would be quite enough theme for many a play, but it’s only a taste of this particular Cherry; Chekhov’s last work is a dense lattice of his political, philosophical, and moral concerns, conveyed through meandering conversation, occasional bursts of burlesque, and a steady chorus of non sequiturs – and it’s to Martin’s immense credit (and his cast’s) that this production connects a dizzying number of these disparate dots. The best work comes from the supporting cast, and since every role in Chekhov is a little world of interpretive possibility, I’ll give most of these individual nods. There’s brilliant (if at times broad) work from the reliable Jeremiah Kissel as the happy sponge Pishchik; Kissel is probably saddled with the highest number of non sequiturs in the show, and he pulls off every one. There’s equally skilled work from Joyce Van Patten as the weirdly sour hausfrau Charlotta, and a truly marvelous turn by Dick Latessa as Firs (his isn’t just the best Firs I’ve seen, it’s one of the best Chekhov performances I’ve seen). As the “perpetual student” Trofimov, Enver Gjokaj is suitably intense, if somewhat superficial - he's helped immeasurably by his makeup (which appropriately enough, makes him look first like Chekhov, then like Trotsky).

As we move up the cast list, alas, the performances grow less satisfying. Gene Farber isn’t nearly horny enough as Yasha, while Jessica Dickey tries hard - perhaps too hard - but lacks the natural crassness of Dunyasha. As the hapless Yephikhodov, or “Disasters by the Dozen,” Jeremy Beck takes some truly acrobatic spills - but the character is not merely comic relief, and Beck is too much the golden boy to evoke his crestfallen despair. A similar problem plagues Mark Blum’s spoiled Gaev – true, the man's nobility is cut with vanity, but he's not merely a silly sybarite, however skillfully Blum plays him (the inability of Burton and Blum to evoke their characters' fragile, stained nobility may be what holds back the first acts of the play). And as Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter, BU sophomore Jessica Rothenberg is clearly out of her depth – she’s lovely in just the right way, but hasn’t begun to tap her character’s anxious sensitivity.

Of the central family, only Sarah Hudnut scores as Varya, the adopted daughter – although she seems more a comedienne than an actress at first, and lacks the bitter twist we associate with the role; by the finale, however, Hudnut is channeling the character’s pain so completely that she’s practically peerless. Luckily, she’s playing against the most accomplished major performance in the production – Will LeBow’s Lopakin. LeBow is an odd choice for this boorish up-and-comer, who readily admits he’s “a pig”; this actor’s specialty is the refined, aging eccentric (in fact, in terms of what we expect from their characters, LeBow and Burton are precisely reversed in presence). But LeBow makes it work (as he always does) by connecting with Lopakin’s low self-esteem as his driving force, and by pushing his moment of triumph into true ferocity.

So the cast is as mottled as the dying light (left) in Chekhov’s forest – but the production is pulled together through the perceptive depth of Martin’s direction and the remarkable work of his design team. Scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s indoor/outdoor set subtly links these aristocrats to their land (his parting curtains, on which the cherry orchard is projected, accomplishes this with particular beauty, and elegantly solves the problem of whether or not to reveal the symbolic grove), while Donald Holder’s lighting design evokes about as many lush, crepuscular shades of twilight as you can imagine (I’ll never forget the final moments of Act II, with its trees trailing into the gloom like blue tapers). And sound designer Drew Levy must be commended for pulling off the most difficult sound cue in all Chekhov – the famous, semi-mystical “distant breaking string” which punctuates Acts II and IV.

I’ve never, in fact, seen this moment brought off as successfully as in Martin’s production. This is Chekhov at his most allusive (and elusive) – a broken string echoes in the distance, a violent tramp disturbs the family like some harbinger of the social id, and the sun slowly begins to set. At the Huntington, a sense of portent hangs in the air – we feel poignantly the loss of higher purpose that to Firs gave his life meaning, and which can never be replaced by the busy optimism of the bourgeoisie. The same sense of loss surfaces with a vengeance at the play’s finish, as Martin doesn’t just lock up the house but boards it up, and we lie in darkness with the old retainer, listening helplessly as somewhere the axes descend on the cherry orchard. At moments like this, realized on the stage rather than the page, the intellectual pretense that the play is comedy falls as quickly as these trees (and Martin knows it). This production isn’t perfect, but it’s the closest we may come to mature Chekhov in this town for many a year.

The cast takes its bow on opening night.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Was Noel Coward a misogynist?

Misogynist - or bitch?

The Boston Globe's Louise Kennedy diagnoses Noel Coward's brain as "charming, but misogynist" in today's review of Design for Living. I seem to recall this is one political issue that reliably rouses Louise, so you have to consider the emotional source of the charge. Still, it's true that Coward has his moments. In Private Lives, for instance, there's the notorious quip that "Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs." And in Design for Living, women receive a few nasty putdowns (particularly, ironically enough, from the mouth of Gilda, his heroine).

But is that kind of queeny bitchery really misogyny? Certainly it squares - superficially - with the straight version of the syndrome (which is why, unfortunately, the lines get laughs). But in a way, isn't Gilda calling women "bitches" in Design for Living a bit like Ludacris using the n-word? After all, Coward wasn't just gay, he was a bottom - and, not to put too fine a point on it, bottoms in the end (as it were) will stoop to anything when faced with the competition!

Sorry, but the love/hate relationship of the queen to the female is far too complex to be reduced to "misogyny." This isn't to say that Coward in bitch mode is a pretty sight - it's simply to point out that we should understand him for what he was. I realize, of course, that Scott Heller isn't about to let Louise Kennedy explain tops and bottoms to the soccer moms who read the Globe - still, it's lazy to pretend some pseudo-feminist critique of "the male" is appropriate to Coward's persona. The man who wrote the heroines of Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter, and (yes) Design for Living certainly had insight into - and even identified with - women, and in particular a certain kind of feminine allure. Perhaps feminism itself has a problem with that allure (and its underside) - but that's not Coward's problem.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Such a bah-gain!

Handel and Haydn has dropped the price on remaining seats to Sir Roger Norrington's (left) debut at Symphony Hall to just $25. Come see what all the Early Music fuss is about - conducted by the guy who's generally considered one of the movement's founders. The program includes Haydn's Symphony No. 49 in F Minor, "La passione," his Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat Major, "Drum Roll," and Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in E-Flat Major, with Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang on fortepianos.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

"The Cherry Orchard" opens at the Huntington

It looks good, doesn't it? With Kate Burton as Ranevskaya and Will Lebow as Lopakin, and Nicholas Martin directing, it could be great. More to follow.

The Herald comes out against the arts

The Boston Herald says we should cut state arts funding. Tell "Chief Enterprise Reporter" Dave Wedge ( that he's wrong.

Gone, baby, gone

It's fairly obvious that the break between Robert Woodruff and the A.R.T. has been rancorous - he was pushed, he didn't jump; or he jumped before he was pushed. Today we learn that Gideon Lester will serve as Interim Artistic Director - starting immediately; i.e., Woodruff (whom I assume is still directing Britannicus) won't handle the artistic directorship even until the end of the year.

So who pushed Woodruff? Rumors continue to fly that it was "old money" Harvard, but this seems tailored to serve a certain middlebrow-baby-boomer mythos at large in the Hub. Progressive rocker overthrown by old money! To the barricades, everybody - but first, meet at the Middle East! Sigh. I've been meaning to post about this attitude (it seems to have come to a head around the Dresden Dolls debacle), so now is probably the time to collect my thoughts. More to come.

We all loved each other so much

Gabriel Kuttner, Susanne Nitter, and Diego Arciniegas design their
own love seat in Design for Living. Photo by Scott Clyve.

Noel Coward only had one great scene, really - declining love betrayed. But luckily for us, in Design for Living, he gets to write it three times, from three different angles, as a romantic triangle folds into a ménage à trois. And the actors in the new production by the Publick Theater, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, generally play the hell out of all three versions.

In a way, the thesps have to - they're among Boston's best, but sorry, you couldn't really say they're designed for Coward. Susanne Nitter looks smart in Chanel, and Diego Arciniegas can throw off Latin sparks when he wants, but neither is quite luxe enough for roles that were originally written for the Lunts and Coward himself. And as for Gabriel Kuttner - well, he conjures up comfortable old shoes far more than spats. Luckily, however, the guy can truly act.

Which brings me to what's so très, très amusante about this particular production - it doesn't depend on the cold emotional chrome of so much Coward. Its glamour gap is its secret weapon - the damn thing's heartfelt! The director (and cast) have made some noise about the relevance of Coward's romantic arrangements to today's debate on gay marriage, but their production actually belies the parallel. Coward's characters disdain marriage, and their show isn't about sex, gay/bi or otherwise - it is, it turns out, about affection. And that's what makes it so improbably affecting. I know Leo loves Otto and Otto loves Leo and both say they love Gilda and she says hey, guys, same here; but this is the first production I've seen of Design for Living in which I actually believed them.

Or at least, believed them as far as one can believe such fatuous egoists. Design for Living is more in love with success than anything - or anyone - else. Its social-climbing protagonists could star in some gay Ayn Rand opus, they're so handsome and talented - and surprise, everything they've got is for sale (except, of course, their hearts!). Needless to say, these were Coward's attitudes, too; in fact, Design for Living is more or less Noel's Guide to Being Noel, and as many have pointed out, the script wasn't just his ode to the Lunts, it was all about his jones for the Lunts (particularly Alfred).

But if Art and Life are in a lip-lock throughout the play, Leo and Otto aren't (at least not in this production). Despite his brave words, director Veloudos toes the 30's-era line on sexual propriety; there's plenty of coy double entendre in the last act, but nothing else French (much less Greek!). I admit I did miss the rising sexual chemistry between Diego and Gabriel when they tied one on and then got it on - but the scene's so funny as a piece of comic acting that you don't really care. Kuttner in particular is something of a miracle; Arciniegas is superb, but still depends on tiny technical tricks to structure his intoxication - meanwhile Kuttner just gets drunker before our eyes; in fact, his performance throughout is a kind of model of spontaneous, internal acting.

This isn't to slight Susanne Nitter (who's overdue for some local awards, btw). Although she's a bit adrift in the cross-currents of her opening scene (along with Nigel Gore, her partner), Nitter soon finds her sea legs and brings a touching note of rue to her role. And like her co-stars, she has a wonderful way with Coward's repartee - for once, the play's celebrated, self-indulgent wit really does tickle us like bubbles in champagne.

There are, however, a few more scenes that don't quite pop the way they should. A cool self-critique is always floating through this playwright's best work (and if Design isn't quite the cream of Coward, it's still at the bottom of the top drawer). Veloudos, however, elicits this chill only occasionally, and only from Nitter - there's a curious dialogue between Leo and a reporter, for instance, that should hint at a certain vacuum beneath everyone's shiny veneer. The production also doesn't look quite as swank as we'd like; the BCA Plaza Theatre's low ceiling defeats the lighting designer, and I didn't quite buy the set designer's Matisse motif (even if the great painter is mentioned in the play). After all, Coward is about gloss, while Matisse is about grace (and next to Matisse, Coward does look alarmingly second-rate).

Alas, the production also wraps on a slightly sour note; Veloudos doesn't know what to make of the curious finale. Here Coward runs his umpteenth variation on his second best scene: The Bohemians Tell Off the Bourgeoisie. This time, however, Coward presses into service (on the bourgeois side) Otto's art dealer, whom Nigel Gore plays (plausibly, if timorously) as a closeted gay man. This final, blithe irony makes for rather a sketchy sketch, if you ask me: the semi-closeted Coward factotum disses the - er - slightly more closeted Coward factotum. It's perhaps telling that, despite his talent for emotional escape, Coward's dazzling web of personae tripped him up before the final curtain.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

When bad things happen to good theatres . . .

Somebody call Rabbi Kushner! Only he could explain See What I Wanna See, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical at the Lyric Stage. How could this smart, scrappy little theatre, which has successfully stretched its limited resources to encompass everything from A Little Night Music to The Goat, have strapped itself to this bomb? Hadn't anyone seen the damn thing? Or had the respectful reviews in New York (a town with notoriously low standards), and LaChiusa's growing reputation as Sondheim's heir, been enough to blind the eyes (and deafen the ears) of those who had?

Whatever the reason for its arrival, the debacle is all the more poignant in that it's a great production - just of a terrible show. The talented cast sings its heart out (and acts up a storm), and the direction is tight, while the design is sharp. But all this effort is for naught: the musical only rises from dreadful (the first half) to passable (the second). Maybe if there were a third act - but no, think not on't, that way madness lies!

To be fair, part of the problem is the challenge LaChiusa (who's responsible for book, lyrics and music) has set himself: to adapt the sources of Rashomon (left), the Akira Kurosawa film that's on everybody's all-time Top 10 list (unless it's been bumped by another Kurosawa flick). Rashomon, in case you've forgotten, is the classic demonstration of the unknowability of truth. A murder has occurred in the forest, and a judge at the gates of the city ("Rasho-Mon" means "Dragon Gate") cross-examines the wife of the victim, his bandit attacker, and then the ghost of the dead man himself (via a medium). But all three tell self-serving versions of the event - and even when a fourth witness comes forward, the truth of what occurred "In the Grove," (the title of the source story, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) remains obscure.

This potent parable was recognized as a classic almost immediately upon its release (and so launched the global careers of Kurosawa and the exuberant Toshiro Mifune). But from this gold LaChiusa spins only dross; he has little of the great director's muscular lyricism, and none of his sense of poetic mystery. LaChiusa updates the story to 50's New York, for instance, for the stupidly "meta" reason that now he can stage the murder after, yes, a showing of Rashomon. That's the first, but certainly not the last, obvious idea in the show - but it may be the least offensive; See What I Wanna See clumsily pushes its sexual themes in our faces, cheapening both its tale and its tellers (in the original, sexual shame was a motive; here, sexual liberation is - which makes you kinda re-think sexual liberation). In short, this "update" is more of a date-rape - and musically, its pastiche of pop and jazz - cut with the occasional Japanese flute - is not about to make you forget LaChiusa's obvious model, Sondheim. ("It's like Pacific Undertures," my companion quipped.)

Fortunately, in his second act, LaChiusa finds more success adapting a lesser, but still interesting, story by Akutagawa ("The Dragon," here retitled "Gloryday"), in which a disillusioned priest spins tales of a Second Coming in Central Park. While there are still a few more bald swipes at metaphysical importance (the proceedings are set just after 9/11 - don't get me started), at least this time there's no classic version looming over the material like a tombstone. And the story's sly satire seem to loosen up LaChiusa; his music grows more melodic, and his lyrics improve, turning from declamatory to predictable-but-sharply-observed (there are even some genuine laughs).

Cheer up, kid, we're in Act II!

The cast responds to the superior material by putting it over with a passion. Brendan McNab, as the troubled priest, has never been better (and that's saying a lot), but he's given a run for his money by the hilarious June Baboian (both above) as his atheist aunt. Meanwhile Aimee Doherty nails her fallen Hollywood starlet, while Andrew Schufman and Andrew Giordano do clever turns in their supporting roles. And throughout the singing is splendid (special kudos to Mr. Giordano and Ms. Doherty) - the whole ensemble, I predict, will be nominated for IRNE awards (and maybe even, if the dead-tree critics' heads are screwed on right, Norton awards). Meanwhile the orchestra, under the direction of the talented Jonathan Goldberg, plays with confident energy (but with Goldberg, you knew that already).

Still, there's that godawful first act. My suggestion is that you a) rent Rashomon and b) watch it, then c) go to this show at intermission. (The first half is a little over an hour long.) I'm sure Mr. LaChiusa would not approve - but then he'd have to agree that we should only see what we wanna see.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Night of the Iguana

What I wouldn't give to nibble that . . .

I'm forever intrigued by how stereotypes keep coming back at us in deeper layers of deniability. Much like the aliens in Star Wars - who are barely-disguised "lazy blacks" and "greedy Jews" - gays and lesbians keep popping up in various costumes in arthouse product, from the butthole-lovin' "hillbillies" of Pulp Fiction to Judi Dench's lesbian martinet in the current Notes on a Scandal. Dame Dench's performance is, to be sure, a waspish marvel of control and confidence - much like the real-life performance of her character, "Barbara Covett," who might have popped out of Bunny Lake is Missing, or some other piece of sexual paranoia from the fifties or sixties. This dyke's New Age disguise, however, is that she's repressed, i.e., she's only disguised to herself, which enables the filmmakers to drape their queer villain in a queer kind of pity, even as she circles her prey (the dewy Cate Blanchett, who by the way has never looked more tempting).

Cate and Judi both play teachers at a rowdy working-class school in London; Cate's the free-spirited art teacher ("Sheba Hart", as in "Bathsheba Hart") who wants to nurture the kids' nature; Judi, by way of contrast, is the squat, speckled dragon lady who maintains order with something like Mussolini's alacrity. And if she doesn't quite breathe fire, this reptile at least spits poison - or rather dips her pen in it, to etch in her diary descriptions of her co-workers that you'd think would burn right through the paper.

These voice-overs are both ferociously funny, and, in their inhuman way, nastily accurate; they're the film's best feature (even if they drift off into boring "unreliable narrator" territory - a ploy which never works on the screen the way it does on the page). Covett ("covet," I know - and as for "Bathsheba Hart" - oh, please) has the eye of a surgeon, and the sympathy of a spider; to her, a kid with Down Syndrome is "a court jester," while rough-housing boys are "feral." She takes her scalpel even more skillfully to the boho Bathsheba and her privileged attitudes - although these opening salvos are only a cover for her growing infatuation.

Sheba, however, has her own secrets - she's carrying on an affair with a 15-year-old boy (the highly credible, 17-year-old Andrew Simpson, above). And when Barbara stumbles on Sheba en flagrante, it isn't long before her shock dissolves into the realization that now she has the means to blackmail her love object into a kind of intimacy - which, in the end, amounts to little more than some strokes on the arm and the occasional tearful clinch.

Sheba cooperates with Barbara's blackmail - only to sink back into her pattern of sexual abuse anyway. So she's the villain, right? Wrong! If you thought that, you'd soon be having "creative differences" with Patrick Eyre, the film's director, and Patrick Marber, its scenarist. As the film's tagline puts it so neatly, "One Woman's Mistake is Another's Opportunity," and audiences - and critics - have been only too happy to play along with this rather creative interpretation of its plot. Sweet, sophomoric Sheba, you see, "made a mistake" - it's Barbara who's committing a crime.

Take the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, for example - not someone I took for a homophobe, but check out his review. To him, Notes on a Scandal is a "highbrow suspense freakout" that "sickens your bones." He admits that "some might read (Dench's) character as lesbian caricature" - but oh, not him, even though he then writes: "There are moments of tension to make you crawl up the back of your seat." These turn out to be from a scene in which Barbara breaks down after the death of her cat. It's hardly Saw III.

Somehow Ty's forgotten that it's actually Sheba who destroys her family to blow a 15-year-old boy; to him, in fact, she's "a fool we understand, even as we shrink in disgust." Really? I just shrank in disgust. Many viewers (perhaps less infatuated with Cate Blanchett than Ty) might see Sheba as a far more dangerous predator than Barbara (imagine two men in these roles, playing off a 15-year-old girl). Courtney Love might have made great hay with this part - but instead we have the delectable Cate, a technically brilliant actress who's just too wholesome to ever limn the darkness of this Siouxsie and the Banshees fan who (intriguingly) married a man old enough to be her father. This is the characterization which should be carrying the movie - and which would provide far fresher material than the dusty web Dame Judi weaves (however brilliantly she does it). But if Cate were really to dig into the role (and yes, I'm sure she has the chops), the film's whole M.O. would collapse.

To paraphrase Churchill, then, Notes on a Scandal is an enigma wrapped in a cliché. Too bad audiences aren't seeing it that way.

Opening weekend

Diego Arciniegas, Susanne Nitter and Gabriel Kuttner in Design for Living

The 2007 theater season begins in earnest this weekend, with Noel Coward's Design for Living opening at the Calderwood (see above) and See What I Want to See by John LaChiusa going up at the Lyric Stage. Design, Coward's 1933 ode to the joy of bisexual ménage, is being produced by the Publick Theater in a rare indoor outing (as it were). The show will feature the cast (and director) of its summer hit Copenhagen, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, who, intriguingly enough, is the artistic director of (yes) the Lyric Stage. Ah, well, there's nothing like a little healthy competition (even if it's with your own theater!). Meanwhile, the promising See What I Want to See (below) updates the paradoxes of Akira Kurosawa's famous Rashomon.

Andrew Giordano and Aimee Doherty in See What I Want to See

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Mitt Romney's George Wallace moment

Mitt and his mentor

Ah, the "Southern strategy" returns for the GOP. That footprint gays and lesbians across Massachusetts feel on their backs these days is due to Mitt Romney using us as a stepping stone to his party's presidential nomination. The parallel is unmistakable. Just as George Wallace used racism as his presidential platform in 1968 (a position which Nixon adopted in a subtler, coded form), so Romney is using homophobia as his in 2008. Forty years have passed, but the playbook remains the same. Only ironically enough, Romney is passing the gubernatorial torch right now to a man who would have been a victim of the Wallace strategy back in '68 - Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor in Massachusetts history and only the second in U.S. history. Back in the day, Deval would have been prevented in many states from marrying the woman of his choice; today, Romney feels my freedom should be restricted in exactly the same way.

Or does he? In a 1994 letter to the Log Cabin Club, Romney wrote, "I am more convinced than ever before that as we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent." But then it doesn't actually matter that his newfound passion for the "sanctity of marriage" is utterly hypocritical - the homophobes don't care. After all, they currently stomach an expectant gay parent (who used to wear a wedding ring, no less) in the bosom of the Vice President's family, and the Foley scandal doesn't seem to have shaken their faith in the GOP one jot. No, what they want is hate with a Christian face, and they're willing to ignore any level of hypocrisy to move that project forward.

So what does this mean for local culture (to get back to the usual focus of this blog)? Well, more turmoil, more hate, perhaps even some violence - and all over nothing. But there are a few points of light in the sudden gloom. There's Patrick, for one, who has defied the bigotry of some African-Americans by supporting equal marriage (thank you, Deval - you had my vote last fall, and you'll have it again if you stick by my people!). There are heartening polls that show up to two-thirds of state residents see this fight now as about civil rights. There's also a sudden, widespread realization that our great state - for so long a harbinger of progress - might suddenly fall on the wrong side of history. All this may carry us through the battle ahead. The point, however, is that the battle didn't have to happen; it's largely the result of the personal ambition of a single man.

Mitt Romney defends the sanctity of - oops!
I mean George Wallace defends the University of Alabama!

Sometimes the mask slips . . .

George Will on the minimum wage:

"The minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities' prices."

Why not just say human beings are commodities, George? After all, that's what you really think.

Christopher Wheeldon forms own company

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Word has reached the provinces (via its usual courier, the New York Times) that the talented Christopher Wheeldon has formed his own ballet company, to be called (somewhat unfortunately) Morphoses, the Wheeldon Company (Morphoses is a 2002 dance Wheeldon choreographed for the New York City Ballet, where he has been resident choreographer). The idea of a boutique ballet (or at least a new company with a ballet focus) in a city that sometimes struggles to support two major companies (the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre) is sending ripples through the dance world, and the possiblity that Wheeldon may soon "poach" dancers from NYCB is already the object of much speculation. The company will perform in Vail and London, followed by a stint in New York in October - Boston's not in their travel plans (even though Wheeldon was once principal guest choreographer for Boston Ballet). In the meantime we can get a glimpse of his choreography in Polyphonia (below, to piano music by György Ligeti, whose work also inspired Morphoses), which will be part of Boston Ballet's New Visions line-up in March.

Polyphonia photo by Serguei Endinian

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

How do you solve a problem like Pixnit?

Every now and then, I admit, I'm glad I scan the Globe. A case in point is today's story on Pixnit, the art-grad "tagger" who's been working around town for some time, and who is now on the edge of gallery (and perhaps global!) visibility. I'm glad to at last know a bit about Pixnit (whose work I've noticed in the South End), and even if the Globe article was breathless in a Newton-North-reporter kind of way ("she can vanish, almost completely, into the smallest of shadows"), it still raised some interesting issues about this particular artiste.

Of course, Pixnit's hardly your av tagger: she's got an art degree, goddammit, and her stated aim is "to awaken the viewer's senses, emphasize human scale on the street and shift the viewer's perception of public space." (Like so many before her, she's an art school Florence Nightingale.)

The trouble is, Pixnit doesn't actually have the permission of her canvas to raise our consciousness. One particular group - GraffitiNABBers - would, indeed, like to nab her. Intriguingly, Pixnit isn't arguing for the legalization of graffiti - "I'm not an advocate for graffiti being legalized - the illegality is what gives it its bite," she says. In other words, she's well aware that the buzz she generates is enhanced by the threat of jail time; a prison sentence would, in a sense, be a brilliant career move.

But does she need the street cred of a rap sheet? Maybe. Pixnit's stencils are charming and accomplished, and their quaint aura makes for an interesting sense of reverse transgression (she subverts urban chaos with domestic tranquility). On the other hand, the work's not all that energetic or pointed, and a little of it goes a long way (let's hope her stencils don't really become "spores," as she hopes). And it's hard to say what, exactly, aside from her career concerns, is preventing her from working in a temporary medium (like the technically brilliant Sidewalk Sam, whom everyone loves), or simply asking for permission from the owners of the property she targets. "Why are we so afraid of paint on the walls?" she asks, but one might well respond, "Why are you so afraid of cooperating with your community?"