Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sin City

Daniel Snyder and Amy Burton (both at left) get down with the cast
in Mahagonny. (Photo by Clive Grainger.)

Decades before the Mob dreamed of Vegas, Brecht and Weill conjured The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, their pointed critique of the contradictions of capitalism. Needless to say, their modern-day Sodom-for-pay ran afoul of certain fascists (despite its being inspired by Weimar, the Nazis attempted to destroy every copy of the score), and while some of the show’s melodies penetrated the popular psyche (everyone knows The Alabama Song, or at least the Doors’ version), not much was heard of Mahagonny for years. Now, however, with “the left” discredited, and global capitalism triumphant, Mahagonny’s forked tongue drips with revived relevance, and productions have begun popping up all over – most recently in our own Cutler Majestic, where Gil Rose’s Opera Boston led a penetrating, if not always gripping, revival last weekend.

The quick take on Mahagonny is that it’s a splash of acid in the face of capitalism – but on closer consideration, it’s rather more than that; in fact, what makes this musical (or the opera - it toes an unsteady line between the two forms) truly disturbing is that it’s so sympathetic to what makes Mahagonny run. Founded by crooks on the lam, somewhere in an American wasteland between Pensacola and Alaska (yeah, Vegas comes close enough!), this amoral Gomorrah is a peaceable kingdom in which all tastes are slaked and none are judged – not only a hedonist’s dream, but also a libertarian’s; one can easily imagine Andrew Sullivan and William Bennett brushing shoulders on its streets.

Mahagonny, therefore, is simply the embodiment of utility – and thus director Sam Helfrich has smartly visualized it not as the Bellagio but as a loading dock – one that, as the show’s publicity states, you’d find on the backside of a Wal*Mart. Indeed, Helfrich has denuded the musical of any glints of “decadent” Kander & Ebb-like tinsel; the lights are the cheapest available (fluorescent), and port-a-potties substitute for real plumbing - and can do double duty as sex cubbies! The director carries this conceptual rigor into the staging – he favors cold tableaux that nicely echo the doomy vibe in Weill’s chants; but this parallelism did little to alleviate a certain incipient stasis in the composer's idiom (and Rose conducted with only intermittent vigor). Add to the mix a noticeable strain in key voices and an acoustically problematic pit, and you have an evening that sometimes flagged in its attack – or rather rose and fell with the book and score.

Still, at its best, this Mahagonny was riveting. Few operas can match its honesty about moral paradox, and Helfrich and his cast were utterly committed to Brecht’s dissection of “the laws of human pleasure.” The musical follows the doomed path of Jimmy MacIntyre, an innocent lumberjack who comes to town with his buddies to burn through their hard-earned cash. Needless to say, Mahagonny – personified in fallen woman Jenny Smith, Jimmy’s main squeeze - makes hungry where she most satisfies, and Jimmy soon senses the city has something in common with hell: beneath the hustle, it’s a spiritual vacuum. Of course Brecht and Weill, with the Nazis soon to be jackbooting about in the lobby, had no illusions about the salves of mystical idealism, either – and neither do the good people of Mahagonny; when Jimmy starts blowing off, a typhoon coincidentally starts blowing off the coast. The city is spared, but Jimmy and his pals aren’t; one by one, they’re picked off by its vicissitudes; one dies of gluttony, another in the boxing ring – until finally Jimmy is brought up on capital charges: he can’t pay his bar bill (the city's one ironclad law). While murderers get off with a slap on the wrist, Jimmy gets death, because, after all, “the worst criminal in the human race is the man with no money.” In this production, he helpfully clambers into a dumpster for his own execution (his buddies have been disposed of in the same manner) – but Jimmy's death brings no peace to Mahagonny, which doesn’t so much self-destruct (after all, Vegas is still with us) as descend into a pit of nihilism; as the curtain falls, its citizens are jerking spasmodically, like broken automatons, which is exactly what they are.

But at least they’re self-aware automatons, and none more so than Joyce Castle, who projected the perfect level of down-low hauteur as Leocadia Begbick, the city’s founder and guiding light. In acting chops she really had no peer, although Amy Burton’s soprano was easily the most memorable voice onstage, and just right for Jenny Smith in its mournful, faintly metallic allure. As Jimmy MacIntyre, meanwhile, Daniel Snyder sounded stretched here and there, but still powered through his last-night-on-earth aria. He was ably abetted (indeed, overpowered) by Stephen Salters as “Bank Account Bill,” while Matthew DiBattista and Tom O’Toole provided solid back-up. The chorus could have been larger – clearly Mahagonny stretched not only some voices, but also the resources of up-and-coming Opera Boston – but brought a chilling conviction to the moments of collective self-realization that stud the opera. “No one can help us, or you,” they intone at the finale, and it was hard not to believe them.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Almost irresistible

Kevin Kalinsky and Elaine Theodore shake the snow globe.

Sometimes the muses smile upon us. Currently there are three good shows in town– Souvenir, at the Lyric Stage, Orson’s Shadow at the New Rep, and Almost, Maine at Speakeasy Stage. And Oliver Twist, over at the ART, is a respectable effort. I can’t honestly remember this ever happening before – the city’s leading homegrown theatres all working at the top of their form, while simultaneously the ART avoids being irritating! (It almost makes me fear for the Huntington’s upcoming opening of Well. Something’s got to give!)

Needless to say, however, you’d never guess our current happy state from reading the critics. I know that criticism always limps behind the art it covers, but in Boston, even as the arts have been gaining ground, local criticism hasn’t kept up; if anything, it’s slid in quality. I offer as perverse proof of this sorry state of affairs the reaction to Almost, Maine, a harmless little confection currently being expertly rendered by Speakeasy Stage. You can “almost” guess how the critics reacted: Almost, Maine was “almost a play . . . almost funny . . . almost has characters we want to get to know . . .”

Yes, and that was almost criticism. It’s hard, by way of contrast, for me to get worked up about the superficiality of Almost, Maine because it’s so obviously precisely what it is; unlike, say, the highly praised Mauritius, this is simple, unpretentious sentiment, delivered straight up; it's a piece of fluff deep in the fluffy stuff, not so much an “important new play” as just a “date play.” And I am always for plays that could get you laid.

True, when its tropes are stated flatly, Almost, Maine almost falls apart; it’s just a string of romantic sketches, most of which are structured around theatrical one-liners: these characters literally have hearts of stone (which, when broken, they carry around in paper bags); when they fall in love, they literally fall down; and when the other shoe drops, it literally falls from the sky. I suppose this sounds so sweet it could rot your teeth, but somehow playwright John Cariani really does get you to say “Awwwww” without gritting said molars. It’s partly that his dialogue is both realistic and closely observed, and so operates as a sponge to all the sugar; it’s also that he structures his skits tighter than a duck’s you-know-what, and as a storyteller has a sense of timing finer than a Swiss watch (rather like David Ives, whose arch theatrical ploys are grown-up cousins to Cariani’s simpler conceits). Sure, the characters are about as morally complex as infants, and basically free of all context (despite some hooey in the program about the author’s hometown, the locale is basically a twin of the whimsical TV hamlet of Northern Exposure; Cariani even calls his scenes “episodes”). Still, somehow the threat of loneliness feels real enough (perhaps it doesn’t need any more context than the winter cold), and thus the piece’s atmosphere of romantic coziness – immensely helped by Audra Avery’s snow globe of a set - somehow registers as cute, but genuine. Genuinely cute.

Or perhaps Almost is maine-ly carried by the sterling work of the SpeakEasy cast; basically, another frontrunner for “Best Ensemble” at next year’s IRNEs has just emerged. There’s little to critique about the gently skilled playing of Barlow Adamson, Kevin Kalinsky, Maureen Keiller and Elaine Theodore; there are, instead, different praises to sing: Keiller’s performance seems the freest, and she differentiates her characters most fully, while Kalinsky underplays expertly, yet is utterly committed to the piece’s most arbitrary moments of whimsy. But it’s Adamson and Theodore who get at whatever depth the play has, in its best “episode,” “The Story of Hope.” The sketch has its groaners (a character is named, yes, “Hope”) but it also has the painful undertow of real rue, and a set of reversals worthy of O. Henry; it gave me the most “hope” that Cariani may someday transcend the cozy pleasures of genre and prove a real playwright.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Pollock mess, version 1.2 . . .

Well, it seems there's more than one way to skin a cat. A recent Harvard study demonstrated that three of the 32 "possible Pollocks" (one is posted above; photo by Bill Greene of the Globe) recently discovered by Alex Matter are almost certainly inauthentic; pigments in the paintings weren't available during the artist's lifetime. A major setback, you'd think, for Matter's attempts to parlay his find into millions, and sure enough, the touring show of the paintings that was slated to appear at BC's McMullen Museum collapsed as a result. But the McMullen is soldiering on with a new version, this one cannily designed, it would seem, to slip the pseudo-Pollocks into the mainstream of art history.

To be blunt, there are only two interpretations possible of the 32 Matter paintings: the first is that they're outright forgeries, perhaps by Matter's father, Herbert Matter, a Pollock friend (or possibly by Matter fils, or someone else). The Harvard findings make this the unassailable conclusion about at least three. Of the remainder, one can say that either they're fakes, too (and similarities to the definite forgeries in size and quality make that the likely scenario), or, possibly, that they're weaker works by the master himself that he didn't want to see the light of day.

It's on this last possibility that the McMullen seems to have set its sights, or at least so one might assume from a close reading of the recent story in the Boston Globe. I was expecting something like this to be the next tack taken by Matter and his allies, but I was a little surprised to see that it had already been plotted, essentially, prior to the unveiling of the Harvard study.

For indeed, McMullen director Nancy "not looking for publicity" Netzer has been a busy little publicity-shirking bee. Netzer no doubt senses that as the "controversy" about the Pollocks grows, so will the crowds a McMullen show could attract (prior to the Harvard study, the show was hardly on the Boston cultural radar screen). Netzer's also clever enough to have decided to include the work of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, in the revamped exhibit, as well as the paintings of Herb Matter's wife (more women artists = more Globe coverage). And in a brilliant twist, she's repurposing two essays commissioned for the original Matter show by Boston College art history professor Claude Cernuschi and physics professor Andrzej Herczynski.

These essays, I'd argue, will be the crux of the effort to slide the Matter canvases into the Pollock canon via the back door. According to the Globe story, art history professor Cernuschi believes "Pollock's work is distinguished from paintings of, say, the Old Masters because it has no center of attention . . . And many people have assumed that as a result, the size doesn't matter." Herczynski chimes in: "We made an argument that to maintain a Pollockian way of painting, you've got to have at least a minimum of size."

One can limn from these statements the beginning of a new "story" to deal with the Matter paintings' artistic weakness: they're experiments that Pollock abandoned as he realized he needed to scale up to achieve the effects he was after. Thus, while clearly not nearly in the league of the Pollocks we're familiar with, they still "count" as sketchbooks, as it were (albeit sketchbooks the painter himself seems to have hidden away).

As for the clear forgeries, I guess we're expected to believe that they were done as imitations of the abandoned "sketchbooks." (And I suppose we'll just have to see what Lee Krasner and Herb Matter, et. al., have to do with all this.) As a scenario, this doesn't really hang together - but I bet somebody will buy it. Just as I bet that someday, thanks in no small part to the McMullen, somebody will buy those Matter paintings as "genuine" Pollocks. And that's really the point, isn't it?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Livin' la diva loca

A blight at the opera - Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan in Souvenir.

It ain't over, as they say, till the fat lady sings - but what if the fat lady can't sing? What then?

It's a question worth pondering in the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, the wannabe "diva" who couldn't sing a note, but still sold out Carnegie Hall, and whose legend grows each passing year - and who now has inspired Souvenir, a charming two-hander by Stephen Temperley, which currently has audience rolling in the aisles (and clutching their ears) at the Lyric Stage.

As you might guess from its title, Souvenir is styled as a reminiscence, by one Cosme McMoon, he of the heavenly pseudonym who accompanied Ms. Jenkins on her not-so bon voyage from the salons of high society to the Carnegie stage. McMoon isn't merely our guide, however, he's also our surrogate, in that he's constantly trying to sound the mystery of Florence's sound - as in, couldn't she hear how awful she was?

For this Florence was no nightingale. Rather, her vocal stylings have been compared to those of a strangled chicken - but imagine the chicken thrilling to its death throes, and you have more the idea. For this off-coloratura was never merely flat, nor sharp - instead she swooped down on her notes with dionysiac abandon, often skidding right over them but rarely pausing to note their passing. Add to this a clumsy, wayward sense of rhythm and truly random dynamics, and you've got an anti-voice for the ages, one that never fails to reduce audiences to helpless fits of laughter (if you doubt me, listen for yourself).

Singing so badly may not sound like a challenge - but believe it or not, Ms. Jenkins had range. When she molested Mozart's "Queen of the Night", she actually groped the old girl close to her famous high F. So to impersonate "Madame J." (as she's known in the play) requires real pipes - they've just got to sound as cracked as their owner.

Luckily, in local star Leigh Barrett, the Lyric has found just the chanteuse for the job (at left, in her "Ave Maria" get-up); although the timbre of her voice is different from that of Ms. Jenkins - if her voice had a timbre - Ms. Barrett's rendering of the famous squawk is off-pitch-perfect, and her performances are wittily perverse essays in how to not hit your note in ever-more-creative ways. Now she's sharp, now she's flat, now she's in a tone-deaf orgy of melisma that would have left even Simon Cowell speechless.

Listening to Jenkins (waiting in her own wings, at right), you almost have to assume her notes were camp (and essayed some twenty years before Susan Sontag's). But were they? Or was Jenkins a deluded naif, an innocent who never realized the tears she precipitated were gifts of the comic, rather than the tragic, muse? This is the crux of Souvenir, and Temperley manages to wring a good deal of poignant intrigue from the question. For are any of us truly aware of how we sound? (No.) And how many of us live up to our own ideals? (Not many.) Given this perspective, Ms. Jenkins' deluded service to her muse begins to look valiant - and New York's indulgence of her monomania almost kind.

Unless, of course, the bubble pops, and the scales fall from the diva's eyes; it's this possibility that lends Souvenir what suspense it has, as Jenkins is encouraged to venture from small concerts for friends to the confines of the studio (you can buy her albums here) and then to the bright lights of Carnegie Hall, with Cosme McMoon hanging on her hem all the way.

As McMoon, Will McGarrahan at first makes one long for the warmer presence of Donald Corren, his predecessor on Broadway; but as the play progresses, McGarrahan more successfully mines his own character's self-aware mediocrity, and even traces the arc of a convincing May/December, gay/straight romance between the two. After all, it's not lost on the insecure McMoon (or his creator, the only somewhat-successful Temperley) that while he's artistically competent, his career is going nowhere without the utterly confident Madame J. - so who's the real fool? Barrett, meanwhile, although vocally superb, is more reliant on caricature in her acting, to slightly diminishing returns. On Broadway, Judy Kaye channeled Margaret Dumont - while Barrett's inspiration is clearly Hyacinth Bucket, Patricia Routledge's transparent social climber from Keeping Up Appearances. This is fine as far it goes, but perhaps Kaye's determined pachyderm, rather more secure in her own superiority and snobbery, had longer legs. Somehow Barrett lacks the edge of cognitive mystery that Kaye maintained - and she doesn't quite reach the sense of apotheosis that the Carnegie Hall appearance should have (this is partly the fault of director Veloudos, who so front-loads his farce that there's nowhere for the play to go in its second act).

Still, it will be a long time before I'll forget Barrett tearing through "The Jewel Song," or brandishing her maraca like a mallet (her costumes, which both toast and roast the matronly elegance of thirties New York, are by the talented David Costa-Cabral, while the spare, elegant set - the best at the Lyric in years - is by Skip Curtiss). With this kind of back-up, the divine Madame J. couldn't ask for a more memorable Souvenir.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cheap art this weekend!

(From "The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists" - photo by Robert Henry Sturgill)

Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater has been in residence at the BCA's Cyclorama all week, handing out their warm, sardonic politics along with their warm sourdough bread - and there's still time for you to enjoy some of both; "The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists," a parable of life under the double rule of the God of Everything and the God of Nothing, runs tonight and tomorrow at 7 PM; for advance tickets, check out In the afternoons, take the whole family to enjoy B&P's "Everything is Fine Circus" at 2 PM. And while you're there, be sure to check out the Cheap Art Store, and grab some of that sourdough!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Do we need a "world classical" label next?

Osvaldo Golijov's Grammy win has led to a flurry of thoughts about the new strain of music he and people like Tan Dun seem to represent. Of course there's always been light classical music - "pop classical," if you will, like the Warsaw Concerto or Concierto de Aranjuez. But Golijov (above, photo by Dawn Upshaw, yes, that Dawn Upshaw) and Dun seem like something new to me; for one thing, I get a kick out of "pop classical" but this newer stuff leaves me cold - or at least a little bored. To be fair, I've only heard samples from Ainadamar, Golijov's new opera - maybe I'll be more impressed with the whole thing, which will be produced by Opera Boston next year.

But in the meantime, the question of genre lingers. It's hard to call this stuff "world music," really, because classical has ALWAYS been "world music." There is, of course, a political - or rather virtual political (Golijov's fans wouldn't be caught dead at a protest) - component to the aesthetic, or at least to its folk and rock rhythms; indeed, by touching on both flamenco and homos (Ainadamar deals with Federico García Lorca ) Golijov kind of hits a political double for the Al Gore crowd. But is this sense of crossover virtue enough to compensate for the music's lack of complexity or, well, fundamental interest? I'd argue no, but who am I tell people what to like? I only resist the pretense that Golijov and Dun should reside in the classical pantheon to which people like Ades and Carter and Bolcom aspire. But what to call this new addition to the cultural structure? "World classical"? "Crossover classical"? I'm hoping some new handle quickly appears in the ling.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The art that came in from the cold

The Allston Skirt girls (Randi Hopkins and Beth Kantrowitz) have a habit of introducing Boston to the best of up-and-coming female artists (I don't know why, exactly, these two rarely feature men, but I think it's safe to assume it's because they hate them). At any rate, few male artists could match the artistic balls on display in Randi and Beth's current show, "Love in a Cold Climate" (guest curated by Sima Familant and Lisa Schiff) which slyly juggles a raft of intriguing formal issues beneath its vaguely dyspeptic surface. Take Ruby Stiler's "Petra Rediscovered" (above/left) - this "sculpture" isn't at all what it appears; Stiler gaudily simulates the materials (feathers, milk crates) she seems to be working with, and when one considers that the piece's central feature is concealed, the assemblage suddenly seems to be operating at the intersection of all kinds of art-world concerns, while at the same time managing to actually be kind of fun.

Clearly Stiler is a talent to watch, and may be on the verge of a breakthrough - but she's hardly the only artistic light heating up "Love in a Cold Climate" (for more info, check out There are additional, if more obvious, kicks to be had from the roiling menace of Emily Mae Smith's "Poms Painting" (right), which conjures a kind of pom-pom apocalypse, as well as the sophisticatedly clashing planes of Francesca DiMattio's dynamic pastiche, "Untitled," and the obsessive energy of Simone Shuback's densely layered drawings. Most accomplished of all is the little-known (on these shores) Anj Smith, whose weirdly resonant miniature, "We," literally bristles with painterly skill. More, please.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The ICA blows the Foster Prize . . .

It seems mildly incredible, but the ICA has awarded the Foster Prize to Kelly Sherman (above, photo from the Boston Globe). Yes, that's the prize-winning work behind her (easily, I'm afraid, the weakest on view from the Foster nominees). Nothing against Kelly - she's certainly smart (and sexy), and maybe someday she'll be an interesting artist. As for the ICA - this is why people never really took this museum seriously; the building may be new, but it's housing the same old crew . . .

Leni Riefenstahl, meet the Fox Network!

Finally, it seems, the ongoing horrorshow that is the Fox network's 24 is getting some in-depth media attention. Not for nothing is this the favorite show of the Cheney administration; in its overheated milieu of testosterone-drenched anxiety, torture is always on the menu, and it always works (and that nuclear time bomb is always somewhere, and always ticking). You could argue that this show alone is largely responsible for the support torture has among the American public - and thus also is at least partly responsible for both our losing the high ground in the "war on terror," and our sinking moral profile in the eyes of the world (as well as, of course, the torment and even murder of numerous innocent people). The situation is so clear, and so serious, that the Dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point recently flew to the show's production facility to complain about the show's effect on military personnel -who, it's been reported, sometimes model their interrogation behavior on that of psychopathic "patriot" Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, above, with Leni); its executive producer, Joel Surnow (coincidentally a big Rick Santorum supporter) ducked the meeting, however, pleading that his attention deficit disorder prevented him from sitting still that long (no, I'm not making that up). Surnow is currently developing a "conservative answer" to the Jon Stewart show. Meanwhile, the torture continues - because we think we're living in a paranoid TV show.

The changing of the guard continues

John Kimbell, Artistic Director of the North Shore Music Theatre, announced yesterday that he would be stepping down from his post as of January 2008; over the coming year, he will assist in a national search for his replacement. John La Rock, currently Associate Producer, will serve as Producer until the new artistic director is found. Kimbell has been with the North Shore since 1983, and under his aegis, the theatre has grown from essentially a big-budget summer stock house to a respected regional musical theatre with educational outreach and its own musical development program (the theatre has developed 41 new plays and musicals). I had a special affection for the North Shore, which seemed to me to strike an honorable balance between worthy new work and the feel-good fare that much of its audience wanted to see. I think the theatre will have to look far and wide to replace Kimbell. Furthermore, his departure marks the third thunderbolt to strike the Boston theatre scene this year (both the Huntington and the ART are also in the process of finding new Artistic Directors). It makes you wonder if there isn't some kind of artistic-director flu bug going around; or is there something in the water? At any rate, I've never heard of such a complete changing of the guard in any city's theatre community, anytime, anywhere. Meanwhile, as if in some kind of unintentionally ironic counterpoint, Terry Byrne has begun popping up in the Globe, and of course Ed Siegel can now be heard on WBUR. Why can't these critics take a cue from the people they cover?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Classic sonata form

You might think of Beethoven's sonatas as concert-hall warhorses - and sure enough, three or four of them are; but there are 32 in all - a vast, undiscovered country, if you will, stretching almost the length of the composer's career. The celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson (above, with friend) has, of late, been giving guided tours of this uncharted territory, and he landed in Jordan Hall last weekend for a sparkling all-Beethoven/all-sonata/all-the-time program that smartly balanced the well-known with the unknown.

Oddly, it was the familiar that proved least fetching. Ohlsson opened the evening with a reading of the "Pathétique" that was technically facile but seemed overconsidered, as if he were groping for Beethoven's voice - or perhaps some new approach to that voice. Did the pianist feel he had to "do" something with the "Pathétique"? If so, he wound up settling for an uneven blend of Haydn and Chopin , with some extra banging thrown in for good measure (the Steinway he was playing turned harsh at high volume).

But as he pushed on to new frontiers, Ohlsson warmed up, and seemed determined to simply showcase his own brilliant skill, while letting the music speak for itself. Beethoven was himself recognized as a superb pianist, and at times his writing for the instrument seems almost designed as challenge; but Ohlsson remained unfazed by even the most daunting of technical gauntlets, and at any rate in the lesser-known sonatas on the program (written a year after, and a year before, the "Pathétique") the great Ludwig Van seemed, if not exactly lighthearted, then at least boisterous and jocular. Ohlsson's bright, confident rendering of the playful Sonata No. 11 seemed to simply pour forth (broken only by the balanced melancholy he lent its Adagio), but this was nothing next to the fireworks of the tight little No. 6, which the pianist tore through at a blistering pace, even accelerating with fresh energy through the wicked fugue at its finale (sometimes, in fact, it seemed that Mr. Ohlsson only had trouble de-celerating).

In the closing piece of his program, the "Les Adieux" sonata (No. 26, the latest piece in the evening), Ohlsson again found an exquisite poise between sobriety and joy; the piece, inspired by the Austrian imperial family's flight from, and eventual return to, war-torn Vienna, is neatly balanced between resignation, anticipation, and celebration, and Ohlsson beautifully evoked all three voices, reaching his most blinding speeds yet in the final Vivacissimamente.

His encores - from Sonatas No. 5 (the "Little Pathétique") and 25 (the "Cuckoo") - were in the same effervescent mood, and the witty "missed" notes of the "Cuckoo" - more ironic than usual, given this pianist's technical mastery - drew outright laughter from many in the audience, who were soon on their feet to bid Ohlsson an appreciative adieu themselves.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Are we really in Doubt?

There's no doubt that with Doubt, John Patrick Shanley has made one of the best "well-made plays" of recent years. Of course it's clearly a commercial construction, with its topicality (i.e., "pedophilia in the priesthood") handled with such consummate skill that it soothes, rather than shocks, our already-raw sensibilities. Shanley pushes his crisis into the past (to just after the Kennedy assassination), and savvily ladles on nostalgia for the very hierarchy responsible for said crisis: his hero, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones, at left with Chris McGarry; photo by Craig Schwartz) is an old-school refugee from Nunsense whose crusty moral carapace and suspicion of Vatican II only barely conceal a deep concern for her charges. And since Shanley handles the crimes he considers at one remove (we never meet the victim of the priest in question, Father Flynn), he can treat his play as essentially courtroom drama, with all that venerable form's opportunities for evidentiary coups du théâtre and cozy, matinee existentialism.

Don't get me wrong. I adore matinee existentialism, and I love Doubt. I'm glad Shanley wrote himself a hit, and I'm very glad Cherry Jones is still playing it to the hilt (through February 18, btw, at the Colonial). I was even tickled by Shanley's all-too-accurate evocation of the lost Catholic Eden of Sister Aloysius (I was raised Catholic myself in, yes, the late 60s).

But I'm rather less enchanted by the critical reaction to the play, which seems to imagine that its resolution is somehow, yes, in "doubt." (Warning - spoilers ahead.)

For instance, Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe wrote that the play is "astonishingly capable of persuading you utterly of one side of its argument -- and then, not five minutes later, making you even more certain of the opposite conclusion." To her, Shanley's intent was "to make us understand, with absolute clarity, that nothing is absolutely clear." And she's not alone - a virtual critical chorus has followed her lead.

But is this true? Are we supposed to feel, as the curtain falls, that Father Flynn's guilt is still in question? I know I sound like Sister Aloysius - but in a word, no. Kennedy, for her part, almost sounds like the play's Catholic Pollyanna, Sister James, who announces at its close that she doesn't believe the priest is guilty. But can we realistically share her faith? It's true that Shanley doesn't present Father Flynn in flagrante delicto; his method precludes him from doing so. And to be sure, he's constantly playing up the moral peril of Sister Aloysius's certainty (she's really just going on a hunch) - but that's simply to generate suspense; all courtroom dramas play this card in one way or another; it's the oldest trick in the book.

In the end, however, Shanley nails the not-so-good father in his climactic scene - pushed to the wall, Sister Aloysius bluffs (another sturdy canard of the melodrama): she tells the priest she's done a quick background check with other nuns (rather than with other priests). And Father Flynn suddenly folds; he never explicitly admits his crimes, but within seconds he morphs from righteous avenger (threatening Sister Aloysius with the loss of her position) to pathetic supplicant, begging her not to reveal his past. It's a transformation that would be impossible without his guilt, and Sister Aloysius knows it. As for those critics who pretend otherwise - well, I hope I never see them on a jury!

Well, you might argue, so what if the critics are misrepresenting Doubt - isn't, perhaps, their version of the play the better commercial draw? In fact, this is precisely what troubles me. I have no problem with Shanley playing to the conservative Broadway audience by implying the pedophilia crisis developed partly as a result of Vatican II - perhaps, partly, it did (although many pedophile priests were in the collar well before Vatican II). At any rate, the playwright carefully covers his bases by touching on many of the other factors that contributed to the catastrophe.

But at his finale, Shanley takes a step away from all this equivocation - Sister Aloysius succeeds in ridding her flock of this particular wolf, but her victory is pyrrhic; Father Flynn is simply transferred to another parish, where he is promoted to pastor, with, we and she can only surmise, even freer access to young boys. Thus her final line - "I have great doubts" - refers not to Father Flynn's guilt, but to the wisdom of her actions within the hierarchy of the Church. Indeed, her doubt in all likelihood refers to her Catholic faith itself, as Shanley portrays her belief as in complete alignment with the Church's authoritarianism, despite all its arrogance-disguised-as-humility and its open sexism. But moral action in this case was impossible within its confines, which pretty much destroys its moral authority; and Sister Aloysius knows it.

This, then, is the "doubt" at the heart of Doubt- not merely a trope out of matinee existentialism but something rather more serious, and with implications for the faithful today. To pretend otherwise is a disservice both to the Catholic Church and John Patrick Shanley's play.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Such stuff as Dreams are made on

Titania (Lorna Feijóo) meets her Dream date (Gabor Kapin).

Boston is currently in the midst of a veritable May dance of Midsummer Night’s Dreams. Just a week after Boston Theatreworks opened its spirited production of the Bard’s immortal comedy, Boston Ballet has mounted a sumptuous version of Balanchine’s ballet – which offers a melancholy testament to the romance the play’s theatre tradition seems to have lost.

Dating from 1962, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, surprisingly, Balanchine’s first full-length story ballet – and he picked quite a source for his initiation into the form. It’s not for nothing that ballets tend to be short on plot, as the demands of dance only fitfully align with those of drama; Shakespeare, however, packs a kaleidoscope of interlocking episodes into his famous tale of misguided lovers and quarreling fairies lost in the wood. Unfazed, Balanchine telescoped a truncated version of the script into just his first act, leaving the second entirely free for the kind of gorgeous divertissement we’d expect from The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a defensible strategy, even if at times, as the lovers dodge the fairies in the forest, we feel we’re speed-reading Shakespeare. What’s remarkable is how often Balanchine manages to, yes, align dance with drama – the bouts of jealousy and fits of infatuation between his couples are generally conveyed through movement, not mime, and were well served by the fluid work of Yury Yanowsky, Kathleen Breen Combes, Tai Jimenez, and Pavel Gurevich (Jimenez and Gurevich, above). When forced to, of course, Balanchine’s not afraid to stray from Shakespeare – he invents for Titania (Lorna Feijóo) a nameless Cavalier (Lorin Mathis, who after an early fumble displayed splendid poise) purely for the purpose of gracing her with a lovely pas de deux (which Feijóo delineated exquisitely). Still, all were almost upstaged by Joel Prouty, who was practically born to play Puck; and while he didn’t break any new ground in the role, Prouty inhabited it completely - every movement was alive with lithe detail, and his signature jumps were electric.

Another question, of course, hangs over the metaphorical pas de deux between Midsummer’s two geniuses – what can Mr. B. possibly show us that Mr. Bard hasn't already? In an unusual fit of modesty, Balanchine once admitted, “It’s really impossible to dance Shakespeare. He is a poet.” But perhaps he was wrong about that; I’d argue that the charming dance Mr. B. devised for Titania and Bottom, the working man transformed into an ass, somehow takes us deeper into the material than the Bard managed to do himself. In Shakespeare, these two tend to talk past each other (the innocent Bottom is far more enchanted with Titania’s attendants) – but in Balanchine’s extended duet, feminine sophistication swoons before masculine simplicity, and we sense, as if through a glass lightly, the poignant undertow of Balanchine’s (and our) yearning, eternal bewitchment with the ballerina.

It’s a triumphant moment, but only an aperitif before the wedding feast of the second act, where Balanchine just lets rip with pure dance. His “ballet within a ballet” may parallel the “play within a play” that crowns Shakespeare’s comedy, but it’s hardly the burlesque that wraps up Midsummer. Instead, the dance to Mendelssohn’s "Wedding March" (his overture and incidental music for Midsummer form the core of the score) may not be Mr. B.’s edgiest work, but its startling jumps and joyful geometries certainly place it among his most rewarding classical efforts, and the subsequent pas de deux (to the composer’s Sinfonia No. 9) is among his most extended evocations of rapture. The company was in fine form throughout (with Lia Cirio making a particularly bodacious Hippolyta), and in the pas de deux Larissa Ponomarenko worked her usual gossamer magic in the arms of Roman Rykine (though both, perhaps, seemed a bit remote).

There were a few missteps. In the role of Oberon, Reyneris Reyes projected precisely the right level of petulant grandeur – but his leaps, despite their soft landings, only had enough loft to just hold onto the double cabrioles Balanchine had layered into them. And the corps in the opening act sometimes lacked the definition the dance’s design requires – someone even fell at one point (an under-rehearsed, though not untalented, corps is becoming a repeated complaint at the Ballet, particularly after the recent dazzling visit from the Kirov). The child dancers, however, who flitted through as butterflies and fairies, were charmingly serious about their responsibilities (which are more demanding than the corresponding bits in, say, the Nutcracker). Alas, I was less smitten with the rather obvious set (borrowed from Pacific Northwest Ballet, the drops drooped with damask roses and glittery cobwebs), but the costumes, though traditional to the core, were superbly rendered – and needless to say, Jonathan McPhee conducted the Mendelssohn with lively affection and not a trace of modernist condescension.

This seemed somehow right for the dance’s nostalgic tone – Balanchine performed in Midsummer as a child, and perhaps those memories inspired him to write the play a valentine rather than push its envelope. His finale was especially magical: the children darted like fireflies beneath the falling mantle of twilight as the lovers made their way to bed (and another dream) in just the kind of sentimental image that today’s stage directors have been trained to avoid – and I realized how much I miss the romance that the Theatre of Revolt has drained from Shakespeare’s comedy. Thank God we have Balanchine, and Boston Ballet, to keep its memory alive.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Who should win the Foster Prize?

Geoff Edgers of the Globe's Exhibitionist blog reports that none of the artists in the running for the ICA's $25,000 Foster Prize are very happy about the ongoing visitor poll as to who should win. According to Edgers:

". . . since we're keeping score, the most recent public vote shows Sheila Gallagher(above) in the lead (40.47 percent of the vote), followed by Rachel Perry Welty (below) (30.16), Kelly Sherman (14.98) and (Jane D.) Marsching (14.4)."

Of course no, the Foster Prize isn't a popularity contest - still, it's striking how good the public's taste has turned out to be, isn't it? Kelly Sherman's floorplans, poignantly witty as they are, hardly exist beyond their conceptualization (I know, to many lost souls that's enough), while Jane D. Marsching's digital imagery (below) feels almost completely appropriated from other artists.

For the record, I think I lean toward Rachel Perry Welty (perhaps because I wrote one of her first local raves), although Gallagher is certainly a worthy winner. To me, however, Gallagher's installation, "The Cloud of Unknowing," was in something of a fog as to how it should coalesce around any correspondence between form and content. Its centerpiece,"Cumulonimbus," (detail above) a "live" painting made of flowers, was lovely but vague in its Hare-Krishna-esque ramifications; far stronger were her paintings in smoke (yes, smoke), such as "Unknown Title, After Church 2" (left) - if Gallagher had centered her exhibit on these elegies to the romantic American landscape, I'd have handed her the prize, hands down. As it is, after suffering through her video installation, I'm not so sure she understands her own strengths.

By way of contrast, Rachel Perry Welty is almost too focused on herself. Welty builds up sculptures and "paintings" from the obsessive manipulation of consumer detritus - she weaves zillions of twist-ties into shimmering columns and vast quilts (below left), or teases shop receipts into subtle, haunting glyphs. Unlike Gallagher, she has a clear handle on how form and process can sensually align with content; her work is gorgeous (she's truly a painter and a sculptress, not just some web-enabled conceptualizer). The trouble is that, not too surprisingly given its provenance in obsession, her work is also getting a little - well - repetitive.

So the choice seems to be between a far-ranging talent without much in the way of quality control, and a perfectionist who may just be stuck in a rut. The committee is expected to announce its decision within a few days.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Well-met by moonlight

Paula Plum puts the moves on Timothy John Smith in A Midsummer Night's Dream (photos by Nosaj T. Herland.)

Production concepts often make a nightmare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what with all the cruelty (and bestiality!) beneath its gossamer surface waiting to be excavated by ham-handed academics. The new staging from Boston Theatreworks, however, doesn’t just survive its concept, it almost defies it. Director Daniel Elihu Kramer has given the play a twist that, believe it or not, Midsummer may never have endured before: he’s cross-gender-cast Oberon and Titania, and then double-cast them as Theseus and Hippolyta. That’s right – Theseus (Timothy John Smith) gets in touch with his inner fairy as Titania, while his captive bride Hippolyta (Paula Plum) spreads her wings as Oberon.

But oddly, Smith and Plum don’t pick up the sexual/conceptual glove Kramer throws down (perhaps because they sense how easily this "concept" could slide into burlesque) – instead, they both give amusing but unassuming performances, which operate safely within the traditional parameters of the play (which was, after all, designed to be independent of its performers' genders). Thus, despite its director’s intents, this Dream doesn’t share its pillow with sexual politics. Indeed, its sex quotient seems the victim of shrinkage – Shakespeare’s dimwitted lovers dominate, rather than the glittering fairy folk, but the results are still an appealing, knockabout comedy, powered by a truly impressive sensitivity to the (streamlined) text from a very solid ensemble.

That’s worth repeating, I think, because it’s such a contrast to recent BTW Shakespeare productions, which have been most memorable for Jonathan Epstein’s scenery-chewing. This time around, however, the whole cast is strikingly tight; in fact, this is probably the strongest Shakespeare ensemble I’ve seen in many a watery Boston moon (the Huntington only matched it in Love's Labour's Lost, while the ART and Actors’ Shakespeare Project have never done nearly so well). Everyone speaks their verse trippingly on the tongue, and if the fairies miss the poetry of some of Shakespeare’s lyrics, the lovers make up for it with smart, funny bickering.

But then I’m talking about the same people, for this Midsummer makes do with just eight dreamers, who do double and triple duty to populate court, town and wood (they’ve already been bettered, however, by a New York production that gets the job done with only six, some of whom are blind and one of whom is in a wheelchair!). Of course doubling is always a sound Shakespearean strategy, but this is especially true for Midsummer, where the Bard developed his first multifoliate plot (and theme). Shakespeare’s mechanicals and fairies and lovers all do reflect – and refract - each other, and if this cast were as strong at forest magic as they are at forest farce, the production might have been one for the history books.

But to be fair, it’s hard to conjure up much atmosphere when you’re in a bathrobe, and your bower is a bathtub - and the June moon is a wall clock, as here. (Even the production’s one hint of fantasy – a bright field of poppies – nods more to Oz than fairyland.) Still, Timothy John Smith does his best as a husky Titania who might be a paunchy cousin of Blanche DuBois, and he and Robert Pemberton (as, yes, Bottom) do manage to dodge any dumb bi-curious vibe in that tub (above). Elsewhere Pemberton is skillful and ingenious, but I’m not mad about his Bottom-as-Brando; I like my Bottoms (I know, har de har) rather more innocent. The rest of the mechanicals – particularly Risher Reddick - definitely know their way around a dumb show (in both senses of the term), although Shelley Bolman is memorable as both Quince and Lysander (his treatment of the “true love never did run smooth” speech is the one rush of mature poetry in the evening). I was also particularly enamored of Elizabeth Hayes’s smart, snappy Helena, and more than amused (at times even moved) by Angie Jepson’s unusually sensitive Hermia.

I was slightly disappointed, I confess, with Paula Plum in both her genders; Plum never explores Oberon’s florid masculinity (much less his vengefulness), and even her Hippolyta is a pretty calm customer. And she had little chemistry with Ben Lambert’s Puck, who was likewise none too engaging (Puck can be cold, but he’s got to be fun); to be fair, Lambert made up for this somewhat with fey, snippy turns as Starveling and Philostrate.

So can Midsummer survive a half-baked concept and half-hearted turns from its stars? Frankly, this play can survive anything, as long as its text comes through – the pleasant surprise here is how confident and intelligent that delivery turns out to be.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Arnie and Larry Show (continued)

The ongoing Beethoven/Schoenberg smackdown continued this weekend at Symphony Hall, with Larry again bitch-slapping Arnie absolutely silly. Maestro James Levine at least has learned to sweeten the Schoenberg pie – this time out we got to ogle the slimmed-down Deborah Voigt as she valiantly attempted “Erwartung,” (“Expectation”), a seminal Schoenberg “monodrama," as well as Beethoven's “Ah! Perfido”; testy anti-Schoenbergian subscribers were further mollified with the “Coriolan” Overture and the gleaming, but rarely performed, Eighth Symphony.

Erwartung” proved mildly intriguing, but ultimately tiring; Schoenberg’s stated aim was “to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour,” which gives you a pretty good idea of the piece’s sense of stasis. The text, by Marie Pappenheim, a dermatologist by day but psychoanalytic dilettante by night, has retained its ambiguous allure: a distraught woman, wandering in a dark forest, discovers the corpse of her lover, and seemingly goes mad. But is she lost in anxious hallucination – or has her lover’s desertion broken her mind? Or has she actually murdered the man herself and is now returning to the scene of her crime, unhinged by guilt? “Erwartung” keeps all these possibilities in clever balance, but as a result Schoenberg’s music remains in a floating panic – cross-cut with the kind of tone-poems (moonlight, rustling trees) that would have embarrassed Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, said poetry is more harmonically sophisticated than The Nutcracker; “Erwartung” is atonal, but as it was composed before Schoenberg systematized his music into twelve-tone “rows,” it's still rich in mournful harmonic skill. Little of its experimentation, however, strikes one as shocking today; Schoenberg was, of course, truly seminal, but strangely, he seems to have not so much transformed concert music as indirectly influenced the musical culture at large. All his atonal edginess, for instance, has long since been absorbed into pop culture; the post-melodic shards of “Erwartung” could easily serve as accompaniment to any number of horror movies (as indeed, Penderecki and Ligeti wound up as program music for The Shining).

Given that the work’s power to offend is gone, one is left with the issue that hinders much of Schoenberg, and which he himself attempted to solve with his twelve-tone system; the problem of development. There’s one big shock in “Erwartung” (the discovery of the body), and a rising sense of frenzied recapitulation before the finale, but elsewhere the piece is tedious – because the great gift of tonality (aside from its being a salve to bourgeois ears, of course) is that it allows for rising complexity, conflict and resolution over the course of the piece, while in his atonal fits Schoenberg can only stab at various moods (admittedly, seeing the piece fully staged might distract from this problem; perhaps it’s the concert setting that does in “Erwartung”).

So the piece has many a pitfall - which Deborah Voigt(at left, photo by Evan Richman for the Boston Globe) didn’t so much avoid as simply ignore. The solid, if svelte, Ms. Voigt has little of the madwoman about her naturally (and even less in the glamorous little black number she wore at Symphony), and her gold-tinged soprano, while strong, wasn't always sharp enough to cut through the throngs of instrumentalists around her (again, one longed to hear this piece with the orchestra in the pit – but is there a pit large enough to hold the forces Schoenberg marshals?). She soldiered on, of course, but her heart wasn’t really in it, and her wits remained steadfastly about her – she seemed to be indulging an academic demonstration, and not much more.

Of course, one could argue that was, indeed, precisely the idea – the Beethoven/Schoenberg series is supposed to illuminate its two subjects via inspired juxtaposition. The compare/contrast routine for “Erwantung” and “Ah! Perfido,” however, doesn’t yield much – one is a mad scene and the other a lament, and without much in the way of experimentation on Beethoven’s part. Voigt sang it well (she was much more in her element here), and the orchestra gave her exemplary backup - and of course was brilliant elsewhere, particularly in the Eighth.

But as the Schoenberg/Beethoven “cycle” winds up (or down), we’re bound to ask – what have you learned, Dorothy? I’d have to argue not much, because there’s not much truth in the program’s attempt to short-circuit the conventional wisdom about Larry and Arnie – i.e., that Larry was midwife to Romanticism, while Arnie did its last rites. And despite much local critical huffing and puffing, the BSO’s programming has only seemed to underline rather than overturn that Intro-to-Music thesis. It’s hard to imagine audiences calling back “Erwartung” or Moses and Aaron – instead, they’ll keep demanding “Verklärte Nacht” and Gurrelieder – because in the end, it’s hard to buy the essential argument that somehow Schoenberg transcended Romanticism.

Indeed, sometimes it seems that Schoenberg, for his admirers, exists more as an idea than as an actual composer; his lonely embarkation into twelve-tone rows has to be seen as a successful extension of the romantic ideal - otherwise, romanticism as a script becomes historically limited (at least musically), and Schoenberg never escapes the collapse of nineteenth-century culture into his supposed modernist nirvana. Without Schoenberg, in this reading, Beethoven loses a bit of status, too; he’s no longer the progenitor of an infinite progression of musical innovation, but rather only the instigator of a certain period of music (to which we relate at a certain distance). Levine’s obsession with Schoenberg ties neatly into this cultural imperative - he seems uninterested in the neotonal work that has successfully revived the concert repertoire, but instead remains obsessed with the avant-garde cultural script of his youth. In a way, his Schoenberg seasons have been deeply reactionary (so it’s no wonder Schoenberg has become a middlebrow cause célèbre in the pages of the Globe and elsewhere).

And there’s something else disturbing about Levine and Schoenberg; this composer almost thrashes with frustration, yet Levine treats him with little human passion – only musical passion, which is an entirely different thing. In fact, I’m haunted by the perception that Levine is largely drawn to Schoenberg (and other modernists) simply because he has a sweet tooth for technical challenge – he’s like a gourmand picking musical phrases from a tray, and he’s so superb technically that he can dazzle you into thinking you’ve actually heard the composer’s voice, instead of a stunning simulation of it. Even the BSO’s glossy rendition of the Eighth seemed a bit impersonal; it had speed, not urgency, and a precisely calibrated sense of crescendo rather than true power. It’s strange to think that these two seasons may represent a simulation of Schoenberg rather than the real thing – but it does occur to me that this particular composer may need rescuing not from obscurity, but from his admirers.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Love's sweet-and-sour song

The crowd at Boston Secession's "(Un)Lucky in Love" concert last Friday was a testament to this sparkling ensemble's growing cult - a cult you should join, too, if you hanker for lushly transparent singing conducted with intelligence and wit (by the accomplished Jane Ring Frank, at left). The shaggy setting of "(Un)Lucky in Love," however - a church hall in Cambridge - had the kind of acoustics that undermine vocal precision, and for once Frank's idiosyncratic programming was occasionally beyond the Secession's grasp.

Frank is truly an expert at at both high and low pastiche, and she knows just how to leaven solemnity with whimsy (useful skills when simultaneously celebrating and skewering St. Valentine's Day). But this time her musical eye roved particularly wide; at one point, the concert careened from Britten's Phaedra to "Baby Bear's Lament" (surely a segue for the history books). Actually, the "Lament" was quite winsome, but Phaedra, alas, proved beyond the persona (if not the pipes) of its soloist, Thea Lobo; Ms. Lobo got her chance to shine in a charming version of "A Case of You" (it's nice to see Joni Mitchell treated as art song), and particularly in an exquisite rendering of the Flower Duet from Lakmé, where her limpid soprano was paired with the achingly pure tones of Kristi Vrooman. In general the Secession did best by its chestnuts: "Soave sia il vento" from Cosi had a yearning glow, and the famous sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor sounded as if it would have sounded fabulous in a better hall. Elsewhere, Adriana Repetto brought a melting kind of bloom to "Elegia Eterna", while Marc J. DeMille and Bradford Gleim duked it out for top honors in two Schumann lieder.

Alas, the opening contemporary songs, from the likes of Elliott Carter and Paul Bowles, didn't make much of an impression, but guest artist Brittany Bara did nail her version of Carol Burnett's big number from Once Upon a Mattress (remember what I told you about that widely roving eye?), and Mary Sullivan had a triumph with "Pro Musica Antiqua," a hiliarious warning from a shy young thing about the machinations of "the musical male." Something in its witty sweetness seemed to encapsulate what's best about Boston Secession - a sense that true musical seriousness is never less than fun.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Bless thee, Bottom . . . thou art transgendered!

Shakespeare's heavy local rotation continues with Boston Theatreworks' new version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, opening this weekend at the BCA. Director Daniel Elihu Kramer has thought up a novel approach for his 8-actor version of this perennial crowd-pleaser: instead of merely double-casting Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania, he's cross-gender-cast them. That's right: Paula Plum will essay Hippolyta and Oberon, while Timothy John Smith will handle Theseus and Titania. The director has standard-issue ideas about sex and power, but these two talented performers just might make his conceit work.

And all must have prizes . . .

I'm a contributor to the Independent Reviewers of New England Awards, and yet every year I'm shocked, shocked! by at least some of the nominees (no, I'm not going to say who, God bless 'em), as well as some of the gaps in the nominees. It just goes to show ya there's no accountin' fer opinyuns!

Still, the weakest aspect of any award program is the obvious limiting effect of its structure; there are generally more people worthy of recognition than can possibly be accommodated - and the categories themselves are notoriously amorphous.

So I'm going to continue my practice of simply listing my favorite performances - be they leading, supporting, or "bit" - of the last month or so; already, just a month into the year, there has already been plenty of memorable acting on Boston stages.

So without further ado - the Best Performances of the First Month of the 2007 Boston Theatah Season . . .

Dick Latessa (Firs), Jeremiah Kissel (Pischchik), The Cherry Orchard, Huntington Theatre

Merritt Janson (Junia, at left), Britannicus, American Repertory Theatre

Susanne Nitter (Gilda), Gabriel Kuttner (Otto) and Diego Arciniegas (Leo), Design for Living, Publick Theater

Brendan McNab (Priest), June Baboian (Monica), See What I Wanna See, Lyric Stage

Christopher Michael Brophy (Eadric), Silence, The New Rep

Thursday, February 1, 2007

It's dèjá vu all over again . . .

The lede to my Britannicus review of 1/25:

"Legend has it that Nero fiddled while Rome burned - but in the ART production of Racine’s Britannicus, he strums a Stratocaster instead . . ."

Carolyn Clay's lede in the Boston Phoenix of 1/30:

"According to legend, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In Racine’s Britannicus, as rendered by American Repertory Theatre (at the Loeb Drama Center through February 11), he plays an insistent electric guitar . . ."