Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Men at work

If memory serves, PBS used to run a commercial in which a string quartet rose from the conclusion of a performance to smash its Stradivarii in a Who-like mêlée. “Be more passionate,” the tagline then advised us.

But was the Who ever more passionate than a top-notch string quartet? Somehow I don’t think so (particularly once they'd gone deaf). String quartets are probably the most reliably spirited musicians on the planet – and this proved particularly true of the Prazák String Quartet, which performed with admirable zeal last Saturday night at Jordan Hall.

The program included two staples of the repertoire – the Brahms G-Major String Quintet and the Dvořák “American” Quartet in F Major – as well as the thornier “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet No. 1 by Janáček. I’d never heard the Prazák before, but the power of their muscular playing was obvious immediately in the "Kreutzer," a tone poem of sorts inspired by Tolstoy’s famous novella (which limns the Othello-like torment of a man who murders his wife over an affair he imagines she's had with her accompanist in, yes, Beethoven’s "Kreutzer" Sonata). The composer marked his tortured score with such suggestions as “desperate” and “ferocious,” which the Prazák clearly took to heart – the final movement (led by violinist Vaclav Remes) seemed to reach a nearly screaming intensity before dying away to an exhausted finish.

The segue from this jagged peak to the pastoral transports of the Dvořák was quite a leap, but one the quartet essayed by hanging on to a certain fire in their playing. This concert staple was not, in their hands, a sleepy summer vacation, but rather a spirited holiday - interrupted by one long stretch of lazy song from cellist Michael Kanka in the second movement.

To cover all the bases of the Brahms Quintet, the group welcomed local violist Roger Tapping - whose constant scanning of his cohorts was an unconscious tribute to their confident ensemble. Tapping held his own and then some, although some of the piece's internal intricacies were (perhaps inevitably) lost. Still, much of the music took wing - the opening movement was particularly rhapsodic - and the audience's ovation drew the group back for an encore (the second movement of Mozart's String Quintet in G minor). The Prazák brought the same sensibility to this that they brought to the whole program - a no-nonsense ethos of masculine capability, cut with a passion for lusty attack, that's too rarely heard on local stages.

Friday, March 16, 2007

All about my mother

Lisa Kron tries to explain Mary Pat Gleason in Well; photo(s) by T. Charles Erickson.

What to make of Lisa Kron’s Well (at the Huntington Theatre through April 8)? On the surface, it’s a savvy piece of performance art, devised by Ms. Kron “to explore issues of illness and wellness” in the context of her relationship to her allergy-ridden, chronically-fatigued mother, Ann (Mary Pat Gleason). Even before the play proper begins, Ann is seen sprawling on her La-Z-Boy, half-asleep – and like some friendly cross between Lily Tomlin and Hillary Clinton, Kron soon appears as our postmodern tour guide to her family’s history, and mystery: once she, too, was in a state of near-collapse due to “allergies” – so why did she get well, while Mom didn’t? Moreover, how could Ann be such a wreck, yet still have single-handedly transformed her neighborhood from a sad case of “white flight” to a vibrant, multi-ethnic community?

This is certainly more than enough topic for any drama - one level down, however, Well proves to be a stealth attack on its own plan of attack – it’s not bourgeois attitude that implodes as the play proceeds, but rather the structure (and even the set!) of the arty piece itself. This, of course, places Well in the commercial precincts of Blue Man Group, the cutely-alienated “performance art” franchise that, as a friend of mine put it, “subverts subversion for the suburbs.” Kron plays much the same game – Well begins as critique, but the author gradually throws up her hands before her mother’s psychological mysteries, all the “downtown shit” goes out the window, and the show closes with what effectively is a conceptual hug – the avant-garde transformed into sitcom, seemingly against its will.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and Kron’s absolutely right on one key point: families do operate as “alternate universes,” in which all the “downtown shit” of the self-aware, college-educated apostate is hopelessly irrelevant; the bond of love between parent and child (and Mom clearly loves Lisa, and Lisa Mom) short-circuits liberation, therapy, “self,” “critique,” “performance,” and just about everything else. Well, at its hilarious best, operates as an object demonstration of this central truth: it literally falls apart before Mom’s lovable passive-aggressive tactics; by the curtain, even Kron’s actors have abandoned her (and her script), and are busily chatting up Ann.

Still, despite its charms, all’s not really well with Well, simply because the “exploration” that Kron sets up is really just a straw man to be knocked down; she never “explores” anything about her mother, herself, the year they spent integrating their neighborhood, or her subsequent stay at an allergy clinic. True, Kron offers snippets of scenes about these topics, but quickly dodges any actual material to get back to her “this avant-garde thing will bite you in the ass” schtick; within minutes, somebody is questioning the dialogue or taking drink orders – or the set is falling down.

In some ways, this is just as well, in that the rather bald parallel between racism and being “allergic” would only turn embarrassing if Kron pressed it too hard. But eventually, the piece’s unexplored, unspoken subtext looms larger than the proverbial elephant in the room. At one point, when pondering how she recovered from her “allergies,” Kron drops one offhand bombshell – she got well because she began to have sex with women. Yes, I suppose that would do it, but that’s all we hear of Kron’s sexuality – a topic which is often, shall we say, a fraught one for gay women and their mothers.

I don’t mean to imply that homophobia figured in the psyche of Kron’s mother, and I’m more than happy, being gay myself, to treat the author’s sex life as no big deal. But the absence of any discussion of her coming out in a play putatively about her bond with her mother only makes me wonder what else might be banging around in this relationship. And after all, how could the “meta-theatrical thing” with all its attendant “downtown shit” stand a chance when its central concerns – sex, personal freedom, etc. – are never even mentioned, much less addressed?

Hence Well can’t generate much momentum, as no real conflict is allowed to arise (the play is crafted to give you “something to think about,” not argue about). Still, I can’t deny the piece is fun (as at left). Kron’s real talent is for stand-up, and her “solo show with other people in it” is studded with clever lines, which she delivers with timing Kate Clinton might envy. Alas, Kron never conjures much in the way of real connection with her mother, but somehow the text does that for her, and Mary Pat Gleason is all but unforgettable in the role – most natural when the script is at its most artificial, and effortlessly projecting both this mother’s love and her unexpected reserves of strength, as well as a certain subconscious craftiness. That these strengths should be entwined with psychosomatic weakness should mystify only those with a passing acquaintance with humanity; for the rest of us, the perpetually ailing hausfrau who suddenly rises to every crisis is not a mystery but instead a stereotype.

Alas, stereotypes figure elsewhere in Well as well; perhaps to underline the artificiality of Kron’s “script,” director Leigh Silverman has directed the rest of the cast to overact cartoonishly; still, Donnetta Lavinia Grays does score as a schoolyard bully who rises from the author’s subconscious, and Barbara Pitts has some good moments as “Joy,” her joyless roommate in the allergy clinic. The men are less convincing, but then Kron hasn’t given them any of the good lines – and the set and lighting (borrowed from the New York production) were adequate, but not really up to the Huntington’s usual high standard.

Still, Well does some things well – even if what it chiefly does is showcase Mary Pat Gleason. Even she abandons the play in its final moments (surprise!), but her performance lingers in its ramifications – that in end, we cannot “integrate” those we love into our lives completely, because we cannot know them completely; we must at some level always remain separate, and uncomprehending – to paraphrase the title of a lesbian classic, each of us lives in a well of loneliness, and onliness.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

What's the matter with the Matter Pollocks?

So it turns out that there's another scientific study of the "Matter Pollocks" - only its results have been suppressed by Alex Matter himself. According to Steven Litt, art critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

"The author of an extensive and hitherto-undisclosed scientific study of a trove of works attributed to Jackson Pollock said Thursday that he is being barred from releasing his findings by the lawyer for the works' owner, filmmaker Alex Matter."

Hmmm. Now are you thinking what I'm thinking? If the results contradicted the recent Harvard study (which found that three of the supposed "Pollocks" weren't Pollocks), you'd imagine Alex Matter would be trumpeting the results to anyone who'd listen . . .

But wait, there's more, according to this scoop from Greg Cook:

"James Martin, a Williams College chemical research scientist who runs the Williamstown firm Orion Analytical, told Litt that he was hired by Matter’s art dealer to examine 23 of the “Pollock” paintings in 2005 with the agreement that he could release his findings when he was done, but now that he’s completed studying the paintings Matter’s lawyer has told him that he is “not authorized to release or disclose any analysis, findings or conclusions concerning the Matter paintings until further notice" . . . Litt carefully notes that Martin doesn’t reveal the specifics of his research, but that Martin emailed him: "I am delighted that colleagues at Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are confirming Orion's findings.” This suggests that his results agree with a recently released Harvard study of three of the Matter “Pollocks” that concluded that the paintings include paints not made until after Pollock’s death in 1956. And that the study Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is doing on four of the “Pollocks” is headed toward the same conclusion."

So . . . will the McMullen Museum go ahead with its planned exhibit of the "Matter Pollocks"? Will Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe stop promoting this "controversy"? (To be fair, Edgers has already started to backpedal.) Stay tuned. . .

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Me and my shadows

Lost with the stars: Debra Wise, Adam Soule, and Steven Barkhimer in Orson's Shadow

There’s more than one shadow hanging over Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow (at the New Rep through March 18); the shades of three great stars, Orson Welles, Lawrence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh, should really get equal billing. They all, of course, moved between the worlds of theatre and film with astonishing ease and brilliance – and all intersected, briefly, during the course of a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1960.

Pendleton’s conceit is that Rhinoceros, while a mere blip in the biographies of Welles and Olivier, served as something of a turning point for both. Olivier was not only at a crossroads between wives (Leigh and the younger Joan Plowright, with whom he starred in the Ionesco); but he was also hoping to shed his old-school Shakespearean skin and gain some street cred with the new Angry Young Men (hence his alliance with Kenneth Tynan, their critical herald, who’s on hand for Rhinoceros). Welles, meanwhile, had just finished his first film in years, Touch of Evil, which some believe was his finest since his RKO days, and was hoping to finance a cinematic turn as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (which actually was his finest film since his RKO days).

The trouble with Pendleton’s concept, of course, is that nothing actually happened during Rhinoceros that set either man on a new path to success or failure; true, they had a falling out, and Welles was dropped from the production – but he’d already been dismissed from Universal for evading the editing of Touch of Evil, so his film renaissance was essentially DOA. As for Larry, the crisis in his theater career wouldn’t come for a few more years (when stage fright finally prevented him from going on), and his film career, after a spike with that year’s Spartacus, wouldn’t revive until Sleuth more than a decade later.

What Pendleton is selling then, is essentially exposition, not action – and not primarily plot exposition, either, but emotional and artistic exposition. Thus he inserts Kenneth Tynan into the proceedings (he wasn’t actually there) to focus the artistic issues, and conjures a climactic, imaginary visit from Viven Leigh to push everyone’s emotional buttons (including her own).

Of course, for this constellation of lost stars, artistic and emotional issues were hopelessly intertwined: Welles and Leigh were carrying the weight of early success followed by decline, while Olivier was obsessed with stopping what had happened to them from happening to him (all while trying to save the feelings of the unstable Leigh, whom he still had affection for, even as he dumped her).

Clearly, merely reviewing this show requires quite a bit of exposition - but if you’ve hung on so far, you’ll be happy to learn that the current New Rep production, under the skillful direction of Adam Zahler, manages to make all this background material theatrical, even compelling. Pendleton doesn’t have a full play here, and he knows it – he abruptly wraps with a monologue from Plowright; but the scenes he does have grow from the bare bones of gossip and backbiting to something rather more engrossing - even, eventually, fascinating, and the New Rep cast plays them with subtlety, sympathy, and a sly sense of humor.

The production, alas, only half-fulfills one promise it implicitly makes – to give us a sense of its protagonists in the flesh. Of the central trio, only Tuck Milligan, as Olivier, comes through with a convincing impression. He slightly resembles the actor (with glasses, he’s close to the Olivier of Marathon Man), but his vocal performance is a nearly eerie piece of ventriloquism, and his carriage and moves deftly suggest the famously elegant, fussy manner (Olivier’s bisexuality is obliquely, if hilariously, referenced). I missed the undercurrent of terror which would eventually force this greatest of actors from the stage, but in sheer technical terms, Milligan is transfixing – and of course technical acting was what Sir Larry was all about.

Perhaps faced with this achievement, Steven Barkhimer simply doesn’t attempt to evoke the Welles vocal signature, that purring cello which would sell no wine before its time – and it’s too bad, really, because Barkhimer’s costume and trim beard easily put him in the visual ballpark. Still, his Welles is a sharp, if not deep, presence through the play, and we quickly adjust our expectations of him. As Vivien Leigh, meanwhile, Debra Wise offers a third response to the play’s challenge; she roughly suggests Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, but concentrates more on her character’s core, unstable as it is – and so walks off with the evening’s best sequence, a “mad scene” that progresses in baby steps from elegantly loaded small talk to truly terrifying emotional chaos. It’s the climax of the play, one that sources in the need for artistic glamour the seeds of self-hatred, even self-destruction - and once Pendleton nails this (admittedly time-honored) theme, he seems to think his work is done; luckily for him, Wise has been so compelling that we still leave the theatre feeling satisfied.

Meanwhile, Helen McElwain brings about the right mix of pliant, but sturdy, smarts to her Joan Plowright, while Adam Soule supplies amusingly naive backup as the stagehand Sean. As Kenneth Tynan, however, Jason Marr feels miscast – he’s fine and funny with all the exposition (which Pendleton has the stage smarts to self-consciously parody), but he’s just too innocent and hearty, both physically and psychologically, to convince us that he’s on the road to emphysema, or that he’s emotionally perverse (Tynan liked spanking women in private as well as in print). And thus he can’t quite contribute to our growing sense of the heart-breaking gap between person and persona, between artistic consummation and diminished expectation, that the play suggests. It’s one of the small missteps that shadow Orson’s Shadow, but which the production at its best easily makes us forget.

Friday, March 2, 2007

A night to remember

As the curtain rose on Jorma Elo’s new dance for Boston Ballet, Brake the Eyes (at left), everyone was holding their breath: would it mark a rebound from the failure of last year’s Carmen, or instead ratify the common impression that Plan to B had been a fabulous fluke?

Well, you couldn’t quite hear it, but within minutes the entire audience had let out a collective sigh of relief: Brake the Eyes was going to be fine, even superb. To be honest, it’s not quite a masterpiece – particularly when set next to Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia – and Elo hasn’t so much developed as dodged his weak spots (narrative, cumulative depth); but Brake the Eyes is thrilling in so many ways that it’s mean-spirited to carp. Instead, we should give thanks that he’s found ways to extend, if not advance, his idiom – and then sing hosannas for the rest of the program, which is perhaps the best thing Boston Ballet has done in years; indeed, possibly the finest evening of dance seen in these parts since the debut of Mark Morris’s L’Allegro some dozen years ago.

Perhaps in reaction to the raspberries for Carmen, this time out, Elo has turned reflective. Setting his choreography to a mix of Mozart and a droning soundscape by his girlfriend (I know, it sounds like trouble, but don’t worry) – the choreographer conjures an intriguing meditation on his current plight, and perhaps the cultural plight of ballet itself: Larissa Ponomarenko, Boston Ballet’s leading Russian-old-school avatar, wanders about the darkened stage in a damaged, discombobulated state, chirping Russian phrases to herself, and responding to the industrial throbs around her with quirky, bird-like bits of proto-choreography. Then, suddenly, it’s lights up, and rushes of headlong, amplified Mozart, with Ponomarenko enveloped in a technically brilliant corps that all but dashes through Elo’s trademark mix of swiveling combinations, spinning leaps, and shoulder-popping lifts. As in Plan to B, we can just sense a hurtling harmony, a kind of off-center balance, in all the morphing movement; this may be ballet by MTV (a friend has dubbed the style “x-treme ballet”), but it’s still alive with grace and joy; Elo hasn’t succumbed to the dead S&M chic that animates the dances of, say, William Forsythe, where everybody seems to hanging around, waiting for the Viagra to kick in. And while I don’t feel the dance develops much, its energy is intoxicating (in the rapid runs of the Mozart, Elo justifies his own choreographic speed), and bits of hope seem to glint through Ponomarenko’s disoriented returns; a little laugh occasionally ripples through her, and her movements began to echo those of the larger ensemble: perhaps, Elo is saying, there is a way for ballet to not only respond to the high-tech culture at large, but even master it.

There is, however, no doubt of the mastery of Polyphonia (Larissa Ponomarenko and Boyko Dossev, above; photos by Gene Schiavone) – Christopher Wheeldon is by now the anointed heir to Balanchine, and Polyphonia has already been elevated to the pantheon of greatness by none other than the New York Times. The good news is that it belongs there – even if Wheeldon is a bit backward-looking, while Elo is definitely inching forward. This ten-dance investigation of piano works by György Ligeti begins conventionally enough, but steadily bores deeper and deeper into both its own conventions and the abstract idiom of its music – something I’ve only seen Morris and Balanchine manage consistently before.

Balanchine, of course, gave us “modern ballet,” with the romantic nineteenth century as its frame; Wheeldon gives us much the same sense of exploration informed by tradition, only now the tradition is modernism itself (don’t worry, the romance is still there, too, subsumed in all the angular body sculpture). The music (largely drawn from Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, and played with controlled maturity by Freda Locker) is ascetic, in fact almost cruelly reduced, but still defiantly lyric, a good match for an extension of Mr. B’s method. And if Wheeldon’s tropes are indebted to the master’s - Balanchine’s structure is there, along with his leotards – the piece still exudes a contorted, transformative power that strikes me as new, and Wheeldon’s own.

The dancers did well by the steps, even if at times the coordinated arcs (Wheeldon has a way of slipping dancers through each other, in echo of Ligeti’s taut melodic lines) weren’t yet quite as smooth as they should be. There was also a joyful duet for two men, exuberantly essayed by Roman Rykine and John Lam (the often-overlooked Mr. Lam was also notable in Brake the Eyes), and a somberly absorbing pas for Karine Seneca and Carlos Molina, set to the chilling little tune that Kubrick chose as his “fear theme” in Eyes Wide Shut.

After all this virtuosity, how did the reprise of Val Caniparoli’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion hold up? Well, dazzlingly, to be sure – but perhaps superficially dazzling, at least compared to what had come before. Caniparoli’s electric shifts between tango-like duets and a muscular, chaotic ensemble still enthralled, and the company, refreshed by the expert Romi Beppu and Nelson Madrigal, was certainly committed to them. But the second-movement pas, despite a subtle, attentive rendering by Lorna Feijóo and Yury Yanowsky, seemed to lack deeper resonance, and the livelier final movement didn’t quite make up for lost ground. Nevertheless, the musical performance, under Jonathan McPhee’s lively baton, was, as always, rewardingly precise, and there were fierce turns from Boyko Dossev and Joel Prouty. As the curtain came down, the house came down, too – and you left the evening, as Emily Dickinson might say, with the feeling that the top of your head had just been taken off. Few today think of ballet as intellectually challenging – but it is, and this memorable program is proof.