Monday, December 31, 2007

How the Boston Foundation stole Christmas, Part One

The Boston Foundation's view of the arts in a nutshell.

To some of us, it's the best of times for the arts in Boston - I've been here nearly thirty years, and certainly by the standards of that yardstick, we're living in a kind of demi-paradise. In the late 70s and 80s, there simply was no theatre or dance "scene," and serious music and the visual arts were dominated by a handful of dinosaurs that had been founded in the previous century. What's more, the ethos of scarcity was re-inforced by a weird kind of social approval. This was the way things were supposed to be: we had the MFA for the Impressionists, the BSO for Beethoven, and theatre and dance belonged at Harvard or in New York.

All that, thank God, has changed, and there are now dozens of worthy small to mid-size arts organizations in town. There are two functioning opera companies, both a small theatre scene and a fringe theatre scene, an orchestra devoted solely to new music, a robust early music community, and a brand-new museum for contemporary art. But strangely, a kind of nostalgia for the old ways persists among the old guard - how else to explain the recent Boston Foundation report, Vital Signs: Metro Boston's Arts and Cultural Nonprofits, 1999-2004 (at left), which calls (in disguised, guarded terms) for a diminution of artistic activity?

Oh, sorry - I meant they call on arts organizations to "consider exit strategies" - at least those organizations that "lack a clear vision" and "struggle to attract audiences and donors." Never mind that this description might have applied to Boston Ballet, the BSO, and the ART in the late 90s (not to mention the Wang Center today) because the Boston Foundation doesn't have such politically-connected behemoths in its sights. No, the BF would most like to hustle the struggling small organizations out the door, to make more room for the big ones - and to be really blunt, they'd really like to hustle out the struggling white organizations.

Ouch, I know - could the BF actually be racist? Well, not intentionally, I'm sure; but I'm happy to explain (in a bit) how the above position falls right out of the collision between their data and their political stance - even though I doubt they've articulated that clearly even to themselves.

But then there's a lot they haven't articulated to themselves - perhaps the central issue being their MBA-driven mindset. To the Boston Foundation, the art itself seems almost beside the point - instead, they're obsessed with the art "marketplace," a word authors Susan Nelson and Ann McQueen use repeatedly, and which is inherently deceptive. To be blunt, the arts don't operate in a "marketplace." Even though, yes, people buy tickets to the arts, said tickets can't pay all the bills (this is due to the fact that in the modern economy, profit is squeezed out of scale, industrialization, or digital innovation; if only a hundred people could use Google at a time, trust me, they'd be in financial trouble too). Instead, arts organizations depend on philanthropy to survive; donations aren't a "nice-to-have," they're a "have-to-have," and usually in the arts world audiences follow the donors, rather than vice versa.

But with classic MBA tunnel vision, Nelson and McQueen's analysis concentrates on the metrics consultants routinely apply to start-ups: price points, scale, capacity, unrestricted net assets, etc., as if a theatre company or gallery could simply "scale up" its offerings (in one unguarded moment, the report suddenly admits this is impossible), or charge lower price points when these are generally set by rental demands. Indeed, it's clear as you ponder this report that the BF thinks it's operating in the venture capital la-la-land of McKinsey and Bain, where you can toy with capital targets and net present values to your heart's content.

This is all the more apparent when one considers those arts groups the BF considers successes. At first I thought it was weird that they virtually ignored the most transformative arts event of the past few years (the development of the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA) or that they likewise paid no heed to the biggest artistic turnaround the city may have ever seen (the Boston Ballet). But then I appreciated that these stories fit neither the BF's economic nor political mindset: the Boston Ballet is currently operating with a (relatively small) deficit, and the BCA is an example of exactly what the BF most seems to deplore - an investment in facilities for small groups (again, more on this later).

No, the BF is most taken with the Actors' Shakespeare Project, the ICA, Opera Boston, and the Peabody/Essex Museum, as well as the more community-oriented ACT Roxbury and Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. I don't mean to knock any of these organizations or their achievements (any success in the arts is to be celebrated), but I have to differ with the BF's analysis of almost all them. The Peabody/Essex merger, for instance, hardly seems to have been market-driven; indeed, was it even a merger? It seems more like a top-down consolidation by several major moneyed players - and the BF unconsciously admits that most of its own prescriptions were ignored in the process: for example, the combined museum's mission "remained an open question" throughout (despite BF's relentless calls for clear mission statements from others). Modeling the success of the Actors' Shakespeare Project along marketplace guidelines is likewise problematic: the group raised $300,000 in its first season - before it was even in the market - and has tripled that number since then (despite, I'd point out, no parallel "scaling up" of its activities). So the ASP skipped the "small organization" step entirely, and of course also received constant positive publicity from the Boston Globe, its magazine, and other media outlets.

The similar media push behind the ICA (at left) was beyond constant, it was all but relentless; I've never seen such a publicity juggernaut in the past three decades. In a word these groups didn't so much "develop" their audiences as have them handed to them by the media (although of course I realize they worked long and hard to take advantage of said boon). And tellingly, however certain the BF may be that the donor/media consensus is driven by "excellence," other folks aren't so sure: the ICA hasn't really won over local contemporary art experts, and the ASP's productions, though always frisky, remain uneven. As for Opera Boston, I feel they probably fit the BF model best - although even here, they essentially filled a niche (for intellectually serious opera) that many had long known existed.

So do I begrudge the success of these institutions? No, I don't, not at all. I'm glad the ICA expanded, I'm happy to see the ASP succeed, I always try to see Opera Boston, and I adore the PEM. The point is that their success should not be held up as evidence of the wisdom of the Boston Foundation. Most of them, indeed, did not achieve their success through any application of MBA methodology, but rather through the time-honored routes of access, connections, political consensus, and big-money largesse.

For in the end, said largesse, not art, is the Boston Foundation's real concern, and the explosion in smaller arts organizations makes that job so much more complicated than it used to be. That philanthropic crisis, along with why small white arts organizations should go, why we should have fewer theatres, and why we should save the dinosaur, along with other secret beliefs of the power elite, will be considered in Part II of this article.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hard 'Eight'

The cast of The Eight: Anthony Goes, Melissa Baroni, Brett Marks, Eliza Lay, Curt Klump, Greg Maraio, Ed Peed, and Hannah J. Barth.

The walk-out, that most dreaded of theatre events, has struck again. About a half hour into last night's benefit performance of The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a whole row of the audience suddenly rose and solemnly trooped out - just as they did at the ART earlier this year, and for apparently the same reason: foul language. But I almost have to (half-) admit they had a point. Playwright Jeff Goode does miscalculate the raunchiness of the early monologues in Eight, and the problem was compounded by the show's (hilarious and savvy) marketing. A widely circulated, very smartly produced YouTube video seemed to promise an edgy-but-goofy "alternative" Christmas show - spiced by a grittier version of the saccharine-cutting sarcasm of The Santaland Diaries.

Only The Eight is anything but sweet - and alas, Jeff Goode is no David Sedaris. Instead of Crumpet the Elf's snide asides about the underside of Xmas, we instead get an earful about Santa's "chubbie" and Mrs. Claus's nymphomania - not to mention the antics of "the lesbos and the faggot" on Santa's sleigh team. The lines are, indeed, intentionally offensive, and simply aren't all that funny - but Jackie Davis and her cast tried to sell them harder than ever, which only made them fall even flatter.

Of course that didn't justify the walkout. The group reportedly had teenagers with them, but I doubt anything in the show would have been news to them. Perhaps their parents, however, were under-exposed to live theatre and its standards. The show was advertised as for "mature audiences," but they probably imagined this meant it would be "edgy" the way Sex and the City or The Sopranos are edgy - i.e., watered-down, premium-cable, Boston-Globe-style edgy. But live theatre - fringe theatre, in fact - can go a lot farther, folks, and often does. Once the curtain rises, you can easily find yourself face to face with a gay reindeer snickering about Santa buggering Rudolph.

What was most dismaying, however, about the disappearance of those audience members was that they missed out on what turns out to be a pretty powerful play - which, by the way, isn't really a "Christmas play" at all, not even an alternative one (although it did serve quite well as a benefit for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center). And as the drama developed, it became clear that Goode's method had worked against him a bit - he only lets the "facts" about what went down in Santa's workshop dribble out over the course of his eight monologues, so only slowly do we get a sense of the themes backing up his nasty opening salvos. And he does have a real theme - the all-too-familiar struggle between a woman wronged and a male power structure bent on marginalizing her; and perhaps un-coincidentally, as said theme comes clear, Goode's pokes and jokes get funnier. Of course in Santa Claus we have the ultimate white, male, benevolent power-figure, and Goode neatly skewers his conservative defenders, who tend to be jocks, louts, suits, or hacks. But the author has almost as much fun with the supporters of Vixen, the babe-a-licious, uh, vixen who wound up at the wrong end of Santa's pole: chilly Blitzen is a corporate feminazi, Dancer's a ditzy diversity queen who wants to know if she gets the night off if Christmas falls on Hanukkah, and Cupid's a giggly gossip whore with a bad attitude and a potty mouth.

But luckily this talented cast turns these caricatures into characters - if director Davis perhaps doesn't solve the problem of the play's tone at first, she nevertheless draws performances of detail and depth from everyone. Watching The Eight, in fact, was rather like watching the next generation of local actors mature before your eyes. The entire cast was strong, but perhaps first among equals were Melissa Baroni,Curt Klump, Ed Peed, Hannah J. Barth, and particularly Eliza Lay, who nailed bad-girl Vixen's broken-hearted rue. Something tells me few of these folks will be on the "fringe" for long.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Heart of Gold gone missing

It's always a welcome shock when theatre actually enlightens us rather than confirms our assumptions, and I'm happy to report I had just such an epiphany during Judy Gold's 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother (through the weekend at the Calderwood Pavilion). Gold's monologue (developed with playwright Kate Moira Ryan) affectionately stalks its emotional prey - that neurotic, guilt-inducing, undeniably loving phenomenon known as "the Jewish mother" - via a series of interviews, asides, anecdotes about her own fraught relationship with her mom, and flat-out stand-up routines designed around Gold's own place in this storied tradition: an out lesbian with two young boys, Gold is also a practicing Jew - so she, too, is a "Jewish mother."

But that "lesbian Jewish mother" thing wasn't the shock for me - no, that came a little later in the show, when one interviewee, in gentle embarrassment, explained that her own mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, had made a neighbor promise that if things went south for the Jews in America, she would hide away her children. With even more embarrassment, the women then admitted that she, too, had done exactly the same thing - even though she was a full generation, and a hemisphere away, from the jackboots and the camps.

And somehow, in that low-key moment, I understood the long shadow of the Holocaust in a way I never had before. I appreciated in a split second how foolish it was for me to assume any Jewish faith in American democracy or virtue. And I suddenly saw the undertone of fear in "Jewish mothering" in a whole new light.

But alas, there were other enlightenments I pined for that Gold did not deliver. Her routines are witty, and her mimicry is able (though not in the same class as such "verbatim theatre" virtuosi as Culture Clash), but she fails to integrate her amusing insights into the "Jewish mother" with her own emerging identity. We never get much of a sense of what it means to be a "lesbian Jewish mother," or how Gold sees herself within this beloved, belittled tradition - how she successfully worked against it, or how she slowly succumbed to it, or whatever. And as we eventually learn that Gold is now not merely a Jewish mother but also a single mother, the void at the heart of the show becomes impossible to deny. Gold simply doesn't go where her performance inevitably leads her. This is all the more striking because it closely resembles the problem with last year's Huntington production of Well - in which performance artist Lisa Kron essentially left her lesbianism out of the equation of her relationship with her mom. Is there something about the mother-lesbian daughter relationship that's as hard to evoke on the stage as the father-gay son one is? I'm beginning to think so. But until Gold begins to wrestle directly with her own demons, she - and we - will never find the answers to those 25 questions.

I'm in love with Heather MacDonald

It's the invasion of the auteur directors! (Actually, it's a scene from Calixto Bieito's production of Wozzeck.)

Who's Heather MacDonald? The author of "The Abduction of Opera," probably the most cogently argued brief on opera and the theatre I've read in many a moon. Go read it. In full. And discover how MacDonald savages, in an outpouring of closely reasoned argument, the rise of "Regietheater" (German for "director's theatre"), which on the Continent has led to a series of increasingly brutal and stupidly perverse opera productions (usually directed by Calixto Bieito or our own vapid export, Peter Sellars). MacDonald cites an Abduction from the Seraglio which featured fellatio, whipping, and the slicing off of a prostitute's nipples; a Fledermaus in which the cast collectively leaped into a giant pink vagina, a Rigoletto set on the Planet of the Apes, and a Magic Flute with a large penis as the flute.

Sound familiar? We're used by now to the same antics at the ART (indeed, Bieito's Carmen, at left, is a dead ringer for the ART's Don Juan Giovanni, at right) which has its own jones for Continental directors, and relentlessly insists that pop violations make classic texts more "relevant" to contemporary audiences.
As if! I'll leave it to Heather to mince such claims; I've made the arguments myself often enough. But here are a few of her better moments:

On the obvious parasitism of the auteur director: "Without Mozart or Verdi, the Regietheater director is nothing; he cannot even hope for third-rate avant-garde status."

On the endless parade of pop culture clichés (Bieito's A Masked Ball, left): "There is nothing less 'fresh' than the tired rock-video iconography, the consumer detritus of beer cans and burgers, or the anti-imperialist, anti-sexist messages that Regietheater directors graft on to operas to make them 'relevant.'"

On the culturally limiting nature of their intellectual stance: " If we refuse to take such values (of the original works) seriously, not only do we render the plots incomprehensible; we also cut ourselves off from a greater understanding of what human life has been and, by contrast, is now."

And finally, on Stephen Wadsworth, probably the greatest opera director working today, who pretty much represents the antidote to "Regietheater":

"Wadsworth unapologetically embraces one of the most toxic words in the operatic lexicon today: “curating.” The last thing a solipsistic director wants to be accused of is lovingly preserving and transmitting the works of the past. Wadsworth, however, accepts the charge. Those given responsibility for an opera production are akin to those given responsibility for great paintings, he believes. “It is not our job to repaint them. We should only be concerned with: Where to hang it? How to light it? In what context? How do we present it to the public in a way that the public can appreciate what it is, perhaps even contextualize it in terms of that painter’s body of work or some other trend or school or idea? The list of curatorial concerns and responsibilities is long. And I think that a lot of productions that we see simply fail to meet them.”"

We haven't seen Wadsworth in these parts since Xerxes at Boston Lyric and The Game of Love and Chance at the Huntington. Both were masterpieces, and among the high points of my theatre-going life. Does anyone at the ART, or the Huntington, or Opera Boston, or the Lyric, have the guts to invite Wadsworth back for a trifecta?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Good new art

We don't see much good contemporary art in Boston, so I try to post it when I find it. Above is "Sanctuary" by Dutch artist Job Koelewijn; the colorful quilt encasing the service island is made of covers ripped from his own books. At left is "The Balancing Act," done during the artist's residency at PS1. Like much great art, neither piece requires high-falutin' explication.

Who do pop critics always like the worst classical music?

According to Matthew Guerreri in slate, the piece above "still stuns with its uncompromising fervor, its jagged utterances piling up with the lengthy, sustained intensity of a hellfire preacher." Uh-huh.

Okay, you can file this piece under uncalled-for snark, I suppose (as my enemies do most of my reviews!), but the eulogies after the passing of Karlheinz Stockhausen brought a familiar thought to mind: why did so many pop critics and listeners like this particular classical composer so much? After all, his works have practically vanished from the played repertoire; I can't recall hearing a Stockhausen piece for years, and as he became less fashionable after the 60's and 70's, I was happy to give up on the pretense of caring about him, as in purely musical terms, he never struck me as very interesting. Most of the classical world seemed to agree; and of course Stockhausen became weirder as he got older, claiming that he had been possessed by beings from different planets, and then made some notoriously nutty comments about 9/11, which he called "the biggest work of art there has ever been." (He insisted later his remarks had been taken out of context, but really, the context was only somewhat exculpatory.)

Still, Dario Fo made even crazier remarks about 9/11, and that doesn't mean we should ignore his work. Is Stockhausen worth re-assessing? I tried to get into a few of the pieces again after his death, but alas, I still find him dull - but I can see that to those who ponder music conceptually, he will remain a kind of pathfinder (in rather the same way, perhaps, that Hauptmann remains close to the hearts of some theatre critics). Stockhausen was a famous earlier noodler in electronic music ("Kontakte," above), and was the first to use "samples" in his works (in "Hymnen"), all while pushing Cage's ideas about randomness and contingency farther than Cage ever did. Stockhausen began to toy with incorporating the acoustics of the hall (or studio) into his scores; he sometimes used a graphic notation which allowed his music to be read upside down, or right-to-left, or begun on any page the performer chose; works were dedicated to mathematical manipulations of timbre, or pitch, or duration; other scores included embedded maps of the Alps; finally, he settled on a kind of Germanic minimalism called "formula composition," which essentially doomed his last works (the enormous, unfinished opera cycle Licht) to the dustbin of auditory history.

But you can see how all this activity would be catnip to pop theorists: it subjugates actual musical values to a pseudo-Asian, pseudo-democratized, pseudo-quantum-mechanical conceptual superstructure. And it's this superstructure that pop theorists crave; it's what they lean on to give their own music heft. Because let's face it, pop music is simple; simplistic, even. It's not "thick" the way classical music is. It depends on an associative nimbus of revolution, or rebellion, or druggy transcendence or what have you, to give it status. And of course Stockhausen supplied this in spades (admittedly, he did so guilelessly, in fact with hilarious earnestness). His work may be a snooze musically, but conceptually it's a hell of a ride. So pop critics don't listen to the music; they listen to the concept instead. (The same concepts, of course, prop up much rickety contemporary art - hence the strange synergy between the iPod and the gallery.)

I suppose I could do the same thing, but frankly (if you haven't been able to tell by now) I'm happy being an elitist; it's more fun to appreciate great art and simply enjoy pop art; I don't really see what the point is of pretending that pop art is "great," too. And at any rate, if pop critics imagine their intellectual stance makes them "of the people," I've got a whole other post to deflate that delusion - essentially, trying to elevate pop tropes via pompous extra-musical concepts is the most offensive kind of snobbery there is. But shave somebody's head and throw on some skinny glasses, and sooner or later they'll be babbling on about how they were "blown away" by listening to paint dry on video.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Attend the tale of Burton's Todd

From Scissorhands to the razor's edge: Johnny Depp tries out his vocal chops in Sweeney Todd.

The critics have been kind to Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. A.O. Scott, of the Times, crowed that it was "something of a masterpiece." "There is an exhileration in every fiber of the film," Roger Ebert swooned. And to the Globe's Ty Burr, the film's spurting jugulars were "a conceptual masterstroke."

But Burr, alas, somewhat gave the critical game away with his opening gambit:

"To devotees of Broadway musicals: Fear not, your beloved Sweeney Todd has come to the screen relatively intact."

Of course only someone who didn't really understand Sweeney Todd could write that; the savage cardiovascular calisthenics of Burton's "vision" (at left) have little to do with the heart of Todd, which operates most lethally at a blithely grim remove from its business. To truly evoke its wittily tortured soul on screen would require a technique based on the brain, not the gut, as well as a method that could find a match for Sondheim's ravishing mix of Marx, the music hall, and the macabre. It's not that Burton's movie is bad, exactly (in fact, it's probably the best we could expect from today's Hollywood). It's just that the movie seems to operate on a separate, parallel track to its score, a kind of odd "image track" that's synched up with the sound but doesn't really embody, elaborate, or expand upon it. If this is the best we can expect from Hollywood, then I think we should also admit it's hopelessly inadequate to the challenges of a masterpiece of the stage.

But of course we can't do that. Indeed, among most of the film reviews, there's an almost touching sense of trying to join the grown-ups' cultural table - or, even more embarrassingly, trying to drag the movie audience to it, too - all while proffering the most amusingly patronizing praise I've read in a long while. Burr tells his audience directly (just to make sure): "This is a musical." Only it's "a bloody brilliant musical." Okay, point taken. Still, Burr is miles more sophisticated than Peter Travers, who piles on the brain-dead kick-ass clichés: Burton "sets a new gold standard for bringing a stage musical to the screen . . . [Burton] knows that what Sondheim composes is considered holy writ. And yet Burton and screenwriter John Logan . . . have deleted songs, abridged characters and sliced an hour off the show's three-hour running time in the name of keeping the tale fixed on Sweeney's need for vengeance." In other words: never mind the bollocks, here's Sweeney!

Of course not everyone's trying to act like an adult. Over at salon, Stephanie Zacharek informs us that she has "no idea what it takes to carry material like this -- to sing songs whose melodies are like meandering, worm-shaped exoskeletons, deliberately fashioned with lots of twists and turns so more words can be crammed in." Wow, lots of words (maybe even words like 'exoskeleton'!) - what a bummer.

Strangely enough, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the singing needs to be excused. Depp, it turns out, is okay - he sings forcefully and can hit the notes (and his acting carries him the rest of the way); Bonham Carter (left) can hit the notes, too, but with not an ounce of breath to spare. The rest of the cast is not much better. And this, as even most of the film critics agree, is the greatest score since the golden age of West Side Story and My Fair Lady. And yet we're stuck with movie actors who can't sing? Why can't they be fucking dubbed? Has the method-actor mania of the Hollywood machine now reached such an extreme that we can't admit our actors aren't capable of delivering a nearly-operatic score? Somebody page Marni Nixon!

Sigh. So this musical screws its score, to varying degrees - the score which is, of course, the reason for doing it at all. Still, a few numbers come over - "Pretty Women" being the most powerful of them (perhaps because it's simply the theatrical scene shot in fluid close-up). Most, however, don't - some (like the show-stopping "Worst Pies in London") lay a complete egg, while others are merely pale shadows of their theatrical selves ("Not While I'm Around," "A Little Priest"). The movie actually improves only one, the relatively minor "By the Sea," which Burton gives a highly amusing fantasy treatment.

Elsewhere you wonder why, exactly, the director "fell in love with" Sondheim's musical, as he claims; like Ty Burr, he doesn't really get it. He misdirects Bonham Carter completely, transforming Mrs. Lovett into one of his standard-issue, ghoulishly sexy waifs (while Mrs. Lovett is actually a bloodily efficient bourgois wannabe), and he doesn't seem to grasp at all the musical's corruscating social vision. To Burton, the idea that man feeds on man is nowhere near as important as the ick factor of actual human flesh sprouting from a meat grinder; indeed, his film operates as a kind of symbol of the excesses of current cinema, in which sensation is end-all and be-all. To be fair, he stages a few sequences with vigor, elicits an eloquently repellent turn from Timothy Spall, and closes with a haunting tableau. But if you haven't really captured either the score or the ideas of the musical, have you really done your job? Only our film critics could think so.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Of cocks and tits and stiff upper lips

Okay, this has absolutely nothing to do with either the arts or Boston, but when you read it you'll see why I couldn't resist posting it. According to Fortune magazine:

A contributor to the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds complains that he is being censored when a filter in the site's Microsoft software automatically replaces the word "cock" - the common designation for a male bird - with asterisks. "As bird lovers will know," he writes, "a Parus major is a great tit, and while a **** doesn't get past the forum censors, tits do not cause offense."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What do you do when a "great play" sucks?

I admit I have a little list called "Great Plays That Suck," and on it are Goethe's Faust (both parts!), much of Aeschylus, and good chunks of Marlowe (Tamburlaine), Jonson (Volpone), and other well-knowns.

And now, after sitting through Boston University's disastrous production of The Weavers last weekend, I suppose I can add to the list Gerhart Hauptmann's sprawling horrorshow about the starving proles of Silesia and their doomed attempt at revolution.

Like most of the plays listed at top, Hauptmann's drama (the author, at left) is "rarely staged" - and it turns out that's for a reason; simultaneously overwritten (philosophically) and underwritten (dramatically), it's a long slog through a series of bald debates that devolves into a crudely ironic melodrama.

But it's important - and I mean that quite seriously. Faust is important; the Oresteia is important. They just no longer hold the stage.

Of course at one time they did - which casts an interesting light on the problem of intellectual content in the theatre. Were the themes and political import of The Weavers strong enough to disguise - or render irrelevant - its flat emotional impact and ungainly structure? Everyone seems to have thought the play was devastating in its day (1892) - it was banned, and Lenin was a fan, and Hauptmann eventually won a Nobel. And in formal terms, The Weavers is clearly interesting: Hauptmann attempts to do without a hero or heroine, for instance, concentrating on his weavers en masse, and even eschews "plot" per se (we never actually see the end of the weaver's rebellion), instead exploring different facets of their crisis.

The masses flee down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin.

Whether or not all this experimentation actually works is another question. It's hard to pretend, for instance, that Hauptmann has Brecht's cool instinct for heartless climax, and while it's true The Weavers sometimes feels incipiently "cinematic" in the manner of Eisenstein's October or Battleship Potemkin, it utterly lacks the great Russian's gripping sense of rhythm. Instead, it meanders, then meanders some more. Perhaps the play is an intriguing case of a formal construct created before its appropriate medium had appeared. Or perhaps Hauptmann was simply a visionary thinker without all that much theatrical talent - a tricky commodity to define, admittedly, and one that can never be pinned down in a treatise, but which is immediately apparent onstage. (It's telling, I think, that The Weavers is not unusual in the Hauptmann canon - the rest of his work for the stage has vanished from sight, too.) And thus a literary man like Bill Marx, for instance, after suffering through the play, may spend his energy erecting a defense of it on intellectual terms, but he could only convince me to read it again, not see it.

Of course it's still entirely appropriate for BU - and other theater schools - to revive plays like The Weavers. The problem is how to make the production beneficial to its participants, rather than just a checkmark next to a historical box. And it has to be said the BU production failed pretty much utterly on that count.

To be fair, challenges were everywhere for director Elaine Vaan Hogue - her cast, which constantly proclaims itself malnourished, was obviously fresh from the food court, so she opted for stylization rather than naturalism (the play's original mode). Said stylization, however, proved unsatisfactory - Sascha Richter's costumes were cheerily color-coordinated, while Eric Berninghausen's set was streamlined, pseudo-rough-hewn, and beautifully lit. Short on both squalor and starvation, Vaan Hogue tossed in a few theatre-school oddities, like Indonesian music and shadow-puppets, for good measure (perhaps because those are the new toys of lefty academics). The results were both Cambridge-style ditzy and powerfully soporific - I found myself nodding off more than once.

As for the students, I think they all learned how to paint gaunt hollows on their pretty cheeks - a skill I doubt they'll need again. Convincing physicalization, however, was rarely in evidence, and there was little sense of epic-theatre distance in their delivery of the dialectic - sorry, I mean the dialogue. They declaimed their lines naturalistically, while moving through a prettified epic-theatre set, to the strains of East Asian music. Lenin would have had a conniption.

Which brings me to the political point of the production. The Weavers is one of the few depictions of capitalism at its unfettered extreme - its middle managers are literally starving their direct reports. Yet this isn't quite what Americans are experiencing from capitalism today (its current exploitations are far more sophisticated and disguised), so even the play's intellectual case seems naive. In a way, this makes the failure of the production all the more troubling - it somehow discredits its own critique. And we need that critique more than ever. But finding a way to make The Weavers benefit its audience as well as its actors may be the greatest challenge of all.

Boston mourns beloved racist homophobe

Awww, you gotta love him - if you didn't, you'd throw up.

Well, we can finally ring down the curtain on Albert "Dapper" O'Neil, the "crusty" Boston pol whose act depended on an implied war between the poor, freckled Irish family in Southie who only needed a free turkey to make their little Christmas bright, and the unwashed hordes of women, blacks, gays and lesbians with evil designs on said bird. O'Neill's last, wackily finest hour, I suppose, was his crazed opposition to the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the ICA some years back. I still remember the photo the Globe appended to its article on the show's eventual opening - of "Dapper" himself closely inspecting a photo of a half-clothed young boy. At the time, it seemed like a hilariously po-faced nod to the rumors whispered in the gay community about O'Neil's own sexuality (rumors being repeated these days about another major Boston cultural figure). Needless to say, "Dapper" never married - although he "dated" the same woman all his life. Uh-huh. Now before you say it, do I have any proof that "Dapper" was cut from the same cloth as Representative Foley, Senator Craig, and the many conservative queens who've been tripped up in their hypocritical pumps over the last few years? No, I don't - but it seems likely, doesn't it? And why can't we simply discuss its likelihood? And why do beloved, conservative Irish pols always seem to be drunks, or have murderers for brothers, or are rumored to be gay trolls? (I'm asking that as an Irishman myself.) Isn't there some Irish Mitt Romney out there, who's merely a bland control freak who ducks his religion's former racism? Sheesh.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jesus Christ, it's a Messiah face-off!

Handel's Messiah is, of course, the greatest piece of gay church music extant (and one of the greatest pieces of music extant, period). These days, however, it's been drawn into another culture war: scholar Michael Marissen has argued, according to Jeremy Eichler, that it's tinged with the "Christian triumphalism historically directed against Jews," and that "the Hallelujah chorus emerges as a kind of tuneful schadenfreude, cheering the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple."

Oy! Never mind the usage problems in the phrase "emerges as a kind of tuneful schadenfreude" - I mean that's a really big word, okay, from Europe no less, and I'm sure the Globe editors are doing the best they can. But as for Eichler/Marissen's argument - puh-leeze. Baroque opera queen vs. Israel lobby? Could the Messiah be so meshugeh? Hey, within the walls of the rad academy, anything is possible, I suppose, and frankly, the idea of some colloquy pitting queers, Jews, and early music wingnuts against each other makes me wanna shout hallelujah in tuneful schadenfreude!

Luckily, neither the Handel and Haydn Society nor Boston Baroque - who stage rival Messiahs - has been silly enough to have been drawn into this pseudo-imbroglio; but then they've always danced around the fact that Handel was probably light in the loafers, too. No matter. The Messiah is so obviously gay, swinging as it does between "depressed" and "festive" numbers, that Barbara Cook should record it. Messiah's Jesus is a single man (like Handel) persecuted simply for being who he is, and whereas Bach might hammer in painful details about thorns and nails, Handel (and his "librettist" Charles Jennens) dwell on the rejection of Jesus rather than his enhanced interrogation - their libretto is essentially a story of cosmic man-love betrayed and then redeemed.

And above all, Messiah is simply fabulous, with that "simplicity" being part of its mystery. Harmonically, it should be dull - the Hallelujah chorus barely strays from the tonic - but instead it's endlessly moving and compelling, from its opening promise of comfort to its final, softly reverential "Amen." Listening to it again is to realize that tying Messiah to the anti-Semitism of Christianity is a vain quest, because, simply put, Messiah is bigger and better than the religion it celebrates. Particularly today, bent as it is on poisoning the well of our politics, Christianity looks like a travesty of its martyred founder's dream - but Messiah is that dream made real, in which we're actually worth redeeming and can really love Jesus back. Of all the Christmas traditions, it's probably the only one with any real spiritual power.

And perhaps a gap in said power was why I found the Boston Baroque version, which charmed with its lilting, dance-oriented rhythms and consistently spry attack, slightly lacking in the end. To be fair, the group had spurned my request for press tickets, so perhaps I wasn't much in the Christmas (or even Chrismukkah) spirit when I attended - but my heart warmed to Pearlman's thoughtful program notes (which H&H would do well to emulate), and his light touch at first captivated me - particularly his sensitive handling of tempi. Pearlman basically always had his foot on the gas pedal, to either ac- or de-celerate, which often brought to Handel's famous tone-painting a startling dramatic power; for instance, on "And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host," the strings swooped in with such dazzling speed that we could all but feel the beat of seraphic wings (Correggio's version, above left). And Pearlman was lucky in some of his soloists; generally, BB had better women, while H&H had stronger men. Soprano Amanda Pabyan sometimes verged on the shrill, but she sang with clarity and feeling, while Ann McMahon Quintero (who replaced ailing countertenor Alan Dornak) while not always dicting as clearly as she might, still impressed with the poignant color in the depths of her rich alto. Tenor Kerem Kurk, alas, had Pabyan's clean line but little in the way of emotional commitment, while bass-baritone Kevin Deas offered plenty of declamatory power, but again, little expressive subtlety.

Meanwhile, over at H&H, soprano Cyndia Sieden sang with transparency, and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers projected a pleasing authority - but somehow both felt locked in a slightly rhetorical mode. Here it was the men who delivered the passion, with tenor Tom Randle, while a bit preening at times, still putting over grippingly sensitive readings of every line, and bass Christopher Purves making supple jumps across his range.

Where H&H pulled away from BB, however, was in their respective chorales. Pearlman produced a handsomely blended sound from his slightly smaller chorus, but somehow British conductor Harry Christophers (left) worked a thrilling alchemy with the H&H singers. I may have never heard a chorus find such a precise match between eloquence and passion - somehow the line between word and song simply melted away under Christophers's direction. Their acting was likewise exemplary - Pearlman hardly bothered to suggest the edge in Part II of Messiah (where the focus is on the trial of Jesus), but Christopher brought a very convincing sneer to "Let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him," for example. And in the end, this commitment to the oratorio's human story, rather than any surprises in technique or interpretation, won the day.

Of course, truth be told, Pearlman's version, rooted as it is in period scholarship (and widely available on a Grammy-nominated disk) has probably influenced H&H more than H&H has influenced BB. And the crowd justifiably roared its approval of the Boston Baroque soloists, orchestra and singers at the end of that last, rapturous "Amen."

Still, the Christophers version was something special - and capped what has been an amazing year for Handel and Haydn. Their recent Beethoven evening was nothing less than spectacular, and Roger Norrington's version of The Seasons last spring was nearly as memorable. By any rights, the group should be at sea right now - they're still putatively in a search for a new Artistic Director, and have been hopping from one guest conductor to another for the past year or more. But perhaps because many of those guests have been such assured specialists in their respective repertoires, the group has basically moved from one triumph to the next. One can only hope their winning streak continues with the return of Christophers for the Royal Fireworks Music this spring.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

All I want for Christmas is for them to take down that damn New England Conservatory sign

The offending vulgarity is at upper left - it's much worse head-on.

I know it's a small thing - but then life is made of small things, and what better small thing to make a fuss over than a pointless blot on an architectural gem? For reasons known only to the gods - and possibly Ernie Boch - New England Conservatory decided this year to advertise itself on Jordan Hall's glorious interior façade (designed by local architect Edmund Wheelwright, who also did the Longfellow Bridge, the Harvard Lampoon, and the MFA). Vulgar in conception, the sign is likewise crass in execution: big block letters reading "NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY" loom behind the artists at every concert, just in case we happen to forget, as we're transported by the music, just where we are and who we should be donating our dollars to. Of course, the sign might be fun if it were, say, in neon, with a kicking can-can leg, but it's not. And as long as it's up there, trust me, New England Conservatory will never be getting a dime from me!

But how to deep-six the damn thing? The local scuttlebutt is that it's the brainchild of new NEC Prez Tony Woodcock. You could write Tony and let him know how you feel about his brass-plated ad at the NEC President's Office, 290 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115. Those poised to donate might note that their money will only be available on the condition that the hall be returned to its former glorious condition (below). Trust me, from some circle of heaven, Edmund Wheelwright will thank you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

It's Harbison at Emmanuel Music

The local artistic guards keep changing - sometimes for the saddest reasons. Only weeks after the sudden passing of Craig Smith, Emmanuel Music has announced that John Harbison, the noted composer and MIT Professor who has long had a relationship with Emmanuel, will assume the role of Acting Artistic Director. He will collaborate with Michael Beattie, the associate conductor and chorus master. Beattie and Harbison will divide the current season's conducting responsibilities between them (with some as-yet-unannounced guest conductors), and will together implement the 2008-2009 season, which will be presented "as a tribute to Smith and follow the outline of his advance planning."

Emmanuel has also announced that a memorial concert is being planned for Craig Smith to take place in Emmanuel Church on his birthday, January 31.

Mitt Romney vs. Giant Gay Flesh-Eating Rats

I know, you're still waiting for reviews - but really, this is a classic. It's all about the "family-valuest" candidate, Mitt Romney, and his fight against the giant gay flesh-eating rats of Massachusetts . . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Everybody's a critic . . .

. . . but at least some people are funny ones. Perhaps the ultimate product review is the one for "Tuscan Whole Milk" (at left), on 97 pages of comments, many of them brilliantly witty. My favorite of these many missives is probably the opening riff, by "Debunker":

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately dairy-house decree:
Where Alf, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
the sacred cows wandered and fed,
And there were gardens bright with soft young grass,
Where blossomed many a pound of fresh-churned butter;
And casein scents filled the air,
Engorging the nostrils of naughty milk-maids.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian milk-maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Cottage Cheese.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dairy in air,
That sunny dome! those cows of wonder!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Moo! Moooo!
Her flashing eyes, her swinging udder!
Weave a circle round her thrice,
And squeeze the teats with care,
For she on sweet grass hath fed,
And produced the Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon,
128 fl oz, of Paradise.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Huntington finds its next A.D.

The Huntington has announced a decision that will probably have more impact on the local theatre scene than any other event this year. Peter DuBois (at left), currently an Associate Director at the Public Theater in New York, will take over the Artistic Directorship from Nicholas Martin (who's headed to Williamstown) this coming July. Prior to his stint at the Public, where he was known for his involvement with transfers from the Royal Court, Steppenwolf, and the Abbey Theatre, DuBois served as Artistic Director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. According to the Globe, Dubois has said that he hoped "to inventively reimagine the classics, to break ground in musical theater, and to nurture a generation of emerging artists, while at the same time focus on the needs of Boston's institutions and local community." At 37, he will be the youngest Artistic Director in the Huntington's history.

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

The alternative Christmas show - it's not just about The Santaland Diaries anymore! Above is the "trailer" for Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a "hilariously disturbing monologue play (that) shares the real dirt on Santa's perversions, Vixen's allegations, Rudolph's mental health and why Dancer no longer dances." No endorsement here, I haven't seen it - but hey, the trailer's a kick (wait for the Nutcracker spoof), a lot of the actors have done strong work around town, and it's all for a good cause - proceeds benefit the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. So I'd say it's worth checking out. For more info, go to

Sunday, December 9, 2007

We've started blowing whistles

Chris, Joey and Brian get in the mood in this shot by Joel Benjamin.

For those wondering why the blog has been "dark" for the past few days - it's because rehearsals have begun for Blowing Whistles, a new play by Matthew Todd, which I'm directing for Zeitgeist Stage. That's my cast above - Christopher Michael Brophy, Joey C. Pelletier, and Brian Quint (from left to right). As you can see, they're all too sexy for their shirts (but hey, that's marketing).

As a result, I've been out and about much less than usual. I have, however, caught the H&H Messiah and Boston Ballet's Nutcracker, both of which I'm overdue on discussing, as well as the Takács Quartet at Celebrity Series on Sunday. All of them, of course, were worthwhile, but I will try to tease out more specifics in a longer format some time this week (I may try to catch Boston Baroque's Messiah as well, for one of my patented compare-n-contrast efforts).

In the meantime, though, I'm immersed in the text of Matthew Todd's edgy, troubling play, which pretty much rips away, in an almost embarrassing fashion, our various politically-correct pretenses around the "gay lifestyle" and monogamy. Actually, that's not quite right - Blowing Whistles actually rips away any pretenses around the "gay lifestyle" and trust, period. Sometimes I've joked that only gay people should be allowed to see it, as so much dirty gay laundry is on parade in it. Don't get me wrong - Blowing Whistles is hilarious, but its comedy, like so much observant humor, is often sourced in pain. But how could it be otherwise? The play unflinchingly depicts the destruction of a loving relationship by promiscuity, and probes an unspoken issue in gay life right now: how will gay culture accommodate its new civic status, and claims to marriage equality, with its essential foundation: the right to sexual freedom? In other words, how do freedom and commitment co-exist? I hope we can do justice in our production to the playwright's insights, and I'll be popping in and out of the blog with updates on our progress.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Rescue the Constitution!

This is the ad FoxNews would not run. And no wonder - they don't want to rescue the Constitution!

But you should. In fact, you can send President Bush a copy of the Constitution for Christmas by signing up here.

Monday, December 3, 2007


Lisa Viola and Robert Kleinendorst camp it up in Troilus and Cressida.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company has been with us for over fifty years, and Taylor himself has choreographed over 100 dances - a stunning achievement; in terms of its breadth, his only peer may be Balanchine himself. Taylor's oeuvre hasn't been credited with the same depth as the immortal Mr. B's, however - a sad fact seemingly belied by the quality of last Friday's Celebrity Series concert at the Schubert. It was, simply put, the strongest Taylor program the Hub has seen in years, featuring two of his classics, Aureole (1962) and Esplanade (1975), along with a worthy new work, Lines of Loss (2007), and an extended (perhaps too extended) goof, Troilus and Cressida (reduced) (2006). Together, this quartet dazzled in its range and imagination, as Taylor always does, but this time two of the pieces, Aureole and Lines of Loss (intriguingly, the oldest and most recent), delivered the kind of profundity that has sometimes eluded the company in the past.

So we'll start with the lightest (and slightest) of these, Troilus and Cressida, which found Taylor in the high, brassy spirits he's often brought to Boston. Before a gigantic, mock-Paris-Opera backdrop from Santo Loquasto, the company cavorted through a travesty of Shakespeare's tragedy set to Ponchielli's gloriously insipid Dance of the Hours (you know how it goes: "Hello muddah, hello faddah . . .") Lisa Viola and Robert Kleinendorst proved inspired clowns in the leads (Viola seemed hilariously able to make even the most graceful pirouette go splat, while Kleinendorst proved hilariously unable to keep his baggy pants up), and the respective trios of ditzy cherubs and dastardly Greeks likewise knew just how to chew Loquasto's scenery; still, the whole thing didn't amount to much more than what Disney did to Ponchielli years ago in Fantasia.

There was far more meat on the bones of the rest of the program. Esplanade (at left), a thrilling evocation of running, jumping, skipping, and every which way people move on down the road, looked as fresh on Friday as it did at its premiere thirty years ago. The piece is so carelessly reckless, in fact, that the audience kept wincing in fear for the dancers' safety: Taylors sends them literally skidding across the stage in baseball-style slides, or nose-diving over each other's shoulders, or flying into one other's arms. At the same time, the seeming chaos is succinctly organized into subtle patterns (to a Bach concerto), and somehow the dancers, despite their evident physical danger, seemed to almost shine with joy (particularly Viola, who again executed a dazzling bit of backward horseplay).

The same exhuberance marked Aureole, which prefigured the baroque investigations of Mark Morris by some twenty-five years. Working against a score by Handel, Taylor has here designed an exciting, eccentric analogue to classic dance; where ballet technique tends inevitably toward elevation, however, Taylor keeps everything on the down low: swinging their arms wide, the dancers all but skim the floor in a delightful series of vignettes that somehow convey a serene sense of almost abstract happiness.

The finale of Lines of Loss.

And if there was any question that Paul Taylor has lost his mojo, said doubts were laid to rest by Lines of Loss, a harrowing work set to a pastiche of composers (as different as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt) which nevertheless cohered into a kind of ritual of grief. Santo Loquasto's backdrop may have been a bit literal - darkly smudged "lines," or perhaps threads, woven over a pale sky - but, as they say, "it worked," and Taylor's choreography has rarely been more powerfully spare. From the opening moment, in which Lisa Viola coolly flicked a tear from her eye, every "scene," as it were, calmly bade farewell to one of life's joys - youth, friendship and love among them. The piece would be simply depressing if you didn't feel that at age 77 Taylor has earned his Beckett chops, and if the dance itself weren't so unsentimentally virtuosic, and performed with such intensity. Annmaria Mazzini (who had all but glowed in Aureole) here seemed almost possessed with an equally bitter passion as she repeatedly slammed her torso into the floor, while Viola, in a tortured pairing with Michael Trusnovec, likewise limned the inevitable pain in every shared embrace. The suite ends with a kind of blood passage; the dancers, robed in crimson, enter in formation, then fall to bended knee, except Viola, who keeps walking, into - well, whatever comes next. And as she vanished from the stage, I found myself hoping that Paul Taylor will be with us for many years to come.