Tuesday, July 31, 2007

And the Critical Darwin Award goes to - Sharon Steel of the Boston Phoenix!

The kind of genius you just won't see at Allston Skirt Gallery!

Just when I'm pondering establishing a new "Nuremberg Award" for local critics, with Kate Johnston Chase as the first winner, I come across this gem from the July 6 Boston Phoenix, in a review of Allston Skirt's "Pull My Finger" by one Sharon Steel -

Last February, former–Boston Globe critic Thomas Garvey suggested on his culture blog, “Hub Review,” that Allston Skirt Gallery owners Randi Hopkins (a Phoenix contributor) and Beth Kantrowitz had some kind of a vendetta against artists with a Y chromosome. “I don’t know why, exactly, these two rarely feature men,” wrote Garvey, “but I think it’s safe to assume it’s because they hate them.” Zane, whose work had already been featured at the gallery, thought Garvey’s insinuation was absurd. “When they asked me to curate a show,” says Zane, “I naturally thought to try to do a comedy show of sorts.”

I just howled when I read that - I'm sure Beth and Randi (whom I adore) did, too - or at least I hope they did; could working at the Phoenix have begun rotting Randi's brain? Anyway, the offending piece is here - and what can you say before such bald, irony-free stupidity except, please, Sharon, keep writing!!! And Joe Zane (curator of the current "Pull My Finger") - I dunno, dude, I'd be careful around those two "wymyn" when they've got knives in their hands (and not just when they're cutting the cheese!).

(Artists with a hankering to design a suitable statuette - see image above - should email me immediately!)

The big picture

The most detailed pictures of Earth ever taken have just become available. Most of the information contained in the pictures, which were compiled over a series of months, came from a single remote-sensing device which flew 700 km above the Earth onboard the Terra satellite in 2002.

The end of the era continues . . .

"Tell me you love me. I love you. Tell me you don't. I don't love you." Monica Vitti in L'avventura.

Hard on the heels of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) died yesterday. His elegantly arid vision of our modern moral limbo is, well, hard to warm up to, but also hard, once perceived accurately, to forget. The presence of Monica Vitti in his films (she became his second wife) was enough in many quarters to justify his fame, but there's really so much more - the strange sense of empty space that he conjures within the picture plane in L'avventura; the trees whispering above the assignation that never happens in L'eclisse, and then again in the mysterious park in Blow-Up, where murdered bodies - and even, eventually, the hero - disappear into the silent grass.

Disappearance was perhaps Antonion's central metaphor - in his films, people often literally disappear, but more often they vanish morally and emotionally, into the landscape, into urbanity, or into their own rudderless ennui, usually lured, and then betrayed, by sex or money or both. The title Red Desert eloquently summed up Antonion's central concern - the color of sex suffusing the landscape of death.

Of course he hadn't worked for years (aside from the intriguing Beyond the Clouds, which he directed despite the lingering deficits of a stroke), so in a way his passing is symbolic of a loss that has already happened (as is the case, to a lesser degree, with Bergman). The deeper critical question about both these greats is, why were they never replaced? Why did the cinematic whiz kids of the 70s - Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese - peak so early (and without ever reaching the heights of Antonioni and Bergman)? True, there are still real talents working in film - there's Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, and a few more; but none has reached the level of international success that Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa enjoyed. I suppose the best answer is one once given by Roger Ebert:

Why don't we have movies like L'avventura anymore? Because we don't ask the same kinds of questions anymore.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

"No one escapes me." Death arrives in The Seventh Seal.

The New York Times has just reported the death of Ingmar Bergman on his beloved island of Faro, off the coast of Sweden (a landscape familiar to lovers of Persona and several other Bergman films). I was a Bergman acolyte even in my teens; in fact, I still remember seeing The Seventh Seal on PBS at age 13 (I began to cry as the Knight made his confession to Death, as my mother stared at me with incomprehension).

Once I could drive, my best friend and I would routinely travel down to an old repertory house in my hometown of Houston, Texas (the River Oaks, if any Houstonians are reading along) to catch The Virgin Spring, The Magician, Sawdust and Tinsel, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, Shame - and of course the comedies, as luminous as his dramas are dark - Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magic Flute, and much of Fanny and Alexander - all either brilliant or out-and-out masterworks. Imagine, two sixteen-year-olds sitting down to a Bergman double feature! Well, we loved him - I still love him. My great regret is that I never traveled to BAM (or what the hell, why not to Sweden?) to see his stage work - because truth be told, while he was indeed one of the greatest of film directors, his film work was informed and sustained by the theatre (a situation which many film critics prefer to ignore, but which was true of Welles and several other great directors). Indeed, Bergman's stage (and television) work finally took over his creative life.

Of course, in the end, Bergman lives on - if only in my Netflix rotation! Just a few weeks ago I caught his last film, Saraband, which recalled many of his former themes and had some of his old intensity. Watching it was rather like inhabiting the lives of its characters, who grapple with an old relationship that is redolent of passion, philosophy, and, of course, the awareness that everything is slipping away, that death is imminent. Bergman, however - at left, directing Bengt Ekerot in his iconic role as Death in Seal (or are they just playing chess?) - seemed, as he aged, to transcend his own notorious obsession. “When I was young, I was extremely scared of dying,” he told an interviewer a few years ago. “But now I think it a very, very wise arrangement. It’s like a light that is extinguished. Not very much to make a fuss about.”

P.S. -

This "all about Ingmar" quiz from the Guardian is fun. Bragging rights - I scored 9 out of 10 correctly (I only missed his favorite sport).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

"Please, just bring back the funny Jesus."

Crhist works the crowd in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece.

It's rare that a Boston Globe review actually makes me see red (I'm just too jaded) - but perusing Katie Johnston Chase's review of "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" in Saturday's edition made the whole world turn carmine. I don't recall seeing Chase's byline on a theatre review before - so let's hope this is both its first and last appearance. She was sent to cover Abie Philbin Bowman's one-man show at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater (because, I'd guess, as in my days at the paper, it was deemed a political hot potato, so no one with any clout was going near it) - and even Chase admits, the show has "a wonderfully simple premise: that today a bearded religious martyr from the Middle East . . . would be deemed a terrorist." So far, so good - and Chase gives Bowman high marks for his comic licks (which actually don't sound all that inspired), such as "how hard it is to eat M&Ms with holes in yours hands."

But uh-oh - when Jesus ends up in Guantanamo, Chase writes, the show "veers into dangerously serious territory." Did you get that? Dangerously serious. "Before you know it," our nonplussed correspondent whines, "we've lost the mood." But wait, she gets (unintentionally) funnier: "Clearly, Philbin Bowman is knowledgeable about what he calls the un-Christian conditions at the camp [emphasis added] . . . but we didn't come here for a lecture."

So Katie went to a show called "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" for a laugh, only it turned out to be a total downer! Bummer! Especially since "we don't need to be hit over the head with the problems of Gitmo; we already know." Chill, dude - we already know about the torture of innocents! It's time to move on - moral outrage is like so pre-9/11! "There must be a way," Chase insists, "to maneuver through Guantanamo without derailing the show." Uh-huh. Maybe Bowman should page Roberto Benigni for tips.

Make 'em laugh . . . Jose Padilla tries out his stand-up routine.

But Chase's best, and most offensive, line simply has to be her admonishment to Bowman for getting so 'dangerously serious': "Please, bring back the funny Jesus."

Disgusting as it is, there's something pregnant about that phrase. Please bring back the funny Jesus. It's an unconsciously deep encapsulation of a generation's attitude, dontcha think? I'm sure Katie had her ancestors in prior eras ("We already know about the Gulag, Aleksandr! Enough already about Auschwitz, Primo!"), but would the earlier water-carriers for oppression have so openly expressed their longing to be released from responsibility? Please, just bring back the funny Jesus! PLEEEEEASE! This is the cry heard everywhere - please, don't tell us about it, we don't want to know! Or at least make it funny - give us an out! Don't say we've built a secret prison system in which innocent people are tortured! And don't tell me I'm paying for it!! I mean, sure, let's laugh at religion; let's laugh at Bush! But don't implicate me in what's going on - I'm just the audience, for chrissakes! This is a show, can't you understand? I mean it's totally cool to like be against what's going on, but it's totally uncool to actually do anything about it - so please, bring back the funny Jesus!

Sigh. Needless to say, Katie's review evidences no cojones whatsoever - but has anyone noticed the literal lack of balls in the Globe's theatre department these days? In the old days, local theatre reviewing was dominated by closeted theatre queens (Kevin Kelly, Arthur Friedman) - they were hardly models of political integrity (many of them were slow to approve color-blind casting, and were often hypocritically dismissive of openly gay material), so I'm hardly nostalgic for their reign of error. Still, the new feminine generation (in which all the genders have changed, but maybe not all the orientations) is arguably doing even worse, especially given that we're in the middle of a political crisis that makes Watergate look like a garden party. As I recall, Louise Kennedy once even opined that an Iraq War documentary at Trinity Rep was "successful precisely because it avoids polemic, on either side." Right - tell it to Brecht. Or Pinter. Or Shaw or Ibsen or Shakespeare, for that matter. Oh well. I suppose it's pointless to hope for political balls at the Globe arts page - but some actual balls (even some straight ones!) might be nice.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The antimodernist

Nighthawks, 1942

It's hard to believe, but there's currently a reason to go to the MFA (at least through August 19) - "Edward Hopper," a near-retrospective of one of America's favorite, and most frigid, artists (think of him as Norman Rockwell's dark twin). Of course this show alone, even if it were brilliant, couldn't rehabilitate the museum's reputation - Malcolm Rogers may have made his baby the darling of Beantown's new money, but among the cognoscenti it's been almost a laughingstock since the "boat show," otherwise known as "Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch." And at any rate, "Edward Hopper" isn't brilliant - indeed, the curating is a little lackluster; the show is hung competently, but without inspiration, at least three key paintings are missing (House by the Railroad, Gas, and Rooms by the Sea), there's no new, overarching thesis, and the wall text and audio, in typical MFA fashion, hype tourist-friendly details ("Can you believe that old house is still in Gloucester?") while papering over thorny issues in the artist's life and work.

Nevertheless, Hopper himself was brilliant, so there's your reason to go. Don't be put off by the reviews - which, like the curating, have been somewhat lackluster. In the New York Times, the oft-vapid Holland Cutter suddenly turned vicious: "To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes." Meanwhile, in the Globe, Ken Johnson (late of the Times, dontchaknow) was more enthusiastic and a little more perceptive, despite a hilarious headline: "As if from afar, Hopper looks into American soul."

Neither writer, however, got very close to evoking Hopper's distinctive chill - a spooky vibe that's not so much American as modern in general. Even in the early watercolors from Gloucester, when Hopper is reveling in his command of architectural angles and sheets of sun, there's a hint of something brooding beneath the clapboards - the awnings of The Mansard Roof (1923, at left) are rippling over a jet-black shadow, and Hopper isn't above using the trick (at least as old as Bosch) of turning a window into an unsettling, unblinking "eye."

This undercurrent rose to the surface in the artist's first masterpiece (not, alas, in the Boston show), House by the Railroad(1925, left). In this tight little visual poem, a gaunt "painted lady" is not only plainly haunted, she's staring grimly at the modern railroad which has passed her by.

Somehow, though, you get the sense she'll get her revenge - and she does nearly forty years later, when we find her lurking by the highway in Hitchcock's Psycho (also at left). You don't need much more evidence than this of how deeply Hopper's vision penetrated pop culture - if Norman Rockwell begat Frank Capra, then Hopper inspired half of film noir.

And he did so via an intriguing strategy: the artist concentrated consistently, even obsessively, on everything the new era of mobile self-expression - what pop culture inherently celebrates - left behind. The forgotten storefronts (Early Sunday Morning, at left), the lonely street, the shuttered hotel - not to mention the lost souls wandering among them - these became Hopper's great subject (even in Gloucester he shunned the popular ocean views to ponder empty neighborhoods). When he did deign to consider a modern structure - a bridge or tower, say - Hopper didn't glamourize it, but instead portrayed it as deserted; when he painted a movie theatre (New York Movie, below), he left the screen almost off the canvas, and focused on the dejected usherette.

New York Movie, 1939

"Life" is elsewhere in Hopper - or at least, modernity is; culture is. So what's left? This is when things get interesting - unlike almost any other painter, Hopper was obsessed with the invisible. Ponder that paradox, for a moment (particularly as a problem in the visual arts). True, other (often greater) artists have conjured the unseen - Velazquez tackles the problem of depicting consciousness itself in Las Meninas - but Hopper was after something more elemental: the stubbornly cold surface of unadorned existence, for lack of a better description: the edge between being and nothingness. Mystery, melancholy, and menace cling to this vision in about equal portions, as well as a mournful sense of stasis. The drifters of Nighthawks (at top) are hardly caught at the crux of some drama, as many have argued; nothing is happening to them, and nothing is going to happen. Sealed in their glass coffin (there seems to be no door) just outside the storefronts of Early Sunday Morning (compare with above), they have nothing to say to each other, or to us; they are utterly mobile, modern types, who, perversely, are unable to move.

There's a certain vulgarity to that diner's denizens, too - indeed, to almost all of Hopper's city dwellers. Many critics have commented on this crudity as a technical limit of the artist (Johnson calls him "a good enough painter"), but Hopper's watercolor technique (not quite Sargent's or Homer's, but still pretty damn impressive) belies this judgment: his awkward modeling in oil was clearly a conscious decision, part of the metaphor he was attempting to construct. Cut off from any organic relation to the world, and perceived from a state of constant motion, the modern figure was, Hopper insists, by its very nature garish. And its interiority hardly exists; when a flapper ponders her tea (as in Automat, at left), the darkness behind her tells us her mind is an unknown even to herself. All is surface, essentially, and without connection to any inner dimension, the world's charms (as personified in various Hopper ingenues) are stripped of their allure and presented as pure advertisement. Always cold, Hopper's eye grew even crueller as he aged, and his brushwork became blunter; by the end of his career, he was positing naked, sexually-used women - who look like corpses - abandoned in hotel rooms to stare blankly into the sun. It's a despairing - perhaps even disgusted - vision; but at least there's still that sunlight (which we first saw bouncing off The Mansard Roof some four decades ago). The artist pondered this alone in his last great picture, Sun in an Empty Room (below, 1963), in which the actual passes into the metaphysical, where everything - and everyone - passes away.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sondheim with a side of ham

Leigh Barrett, Brendan McNab, and MaryAnn Zschau sing side by side.

I'm late to reviewing the New Rep's summer show, Side by Side by Sondheim, which I'm actually quite happy about - when I have to rain on a parade, I prefer that it's almost passed by. Which isn't to say Side by Side isn't quite a pageant; director Rick Lombardo has assembled a trio of Boston's best performers - Leigh Barrett, Brendan McNab, and Maryann Zschau - and set them loose (and unamplified!) on this quirky survey of the first half of the Sondheim canon, a field all but Elysian in its riches. And these A-listers always come through, when left alone with a song - the trouble is that director Lombardo keeps intruding with relentless, Z-grade schtick that sometimes blindsides their best efforts. Yes, the show is often a charmer, but the cruel truth is that it's not nearly as good as it should have been, given the talent involved.

And to be frank, while I'm not a true Sondheim queen - to paraphrase Lanford Wilson, I'm more a lady-in-waiting - even I have to wonder at some of the choices made by this revue's begetters (Cleo Laine and hubby John Dankworth). The role of the "interlocutor" - who fills us in on Sondheim's career between numbers - is always problematic, and the suavely droll Jonathan Colby, a "rising senior" at Emerson who hosts a show-tune-fest on WERS, can't transcend the part's quiz show vibe, particularly when ensconced behind a lectern to one side of the stage. Some of the numbers chosen (and not chosen) make you scratch your head, too. Why, for example, are "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and "If Momma was Married" the only full numbers from Gypsy? And why "Pretty Lady" from Pacific Overtures instead of "Someone in a Tree"? I could also do without "You Must Meet My Wife," (A Little Night Music), "Barcelona" (Company), and a few more.

But then, of course, there are the obscurities which will always fascinate -such as "I Remember" from the lost TV musical Evening Primrose (which McNab voices evocatively), the early, sweetly ribald "Can That Boy Fox-trot," (nicely tricked out by Zschau and Barrett), and particularly the riotous novelty tune "The Boy From Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas La Junta Del Sol Y Cruz," featuring Barrett in hilarious form as a tourist in Coke-bottle glasses vainly pursuing McNab's sunbathing sexpot. These performances alone make the evening worthwhile - but they're equaled by sterling work from Barrett on "Another Hundred People" and Barrett and Zschau on "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" from West Side Story. And McNab improbably does brilliant work on "Could I Leave You" (traditionally sung by a woman) and "Marry Me a Little" - in fact, it's nice to see him fancy-free after a series of downer roles in the likes of Parade; he's the frisky center of this show, light on his feet (neither Zschau nor Barrett is really a dancer) and up for anything.

Alas, even his considerable skill is no match for some of the lame antics he's required to bring off; steamroller schtick hobbles several numbers, and in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" completely stops the show (only not in a good way). Director Lombardo seems to imagine that the opening number - "Comedy Tonight" - should set the tone for the whole revue, when nothing could be further from the truth. And the desire to "do something" with Sondheim's most famous tunes leads to odd outcomes - Zschau belts much of "Send in the Clowns" as if they might be waiting for their cue in the lobby, and while Barrett finds a compelling psychological drama in "Losing My Mind," the song has been set so low in her range that she winds up belting, too.

Oh, well. These lows are more than balanced by those highs, I suppose (and by Todd C. Gordon's and Steven Bergman's dueling pianos). The show's heart, and so much else, is in the right place, that it's a shame all that schtick wasn't someplace else.

Monday, July 16, 2007


With the title of his black comedy Mr. Marmalade, playwright Noah Haidle may have come up with the perfect sobriquet for himself: his dramatic tone (at least as evidenced by this and the recently-premiered Persephone) is much like that of the eponymous spread – sticky sweet with an edge of bitters. His real point, however, may be that this sour tang is the keynote of most relationships - at least as secretly experienced by the feminine half of the population: Mr. Marmalade is a dark fable about four-year-old Lucy (Rachael Hunt, above with John Kuntz), abandoned in her New Jersey home by her single mom, who conjures up an imaginary friend out of some lost episode of Entourage: an Ari-Gold-like player who’s got everything a girl could want, except a heart. And for a while, Lucy’s disillusionment with her nasty swain casts a funny pall over many a post-feminist myth: after all, she’s no incipient Powerpuff Girl but instead the innocent core of human need, and Mr. Marmalade’s crude-dude abuses pack a real punch (literally, to judge from the look of his personal assistant).

Still, the play winds up being a good deal less disturbing than many have implied. Lucy is slowly established as so conversant with our adult milieu (soon she’s even ordering sushi from Nobu) that her tribulations tip into abstract satire. And the play backs off its feminist critique, and remains well within our current Cablevision consensus (Lucy wises up, and trades in her imaginary friend for that imaginary personal assistant). Which is all well and good, I suppose, as far as it goes; and I didn’t even mind that in a pinch Mr. Haidle picks the pockets of fellow absurdists Christopher Durang and David Lindsay-Abaire. No, the real trouble with Mr. Marmalade is simply the fact that at 90 minutes, it’s spread a little thin – like the best bits of Persephone, this is a wicked-good sketch stretched to “full-length play” by the injection of gelatinous filler. In the current production by Company One (through August 11 at the BCA), director Shawn LaCount and his cast get through the not-so-royal jelly by simply redoubling their already-over-the-top energy: the results are often hilarious, and the production showcases at least two break-out performances, but the final effect is to make this smart, superficial play seem even a little superficialler than it really is.

Still, it’s hard not to fall for these hard-working actors. Perhaps first among equals are Daniel Berger-Jones, as the fey p.a. to Mr. Marmalade, and Greg Maraio as Lucy’s real-life playmate, Larry. The drolly coy Berger-Jones is just about perfect (or should I say fabulous?), while Maraio is endlessly, inventively funny – although he never slows down long enough to convince us that poor Larry, the “youngest suicide attempt in the history of New Jersey,” really has any dark, hidden depths. Still, both actors essentially earn their Equity cards with these turns, and sweet spitfire Rachael Hunt isn’t far behind as Lucy – she, too, merely needs to bring things down a notch every now and then to get in touch with her character’s lonely longings.

As Marmalade, the reliable John Kuntz brings his considerable talents to bear on the role, but alas, his familiar presence simply doesn’t exude quite enough menace (Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall, the original off-Broadway Marmalade, was indeed the ideal choice). Still, Kuntz is game for anything, and certainly earns his laughs as Marmalade devolves from power-asshole to just plain-old-asshole (one who even demands a prostate exam). Meanwhile, Amanda Good Hennessy can’t figure out what to do with the thankless role of Lucy’s careerist, sexually-active mother, but has a lot of fun with her bad-girl babysitter (an intriguing doubling, given actor Mark Abby VanDerzee doubles both her boyfriend and Mom's), and Danny Balel and Tory Bullock actually pull off Larry’s latecomer imaginary friends (who happen to be plants – again tellingly, a cactus and a daisy). This isn’t the strongest play Company One has fielded (and yes, after Persphone, even Haidle’s biggest advocate, the New Yorker’s John Lahr, has had second thoughts about him), but it may be their strongest production – one that could certainly be deeper, but only arguably sweeter.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Note without comment

My profound apologies for not posting the last few days(/weeks)! And this isn't quite a real post - it's simply a link. But these images speak for themselves. Take a peek at this bizarrely poignant feature in the New York Times magazine pairing avatars with their creators.