Friday, November 30, 2007

Of the sea, song, and sirens

In the old days, BSO programs aspired to some sort of intellectual coherence - most often, to pairings of the "compare and contrast" variety. These days, however, national origin seems to be enough to shape an evening around, as in this weekend's offering of "French music," featuring Berlioz, Duparc, Debussy, and a new commission from Henri Dutilleux, sung by reigning concert soprano Renée Fleming (at left).

The evening opened with an expertly gauged, if utterly conventional, reading of excerpts from the Berlioz "Roméo et Juliette;" though to be fair, James Levine coaxed some real feeling from the suite's "love scene," and the "Queen Mab scherzo" sometimes shivered with eerie, moonlit fantasy. Still, this seemed like an aperitif before the main course: Fleming.

The diva entered looking glorious in a sea-foam stole over a shimmering, fishtail sheath (someone must have told her La Mer was on the program), and she was generally in fine voice - although perhaps the warm opalescence of her pipes isn't precisely right for Dutilleux, whose precision might be better served by crystal than pearl. Fleming also seemed at times to be laying her own patented stamp on the music rather than responding to the Ligeti-esque textures around her. Still, there was reason for her to feel isolated; like many a mid-century composer - which is essentially what the nonagerian Dutilleux still is - the Frenchman hadn't so much supported her voice as built an environment for it to explore, and her soprano did retain a poignant vulnerability as it rose and fell through the exquisite, alienated soundscape the composer had constructed. Of the short vocal suite he supplied, perhaps the strongest was the opening piece, "L'Temps L'Horloge" (roughly "Time and the Clock"), which hauntingly evoked time itself rippling through the cogs and gears of its own measurement (with the woodwinds following suit), rather than slipping silently by us "like a thief in the night." Less compelling, at least on first hearing, was the burnt-offering setting of "Le Dernier Poeme," the famously minimal verse (by Robert Desnos) in which romantic despair meets the doom of the death camps. Dutilleux hit on an odd but intriguing instrumental choice for the piece: what sounded like a beaten-down accordion accompanied Fleming through her desolate admonition to the War's survivors; but perhaps the vocal line was slightly too spare to fully mine the pathos of the poem.

Fleming was more in her element in the ensuing group of songs by Duparc, achieving something like perfect synchronicity with Levine and the orchestra during the gorgeous "L'Invitation au Voyage," and the more muted rapture of "Extase." Even here, however, she sometimes sounded fragile, and her voice brushed at least once against the top of its register, perhaps leading to a rather constrained reading of "Phidylé," which might have brimmed with more passion.

This hardly mattered to her fans, however (several of whom departed the hall with her); they'd drunk at least intermittently from the golden spring of her voice, and left happy. Too bad they missed the best part of the program: Levine unexpectedly summoned up a brilliant performance of La Mer, which of course is putatively a portrait of the ocean over the course of a single day ("I particularly liked the bit at a quarter to eleven," Satie once quipped), but is actually - like so much of Debussy - a long meditation on submerged sensual pleasure. Sublimity of this type is a Levine specialty, of course, and he didn't stint on color, or spray - the performance's real pleasure, however, lay in its expertly contrived, but seemingly carefree, polyrhythms, which underpin whatever "structure" La Mer has. Here Levine caught precisely the play of tiny phrases over the deeper sway of the piece, and skillfully drew the orchestra from the rolling surge of dawn to the orgasmic thrash of a mid-day storm. There were perhaps no new soundings of Debussy's ocean here, but it was still exhilarating to hear the evening end with such a splendid splash.

We can dream, can't we?

The "mug shots" above and below - doctored photos by artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese - are currently on view in an exhibit called "Line Up" at the New York Public Library. Needless to say, FoxNews is very, very upset.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm dreaming of Bobby Orr on a white Christmas, Mamma Mia

Really, today's Globe must have hit some kind of wacky new low. First, on the front page, Geoff Edgers snickers about some silly gay artporn down in New York - ditzy queen Kurt Kauper "drew on his childhood love of hockey" while painting the heads of Bobby Orr and other Bruins on the naked bodies of anonymous guys, and now his fever dreams are on display at the "hip" Deitch Gallery. Sigh. The paintings have, I suppose, a slightly interesting vibe of childish sexual fantasy - still, such pathetically transparent gay shenanigans always make me cringe. I mean, I've got nothing against naked sports stars - I think I own every Dieux du Stade (below) calendar ever made! - but really, shouldn't they at least consent to their own objectification? Somehow that seems only polite. And if these were paintings of women, would the Globe still be giggling? Somehow I don't think so. (As for Kauper's stuff operating as "art" - please; only Geoff Edgers could pretend that! Unless, of course, he's merely dangling red gay meat in front of the Globe's Neanderthal audience in a Herald-like maneuver - the probable explanation, actually.)

Not that the Globe doesn't have some Christmas porn for everyone. In the Living/Arts section, the girls get down with three big fat low-brow shows - White Christmas, Mamma Mia, and A Christmas Carol - and whaddya know, they just love every single one! Between Bobby and Irving Berlin, it looks like everybody can have a white Xmas!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't watch the director's cut!

My last mention of Donnie Darko recalled to me one of my cultural pet peeves - the obviously undeserved cachet of the "Director's Cut." I've seen a lot of these, and it's hard for me to recall a single one that was clearly superior to the studio cut - indeed, most have been quite a bit weaker. Still, the prestige of these projects, situated as they are at the intersection of the "auteur" theory, youth culture, and good old-fashioned marketing, lingers on. But here's what you can expect from a few of them:

Apocalypse Now: Redux - Ack! Far, far less enjoyable than the original, hacked-up studio version. The suits were right - the newly interpolated colonial interlude is pompous, airless, and just plain dumb. I prefer the choppy anarchy of the original (which yes, ends up pompous, airless and just plain dumb anyway).

Donnie Darko - Another case where you should definitely avoid the director's cut, at least until you've seen the original. Director Kelly here spells out the "time travel" hypothesis for Donnie's tribulations in all-too-apparent detail, which perhaps mollified those frustrated by the trimmed-down, impacted theatrical release, but essentially tosses our doubts about Donnie's stability out the window, and hence dilutes the movie's weird, ambiguous vibe.

Alien - The "Director's Cut" includes a scene of Ripley discovering the rest of the (presumed dead) crew cocooned as future alien hosts. Alas, the scene adds nothing to the forward momentum of the picture (which at this point is careening headlong), and the sequence is filmed without Scott's usual visual inspiration. Still, it doesn't actually hurt the movie so much as undercut the impact of James Cameron's sequel.

Speaking of which:

Aliens - The "D.C." includes an opening sequence on the planet surface, in which the colonists happen upon the alien ship, and their first "face-hugger." Again, the scenes are indifferently directed, diminish the later discovery of the abandoned colony, and turn a long movie into an overlong one.

And then there's:

Blade Runner - The one case where there are defensible artistic reasons for the "Director's Cut" - which hints in its last moments that Deckard himself may be a replicant (a recent "Final Cut" apparently makes this point clearer). Other messy bits and overdubs have been cleaned up, it seems - but whether the entire movie is improved by this new information is an open question. (And I actually never minded the original voice-over!)

Of course there are plenty more examples and counter-examples to throw into the debate: Das Boot (the D.C. may be better), Amadeus (the D.C. is not any better), Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Bertolucci's 1900(both D.C.'s are clearer, but longer, and arguably more depressing). But now that we've seen the "Director's Cut" of The Butterfly Effect, Daredevil, and Stargate, I'd say the argument has become largely moot: the "D.C." has become an excuse to revisit a film you liked, for whatever reason, whether or not you expect the new version to be any better. So go ahead - watch it. You know you want to!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Second Life

This fall many Boston theatregoers unexpectedly found themselves at the movies: the Huntington hosted the pre-Broadway run of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, while the ART produced a stage version of cult fave Donnie Darko. Both companies stumbled in the process; Steps merely ridiculed its source, while the ART, by all accounts (no, I didn't bother) mounted an oddly literal physicalization of Darko. But the third time seems to have been the charm: the Lyric successfully makes the jump from screen to stage with a smart, modestly scaled version of It's a Wonderful Life (with local hero Neil A. Casey, above, playing every part) that manages, for the most part, to evoke its source without getting either too meta or too maudlin.

Casey pulls off the trick by serving as his own narrator - in between dipping into one role after another - and in the process largely rehabilitates the Frank Capra classic from its corny reputation. True, the film hinges on a device so sappy it could rot your teeth - a dotty angel-in-waiting saves a human soul to earn his wings - but what's shocking about It's a Wonderful Life is how tough-minded and dark it gets before it starts groping for your heartstrings. Next to, say, Steven Spielberg, Capra is defiantly clear-eyed about life, wonderful or not, and he sends his hero, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, above right) through a graduate course in the School of Hard Knocks before finally finding redemption via that angelus ex machina. Over the course of the movie, children are abused, loved ones die, dreams are crushed, and the hero is repeatedly disappointed or frustrated; still, scene after scene is either buoyant, sexy, or lyrical; life is obviously worth living despite everything. Indeed, it's hard to count how many memorable moments (and hairpin turns in tone) Capra packs into his sprawling canvas: there's the giddy dance over (and into) the swimming pool; the dreamy, moonlit walk home to the tune of "Buffalo Gals" (at left), the tense run on the Bailey Savings and Loan; the "honeymoon" in the abandoned house; and of course, the Dickensian supernatural interlude with its rising hysteria and film noir shadows.

It helps the Lyric, of course, that the set design of Life has become so iconic; designer Jenna McFarland Lord has only to simulate the famous truss from which George nearly leaps, along with the welcome sign from Bedford Falls (both built in glorious black-and-white) to conjure the film's mise en scène. And once the show begins, the dialogue reminds us how closely, and how beneficially, classic films once emulated the theatre. Casablanca is obviously a barely-opened-out melodrama; The Wizard of Oz is deeply indebted to vaudeville; even Citizen Kane's deep-focus essentially squeezes "upstage" and "downstage" onto celluloid (Welles was first and foremost a great stage ham). And like most of these, It's a Wonderful Life is built of long, dialogue-heavy "acts," usually performed within a single set, that don't seem out of place on a stage proper.

Neil Casey does face one daunting challenge in bringing Life back to life: its cast is relentlessly superb. Capra had worked with almost all the movie's actors before, and the one newcomer, Donna Reed, delivered a performance at least as mature as those proferred by the old hands around her. Casey, alas, doesn't even try to do justice to Reed; he does his patented funny, superficial feminine schtick when channeling Capra's actresses (and thus one of the film's great moments, the passionate joint phone call between Stewart and Reed, is here played merely for laughs). He's much subtler, oddly, when chewing the scenery (or at least his wheelchair) as Lionel Barrymore, and even better as Jimmy Stewart; he nails Stewart's stuttering delivery from the start, then settles into an increasingly complex and gripping characterization; by the finale, we realize he's earned that perilous spot on the bridge over Bedford Falls.

It's too bad, however, that adapter Steve Murray has left much of the political edge of the movie on the cutting-room floor, so some of Casey's performance seems to be happening in a vacuum. This even though the economic message of Life - that capitalism must be balanced with humanity - is today more relevant than ever (bank runs are once again in style, and of course our looming subprime crisis dwarfs the mortgage meltdown in the movie). The edits, of course, are probably due to the fact that today the "free market" occupies something of the same cultural space "virginity" once filled for the Victorians. Still, you'd think if people can handle Capra's unapologetic populism on TV, they can handle it onstage - a thought which does raise the question, Why see the stage version of It's a Wonderful Life at all, when sometime before Christmas it will inevitably pop up on cable? Perhaps the answer lies in what's lost in the isolation of home viewing: the sense of community that even moviehouses (where Life was designed to be seen) once offered. And without that, Capra tells us, life is a whole lot less wonderful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Strung out

The St. Lawrence Quartet: Lesley Robertson, Christopher Costanza, Geoff Nuttall, and Scott St. John. (Photo by Anthony Parmelee.)

The recent St. Lawrence Quartet concert at Jordan Hall (sponsored by the good folks at Celebrity Series) proved surprising in more ways than one. Probably the first surprise, to those not in the know, was that the quartet has been playing musical chairs in the last year or two, and only founding members Geoff Nuttall and Lesley Robertson are still with the group. A second surprise, however, was that Nuttall, widely perceived as leading the quartet's musical profile, would be "rotating" to second chair. But the third surprise was that only the second half of the concert focused on the St. Lawrence String Quartet at all. The first half featured soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, accompanied by her husband, Kevin Murphy, in a somewhat uneven program of art song which nevertheless yielded the concert's fourth surprise: a pretty wonderful premiere, Roberto Sierra's "Songs from the Disapora."

Ms. Murphy boasts a richly honeyed soprano which she seems able to tinge with either sun or earth; but her first offering, Ernest Chausson's limpidly doomed "Chanson Perpétuelle," suited neither the warmth of her voice nor the essential optimism of her presence. She was more at home in a set of Schubert lieder, loosening up delightfully for "Sweethearts of All Kinds," and then imbuing "Litany for the Feast of All Souls" with a genuine prayerfulness, although her effects were undermined by her husband's indifferent accompaniment. He, too, came alive, however, when joined by the quartet for Sierra's "Diaspora," a song cycle based on textual and musical fragments from the Sephardic expulsion from Spain (the Sephardic Jews were banished by Fernando and Isabella in 1492). Sierra's 'reconstruction' nearly overflows with haunting ornament, and its melodies all but bleed with melancholic gypsy atmosphere; indeed, "Diaspora" pretty much leaves its obvious competition, Golijov's bloated, pop-ified "Ayre," in the Spanish dust. If the piece doesn't always fully satisfy, however, it's because its lyrics are too fragmentary - the composer might have "reconstructed" them a bit, too.

The concert's mood, of course, then took a hairpin turn as the St. Lawrence took the stage solo for Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 - the one appended by the famously savage and dissonant "Grosse Fugue," here played in full. The fugue, as Ludwig van enthusiasts all know, was far too edgy for audiences of its day; while now, of course, its forward-looking fury has become something of a modernist cliché. As first violin, Scott St. John perhaps lacked Nuttall's personal "hottie" charisma, but he was more than up to the demands of the piece, which he practically attacked (so much so that cellist Christopher Costanza seemed slightly startled by his volatility). Throughout, the quartet's playing was intense but clean, although most marked by depth of color in the short Presto passage. Intriguingly, the St. Lawrence (or at least St. John) seemed to be making the case that the fierce Grosse Fugue is, indeed, separable from the rest of the quartet; they definitely found a mournful equilibrium in its penultimate movement. The crowd was in no mood to quibble over interpretation, of course; they'd come to hear the St. Lawrence Quartet play a string quartet, and were very happy when they finally heard one.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hey, Drood

Michael Mendiola and Erin Tchoukaleff get in the mood for Drood.

I'll do it right up front: The Mystery of Edwin Drood is "a Dickens of a Christmas show!!!" "With more carols than A Christmas Carol," it's "no holiday turkey" even if "Drood looks like a lady!" "Only a Scrooge wouldn't like it!"

Okay, okay. It actually is a good show, even if it hadn't entirely gelled the night I saw it (the last preview, just before press). SpeakEasy has once again outdone itself, production-wise: this time they've erected a complete Victorian music-hall, with swooping red-velvet curtain and flickering chandeliers, within the Roberts Studio, and corralled la crème de la crème of Boston's musical talent to warble showtunes on its stage: Leigh Barrett rubs elbows with Brendan McNab, who bumps up against Kerry Dowling, who almost collides with Will McGarrahan.

What's more, Drood proves quite appropriate to the Christmas season; Dickens and his crew amused each other with ghost stories during long December nights, and the cozy/spooky yin-yang of Christmas Carol echoes through the unfinished Drood (which, appropriately enough, Dickens died before completing - hence a mystery within a mystery, which the audience "solves").

The cast confronts their judges during the "audience participation" segment.

You also have to ponder, however, Rupert Holmes, who single-handedly drew Drood from the page to the stage. Yup. That Rupert Holmes - the "Piña Colada Song" guy. And while yes, Drood is a bit better, musically speaking, than that great late-70s classic, it's not that much better. And Holmes not only wrote the music, but also penned the lyrics and the "book," so . . . you get the idea. Plus, he isn't really interested in drawing out the themes Dickens might have embedded in his answer to The Moonstone - instead, Holmes posits a broad romp for Broadway's bridge & tunnel crowd (indeed, the mystery of Edwin Drood is how it won a Tony). But while Holmes clearly longs to imagine himself the camp equal of say, Charles Ludlam, Drood actually toodles along at an acceptable level without ever cracking either the heights of the sublime or the depths of the ridiculous. It's just a nice show, tied up with a big, overlong bow of "audience participation," for those who still find that kind of thing hilarious (above, the cast proposes, while the crowd disposes).

But hey, it's Christmas (almost), and if you can't really face that bratty Tiny Tim one more time, trust me, Drood won't let you down. Neither will this cast. Michael Mendiola does a nice twist on Roger Rees as the melancholy, menacing John Jasper, while Brendan McNab brings a slightly goofy spin to the exotic, menacing Neville Landless, even as David Krinitt channels Dick van Dyke as the drunken, menacing Nick Cricker. The night belongs, however, to Kerry A. Dowling (as opiatrix "Princess Puffer") and Will McGarrahan (our "Chairman," or emcee, at left), who deliver what may be the best performances of two sterling careers; both understand the ghoulish charm that Drood should exude, and deliver it in spades. Alas, as Drood himself, the great Leigh Barrett hasn't quite found her feet (the kid should be a far chipper British innocent adrift in colonial effluvia), but she's hilarious once she's in disguise, as the mysterious Dick Datchery, whose Basil-Rathbonesque headgear flaps about endearingly in her deadpan musical numbers. In moments such as these, the success of Edwin Drood is no mystery.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Words and Muzak

Those hoping for a reprise (at least in quality) of Robert Scanlan's previous productions of Beckett were no doubt as deeply disappointed as I was in "Beckett at 100," which closes this evening at Harvard's New College Theatre. The sudden slide might have been predictable, however: two of the pieces in question, the radio plays Words and Music and Cascando, rely on the cooperative efforts of - yes - words and music, a synthesis which may be almost impossible to achieve (indeed the last piece, . . . but the clouds . . ., in which the music serves more as soundtrack, was by far the best). For Beckett hasn't devised a dynamic here like that of an opera or a musical: instead he demands a uniquely dramatic role for music, in which it operates not as "support" or as "atmosphere" but as character.

And this requirement is precisely what the distinguished composer Martin Pearlman, who was commissioned to produce an original score, has ignored. Pearlman has composed a kind of "Beckett Suite" for the evening - appealing and sometimes intriguing, if a little light for Beckett accompaniment, and complete with a prelude and interlude (conceits which are just about as un-Beckettian as you can get); but he hasn't gotten it into his head that the music should respond to Beckett's dialogue as an actor might (in Words, the music even has a name - Bob!). This is slightly incredible, because Words and Music is full of stage directions intended for the music - which here pretty much go out the window (Pearlman even winks at the opening command that the orchestra "tune up").

This essentially means one cast member is missing from the plays - only frankly, sometimes I wished that two were missing: Mickey Solis, a recent ART Institute grad, is smart and sexy, but far too superficial a presence to put over Beckett; thus he yammered and stammered through both Words and Cascando, and smoothed back his pretty hair so many times you began to wonder if he hadn't realized he was completely at sea. It may not have helped that he was playing against Beckett aficionado Alvin Epstein, who sent off just the right vibrations from the start (and who produced a memorably appropriate vocal for the character "Croak"), but who seemed to hold himself back, mandarin-like, until the final play (perhaps he took the superficial disinterest of his lines in Cascando as the end-all and be-all of his characterization).

Scanlan himself, I think, was aware of the problems - hence he gave a half-hour lecture prior to the performance, in which he explained the action of each play in detail. Admittedly, the texts were probably over the heads of most of the Harvard undergrads in attendance - still, the low-key pedantry rankled, and turned the evening into something of a theatrical demonstration rather than an actual evening of theatre. Scanlan had an excuse for the talk - the Beckett estate had demanded, as these are radio plays and a television play, that the evening be recorded for broadcast, rather than simply performed (a neat formal quibble of the kind academics love to chew on); still, these explanations could have been handled in ten minutes, not thirty. And while I have little sympathy with Beckett's estate trying, essentially, to keep these works from the stage, I have to point out that Scanlan did play rather fast and loose with the master in other ways: the imagery of . . . but the clouds . . ., for instance, varied in important ways, I felt, from what is described on the page. But then why shouldn't Scanlan have done his own thing? Everybody else was.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sic gloria transit mundi

(photo by Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe Staff)

Boston unexpectedly lost a major star in its musical firmament this week. Craig Smith, the conductor and pianist who founded Emmanuel Music, passed away on Wednesday due to heart and renal failure, both complications of a diabetes diagnosis. Smith built Emmanuel into a beloved mainstay of the local classical music scene, and was at the forefront of many national and international music initiatives. His programming of Bach cantatas became a weekly staple at Emmanuel, where the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson got her start; he was a driving force in the revival of several Handel operas, and collaborated with Peter Sellars on his landmark "updates" of Mozart's Da Ponte operas; and he conducted the world premiere of Mark Morris's "L'Allegro." A memorial service will take place at Emmanuel Church but has yet to be announced.

Streamers is the best show of the year

Race and sex and class feel each other out (and up) in David Rabe's Streamers.

First things first: the Huntington's revival of David Rabe's Streamers is the most powerful theatre event of the year, not as perfect as, say, Sweeney Todd, or this theatre's own Present Laughter, but certainly packing more punch. It isn't often that you hear people gasp in the theatre any more, as they do at Rabe's terrible climax, but it's somehow heartening to hear the sound: it means the theatre audience is still alive (if just barely), and still aware of its own hidden conflicts and fears, and can recognize them when they're being expertly limned. Not that Scott Ellis's carefully crafted production is flawless; indeed, sometimes the evening has the feel of a virtual "update" that doesn't quite take - which raises some interesting issues about topics which, when Rabe was first writing about them, were very live wires indeed. But in the clinch, Ellis and his talented cast come through - and whaddya know, in the end said wires still pack quite a jolt.

Perhaps this is because Rabe's writing often transcends the frame of his era (its original poster, at left) - it's not so much about 'Vietnam' as about callow young men under pressure, a perennial theme. Rabe focuses on four soldiers nervously cooling their heels as they wait to see who'll be shipped out to war. The quartet, in clichéd, well-made-play style, is almost an X-ray of the underside of American society: one young man is effete, Manhattan-bred, and gay; another is a milk-fed Midwestern boy unsure of his sexuality; yet another is a healthy, happy-go-lucky black man who knows you've got to keep your head low to get by - while the final member of the quartet, the match to all this unstable kindling, is a bitterly street-wise African-American whose alienated soul, he assures us, will remain forever unknown.

You can see, of course, that Streamers all but streams with its own sense of "period." And to the Globe's Louise Kennedy, the fact that these characters register as "types" disqualifies the play as drama. But to agree with this, you'd have to ignore (or be unaware of) the response of the house on opening night, ignore the fact that Rabe neither condescends to his characters, nor manipulates them as stereotypes, and finally, ignore the frequent crackle of his dialogue, which sometimes wanders into serious-evening-on-Broadway territory, but more often hums with the fresh energy of his lived experience (Streamers was drawn from his first, unperformed one-act, completed just after his year in Vietnam).

Or you could simply ignore Louise Kennedy - although her assessment does make you wonder. How could she be so tin-eared? It's a hard question to answer, but perhaps her tunnel-vision around women's issues (Rabe is completely masculine in his perspective) combined with a certain post-liberal complacency, seal her off from appreciating this particular playwright. Frankly, it's her loss. It's good to have Rabe back, and it's good to have Streamers back.

Although the production does raise intriguing issues surrounding topical plays; Streamers is clearly grounded in the assumptions of the 60s and 70s, particularly one central premise - that a major character could behave in a queeny fashion, yet still be granted quasi-"straight" status, since homosexuality is unthinkable to his comrades. The Huntington is not wrong, however, in contending that something like these assumptions are still very much with us - society has simply bifurcated since the play's premiere, so the theatre crowd may well imagine the whole world is like Newton Center. It's not. Homosexuality remains a social hot button - people routinely deny that Kevin Spacey and John Travolta are gay, for example, and there are plenty of major public figures in the closet in Boston (and at the Globe, for that matter). Gayness is even a hotter button in the military (it's only less talked about now because we need cannon fodder in Iraq, and gays and straights are equally suited to that purpose). And of course African-American men still often operate on "the down low," (a key turning point in Rabe's plot). Trust me, toss a sensitive kid from Wisconsin in with a Park Avenue bottom and a down-low thug today, and you'll have much the same tinder box Rabe has set up in Streamers (and the same sense of free-fall-without-a-parachute).

Ato Essandoh, J.D. Williams, and Brad Fleischer try to make it through the night in Streamers.

Still, Ellis and his cast haven't, perhaps, addressed some issues as convincingly as they might have. As the preening Ritchie, the skillful Hale Appleman exudes an ironic sense of empowerment that only manifested itself in young gay men recently - he's playing "nineties gay," not "sixties gay." But the rest of the barracks are more firmly in period - particularly Brad Fleischer as the troubled, uncertain Billy - so the cast seems to be communicating to each other across a time warp. Good as Fleischer is, however, the acting laurels probably have to go to J.D. Williams and Ato Essandoh as the straight-arrow Roger and the bat-outta-hell Carlyle. Both establish themselves as major stage presences upon their first entrances, and while one could nitpick about the lack of tension (and betrayal) in their racial camaraderie (Essandoh doesn't quite communicate the poignance of Carlyle's groping for connection, and Williams is perhaps too internally at ease with his white friendships), by the end of the play both are in the running for best-performance-of-the-year honors.

Director Ellis, alas, doesn't always compensate for Rabe's uneven dramaturgy (there's perhaps not enough sense of build in the first act, and the long coda almost cries out for cuts), while Neil Patel's empty, soaring set offers little in the way of claustrophobia - generally a touchstone of this genre - and only a half-hearted sense of agoraphobia (another small, nineties-style misstep). These are, however, quibbles before the overwhelming impression of the powerful second act. It's been a while since the Huntington dared to cut this close to its audience's quick - certainly, as the play ground toward its transgressive climax (a white man performing oral sex on a black), you could feel hackles rising all over the theatre. It's a measure of Rabe's achievement that he hangs onto the humanity of all his characters even in this most charged of situations, and a measure of the Huntington's commitment to both its art and its community that the theatre brings it off so well.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

It's hard to believe that a year has gone by since I began blogging, but The Hub Review's first post, "Welcome to the Hub Review," did indeed go up on November 15, 2006. Here's the post in full:

You've found it - the only site devoted to Boston (high) culture that tries to cover everything that matters (at least to me). Yes, I'm elitist. Yes, I'm gay. If you don't like either of those things, there are plenty of middlebrow-religious-hetero sites around to tickle your fancy. So get outta here and go crazy. Just don't whine that my standards are too high or that I'm a pervert threatening the arts or what have you. 'Cause I don't put up with that you-know-what.

No doubt you recognize the tone. I was welcomed to the blogosphere, poignantly enough, by the late Will Stackman, a pioneering local arts blogger, who wrote:

Welcome to the blogosphere. Tom. Looking forward to good reading.

I replied:

Thanks, Will. I hope I can keep things interesting.

Will, wherever you are, I think I can say I have kept it interesting. Just how interesting can be judged by what I think may have been my ten best posts over the past year. So without further ado - here's the Hub Review's first Top Ten (in no particular order).

1. Return to Sender - I started strong right out of the gate (indeed, this was only my second post), with a rant against the Huntington's smooth production of Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius, and the local critics who raved about it. As it turned out, the critics in New York, where Mauritius was eventually staged, agreed with me. (The post also marks the first appearance in the Comments section of Art Hennessy, fellow blogger and proprietor of The Mirror Up to Nature.)

2. My next bit of prophecy was probably "Back to the Future," my critique of the new ICA building, done at a time when the MSM was all but doing hand-springs over it. Slowly, however, more realistic assessments have surfaced - although at least David Byrne still thinks it's hip (as he ought to, it's designed by and for his generation).

3. My first jab at the "Matter Pollocks" was here, way back in January, 2007. I was sure from the start that they were fakes, and wound up in a long pissing match with a writer at the Arts Fuse who clung to both his delusions about them and his anonymity with equal fervor. By now, however, the case for their authenticity is in ruins. Hub Review 1, Arts Fuse 0.

4. & 5. Those who feel I have it "in" for the ART might re-read my review of Britannicus, their best production since far side of the moon. That analysis I feel is nicely paired with my appreciation of the Huntington's Cherry Orchard.

6. & 7. My ongoing critique of the BSO and James Levine began here, while I gave my highest praise to the Boston Ballet here.

8. & 9. I took a month or two off while playing dramaturge for Zeitgeist Stage's Valhalla, then returned with a post which raised quite a few local eyebrows: an argument that we were now producing too many new plays. Without missing a step, I then turned out a similar analysis of the problems with new musicals.

10. Awwww, are we at #10 already? But I'm only about halfway through the year, and haven't even touched on my catfight with Bill Marx, my takedown of Pauline Kael, the mini-war with Ty Burr, the infamous "Who Not to Give Money To," my thoughts on the ethics of anonymous blogging, and a whole lot more . . . Ah, well; maybe they'll have to wait for the fifth anniversary list!

So - do you think Will would agree it's been interesting? ;-)

Swift Boat Kids for Truth

When do I post political humor? When it's this good, that's when. Whatever you may think of Hillary, you've got to give props to the "Swift Boat Kids for Truth"!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What's Snoo, Pussycat?

Mind control keeps rising from the grave in Vampire.

No one has heard much from avant Brit dramatist Snoo (a.k.a. Andrew) Wilson in a while, at least on this side of the pond - indeed, on these shores, his brand of speculative drama has fallen decidedly out of favor. So leave it to the edgy, idealistic Whistler in the Dark theatre company to resurrect, as it were, his 1973 historical-trash-feminist epic Vampire, now in the New Rep's Black Box through Saturday.

The youthful Whistlers (who mostly hail from Middlebury College) made a small name for themselves with a punchy, go-for-it rendition of Howard Barker's The Possibilities a year or two ago - and clearly they've lost little of their daring, or taste for lacerating British rhetoric. Vampire follows, in haphazard fashion, the femme "bloodline," as it were, of a British family from the late nineteenth century to 1971, but narrative structure, shall we say, isn't really Snoo Wilson's thing. Indeed, he's devoted to driving a stake through all structure, be it patriarchal, familial, social, or dramatic, in an effort to open up the audience to a suggestive network of parallels and buried truths. Alas, these truths - usually of the post-structuralist variety - today seem a bit dated; the central problem with Wilson, however, is simply that he sometimes "makes little sense on the page," as director Meg Taintor admits. Nevertheless, the Whistlers have mounted a clean, thought-through production, in which we always know pretty much "where" and "when" we "are," even though the stage is generally bare, some of the protagonists are protoplasm, and the only props are coffins.

Alas, the Whistlers still can't quite conjure any cumulative power from the piece (this would be a challenge even for a major company): Wilson delivers several striking speeches and scenes, but hasn't supplied enough connective tissue to construct a convincing dramatic arc. Of course, if you believe that structure itself should be resisted, as its power and influence act upon us like "vampires," (who, at least in conceptual form, crawl all over the script), then you should be fine with the fractured timeline and all the dramatic fragments. If, however, you also sense the free-form theatrics could themselves constitute something of an authorial dodge (and perhaps recall that Caryl Churchill does this kind of thing so much better), you'll be less impressed. It's certainly true the Whistlers do well by each playable scene - they imbue the nineteenth-century ghost stories with a suitable frisky spirit, and give a particularly weird, deadpan spin to the 1971 finale in a "biker mortuary." But unlike the hairpin turns of The Possibilities, Wilson's surreal shenanigans (incest in coffins, and necrophilia on the cricket ground) aren't as shocking as they used to be - indeed, they have a certain cozy, undergraduate familiarity - and the Whistlers' presences aren't strong or complex enough to carry us over the gaps between each skit.

Still, the production definitely has its resonant moments, and I hate to discourage the Whistlers when they're really the only local group committed to shaking up (or waking up) the audience, and several of the performances do haunt the mind. Lorna Nogueira is compelling as both a frustrated suffragette and (especially) as the last, truly speculative scene's ambisexual messiah. Beth Pearson likewise does well by her spooky "'twas a dark and stormy night" number, while the gaunt Travis Boswell looks indeed as if he might have stepped out of either a penny-dreadful or Pulp Fiction. And the show includes at least one memorably unsettling coup de théâtre, when a coffin squeaks open and a hand gropes for the audience - yes (you can almost hear Wilson giggling), the dead are still out there, wandering the landscape like succubi, ready to drain us of both blood and will . . .

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Over the brainbow

That's not an abstract expressionist painting up there, but rather an image of neurons in the hippocampus of transgenic mice, which are randomly expressing proteins in different fluorescent colors. Using recombinant genetic techniques, scientists at Harvard have spliced genes from coral and jellyfish into developing mice to produce up to 90 different colors in their neurons. Some surprising neural patterns have already been discovered using the technique, which has been dubbed "Brainbow."

Why can't conservatives write good plays?

An article in the Guardian brings up a question I raised years ago at an ART Forum - why can't conservatives write good plays anymore? The author of the article, Jay Rayner, points out that even though the British government has moved left of center, no playwrights have taken on the new liberal consensus. Indeed:

Last year Nick Hytner, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, mused during a radio interview that he seemed unable to find a 'mischievous right-wing play'.

Of course in America, the problem is a little different; although there's clearly an aggressive, lefty consensus on the theatrical fringe, the mainstream clings to apolitical statements, and our ruling elite is still overwhelmingly conservative (if undergoing an obvious crack-up). Perhaps our society is so polarized that its gatekeepers fear any political edge could send us - well, over the edge. Or perhaps, as some conservatives would have us believe, voices on the right are suppressed by a leftist cultural consensus.

Still, if that were true, you'd think there'd be some conservative play that would have surfaced by now as a cause célèbre - or at least something as edgy as, say, the movie Citizen Ruth (which took plenty of shots at the pro-choice crowd). Instead, as Rayner points out:

What strikes me most, during the discussions I have, is an almost total failure of imagination when it comes to working out what a play from the right might actually look like. We none of us have any problem naming overtly left-wing plays or their playwrights: names like David Edgar, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare fall into conversation with ease. By contrast, even defining an overtly right-wing play, let alone identifying one, is apparently impossible.

Things weren't always this way; there were once plenty of "well-made" plays in evidence from playwrights like Noël Coward (yes, politically he's conservative), J.M. Barrie, and Terence Rattigan, that critiqued yet celebrated the status quo. (Even Shakespeare could fit beneath this umbrella, btw.) And there's certainly enough salient subject matter today to engage a right-wing, or at least free-thinking, dramatist, from the ironies of leftist sympathy with Islam to the contradictions of the diversity police.

So I remain convinced that this counts as a major failure of the right, not the left. After all, one has to wonder at a political "movement" that seems to have no coherent cultural component - indeed, that seems only interested in polemic, and often appears hostile to culture outside the norms of nostalgia. Of course perhaps the problem lies coiled in the very nature of the drama - as noted in the following quote from Sir Peter Hall:

'I don't believe drama is necessarily about conflict, but it is always about confrontation leading to change,' [Hall] says. 'If you write a play saying let nothing change, you could be celebrating the right, but it would make for poor drama.'

Human Choral Response

Music and sex: their parallels are practically a cliché - except in the hands of Jane Ring Frank, whose recent program, "The Big Oh!," for the Boston Secession (at left, Frank at center), once gain displayed her genius for inspired pastiche. Frank's not all that interested in straightforward performances of single works (how dull!); instead, she's a kind of musical magpie, piecing together conceptual montages from sources both familiar and foreign. And with all the splendid pipes in her chorale, she had no trouble making her deeper point: like sex (or so I've heard), music is best when it's a group thang.

But back to the orgasm - at least the musical one; right off the top, Frank got rid of the most overheated candidates for her concert with a hilarious medley that mashed up Carmen, the Grieg Piano Concerto, "Sweet Mystery of Life," and a whole lot more. No, Frank was saying, this isn't a concert of music about orgasms - instead, it's about musical orgasm, that delicious aural climax, which, in the footsteps of Masters & Johnson, she divided into two classes - "masculine," or singular (chart at right), and "feminine," or multiple (sorry, the chart's just too long to post).

With this structural idea as springboard, Frank began bouncing through the Western canon, beginning with a plaintive madrigal from Monteverdi, then jumping to an almost overwhelming choral arrangement of a Verdi aria from Macbeth (with Adriana Repetto reaching piercing top notes), before taking a brief time-out with a piano rendition (by the capable Scott Nicholas) of Wagner's famous ascent up the sexual/harmonic plateau, the "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde. All these represented "masculine," or singular, orgasms, btw - even the splintered hysteria, apparently, of "Litanei," from a Schoenberg string quartet (which here received a committed performance from Mary Sullivan, who's usually cast in sunnier roles).

The second, or "feminine" half of the evening, then presented a series of cyclical structures, from the medieval polyphony of Pérotin (sung exquisitely by the charming Justina Golden and Martin Near), to the interwoven, so-gorgeous-they-nearly-droop vocal lines of the famous duet from Lakmé (here warbled by Kristi Vrooman and Thea Lobo, who do it so well they could make a small career of it). To my mind, however, the most fascinating performance of the evening was a novelty called Bach Again, "decomposed" by Edwin London from one of the German master's choral phrases. Here the Secession singers spread out across the hall (the First Congregational Church in Cambridge), and began vocalizing their parts in long, slow, individualized beats. The phrase soon broke apart - but as the pitches echoed through the vaults above, their overtones began to coalesce into new tones in unearthly timbres; the overwhelming impression was of being inside the phrase - a moment of intense, almost mystical musical depth, and yes, I have to confess, as close to a multiple orgasm as this benighted male may ever get.

The program wrapped with a spirited excerpt from Carmina Burana, and that font of easy tragedy, Agnus Dei, Barber's choral adaptation of Adagio for Strings. I know - obvious (if always welcome) warhorses, both; but no one could carp at the sublime performances of them rendered here. And what's a pastiche without a few familiar touchstones? After the final bow, I realized the concert hadn't had a single dead minute; every selection had been interesting in its own way, and every performance had been memorable - yet another feather in the cap of a chorus that may be Boston's finest, and certainly its most adventurous.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Last Supper in Detail

Now, on the web, you can view DaVinci's hopelessly damaged masterpiece at closer range than you could ever hope to in its climate-controlled grotto in Milan. The digerati think this somehow surpasses the experience of seeing it "live." Perhaps, in this tragic case, they're right. But I'm still far less impressed than they - indeed, this reminds me of a strange gulf between me and so many of my friends: they seem to prefer the gap between themselves and their "mediated" experiences more than the press of actual reality. We need to coin a word for this - "virtualism," perhaps?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The long goodbye

Rarely does art slide from the sublime to the ridiculous as quickly as it did this weekend at Symphony Hall. The challenging program included Berg's Violin Concerto and Mahler's gigantic Ninth Symphony, and featured the "return," as it were, of James Levine, who hadn't led the orchestra since opening night. Both Berg and Mahler are among Levine's favorite composers, so I expected fireworks, at least technically, and at first, indeed, the evening succeeded brilliantly. The Berg soloist, Christian Tetzlaff (at left), proved perfectly suited to the demands of the tremulously sensitive concerto, with an impeccable attack that lightly cut the pathos of the piece and imbued it with a luminous clarity. The concerto is famously the only twelve-tone work to have "crossed over" into the standard repertoire, but this is partly because its "tone row" embraces several major and minor chords, so the piece never devolves into harmonic chaos, but flutters through a restless tonalism. To many, the Concerto is a requiem - for the sudden death of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius's daughter, Manon, to be precise - but it's rather more a poem of neurasthenic romance, as clotted as a chapter from Proust with melancholic quotes and references, which a performer can indicate but never, perhaps, fully illuminate. Still, Tetzlaff more than kept the fever dream afloat - and the orchestra never sounded better, supporting but not occluding the soloist with a lush, yet precise musical pointillism.

The second half of the concert, Mahler's elephantine Ninth (the composer, at left), began even more spectacularly. I may have never heard the BSO play more thrillingly than it did in the first movement (nor have I ever seen Levine so emotionally committed to a performance). It occurred to me that this sprawling symphony is far more operatic than I'd ever imagined, and that Levine had found a kind of turbo-charged vocalise in the life-and-death battle of the first movement's conflicting themes. If the evening had ended there, the concert might have been one for the history books. But alas, the Ninth's ars is famously longa, with a final movement that lingers almost interminably, and as the evening stretched past two and a half hours, the rude beast of the Symphony crowd's philistinism began to stir. Levine didn't help matters by more than indulging Mahler's instructions ("very slow and held back"), gradually ratcheting the orchestra down to the edge of audibility even as the composer wandered down new, and not entirely compelling, thematic byways. Some patrons had already left between the second and third movements, but as the fourth ground on, the bluehairs began to just get up and walk out. There was prominent coughing in the hall, and the college kids in front of me began to fight the giggles (it didn't help that Levine was all but clawing the air). At the final, dy-y-ying coda, the maestro slumped down on his stool as if he, too, had just passed on, and suddenly I thought things might get really ugly; the crowd seemed to be holding back its laughter. In his Globe review, Jeremy Eichler had opined that "At the very end, you couldn't tell exactly where the music stopped and the silence began," but I'm afraid the audience on Friday made that decision post haste: a kind of angry applause started in the balcony, even as the orchestra hesitated to lower its instruments and Levine held his dying-swan pose. Finally, however, he stirred, obviously disgruntled. But by then I was already on my feet and headed out the door.

But where the philistines wrong? Perhaps, this time, no; sometimes composers do themselves no favors in their notes, and more forward motion might have better held the fourth movement together (not to mention the audience's attention). I, too, was glad to get out of there - and was almost amused by the BSO crowd's balls. I've never seen a theatre crowd get that pissed, even though quite a few had a right to. Why are music fans so much more - um - forthright? It's a point worth pondering.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Shinn City

Jennifer Blood and Chris Thorn in Dying City.

In Dying City (through this weekend at the Lyric Stage), playwright Christopher Shinn has big issues on his mind, but limits himself to small dramatic means. He seems to want to treat the Iraq War within the structure of a chamber drama - or something more like a cryptogram - and he's hit on a nifty little device to (almost) get him there: he conjures a pair of identical twins, one gay, one straight, one opposed to the war, the other fighting it, and, unsurprisingly, one alive and one dead. Shinn then allows their two identities - so alike and yet so different - to reflect and refract each other in a series of interactions with the soon-to-be-grieving-widow (and, perforce, the distant sister-in-law). The playwright's carefully-worded minimalism keeps you guessing as to the true nature of the actions and relations you're observing; but alas, as whatever "truths" he has to offer come clear, we feel not the frightening open vistas of, say, Pinter or Beckett, but instead a kind of reductive relativism. Whaddya know - deep inside, the two brothers are really just the same. In fact, they're like - wait for it - twins.

To be fair, if the destination proves unsurprising, the 90-minute journey there is often absorbing, although perhaps more as detective work than artistic experience. Shinn offers little in the way of dramatic frame as he wiggles between time frames, repeatedly sending one twin (Chris Thorn) offstage to return as the other, while wife/sister-in-law Kelly (Jennifer Blood) throws on or drops a sweater. (But why not just do the time tunnel thang in the middle of a scene? Now that would be interesting!) But as the play progresses, we begin to see these gambits for what they are: a distraction from some rather shaky dramatic premises. Shinn seems to want to dodge any explicit politics, while drawing psychological parallels between America's pro- and anti-war factions. His solution to this quandary is to source the brothers' neuroses in the bogeyman of a sadistic Vietnam-vet dad, which only made me grit my teeth at his reliance on cliche. We finally unlock the puzzle box, only to find Rambo inside? Say it ain't so!

But alas, it is. And it doesn't help, really, that Shinn's characters are either tongue-tied or almost too articulate for their own good (even if this does describe quite a few twenty- and thirty-somethings I know). It's not that this trio almost channels the New Yorker when analyzing their own tastes - it's that their lines drop so many lit-bombs (pardon the pun), as when Kelly explains her attraction to autopsy shows like CSI by musing that they signify "the mystery of a death can be solved and therefore symbolically reversed." Uh-huh. Thud. This kind of dialogue is roughly the aural equivalent of the thematic shoe Shinn drops via the set design - about two-thirds of the way through the play, the back wall of Kelly's apartment becomes eerily translucent, revealing - yes, wreckage. As in Iraqi wreckage - or maybe 9/11 wreckage - or, of course - emotional wreckage. Quick, cue "Everybody Hurts." (In New York, the stage actually revolved, just so we could "get" that Shinn was giving us every side of the argument.)

Only somehow I think the folks dodging the bombs in Baghdad might take offense at the implied equivalence of their plight with that of two upscale New Yorkers in an empty loft. (I kept hoping some little kid with no arms might pick his way out of that wreckage to watch "Law and Order" with Kelly, but no luck!) Rest assured, I admire the Lyric for taking on this play (in recent years they've bracketed their "Man of LaMancha" crowd-pleasers with the kind of risky work you'd think you'd see at the Huntington or ART); that's one reason I held this review for so long. (But once a show has closed, can't the "real" reviews begin?) Likewise, I can't fault any writer for tackling the Iraq War, so in a way I applaud Christopher Shinn. But something about his solution seems profoundly wrong - essentially, he's denaturing the conflict of its specifics and then re-configuring it as a kind of enigmatic soap opera.

Or at least that's what the Lyric production does. I'm usually a big fan of director Daniel Gidron, but here he plays things too safe by half; not nearly enough is at stake for Kelly (a rather anemic Jennifer Blood) until well into the play, and while Chris Thorn does quite a good job subtly differentiating both sides of Shinn's gay/straight coin, in the end he doesn't suggest much of the darkness behind either face. But then theatre folk may simply be jumping the gun with the Iraq War; generally it takes time for a culture to digest its own folly - and the Iraq War is a very big folly, far greater than Vietnam. It will take years for its repercussions to work their way through the culture - unless of course, President Bush gets his way, and the war goes on forever, and we never work our way through it.

One more for the cool list . . .

"Flight Patterns" is a series of electronically-generated artworks by Aaron Koblin, derived from FAA flight data. If you have a Mac, you can check out a cleaner version (see image below) of this video in Quicktime, on Koblin's site.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Here's to Alexander Dodge

When people complain about the ART, they often leaven their criticism with a comment like, "But at least their set designs are incredible." This, of course, is sometimes true, if you buy into the central conceit of ART design - that is, that our current milieu is a kind of empty, desolute wasteland (although this rather more accurately sums up the state of the ART's academic mindset than the culture at large). So I try to remind people that the best theatre design this town has seen over the past few years has come from the drawing board of Alexander Dodge, whose latest set, for Brendan (above), neatly encapsulates its Boston locale in a potent metaphor: the gleaming surface of the Hancock Tower, which, mysteriously, reflects not Copley but Kenmore Square, and opens up into the far more quotidian bars and apartments through which the play's eponymous "rake" makes his progress.

Of course Dodge is picking his own pocket a bit here - he pulled much the same trick in his set for The Rivals a few years back (at left), in which the full sweep of the Crescent at Bath opened like an armoire to reveal various antique interiors. Still, you have to admit - it's a pretty good trick, immediately grounding the audience in both period and metaphor. Dodge (who first hooked up with Nicholas Martin when he was a professor, and Dodge a student, at Bennington College) isn't one to leave his characters floating in existential space: he places them in their physical history, and then offers a witty comment on them as well (ponder for a moment the huge portrait hung in the middle of that dramatic self-portrait, Present Laughter). It's no surprise, then, to learn from his website (where there's a lovely gallery of much of his work) that he grew up in Taliesin West, the son of a student of Frank Lloyd Wright - his sets have a solidity, a reality, that few others do; indeed, he often gives you the impression that a large piece of architecture has somehow landed, like Dorothy's Kansas cabin, on the stage in front of you. Of course to some, such a wonderful trick seems obvious, its heightened realism almost banal; ignore these fools - better yet, pity them, and savor your memories of the wonderful transformation of Captain Shotover's home in Heartbreak House, or the ocean liner drifting across the stage in Love's Labour's Lost. Few designers have enriched the Boston theatre scene more than Alexander Dodge - so it's only fitting the town itself should get the Dodge treatment in Brendan.

From my mouth to Drew's ears . . .?

Yes, you - the critic in the back!

Just weeks after my dust-up with Caldwell Titcomb on The Arts Fuse over Harvard's lack of support for theatre, and the arts in general, it turns out that none other than Drew Faust (above) seems to agree with me. How else to parse the news that she is organizing a task force to "examine the place of the arts at Harvard"? You can read the press release here. Maybe Caldwell would like to give her a piece of his mind, too.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Brandeis de-accessions its mind

Above is Childe Hassam's (pronounced "child hass'm," btw) "Sunset at Sea," painted in 1911, and inspired by his experiences on islands off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It's been in the possession of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis since 1958, but as of November 29, it's going up on the auction block at Christie's.

The Rose argues (in today's Globe) that it has jumped through all the appropriate hoops regarding the sale: the proceeds from the sale are earmarked solely for the purchase of art, and Rose Director Michael Rush "received the go-ahead from the Brandeis University administration, Rose trustees, representatives from the family that donated the picture, and the American Association of Museum Directors."

Still, something rankles here. I don't mean to overrate the Hassam, but it's lovely, and one of the Rose's major possessions, and it would be a shame for it to move out of the area, as Hassam was a local painter (born in Dorchester), and the scene is of the New England coast. The Rose argues that the painting doesn't fit with its mission, and has rarely been on display (this only makes one wonder why it wasn't loaned to a local institution that would display it). Of course it's possible a regional buyer, or group of buyers, could come to the rescue at Christie's on November 29 - but one has to wonder, was it impossible to strike some kind of deal prior to the auction?

Is it time to revisit War and Peace?

There's an excellent discussion of the new Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace here on the "Reading Room" blog of the Times. Makes me long to revisit the novel - although I admit a certain tender nostalgia for the Constance Garnett version I grew up with!

Or perhaps I should simply revisit the Russian film version (which represents only a somewhat smaller time investment!). The clip above is from Film 3 of Sergei Bondarchuk's titanic vision of the novel (and that's the director himself as Pierre, wandering through the carnage in a top hat). Filmed with the assistance of the Soviet army - and clearly conceived as both a response to and an evocation of the war against Hitler - the siege of Borodino has been realized at a scale that no other film (at least from the sound era) has achieved. This clip concludes with the famous helicopter tracking shot of the battle.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The roof leaks?? Really??? No way!!

The roofline of the Stata Center.

For some reason the fact that my alma mater is suing Frank Gehry for leaks and alleged design failures in the Stata Center rates front-page treatment in the Globe and elsewhere. I'm not going to debate the wisdom of MIT's action - apparently major work had to be done to the center's auditorium, among other spaces. Still, I'm amused by its naivete - did it really think modern sealants were that good? As for me, I love the Stata Center regardless - yes, I know it's not top-notch Gehry, and I know he's become a formulaic "starchitect," but it's still wonderful, and one of the best buildings in town - you know that by the way it's gotten under the skin of so many of the locals . . . particularly John Silber (who was responsible for so much outstanding architecture at BU!).

Flying High

Emmanuel Ax plays along with nine other virtuosi (Lief Ove Andsnes, Nicolas Angelich, Martha Argerich, Claude Frank, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, James Levine, Mikhail Pletnev and Staffan Scheja) in Rimsky-Korsakov's famous "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Key signature

Emmanuel Ax (at left) is more than a known quantity to most piano enthusiasts; he's something like an old friend, always delivering reliable pleasure, but also perhaps limited by that very familiarity - we almost know him too well. Not that he's technically limited; indeed, his brilliant Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall on Sunday demonstrated (once again) that he can do practically anything at the keyboard. What one faces with Mr. Ax is an issue that affects many a virtuoso (and which it's almost crass to carp at): a settled sensibility whose attempts at re-invention never quite convince.

Ax's signature has always been a kind of intelligent intimacy attended by classic poise and proportion, not to mention a superb command of musical surface - he can draw either a dazzling shimmer or a plush sense of depth from the keyboard seemingly at will. A deeper interpretive profile, however, seems to elude him, as well as that sense of mystery that profound musical architecture can exude.

Thus during his Celebrity Series program Ax was most compelling in his selections from chamber music (Schumann's Papillons) or early, "classical" Beethoven (Piano Sonata No. 2). This rarely-played sonata proved unexpectedly pleasing and mature: the first two movements were intriguingly complex, while Ax brought off the lyricism of the ensuing scherzo and rondo with serene aplomb. Likewise the familiar Papillons was generally a sparkling delight.

With Schumann's Humoreske, however, Ax seemed to meander, and no wonder; the piece is famously free-form, with a "secret theme" buried in the score that is never actually articulated by the pianist. Evoking this quasi-mystical "key" would be a challenge for any performer, and alas, Ax didn't bring it off, although the separate, contrasting movements were often appealing in and of themselves. Perhaps a greater problem haunts the heroic Waldstein sonata, Ax's final selection. Beethoven's warhorse cries out for a personal stamp of some kind, but Ax seemed to settle for variations on his trademark rubato: accelerating through the piece's famous chord-tremors with a speed that verged on the superhuman (and which it seemed even he couldn't quite control), Ax was forced to hit the brakes whenever he wanted to actually phrase the score. It was a thrilling, but ultimately superficial performance - still, the crowd loved it, and in his encore Ax threw them a bouquet in return: a charming, unforced reading of Chopin's Waltz in A minor. Unaffected, direct, and superb, it was a lovely coda, and perhaps the finest performance of the evening.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Crunkin' with the Ludwig van Crew

What follows is an IM dialogue between "music stringer" Bryant Manning and a listener from a predominantly hip-hop station (Radio DePaul) on which Bryant had just broadcast some classical music:

staba868 (4:41:14 PM): yo dawwg
staba868 (4:41:19 PM): what show is this?
RadioDePaul (4:49:55 PM): cyber classical
staba868 (4:54:32 PM): ohh shit
staba868 (4:54:41 PM): like classical rap yo?
staba868 (4:54:49 PM): hip hop?
staba868 (4:56:47 PM): ello/?
staba868 (4:56:48 PM): u ther
RadioDePaul (4:57:06 PM): no, classical music
staba868 (4:57:46 PM): whats that?
RadioDePaul (4:58:27 PM): it is what it is
staba868 (4:58:49 PM): how old r u?
staba868 (4:59:26 PM): i thought only ppl 60 + listen to classical?
staba868 (4:59:46 PM): is this still the depaul college station?
RadioDePaul (5:00:33 PM): yup
staba868 (5:02:09 PM): are u college age or professor age?
RadioDePaul (5:03:38 PM): believe it or not, but there are actually some young people who are curious about this music
staba868 (5:04:23 PM): daamn
staba868 (5:05:15 PM): so its like
staba868 (5:05:19 PM): violins and stuff
staba868 (5:05:20 PM): or jazz?
RadioDePaul (5:05:38 PM): actually, anything notated
staba868 (5:05:52 PM): i dont know what that means
RadioDePaul (5:05:45 PM): that is written down for performers to play
staba868 (5:05:57 PM): r u in the music school?
RadioDePaul (5:06:05 PM): no
RadioDePaul (5:06:24 PM): do you not like the idea of classical music on a college radio station?
staba868 (5:06:34 PM): im just confused yo
RadioDePaul (5:06:56 PM): don't be...just listen and hopefully you'll find something you'll like
staba868 (5:07:03 PM): k
staba868 (5:07:06 PM): can u crunk to it?
RadioDePaul (5:07:24 PM): sure
staba868 (5:08:20 PM): u got any betoven or pavoraty?
RadioDePaul (5:08:50 PM): we just got done playing Beethoven! Piano Sonata in C, op. 3, no.2
staba868 (5:09:41 PM): damn
staba868 (5:09:55 PM): dat be from like 1932?
RadioDePaul (5:10:21 PM): the recording was just from a few years ago
staba868 (5:11:02 PM): hes still alive?
staba868 (5:11:07 PM): ddaamn yo!
RadioDePaul (5:11:58 PM): LvB never dies
staba868 (5:12:30 PM): nuh uh
staba868 (5:12:39 PM): r u in a gang?
staba868 (5:12:50 PM): the LvBs crew
RadioDePaul (5:12:59 PM): nope...haha
RadioDePaul (5:14:51 PM): hey, we gotta get back on the air. nice chatting with you
staba868 (5:14:54 PM): DEPAUL RULEZ
staba868 (5:15:01 PM): latr dawh
staba868 (5:15:02 PM): g

Readers debate whether the conversation was 'set up' or not here. Either way, it's some funny shit.

Orson Welles's "Voodoo" Macbeth

Another famous version of Shakespeare's tragedy - this production of the "Federal Theater Project Negro Unit" looks naive, perhaps almost unintentionally racist, today, but in its day (1936) was considered a breakthrough for African-American performers. It also, perhaps not coincidentally, launched the directing career of Orson Welles.

Sisters are doin' it for themselves

Marya Lowry returns from Duncan's murder in Macbeth.

All the local critics have hailed the Actors' Shakespeare Project's "all-girl" Macbeth (through November 18 at BU's Studio 102), as we've been trained to do now, almost reflexively, when we meet with gender experimentation in the arts. The trouble is, to my mind the production is rather troubled itself, and actually doesn't probe too deeply into the gender issues of Macbeth - just as last season, the ASP's all-male Titus Andronicus didn't get much farther in the gender studies department, either (though it was on the whole a stronger production) - while Boston Theatreworks' highly-praised Midsummer, which switched the genders of Titania and Oberon, likewise got little traction in its sex role mash-up. What's going on here? Same-sex Shakespeare is obviously a trend - only it's not really doing what everyone pretends: that is, examining and subverting gender.

Perhaps this is simply because Shakespeare does that already - indeed, his plays were designed to be performed by one gender in "disguise" - so the professorial overlay of gender "issues" somehow feels redundant. Of course it makes perfect classroom sense that since the female roles are "constructed" in Shakespeare (and in his own day were even played by men), the system can plausibly be reversed, with women "constructing" the men's roles. But alas, without a female Shakespeare in the offing, what this actually means in performance remains murky - indeed, it seems (so far) to simply mean that people try it, and then other people applaud, regardless of the outcome.

Which isn't to say that gender is not a central concern of Macbeth - just that its critique of gender fits uncomfortably with postmodern feminist tropes. Not that Shakespeare doesn't stick it to the men, and masculinity in general (he does, and how; indeed, has any female author produced as deep a critique of women as Shakespeare has of men?) - it's that, as usual, his analysis of the gender dynamic leads in surprising directions.

Shakespeare, for instance, is not much interested in personal sexual empowerment, for men or women - and even less interested in sex as recreation, or lifestyle enhancement. Sex leads to coupledom in Shakespeare, which leads implicitly to domesticity and children. It's a little shocking to realize that there is no positive example of a Don Juan figure in the whole canon - no romanticized rover, no happy heartbreaker, no babe magnet - and that Shakespeare's heroes, though often flawed, always submit to their woman in the end (even Kate and Petruchio basically strike a deal). Indeed, the submission of masculine energy to feminine guidance is probably the central lesson of Shakespeare's comedy.

Needless to say, this balance goes awry in the tragedies - yet feminists often seem incapable of seeing exactly why and how this is true. It's taken as a given, for instance, in most feminist constructions, that the "weird sisters" in Macbeth are women - yet there's more than a hint that they're actually something else (my favorite vision of them is by Alexander Marie-Colin, at left). When Banquo first encounters them, he gasps:

- What are these,
So wither'd and wild in their attire
That look not like inhabitants of the earth
And yet are on't? . . . you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpet
That you are so.

Those beards are often forgotten in production, but they're a telling detail in a play that's obsessed with death and sterility. The "weird sisters" are both male and female, double-gendered - or rather, outside the "natural" order of gender. We should recall this detail as Lady Macbeth, while psychologically preparing to murder Duncan, cries out to the spirit world:

. . . unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!

She is not asking to be masculinized (as other Shakespearean heroines do when faced with their powerlessness); she is asking to be un-sexed, removed from gender entirely - and thus pulled from the cycle of reproductive destiny. This is "empowering," yes, but only in a sterilizing way; as she and Macbeth struggle over their competing versions of "manhood" ("What man dare/I dare," Macbeth tellingly insists), she leaves unrevealed her awareness that her seduction will ultimately "un-man" him (note Ellen Terry crowns herself as Lady Macbeth, in John Singer Sargent's painting, above left).

Thus it's no surprise that the Macbeths, having stepped out of the natural order, can only be stopped by someone else outside said order - as the witches predict, "none of woman born/shall harm Macbeth." Macduff, it turns out, qualifies for the job, as he "was from his mother's womb/untimely ripp'd" - indeed, he's doubly qualified by the end of the play because his children have been killed; he, too, has been 'sterilized'.

Any successful production of Macbeth must make some account of this dynamic - a tough enough challenge with two genders in play, one would think. Still, it's possible that an all-female production could grapple with the issues honestly, rather than becoming punch-drunk with female empowerment - and at first the ASP version, which segues from the weird sisters' cries to Lady Macbeth screaming her way out of a nightmare, seems to have something like the right target in its sights. But director Adrienne Krstansky and her cast quickly lose any sense of thematic momentum. As Macbeth and his lady, Marya Lowry and Paula Plum (at left) have little sexual - or emotional - chemistry, and both seem to be groping for something, anything to play (Plum slides toward Noël Coward, while Lowry slips into a steady glare). Only Jacqui Parker pulls off a plausibly masculine comportment (as Banquo), while in several performances (Duncan and Ross, for example) it's hard to tell what the actresses are going for at all. And while the irregular playing space is handled imaginatively, the production mostly ducks the play's physical demands (its battles, murders, and relentless hand-to-hands).

What's most troubling is the high degree of editing; for some reason the text has been sliced and diced even more than Duncan. It's thus hard to buy the production as a "collaboration," as the ASP claims (since when do actresses "collaborate" away most of their lines?). Macbeth is already the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but here it doesn't so much strut and fret its hour upon the stage as scramble pell-mell: minor characters are cut wholesale, Lady M's mad scene starts without its preamble, and Malcolm's pivotal scene with Macduff is stripped to just its spine. Even some of the famous soliloquies have been thinned out.

There are, it's true, some compensations. Marya Lowry gains her footing once Duncan's foul murder is accomplished (and she's essentially on her own). Her descent down the stairs of Studio 102 while staggering through "Macbeth hath murdered sleep," was suddenly gripping, and she held onto a dark, to-hell-in-a-handbasket hauteur till the end of the play. Plum, too, recovered somewhat in her mad scene, which had an intriguing time-warp subtext. Meanwhile Denise Cormier triumphed over her Madonna-concert costume (complete with power-boobs) in her big scene as Hecate, and fearlessly delivered her prophecies from a spread-eagled position (another moment where, briefly, the production touched down into the play's real concerns). Happily, Bobbie Steinbach made us forget about her weird take on Duncan by getting her laughs as the Porter (which is not so easy to do). And as with Titus, all should hail the design team - particularly Jeff Adelberg's striking lighting design, and David Wilson's evocative sound environment.

Still, in general the production remains a head-scratcher - as does the larger question of same-sex Shakespeare. How, exactly, should we approach these productions - and how should they approach the text? It would seem that in Shakespeare's day, when boys played girls, they attempted a high level of theatrical illusion, perhaps within a stylized framework somewhat like that of kabuki. Today's gender benders, however, make no such endeavor (as it generally seems to be harder for drag kings to pull off the deception than drag queens); the gender gap simply seems to be "the statement" in and of itself. Why this should be theatrically interesting, however (as opposed to politically interesting), remains an open question.

Friday, November 2, 2007

When shall we three meet again?

The Actors' Shakespeare Project all-female Macbeth (now playing through November 18; review coming shortly) put me in mind of other memorable productions. Perhaps the best on film is Roman Polanski's 1971 version - distinguised, yes, by unfortunately flat acting, but also by superb mise en scène. The witches' opening appearance (above) sets the tone for the whole movie.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Our war crimes

All in a day's "enhanced interrogation" at Abu Ghraib.

Halloween's over, but the scary stuff is just beginning. The New York Times today has an intriguing analysis of the Attorney General nominee's tortured statements on torture: he's clearly angling to somehow absolve the Bush administration of its war crimes. But even if we Americans remain "Good Germans," as Frank Rich so aptly put it, the rest of the world probably won't follow suit. Already Donald Rumsfeld has been charged with torture in France. Similar actions against Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez and George Tenet are underway in Germany (of all places - that Jehovah dude, what an ironist!). The possibility exists that eventually, even President Bush will be charged.

Can David Hare's sequel to Stuff Happens - perhaps titled Shit Hits the Fan - be too far behind? And are we ready to play the villain's role in our own Judgment at Nuremberg?