Friday, September 28, 2007

Don Juan Serrand

Stephen Epp stalls out in Don Juan Giovanni.

There's just no point in not saying it flat out - the latest ART/Theatre de la Jeune Lune vehicle, Don Juan Giovanni, is so boring it's even dull to pan. I've actually been trying to drag myself to the keyboard to record the slow passage of this postmodernized "mashup" of Molière's Dom Juan and Mozart's Don Giovanni for something like two weeks - come now, I keep telling myself, writing about it can't be any worse than sitting through it was, can it? Admit it, Garvey, you enjoy saying nasty things about bad shows - everyone says so!!! And in the old days, weren't you able to rouse yourself to something like fury over this kind of cynical exploitation of self-satisfied academics and pseudo-intellectuals?

But I was younger then. Less battle-scarred, more certain life was worth living and mankind worth saving, etc. Also, perhaps to its credit, Don Juan Giovanni isn't really up there in my Top Five Most Boring ART Productions Evah. It has an intermission, for one thing, and so its tedium never gets too intense, or malignant; you don't feel, while you're watching it, that your soul is actually being sucked out of you by vampires, the way you did in Three Sisters. People don't flee it, screaming. No, indeedy - because every now and then, somebody starts singing some Mozart, and suddenly everything's wonderful and you're transported to some magical plane on which high seriousness and joy are making eternal love. You don't really care that the show's M.O. makes little sense, as it muddles both Molière's and Mozart's plots (perhaps a better project would be studding Pygmalion with numbers from My Fair Lady). But who cares? Does a Mozart aria really need an excuse?

So go for the singing, which is far stronger than it was in Jeune Lune's restyling of Carmen. Needless to say, said company is working the lovely Christina Baldwin's body as hard as ever, but in such moments as her aria-powered bike ride (at left) her physical grace triumphs over her director's crass machinations. Baldwin's voice is equally lovely and free, but when it comes to vocal chops, her sister, Jennifer Baldwin Peden, is the sib to watch, particularly when powering through the climactic "I quali ecesso." Peden's only vocal equal onstage was Bradley Greenwald, who essayed a memorable Leporello (and proved a witty comedian as well), although I was also often charmed by the sweet tone and dim innocence of Dieter Bierbrauer, in the Masetto-surrogate role of "Peter."

The problem is eventually the singing stops, and you're once again overwhelmed with ennui, derived, no doubt, from the fact that Mozart on Molière fits about as well as tits on a bull. You can, for laughs, read the program notes. Here Stephen Epp and Dominique Serrand, the show's stars and "authors," inform us that their show "is not recommended for people who fear the sense of vertigo that comes from staring into the chasm between life and death." Certainly not - it would only make them jump. For in the end this strange carcass, like the Plymouth-on-training-wheels at its center, is just a vehicle for Epp and Serrand, and neither is much good. Epp, you feel, could make it work if he'd given himself some better kvetching, but Serrand is simply out of his depth, vocally, physically, and charismatically, on the famously unforgiving Loeb stage. His Don Juan is little more than a sketchy professor out to bag another freshman babe in Theatre and Existentialism.

A deeper problem, of course, is that Serrand naively takes the Don at his word - all his words, in fact, even though Molière deploys them as transparent chicanery. While Juan may be a self-styled philosopher-libertine, he's also obviously an addict (indeed, addiction is the subtext of all Molière), and any honest production should make clear his arguments are also excuses, and that Juan's life is the antithesis of freedom: pussy is his smack, his nicotine. What he needs is dinner with Dr. Phil, not the Commendatore. Needless to say, as Juan and Sgnarelle drive in circles on Route 66, it's telegraphed that their road trip is a dead end - but this feels more like the notes that go with today's lecture than any dramatic coup. Serrand can't make Juan's last-minute hints of self-awareness - and his half-hearted feint at genuine freedom - work because he doesn't believe in them personally; too bad they're the heart of the drama (at least the Mozart half). Perhaps some sparks could have flown if Serrand had somehow bridged Molière's critique and Mozart's sympathy, but throughout, Mozart and Molière orbit each other like planets; their two worlds never collide. And frankly, the Beckettian highway Jeune Lune are headed down simply squashes both the show's classical antecedents flat. Alas, there's nothing Jennifer Baldwin Peden's pipes can do to change that.

Here's one way to better spend our arts $

Many of this blog's readers were scandalized when I advised against giving money to such major local players as the BSO and MFA. How better could their money be spent?, some wondered. Well, here's one way: by bringing Mozart Dances, by Mark Morris, to Boston. We're just about the only one of his traditional touring spots that isn't seeing it this year. We will be seeing him, yes, in the recast Dido and Aeneas - but why can't we see both?

Boston Ballet dancers reign in Spain, and elsewhere

Above is a nice photo (by Ballet danseur Sabi Varga) of the Boston Ballet being greeted by Queen Sofia of Spain after a performance of La Sylphide in Mallorca . In case you didn't know, this summer the company embarked on its first international tour in fifteen years. The six-week trip Spain took Boston Ballet to seven festivals, where two programs were presented, including Sorella Englund’s staging of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, and an all-Balanchine bill of Serenade, Who Cares? and The Four Temperaments. Many performances were sold out and the reviews were rapturous.

But the company's travels are far from over. They just returned from a brief sojourn at the Guggenheim (a Dance Magazine blog review is here), and will return to New York this week to perform as part of the "Fall for Dance Festival," where the Ballet will perform an excerpt from Jorma Elo’s Brake the Eyes.

Of course all this touring can only whet local balletomanes' appetites - how much longer must we wait before we can see the Ballet again ourselves? Fear not, the wait will soon be over: the company's annual Gala performance, "Night of Stars," will take place next Friday, October 12, at CitiCenter, followed on October 18 by the double bill that reigned in Spain, Serenade and La Sylphide.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another stumble for CitiCenter

According to Geoff Edgers in today's Globe:

First Night and Young Audiences of Massachusetts, two of the key organizations that the Citi Performing Arts Center has sought to merge or partner with, have formally cut off talks with the Citi Center.

The article notes that similar alliances are central to CitiCenter's much-discussed strategy to become a "virtual performing arts center" via extension of its "brand." (Meanwhile, there's talk that Commonwealth Shakespeare founder Steve Maler has approached Shakespeare & Co. to sponsor next summer's Shakespeare production.)

Perhaps after these most recent stumbles, Spaulding & Co. will finally realize that their "brand" is actually a negative, not a positive; and that said negative perceptions will have to be turned around before an alliance strategy can become feasible.

But I wouldn't count on it, because a turnaround in perception is probably impossible without a change in leadership.

Top of the world

More random thoughts as I drag my feet before slogging through my pan of Don Juan Giovanni. A most excellent site is Astronomy Picture of the Day - I recommend checking it out every morning for a quick blast of just how marvelous the universe truly is. The photo above was from Sept. 16. The explanation is as follows:

At about 100 meters from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless II was further out than anyone had ever been before. Guided by a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), astronaut McCandless was floating free in space. McCandless and fellow NASA astronaut Robert Stewart were the first to experience such an "untethered space walk" during Space Shuttle mission 41-B in 1984. The MMU works by shooting jets of nitrogen and has since been used to help deploy and retrieve satellites. With a mass over 140 kilograms, an MMU is heavy on Earth, but, like everything, is weightless when drifting in orbit. The MMU was replaced with the SAFER backpack propulsion unit.

And yet more great public art . . .

This wonderful exterior drainage system in Dresden, Germany seems to have been crossed with some musical instrument from Whoville. I'm sure Dr. Seuss - and John Cage - would have approved.

More on public art

What can I say? After the debacle with Star Anna Simpson at Logan Airport a few days back, I was mightily pleased to see the reputation of my alma mater so gloriously redeemed!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Of public art, past and future

Today MassMoCa announced it was throwing in the towel regarding Christoph Büchel's aborted exhibit there. The museum had recently won an important ruling allowing it to show Büchel's piece unfinished, but nevertheless decided to simply abandon the project - most would agree that, with the legal principle decided, the choice to move on is a wise one (even though dismantling the detritus will cost some $40,000, bringing the total cost of the debacle to $400,000). Büchel, for his part, re-inforced his reputation as an asshole by offering to create a new piece for Mass MoCA free of charge - one that re-configured its logo as "Mass CoMA." Har de har har. Those Swiss - what a sense of humor! Good-bye, Büchel, and good riddance.

But in the meantime I thought I would post a striking image drawn from an unusually thoughtful slideshow over at slate on the troubling state of public sculpture. The work above, "Alison Lapper Pregnant," by Marc Quinn, has been temporarily installed on the famously empty "fourth plinth" in Trafalgar Square. Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, and who gave birth to a son shortly after modeling for the sculpture, says the figure represents ""a modern tribute to femininity, disability, and motherhood." It could be considered bizarre as a stand-alone piece, but its setting transforms it into a rebuke of the kind of triumphant militarism Trafalgar Square typifies. Here's a thought - why doesn't Mass MoCA invite Lapper and Quinn over for a show? Or better yet, how about installing "Alison Lapper Pregnant" on some empty plinth in Boston?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On stage and on screen, Part I

Above is a key sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 classic, The 39 Steps. See post below for a discussion of stage versus screen techniques vis-à-vis the Huntington's current production.

(My review is here.)

On stage and on screen, Part II

There's an interesting moment in the ART's Don Juan Giovanni (image below) in which Moliere's Don Juan and Sganerelle check out a drive-in movie - only to find their counterparts in Mozart acting out the opening scenes of Don Giovanni, the opera, onscreen. It's a neat conceptual trick, made all the niftier by the fact that the Don Giovanni cast is also onstage - being filmed live for the feed to the screen. But therefore, of course, the Moliere characters wind up on screen as well; for a moment stage and screen seem to merge, and with a postmodern poof! Mozart's Don Giovanni, Leporello, Donna Anna, et. al., are all "onstage" at once, interacting within the same medium.

Okay, this idea is not entirely new - at least not to those who've seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, much less Sherlock, Jr. - and its ramifications, alas, are soon dropped from the tedious antics of Don Juan Giovanni. But for a moment the production cleverly addresses the issues I thought might be explored in the Huntington's production of The 39 Steps, which claims to evoke Hitchcock's classic film on its stage.

A collision between stage and screen at this level should fascinate - only the Huntington stage production never scratches the surface of Hitchcock's method, which is to move the focus of our subjective "identification" at will (he once described this technique as giving the audience the sense of a chase from the perspective of the fox and the hounds at the same time).

The long clip above has several brilliant sequences, but perhaps most apropos to this discussion would be the "scene" about two minutes in, where Robert Donat overhears his companions reading about his case in the paper - and then attempts to judge from their expressions whether or not they've recognized him. One seems to smile at him with secret knowledge - or does he? The sequence culminates with a tracking shot (which Hitchcock would spend his career extending and perfecting) that follows Donat as he marches out to an officer on the platform to see if he'll be identified. This is the kind of sequence which, one is tempted to assume, would be impossible to replicate on stage in its step-by-step development (indeed, I think the Huntington skipped it) - but something of its essence might be conjured using screens and the sleight-of-hand displayed by Don Juan Giovanni.

The cinema has long been held to be the realm of surrealism and dream-life, while the stage has historically been viewed as a platform for communal self-awareness. Is there a middle ground between the two? Shakespeare, of course, deployed a "cinematic" mix of asides and soliloquies - his "camera" swings from panorama to detail to internal mental state without warning, and with utter aplomb. But he never "moves" through an environment - particularly not a fantastic one - subjectively, as film can. Is such an effect possible on stage? That's the question I wish had been answered, or at least addressed, by The 39 Steps.

A Rose without thorns

For once, the printed word got it right - local reviewers have been generally correct in their complaint that Stoneham's Gypsy is hobbled by Leigh Barrett's much-anticipated star turn as Mama Rose. Vocally, of course, Boston's top diva turns in another performance to sing about, but dramatically, Ms. Barrett seems to have been tripped up by an innate urge to please, combined with her own expertise at intelligent introspection - which, of course, Mama Rose notoriously had none of; instead, this stage mother/monster should push her way through Gypsy via blind ambition and sheer force of will. Rose may indeed have loved the objects of her ambition, daughters Baby June (who became the actress June Havoc) and Baby Louise (who would metamorphose into the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), but maternal feeling was not what drove her - and this grim fact is the curdled core of Gypsy, a poisoned valentine to not just vaudeville, burlesque, and perhaps all of show biz, but to the maternal bosom as well.

The show's lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, of course, had a famously horrific mother too ("Foxy" Sondheim), so he clearly understood Mama Rose's subconscious agenda (Sondheim once wrote a thank-you note for a piece of china that ran, "Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother's head?"). The author of the show's book, Arthur Laurents (with whom Sondheim worked closely), whitewashed the real-life Rose Hovick (who shot one person dead, and attempted to kill Baby June's fiancée) to deliver a brassy anti-heroine tailored to the take-no-prisoners persona of Ethel Merman. Sans Merman, of course, the question of how likeable Rose should, or can, be, is always pertinent to any production of Gypsy, but still, she should never be ingratiating, as Barrett too often makes her.

Barrett's sympathy with daughters June and Louise is likewise misplaced; what Sondheim and Laurents understood is that Rose's mania for vicarious stardom came with a catch: once she reached her goal, and her girls did become stars, they were of no use to her - instead, they became reminders of her own personal failure. Indeed, as adults, June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee would only communicate with their mother through lawyers; her last words to Gypsy were ""Wherever you go, whatever you do, I'll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: it's a present from me!"

Ah, yes - wherever you go, whatever you do - with his usual perversity, Sondheim pulled those lines right into the upbeat anthem "Together, Wherever We Go" which graces the second act of Gypsy. This was, however, only one of a dozen inspired choices; not for nothing is Gypsy generally considered the last of the great book musicals: along with a tight book and an indelibly rendered star role, it's studded with memorable Jule Styne melodies (and Sondheim lyrics), including "Let Me Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," and of course "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

A burlesque "tribute to Christmas" in Gypsy. For a taste of Gypsy Rose Lee's actual act, see the post below of her routine from Stage Door Canteen. (Photo by Stephanie Moskal.)

And the Stoneham cast generally does well by the show's numbers. Barrett's belting on "Roses" is sublime, and as Louise, up-and-comer Eve Kagan is quite affecting in "Little Lamb" and "If Mama was Married" (alas, we never sense her own dawning pleasure, though, in becoming a star - even a burlesque star - and how that translates into a triumph over Mama). The famous "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," always a highlight, is particularly hilarious here, as delivered by Vanessa Schukis, Shannon Lee Jones and Rebecca Zaretsky, and the show is likewise stopped by William Nash Broyles with "All I Need is the Girl." There are other good performances (including a subtle turn by Scott H. Severance as Mama Rose's perennial consort, Herbie, and vibrant dancing from Andrew Barbato, Tristan Viner-Brown, and Phil Crumrine), but director Caitlin Lowans never keeps the show on a tight rein - particularly the children's numbers - and so it sometimes feels unfocused, even community-theatre-esque (particularly on its bare-bones set). Still, its high points offer a sense of what Gypsy is all about - and given the disappointing general opening of the season, for some theatre fans that may be enough.

The strong, silent type

Last Saturday, Marcel Marceau died at the age of 84. Video somehow doesn't capture his magic, so it seems his lyricism is lost to the ages. But I thought I would post the following from his obit, just to silence, if you will, those who imagined that Monsieur Marceau's world view was anything but the toughest:

When the Nazis marched into eastern France, he fled with family members to the southwest and changed his last name to Marceau to hide his Jewish origins. With his brother Alain, Marceau became active in the French Resistance, altering children's identity cards by changing birth dates to trick the Nazis into thinking they were too young to be deported. Because he spoke English, he was recruited to be a liaison officer with Gen. George S. Patton's army.

His father was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944.

"Yes, I cried for him," Marceau said. But he said he also thought of the others killed.

"Among those kids was maybe an Einstein, a Mozart, somebody who (would have) found a cancer drug," he told reporters in 2000. "That is why we have a great responsibility. Let us love one another."

If you don't have gays in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad . . .

. . . then why did you hang these two children??

Just a moment of exasperated fury, folks. I admit the blog has been taking a political turn of late - but then can politics and art ever be completely disentangled? At any rate, it's good for people to see this image; and before you criticize me for being anti-Islam, rest assured I'm well aware that Christians were doing exactly the same thing not so long ago - and that many of them would be happy to do it again.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gypsy Rose Lee in Stage Door Canteen

In advance of my review of Stoneham Theatre's Gypsy, I thought I would post this clip of Gypsy Rose Lee in Stage Door Canteen, which gives some idea of her "striptease" act - with the emphasis on "tease" rather than "strip."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Haneke's Hollywood moment

Michael Pitt chooses his anti-bourgeois weapon in Funny Games.

It's interesting to watch the publicity push for Michael Haneke's remake of his own Funny Games begin to play out - in the New York Times Magazine, of all places. But on second thought, isn't the NYT Magazine the perfect place to start the inevitable double-pronged marketing campaign (to both the audience for Saw and the audience for Memento)?

I've been championing Haneke for years - to me, he's the most interesting director alive. (Indeed, the NYT story caused me briefly to flash back to three years ago, when I was pleading with the Globe to let me write a story about him, in advance of Time of the Wolf. Needless to say, Scott Heller and company nixed the idea; A.O. Scott's obtusely resentful audio commentary - he describes Haneke's approach as "punishing" and "sado-masochistic" on the NYT site - probably sums up their take.) Still, like many Haneke-philes, I have very mixed feelings about the upcoming remake. I happened to catch one of its first trailers last weekend, and was pleased to see that the new version looks close to a shot-by-shot recapitulation of the coolly horrifying original (the NYT article basically confirms this). Judging from said article, Haneke seems to imagine he has imported his scathing critique of American violence directly into the belly of the beast: meanwhile the beast, of course, sees this viciously poised piece of anti-entertainment as simply the latest misanthropic morsel in an ongoing banquet.

And therein lies the rub, particularly given Haneke's critique of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, to which Funny Games has often been compared (mistakenly, to my mind). In the NYT, Haneke holds forth thus:

“I’m a huge Kubrick fan, but I find ‘A Clockwork Orange’ a kind of miscalculation, because he makes the brutality so spectacular — so stylized, with dance numbers and so on — that you almost have to admire it . . . It became a cult hit because people found its hyperstylized violence somehow cool, and that was certainly not what Kubrick had intended . . . It’s incredibly difficult to present violence on-screen in a responsible manner. I would never claim to be cleverer than Kubrick, but I have the advantage of making my films after he made his. I’ve been able to learn a tremendous amount from his mistakes."

So my favorite living director has a problem with my favorite classic director! (You don't say!) Haneke may have a point here, but given his own curious current position, one cannot help but perceive the acute irony of his statements. A Clockwork Orange was never actually marketed as a teen horror flick (which, trust me, is precisely what Warner Independent intends to do with Funny Games). Indeed, as I recall, originally Orange was rated X. And Haneke seems completely unaware of his own "cool" factor (if you doubt me, read some of the wild-eyed praise from 'extreme' film devotees about him on the imdb) - though somehow I doubt he's completely trying to avoid all sense of "coolness." Of course Haneke has his defense against the claim that he is indulging his audience's bloodlust - Funny Games, as is often pointed out, includes only a single shot of actual violence - which is then "redacted." Fair enough. But whether the pedagogy implicit in Haneke's technique is compromised by its marketing is a debate which will no doubt rage all the more after the release of Funny Games.

Just btw, early Haneke titles, such as Benny's Video, The Castle, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance have finally become available on DVD. I've been meaning to post my reactions to these for some time, and will do so shortly.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yes, I'm one of those "disgusting" (President Bush) MoveOn people who should be "thrown out of the country" (Senator McCain) . . .

. . . and this is the latest ad I helped pay for. You can defy our craven Senate, and help win our country back at

How do I do it?

Ever on the leading edge, particularly, it seems, when it comes to the arts and the law, I no sooner diss Ken Johnson's ditzy defense of Christopher Büchel, than the courts deliver him a pretty stunning rebuke. Way to go, Judge Ponsor!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ken, We'll Hardly Miss Ye

Word reaches us from the usual channels that Ken Johnson, the current visual arts critic for the Globe, will soon be returning to his original base, New York City. Apparently we're all supposed to regret this move, but I'm not sure why. Sure, Ken's miles better than Cate McQuaid - but is that really the standard we're now unconsciously holding to? It's hard, in other words, for me to fight the feeling that it was Johnson's New York connections, rather than his solid-but-not-stellar abilities, that made him so popular in this burg. Thinking back to recent months, I have to say he tended to lack spine when it most counted; of the Matter "Pollocks," his take seemed to be "they may or may not be Pollocks, and aren't they pretty?" His response to the Mass MOCA/
Christoph Büchel
mess was bizarre ("sad, dumb and shameful"), and his "tackling" of the Martin Creed installation at the BCA is disappointing (at left is Creed, looking the way I'd look if I'd just won $40,000 for turning on the lights). Johnson's conclusion:

" . . . is "The Lights Going On and Off" a critique of contemporary culture, a gesture of despair, or a wake-up call? I'm not sure what he intends, and I think the provocatively enigmatic silence of his exhibition is one of the best things about it. But I'd also like to imagine that by revealing the exhaustion of 20th-century avant-gardism Creed's art helps set the stage for the advent of a new, as yet unknown paradigm."

Ah, yes, "the provocatively enigmatic silence" of what is obviously the last gasp of what was once called "ultrathin" (a far more intriguing sample of the style was brought to the MFA by Cerith Wyn Evans a few seasons back) - before "the advent of a new, as yet unknown paradigm." (Uh-huh - dream on!) One wonders precisely why Johnson can't make up his mind between the options he sets forth (uh, isn't that his job?) or acknowledge what a blunt instrument he's attempting to "critique," or simply admit that his verbiage could be summed up as "This is a dead end." Is Cate McQuaid that much worse than this, really? The one thing you can say about Johnson, though, is that he looks the part (at left). The Globe should probably put his photo in its want-ad, along with the admonition "Look like this."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stage fright

Too bad Hitch gets it in the back, too.

Nothing seemed more of a sure thing this season than The 39 Steps, the West End transfer that was stopping by the Huntington on its way to Broadway later this year (I mean to ponder that arrangement further in a later post). As I'm a fan of the Hitchcock film (watch the whole movie in streaming video here), and have a special interest in the intersection of screen and stage technique, you can imagine my disappointment as I slowly discovered, once the show's faux curtain rose, that I wasn't going to be treated to a clever, tongue-in-cheek homage to the dated, but delicious, thrills of the original, but would instead be subjected to "Mel Brooks's Young Hitchcock!," a relentless barrage of dumbed-down story-theatre gags that thoroughly patronized its source, the early masterpiece in which the Master found his method: the wrong man accused, the cross-country chase, the icy blonde, and of course the mysterious, but meaningless, "MacGuffin."

Now before you say it, I hardly expected the production to approach the screen version on bended knee, and many of the jokes, it's true, land just where they should, in a pageant of seat-of-the-pants stagecraft: director Maria Aitken deftly finds simple, but effective means of literally tracking Hitchcock's camera over a moving train and down a bridge, and then over the barren moors to Scotland and back again. A particularly inspired sprint of shadowplay - that features not just Hitch's traditional appearance, but a cameo by the Loch Ness Monster - may be worth the price of admission alone. A similar interlude interpolated from North by Northwest (the American offspring of Steps) is likewise a wicked hoot. In general, the show's at its best in shadow (at left); whenever Hitch's hero, Richard Hannay, is tracked by flickering spot- or flash-light, the stage version suddenly evokes the panic of the chase with more spirit than the movie ever did.

But mysteriously, the production seems determined to telegraph the inadequacy of these tricks - even though they often grip us. We're invited to guffaw over and over at the actors' quick changes (but shouldn't those thrill us, too?) - and then double over at their broader-than-the-moors Scottish schtick (much of which would have embarrassed the old Carol Burnett Show).

The end result, of course, is the utter destruction of the film's romance (Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed together, at left) - and it's startling to realize, in retrospect, how central romance was to Hitchcock's classics (ponder, for a moment, Notorious, Rear Window and Vertigo instead of Psycho). Not for nothing does Hitch's hero - who's soon literally chained to his heroine - encounter one unhappily-hitched couple after another (he'd like to escape that fate, too). And let's not forget the picture's political romance - the romance of the individual, if you will, who, thrown into extraordinary circumstances, triumphs through brains, pluck, and a breezily unruffled attitude. Indeed, it's these attributes that made The 39 Steps a classic; Hitch's suspense techniques may nowadays be undermined by the limits of film in 1935, but somehow, over the course of the prolonged chase, a memorable largeness of purpose sneaks in between the mad dashes and double crosses.

But at the Huntington, we're stuck with the diminishing returns of what amounts to artistic tunnel vision. Sure, the hijinx are funny at first - and I was happy to giggle at the all-too-knowing nods to other Hitchcock flicks (while the "soundtrack," as it were, abandons the original entirely for the richer, more menacing harmonies of Bernard Herrmann). But by the umpteenth pratfall, I found myself longing for a bit of debonair derring-do, and by the finale, I was simply staring at my watch. What's most frustrating about the show, in fact, is the persistent sense of how marvelous it could really be: the cast, led by the witty, almost-too-chiseled Charles Edwards, knows exactly what it's doing, and has the confident panache of a team that's long been on the boards; Jennifer Ferrin has enough sex appeal to make us forget all about Madeleine Carroll, and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders barely break a sweat impersonating over 100 other characters. If only they somehow had captured the character of the original.

Hunka/Brantley Smackdown!

Zoe Kazan and Jeremy Shamos in 100 Saints You Should Know. Photo by Joan Marcus.

George Hunka, of the blog Superfluities (currently in hiatus), set off a major debate in the blogosphere some time ago when he accepted an invitation to a preview of 100 Saints You Should Know, a new play by Kate Fodor, at Playwrights Horizons, and then proceeded to pan it. In the ensuing mêlée, questions were raised about the responsibilities of bloggers to productions, the difference between blog reviews and print reviews, the tendency of producers to milk the "preview" paradigm for all it's worth (100 Saints spent most of its performance time "in previews")

Well, Ben Brantley of the Times has finally weighed in on the show, now that it has finally "opened" officially - and it's interesting to compare his and Hunka's responses. To wit:


"100 Saints You Should Know [is] a play which can only be described as earth-shatteringly mediocre . . ."


"100 Saints You Should Know, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons, is a decent play, with all that the adjective implies . . ."


". . . like ill-disciplined meditation, [the play] meanders and hews left-to-right, its dialogue as naturalistically drab as any that has come out of an MFA playwriting program and new play development workshop . . ."


" . . . the story approaches these topical matters with a calm, open mind and a tidy, symmetrical structure that balances and parallels different points of view. It’s like the Platonic ideal of a Lifetime television movie."


". . . Poor 100 Saints, perhaps -- workshopped within an inch of its well-intentioned but pale, weak life. I left at intermission, I'm afraid, not compelled to return by the tree-injury ex machina that closes the first act . . ."


"[At times] Ms. Fodor’s play glows, as she obviously means it to, with the sense that the keenest evidence of the search for God is in the homiest details."

To be fair, Brantley gives the show a very mixed notice - still, his tone is generally supportive, in that distant, olympian Times cadence, while Hunka's is caustically - but personally - dismissive. A failure of nerve on Brantley's part, perhaps? Or evidence of the belief that on balance, balance is more persuasive than passion? Whatever your answer to those questions, the contrast between the two essays all but encapsulates the contrast in tone between print and web. Perhaps most telling, however, is what Brantley leaves out: he never deigns to mention the Hunka imbroglio (which has all but overshadowed, at least in the blogosphere, the play itself). The same tendency is evident in the local press (where in general even the print "blogs" only note those blogs attached to other print media figures), and the message is clear: there ain't gonna be no conversation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two for the Streetcar

Brando in the Elia Kazan film of Streetcar.

Rarely has a great play been so bound to its premiere production as A Streetcar Named Desire - or rather to a single actor in that premiere, Marlon Brando, who became almost bizarrely revered by the baby boom following his performances in On the Waterfront and The Wild One. Intriguingly, initial reviews of Streetcar dwelt on Jessica Tandy's Tony-winning turn as Blanche; the Times, in fact, only mentioned Brando in passing, and the Tonys ignored him entirely - but Brando soon left the stage for the screen, and the rest is history.

Of course, history is made to be rewritten, and it's high time for a revisionist look at the actor and his tic-laden style. Watching the film versions of Streetcar and On the Waterfront today, it's apparent that Brando was essentially a technical actor practicing Method tropes, rather than a Method actor at the core (a canny career move, as his vocal limits would have precluded much of a career in any other guise). What still stuns about Brando, of course (at left, in a gay soft-core pose taken during the Broadway run of Streetcar) is simply his physical presence - most remarkable in its heavy-lidded mix of feminine and masculine attributes. With his sensual lips, wounded eyes, and brutal brow, Brando operated as a kind of pansexual rough-trade icon; the perfect vessel, in fact, for the disguised homosexual projections on which Streetcar depended. (Unsurprisingly, Brando was even caught during the film's production locking lips with Laurence Olivier, the husband of Vivien Leigh, Brando's co-star as Blanche!)

Needless to say, the submerged gay content of so much baby-boom rebellion is a topic that few middle-aged heterosexuals are happy to explore. Still, it's surprising that both of the great rebels-without-causes (James Dean and Brando) were bisexual, and that the 50's iconic film epic (Giant) featured two queens (Dean and Rock Hudson) squaring off over Liz Taylor! (And let's not even get into Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, etc., etc.)

But back to Tennessee Williams and Streetcar, the play that afforded the mainstream its first taste of gay sex - dolled up, rather like Blanche herself, in diaphonous swaths of "poetry." It's possible, I suppose, to ignore the gay-male metaphor animating Blanche - but only if you squint really, really hard. Williams even broaches the subject himself, in the tale of Blanche's dead husband, who killed himself when caught in a gay liaison. (Is this the first direct, sympathetic mention of gay sex on the Broadway stage? Possibly.) Still, the salient point about "homosexual drama and its disguises" (to ref Stanley Kaufmann's notorious article for the New York Times) is how apt a proxy the gay perspective is for the straight one. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays about the destructive inevitability of gay and straight sex, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the greatest plays about both gay and straight marriage. It does seem odd that straights should get most of their theatrical self-image at one remove, but until they start writing better plays, they've no one to blame but themselves.

The point I've been circling, however, in regards to Streetcar, is that it's driven by sex - hardly an original point, I know - but I'm afraid that's what's missing from the current production at the New Rep (only not between Stanley and Stella - we get that in spades - but between Stanley and Blanche). That the production should still hold, and even deeply move, us is a tribute to its cast and their commitment to the other "pole" around which the Williams world turns - that of memory.

Todd Alan Johnson, Marianna Bassham, and Rachel Harker in the New Rep's Streetcar.

This is surprising given that at first glance, Janie E. Howlands's clumsy set is all prose and no poetry - not so much the French Quarter as a construction site on the Vegas strip. (Is this really the same designer who expertly conjured the Vieux Carre in Five by Tenn a year ago?) The physical production makes us expect a blunt, Brechtian revision of Williams - but then director Rick Lombardo colors only within the traditional lines, so go figure (the effect of the set is eventually softened by John Malinowski's lighting, Haddon Kime's evocative sound design, and Frances Nelson McSherry's subtly appropriate costumes).

And it turns out there are a few surprises in Lombardo's palette. Rachel Harker's Blanche comes on as a good deal more sensible, even business-like, than many of her predecessors; Bates Wilder's Mitch is likewise a bit less sensitive and reflective than we expect; and most of all, Todd Alan Johnson's Stanley is smaller-scaled, and perhaps a tad more infantile, than usual. All these choices, however, are justifiable, and most bear artistic fruit as the performances progress: Blanche's decline is more marked, and Mitch's coldness less unexpected, for example.

Harker and Johnson, however, make one false step in tandem: neither sets up the underlying attraction between Blanche and Stanley (or the subsequent high-toned hypocrisy of her rejection of him) that should underpin the early acts, and at least offers us some understanding of Stanley's later cruelty. For Harker, the gap is even more problematic, as it robs Blanche of several levels of complexity; here she's never an operator, much less a predator, and as a result Harker ends up playing melodrama rather than tragedy. It's still a pretty effective melodrama, though, at least in the second act: Harker's at her best when tracing the arc of her "memory play" with Bates Wilder's shut-down, but still compelling, Mitch. When Harker connects with the fact that Blanche's flights of fancy are from her own nature as well as the world's, she'll have a performance for the history books.

Or at least one that can stand alongside Marianna Bassham's, who tops her recent turns with the Actors' Shakespeare Project in a carefully thought-through and utterly sympathetic portrayal of Stella. Bassham nails just about every aspect of the character - her rueful earthiness, her sexual awakening, her good humor and loving indulgence of Blanche - until, perhaps, the final scene, when Stella should certainly be more riven. Best of all, Bassham connects believably with Johnson, at least on a sexual level (her slow descent to his arms after he has struck her is perhaps the production's strongest moment). Johnson, for his part, manages to evade Brando's shadow (I was intrigued by his almost childlike vocal pattern, which somehow recalls Brando while staking out its own case), but tends to telegraph his temper tantrums (by suddenly jumping to high volume then dropping to low, for instance) and revels sometimes in Neanderthal mugging rather than working deeply through his unspoken agenda with Blanche. I get the feeling that Johnson is most free when in some form of disguise, and at times I felt him almost searching for one here.

To be honest, however, the cast most often sets its collective foot right than wrong, and despite a dozen small dissatisfactions, I was steadily aware of a growing sense of the depth and breadth of the play's achievement, particularly its almost-classic sense of inevitable doom. Streetcar, though oft revived on Broadway, rarely makes a stop here in Boston - and local playgoers should be well-pleased with the intelligence and care that has gone into the New Rep's model.

What to read

Just a quick note to remind you that the smartest writer in the American press is finally out from behind the firewall. You can catch up on his recent work here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

With a building that good . . .

Blogging about that dreadful new MFA addition got me to pondering the building that got the whole structure-as-cultural-destination movement started: Frank Gehry's epoch-making Guggenheim (above) in Bilbao, Spain. I recall Philip Johnson once responded to criticism of the building's limits as a venue for art with a characteristic bit of pith: "When a building's that good, fuck the art!"

Well, Johnson may not have been much of an architect, but he was always prescient - one could easily argue that since Bilbao, museum buildings have been fucking the art inside them rather regularly. My favorite example is the dreadful MOMA addition in New York, which by now I regard as a malevolent presence bent on keeping me from enjoying some of my favorite paintings. And here's a smart piece from New York magazine about the current Guggenheim search for a director under the shadow of the globe-trotting Thomas Krens (apparently the latest, and wackiest, Krens project is "GuggAbu," a Guggenheim franchise in the United Arab Emirates, where Jews - like the Guggenheims! - are pretty much persona non grata). Money quote: the Krens vision "was a ruse masquerading as a wow." I'm really not sure what the MFA addition is masquerading as.

Who not to give money to

Wow, honey - for $500 million, this kind of blows . . .

Today's announcement of State Street Bank's $10 million gift to the Museum of Fine Arts is being greeted in the press with the usual encomia, but one wonders why, exactly. Have the folks singing State Street's praises actually seen the monstrosity Malcolm Rogers is planning to build? Admittedly, the State Street moolah will only fund the $500 million monster indirectly - but really, if it was ever appropriate to "starve the beast," this is just such a time.

Which brings me to a larger consideration of the role of the "critic" in this town. Money, of course, really determines what art is presented and what shows you see in this provincial burg - the so-called "critic" essentially enters at the end of a looong supply chain, one that often stretches back for years, and snakes through the power centers of the city. Our best-known reviewers understand this structure implicitly and accommodate themselves to it without ever having to be told to; indeed, their audience all but expects this essentially subservient stance, so they gladly "assume the position," take their place in the flow chart, and feel thrilled when, in exchange, they're invited to nibble on hors d'oeuvres at some local "do" or other. Sometimes, it's true, an account of real malfeasance does surface (as in the case of CitiCenter), but generally only when there are financial indiscretions to report.

In a more perfect world, one might imagine that critics would "review" projects nearer the front of the pipeline - just as local directors, curators, and administrators do. Alas, this would require a much higher level of ability in the local critics than we can currently boast (in general, the local arts presenters are far smarter than the people who review them). Some might see the situation as self-regulating, then; the smart people are making the decisions, the dumber ones are writing about them. Unfortunately, dumber ones are funding them, too - the old saw about the unfortunate gap between money and taste is true, I'm afraid, and the money in this town tends to chase celebrity (the BSO), pseudo-egalitarian gestures (the MFA), or alma-mater cliché (the ART).

So what's the solution? Damned if I know, gentle reader; but I do know there are some organizations in town you should never waste your donation on. These include:

The Boston Symphony Orchestra - squatting on a dragon's hoard of some $300 million, James Levine nevertheless has the temerity to ask for extra cash for vanity projects like this year's production of Les Troyens. And the Boston Brahmins, hungry for more New York-level celebrity, are only too happy to foot the bill (while simultaneously stiffing the on-the-ground staff). Sure, check out Les Troyens, if you have the stamina - just don't write these people a check.

The Museum of Fine Arts - Ack! The intelligence of the museum's exhibits has been dropping like a stone, and the proposed new wing (above) is godawful. No doubt Malcolm Rogers & Co. will soon be offering only a single major show per year, about clothes, cars, and guitars, or all three at once (can "The Art of the Cell Phone" be far away?). And I breathlessly await the decision to open the last locked door - to the loading dock, no doubt - to great fanfare. If you must give to this clown show, try to only target their decorative collections.

The American Repertory Theatre - Rudderless, almost actorless, yet hidebound by a tradition that seems to have petrified sometime in the mid-80s, this "repertory company" is anything but. Do we really need to fund a permanent stop on the boho-Soho circuit? If so, let Harvard pay for the damn thing - they've got the money!

Okay, enough bile for the moment - whom should you give your money to, you ask? Well, there are any number of small to mid-size arts organizations in town that regularly do fine work. $10 million would all but transform their operations, of course, but you could help out with a lot less than that. A short list would include the Handel and Haydn Society; the ever-improving Boston Ballet, or maybe Snappy Dance Theater; the Boston Secession; new play development programs at the Huntington, the New Rep, or elsewhere; the always-reliable SpeakEasy Stage; or even, say, the Devanaughn, or Whistler in the Dark, or the Charlestown Working Theater, scrappy local groups that are presenting edgier work than you'll find on any "major" local stage. This is, of course, a partial listing - the point is to get out there, find a small or mid-level arts group that lights your fire, and then give them money. The major players already have more than they know what to do with - in fact, they clearly don't know what to do with it. And there's no point in good money chasing after bad.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sugar high

Most of Boston Conservatory goes for it in Zanna, Don't!

Okay, I admit I am the wrong queen to be reviewing SpeakEasy Stage's Zanna, Don't!, the new "musical fairy tale" by Tim Acito. After all, I'm a withered old bitch and my soul (or what's left of it) is curdled with envy. We already know that. Plus I will soon be directing a bitterly funny take on gay emotional dysfunction, Blowing Whistles, by Matthew Todd, for Zeitgeist Stage this winter. So add conflict-of-interest issues to my rap sheet.

Still, fore-warned is fore-armed, as the Wicked Witch of the East might have said before that fateful ride through Oz, and I feel duty-bound to advise anyone harboring any spleen in their dark little hearts: if you're thinking of seeing Zanna - don't! Diabetics likewise would be well-advised to bring their insulin packs. Those prone to tooth decay: proceed with caution.

Of course those unlike me - i.e. young at heart, gentle and kind (as well as any and all Saved by the Bell fans) - should buy tickets immediately, because this is just the nicest darn-tootin' musical since I don't know when! It's all about this magical high school that seems to have slipped, Alice-like, through the musical-theatre looking-glass: everyone's homosexual, and chess champions rule, and if there's any heartache in this gay-nerd heaven, lovable, lonely Zanna (Jordan Fife Hunt) is there to zap it with his magic wand. Of course, sooner or later (it seemed like a lot later, though), trouble does bubble up amid all the bubblegum: Zanna's wand goes schwing (and straight up, too; ah, youth!) for the wrong guy (Andrew Durand), who - gasp - turns out to be straight! This is where things get totally ironic and like witty and clever and all, because the gay kids start to discriminate against him and his girlfriend. Yes! Can you believe it?

Well, Mr. Tim Acito has a lot to say about that, as in what's good for the gay goose is good for the straight gander, and everyone, even heteros, should be free to be you & me. Who could disagree? Nobody, of course. But don't think Zanna is anything less than aware of its corny message; indeed, it's all too self-aware, not to mention littered with references to such disparate gay luminaries as the Village People and Stephen Sondheim (for, you know, those so-called theatre "sophisticates"). And to those who might suspect that "love" in Zanna is really a mask for the vanity of sexual attraction: shut up already, there's even a number about that too ("Fast")! So everyone can see this is just an awesomely airtight entertainment ma-chine.

Unless, as I said, you're a bitter old troll like me - and it seems just as tedious as its straight twin, Disney's High School Musical, and the gleaming gears of Paul Daigneault's polished production only give you eyestrain (while Acito's relentless pop score conjures ear-strain). And just btw, if we have to fight prejudice, can't we do it by watching hot naked guys in the shower, like in Take Me Out?

Sigh. Needless to say, the talented, attractive cast - drawn almost entirely from the ranks of Boston Conservatory - can't be faulted for the material, of course, and they stay perky, even though Daigneault has mercilessly cut the intermission (yes, once on this island, you're stuck there for two hours). It's hard to point to a star turn, because everyone in the cast shines at some point or other, but my favorite glimmers included Jordan Fife Hunt's bodacious hot-panted solo (above left) in "Be A Man," Anich D'Jae's sassy belt in "I Ain't Got Time," and Gillian Goldberg, Bud Weber, and DJ Petrosino's quicker-than-quick-step in "Fast." I hope to see all these performers (as well as their co-stars Jaime Cepero III, Stephanie Umoh, and Andrew Durand) back on stage soon - just as soon as I sleep off this headache . . .

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Read all about it

Campbell Scott makes his confessions in The Atheist.

Augustine Early, the antihero of Ronan Noone's The Atheist - now at the Calderwood Pavilion, featuring Campbell Scott - almost seems like the antithesis of his sainted namesake (despite a shared penchant for confessions) until, that is, you notice that tell-tale surname. "Early" is both an all-too-apt moniker for a journalist (the latter-day Augustine's trade; the earlier Augustine was patron saint of printers) and a sly ref to the saint's hard-partying youth, prior to the penning of his famous Confessions. With one eye on Rosseau, and another on the tabloids, Noone seems in The Atheist to be attempting a cynical update of the Catholic classic - one that this time ends not in salvation but in self-destruction.

And the playwright at least halfway succeeds - or at least I think he does; it was hard to tell from Campbell Scott's faltering performance on opening night. A year or two ago, I saw Scott essay the script in a reading which poured forth with well-chilled intensity, and since then, the play has had a successful run in New York, with an encouraging Times review. So it seemed that Scott's return engagement would be a sure thing - until memory slips in the second act reduced him to reading directly from the text for long stretches, which sabotaged his smooth, subdued strategy.

For unlike his counterpart in New York (Chris Pine), Scott dispenses with impersonating the characters in Augustine's saga, and concentrates instead on his carapace of smug contempt. He may not be from Hippo, but this Augustine is hip from an early age to the fact that there's no God - and that therefore, in a classic freshman-year spin on Dostoevsky, everything is permitted; hence Augie marches on, conscience-free, through the tabloid trenches (rather fantastically rendered here), dispatching fair-weather friend and foe alike with sneering sang froid. Scott essentially dusts off his lauded turn as the vulnerable asshole in the film Roger Dodger, but even if it feels second-hand, his method still cuts cleanly against the outrageousness of the monologue (with its rapists, harnesses, and big-titted innocents), while respecting Noone's finely-tuned rhythms and beats. Justin Waldman's staging likewise neatly frames the portrayal with video cameras and rear-screen projections, which together insinuate this "confession" is merely another variation on Augustine's obsession with exposure and surveillance (even self-surveillance).

Alas, Campbell's performance slowly turned to soup on opening night, but even if it had simmered till the finish (as it no doubt will as the run goes on), how impressive would Noone's work be? It's hard to tell. Certainly the script grows repetitive, as its fratboy nihilism wears thin, and unfortunately, Augustine's second-act encounter with an intriguing, possibly redemptive figure, Mrs. Wallace (why not Mrs. Ambrose?), devolves into reductive anticlimax. Likewise, despite the script's avowed amorality, we can still make out, across the moral vacuum, Father Flanagan wagging his finger at us. So I'm afraid I'm an agnostic on The Atheist; but with higher stakes in Act II, and a stronger performance from his star, Noone could still convert me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

State legislature stiffs Wang

It was hard not to detect a certain sense of satisfaction in Geoff Edgers's latest on the CitiCenter debacle, which opened with the following:

In a move hailed by arts leaders across Massachusetts, the state's new Cultural Facilities Fund yesterday allocated an unprecedented $16.7 million worth of grants for building projects to more than 60 arts and cultural organizations throughout the state. But noticeably absent from the list of recipients was the Citi Performing Arts Center.

This is good news in at least two ways - it's great to hear the legislature is belatedly committing funds to the upkeep of our arts infrastructure. And it's also good to see the funding community has begun to understand the only way to get change at CitiCenter is via its bank account. Let's hope other donors soon follow suit.

Damien Hirst and Steven Spielberg - the convergence!

Damien Hirst (left, with friend) must have been tickled pink to hear that the next Indiana Jones epic will not be titled Indiana Jones and the Prune Juice of Doom, but will instead be called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Crystal Skull beat out Indiana Jones and the City of Gods; Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds; Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth; Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold, and, finally, Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant. Whew - that script must cover a lot of ground.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Allan Rohan Crite passes

"The granddaddy of the Boston arts scene," Allan Rohan Crite, died at his home last Thursday of natural causes. Mr. Crite was 97, and though he was born in New Jersey, from the age of 1 on he spent all his life in Boston and its environs. Always a representational artist, he achieved most of his fame as a painter of the African-American, inner-city experience (School's Out, 1936, above left) but he was once quoted as describing his artistic object as threefold: "one, the story of black people in this city as I saw them; another one, the idea of the spirituals as part of the literature; the third, telling the story of man using the black figure." I personally felt this trinity, as it were, was most potently manifest in his explicitly religious work (always a tough sell in our secular age). Mr. Crite described himself as "a liturgical artist," and his spiritual drawings and prints, with their African angels, prophets, and priests - not to mention the taut purity of their designs (a drawing from his book All Glory, at right) - have a genuine spiritual energy rare in today's Christian art. (A lifelong Episcopalian, Mr. Crite also regularly contributed drawings to church bulletins.) When I interviewed Mr. Crite some years ago in his home in the South End, I was struck both by his languid charm and the strength of his optimistic spiritual conviction; he was confident that someday he would be with the angels, and I'm likewise sure that's where he is now. His funeral will be held this Saturday, Sept. 15, at 11 a.m. in Trinity Church in Copley Square.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"This is not Lear . . ."

. . . it's only Ian McKellen.

Although it hasn't quite opened at BAM, word is already spreading that, despite the pre-show hype, the Ian McKellen King Lear (directed by Trevor Nunn) is something of a bust. I caught one of the last "previews" this weekend (it's already sold out, and the production has already "opened" at the RSC, so please, fellow bloggers, spare me a recap of the whole George Hunka debate), and am here to report that yes, Sir Ian does indeed drop trou during the storm scene; but reason not the need - as one blogger breathlessly reported, "Gandalf is hung!" Despite the extra inches, McKellen isn't every inch a king, however. Instead, he offers a dryly cerebral, actor-tricksy performance in a role that should descend to the core of human vulnerability; true, his choices are often intriguing, and he's always watchable, but you won't feel for McKellen's Lear, or much care if he (or Romola Garai's rather horsy Cordelia) lives or dies.

The evening would still be worthwhile, of course, if Trevor Nunn had assembled a stunning production around McKellen's hollow star turn, but alas, this may be the weirdest, most rambling Lear I've seen. Set in a crumbling, belle-epoque theatre (rather like the one in which we're sitting, the BAM Harvey), the production opens to thunderous organ peals, and Lear in Orthodox-bishop drag, mumbling imprecations to the sky; Nunn then shifts gears to what feels like operetta, playing much of the opening division-of-the-kingdom sequence lightly, even for laughs. Soon thereafter, the Cossacks seem to have invaded, and the Fool (Sylvester McCoy) drops in from the local music hall to play the spoons.

Meanwhile Regan and Goneril, though dressed like Cinderella's stepsisters, shift gears into Noël Coward. Monica Dolan makes Regan a lightweight lush who's always on the bottle (Nunn simply cuts her vicious lines at the blinding of Gloucester, realizing, I suppose, that laughter here would be unthinkable). As Goneril, the redoubtable Frances Barber hits some nicely perverse, exasperated notes, but her murder of her baby sister is wildly misjudged; Barber whips up the poison right onstage, and pours it with a smirk into the alcoholic Regan's cups - as she subsequently tippled, I found myself fighting off the giggles.

Clearly, Nunn is bent on redacting the standard interpretation of this deadly duo - i.e., that their evil blossoms with their power; but he's got nothing compelling to replace it with, and, sans villains worth Lear's salt, the production merely struts and frets its hour upon the stage - actually, make that its three hours and forty minutes upon the stage (it's also the longest Lear I've seen). One might imagine that Nunn's strategy is to stress the role of Edmund (and, by proxy, the play's questioning of the gods and stars in the problem of evil), and luckily he's got a truly great one in the lithely hungry Philip Winchester (who actually snaps his teeth at the audience) - but alas, the character simply doesn't have enough stage time to serve as sole thematic fulcrum, and so the strategy fails.

The production has, of course, its compensations. Nunn remains a brilliant (if somewhat literal-minded) dramatic analyst, and his emphases on overlooked details can sometimes be striking - and so occasionally we're willing to grant his pastiche of operetta, music hall, and drawing-room comedy some license as a symptom of an utterly random (dramatic) universe - but then at other times, such as the heavy-handed hanging of Lear's Fool, we're suddenly aware that Nunn has ordered up more than enough rope to hang himself, too, and our sympathy utterly fails.

Flying long-haul: Jonathan Hyde, Frances Barber, and Monica Dolan in The Seagull.

The director has better luck with Chekhov's The Seagull, which I saw sans McKellen (on days when he's not doing Lear, he plays Sorin - whom I saw capably handled by William Gaunt). Nunn here offers a generally straightforward reading of the play, with only one false move (he stages Kostya's first suicide attempt, much as he stages the hanging of Lear's Fool - perhaps an intended parallel, but since Hamlet is actually The Seagull's Shakespearean twin, this feels more likely a bad-idea double whammy). Frances Barber is once again in fine form as she segues from slimy sibling (Goneril) to monstrous mother (Arkadina), and though Richard Goulding feels miscast as son Kostya, he nevertheless delivers an intelligent, convincing performance. Romola Garai remains more equine than avian as Nina, and seems almost half-crazed early on, but actually turns down the volume for her mad scene, which as a result is quite affecting (if not shattering).

The rest of the ensemble is solid (and sometimes better; Ben Meyles is all but definitive in the supporting role of Medvedenko), although there's one important exception - Nunn has inexplicably cast the sexily-tressed Gerald Kyd as Trigorin, the stick-in-the-mud novelist whom Nina's stuck on. Kyd's no slouch, but he's also hardly incisive, and since he looks as if he should be crooning "Moonshadow" or "Morning Has Broken," the intended irony in Nina's infatuation goes missing. This misstep, combined with indulgent pacing, causes The Seagull, though airborne, to slowly coast downward. Indeed, by the end of its flight, we're more than ready to disembark. Which is a pity, as with maybe twenty minutes knocked off its running time, this production could truly soar.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Since we're already depressed today . . .

Damien Hirst's hilariously bad, diamond-encrusted-skull sculpture (both at left) sold recently for $100 million to collector Lawrence Schroeder. Tom Marquet has the last word in the Big Red & Shiny blog.

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007

Luciano Pavarotti during dress rehearsal for L'Elisir d'Amore, at the Met in 1998. Suzanne Plunkett/The Associated Press

I wish the image above could somehow be bigger, but could any image really be grand enough to contain Pavarotti? The Times obit is a bit bitchy - and offers a pointless comparison with Plácido Domingo - but outlines the career well enough. A fuller record of the life is available at wikipedia.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How low can Boston College go?

"Lavender Mist," a real Jackson Pollock - the kind you won't find in "Pollock Matters."

The Exhibitionist reports that despite an explicit order from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation that the "Pollock Matters" catalogue not include any images of actual Pollocks, the McMullen has gone ahead and included images anyway, citing "fair use" principles. This is rather a creative twist on "fair use" - or at least the McMullen seems to have thought so, as it held up release of the catalogue until the opening of the exhibit (if it had been released earlier, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation no doubt would have gotten a judge to block it).

I have to say this must be a new moral low for a local museum - well, certainly not as far as what goes on behind closed doors, but at least as far as the public record. Good thing there are all those priests over there for curator Ellen Landau to confess to.