Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who's on Third? Not Louise Kennedy

Last weekend Globe critic Louise Kennedy offered a rare essay in the Sunday arts pages, on a topic that I daresay she thought was daring: the true artistic stature of Wendy Wasserstein, the Mount Holyoke grad and beloved playwright who produced a long list of comedy-dramas centered on uncommon women and others (to borrow one of her own early titles). Wasserstein, of course, passed away two years ago, at just 55, and just after completing Third (starring Maureen Anderman, at left), currently on the boards of the Huntington (which had a longstanding "relationship" with the author's work). So perhaps it's time (or almost time) for a re-assessment of her output, now that plays centered on smart, engaging, educated women are no longer exciting simply because they're new.

And certainly Wasserstein's oeuvre is open to some obvious criticism. Kennedy's not the first to point out that its focus on a certain milieu (that of the articulate, career-oriented, educated Jewish woman) can easily be seen as a limit, not a strength, and Wasserstein's talent for, and comfort with, light comic dialogue meant her plays usually shrank from any kind of raw conflict. But the first thing that strikes one about Kennedy's critique is that with Third, Wasserstein essentially beat her to it.

For the opening scenes of Third cleanly lay out a précis of, well, What's Wrong With Wendy Wasserstein, or at least the women she writes about. As the curtain rises, Laurie Jameson, a professorial star at some unnamed blend of Smith and Mt. Holyoke, is holding forth on King Lear with a decidedly post-feminist spin - it's actually the tragedy of bad girls Regan and Goneril, Jameson insists, and Cordelia is the play's villain because she submits to her own "girlification." These wittily counterintuitive claims map amusingly to the first scene of Lear, it's true - but we wonder how, exactly, Professor Jameson expects to hang onto them once Regan and Goneril start poking out people's eyes and poisoning each other. And we imagine our factotum in this debate is going to be the eponymous "Third," or rather Woodson Bull III, a young, handsome, heterosexual wrestler who seems to have wandered into her seminar by mistake. Or at least Jameson imagines it must be a mistake - with his WASP-porn-star name and his preppie sports scholarship, she seems to see Third as an avatar for all the bull she and her sisters have taken from the white male establishment since they arrived on campus.

And so far, so good - an over-reaching feminist, a "living dead white male" with a jones for King Lear, and an archly, accurately treated milieu - it seems that Wasserstein is setting us (and herself) up for the kind of Shavian critique rarely seen in the theatre anymore. Throw in a subplot with Jameson's aging, Alzheimer's-ridden father (with whom she's playing the role of Cordelia, of course, not Regan or Goneril), and we likewise hope for a niftily rendered rapprochement between life and its duties and the limits of gender-based theory.

But then Wasserstein doesn't deliver on any of these counts. She's never been long on plot, true, but this time she even comes up short on substance. Third's thesis on Lear, it turns out, though insightful and provocative, fits quite well within Jameson's theories, whatever she may say; yet she's moved to call him up on plagiarism charges, apparently simply as vengeance for being smarter than he looks. We're willing to buy even this clumsy plot hook, of course, if it leads to an excitingly barbed exchange of ideas - but Wasserstein dodges this challenge as well: Third offers his defense of his paper in dumb-show, while Laurie yammers on (via internal monologue) about her hot flashes (which is roughly, we feel, what Rush Limbaugh or his ilk might suggest at this point). The play grinds on, with a slow come-uppance for Jameson, but sans any intellectual content other than the usual exhortations to 'live life to the fullest' and 'see people for what they are.' It's as if Wasserstein set out a road map for expanding the limits of her drama, but then refused to follow it. I suppose you could argue the playwright's overarching point is that the culture wars shrink in significance as one enters the last - yes- third of one's life. Perhaps the play is her mea culpa before the great beyond. (And she includes her own factotum, via a faculty member struggling with cancer, to underline this point.) But couldn't she have done this while giving both sides more compelling ammunition?

Maureen Anderman and Graham Hamilton begin to wrestle in Third.

Still, what's left of Third is often charming, and occasionally even moving. The Huntington has mounted a handsomely crafted, well-acted production (in its last weekend), with Maureen Anderman capturing just about every facet of Jameson's many contradictions, while being backed up skillfully by Robin Pearson Rose as the no-nonsense professor facing her last semester, and Halley Feiffer as Jameson's klutzily sincere daughter (not to mention Jonathan McMurtry as that mercurial Lear stand-in). In the central role of Third, however, Graham Hamilton is equally accomplished, but perhaps slightly miscast - if he had more slick, senior-class-president mojo, we might buy Jameson's reaction to him. As it is, we're too far ahead of the play's curve: we know from the start he's no scion but merely a nice, middle-class boy on the make, and that the entire play, therefore, is a kind of illusion.

But then what to make of Kennedy's critique? Does she, in a sense, get further than Wasserstein herself in her analysis of the playwright's oeuvre? I'm afraid I'd have to argue no. The trouble with Third, in a word, is that Wasserstein could tell she was imprisoned in her identity politics, but had no idea how to transcend them. She can't really imagine a scion with the smarts to competently oppose Jameson's ideas - in fact, she can't even conjure a scion who might hold onto our sympathy (so Third winds up being from the suburbs). Wasserstein may be attempting to stage a debate, but she can't begin to lay out the opposing brief.

And Kennedy makes precisely the same mistake. She seems aware of Wasserstein's structural limits ("for women who talk so much about all the things that women have to do, her characters don't do very much onstage"), but her argument eventually devolves to this position:

"[The plays] do have a lot to say about one kind of woman today: an educated, financially comfortable, liberal, now middle-aged woman who's trying to figure out how to get as much as she possibly can out of life . . . as for the generation of women, now in their 20s and 30s, who are younger than both Wasserstein and me, it's hard to imagine that these plays address their concerns and questions in ways that really speak to them."

In other words, she's not irritated with Wasserstein for being trapped in her identity politics; she instead wants her to write about other identity politics. Wasserstein's fundamental flaw is not her inability to imagine the inner life of Third, but instead the fact that she writes about her own generation of women, not the next.

I have to say I find this somewhat depressing. We in fact do not need a younger version of Wendy Wasserstein (even though I admit I find her appealing). Nor do we need critics who want to see plays about themselves or their children (which seems to be Kennedy's only-partially-obscured demand). What we need are playwrights, and plays, that can frame both sides of the debate, that can actually imagine "the other" (to borrow a certain loaded term from the academy). And somehow I don't see Sarah Ruhl or Suzan-Lori Parks filling that bill. I guess we're all still waiting for Shakespeare's sister to be born.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Blowing the whistle on gay commitment

The New Yorker magazine recently sponsored a contest for an "updated" version of its venerable mascot, Eustace Tilly - and a "gay" version, or maybe "gay leather" version, is at left (the original Eustace is below). The contest has inspired a small dust-up between reigning gay Internet queens Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan, who draw different conclusions from the image - and its subject's notably unenthusiastic consideration of a wedding ring.

For once, however, Sullivan's claws were definitely in, not out. This is all he said on his blog about the cartoon:

Suspended between the past and the future, like the rest of us.

Savage still managed to take this the wrong way, in a big way:

Hmph. Any fool can see what Sullivan means by that crack: Gay Eustace, in his leather vest, cap, arm bands, gloves, and dog collar, looks down his nose at a gold band. Gay Eustace contemplates the wedding ring and the future it represents, a future characterized by family and commitment. The leather gear Gay Eustice wears, of course, represents a past characterized by promiscuity and sexual excess. When Sullivan asserts that Gay Eustace is suspended between the past and the future, between the wedding band and the leather gear, he is arguing that commitment and dog collars are mutually exclusive. To move into the former you must, Sullivan would have us believe, unbuckle the latter.

But fear not, fanciers of canine couture! Savage goes on:

That is not the case. A man, gay or straight, can wear a wedding band and enjoy all it symbolizes—commitment, stability, family—and wear the fetishized skins of dead animals if that appeals to him. In fact, we should encourage him to do so.

If we want to strengthen the institution of marriage—and that is what all in the gay family values movement want (although I’m starting to have my doubts about Mr. Sullivan)—we must fight with every tool at our disposal the pernicious notion that marriage, by definition, must always and everywhere signify the death of sexual experimentation and adventure. A man, gay or straight, can be married and trot about Manhattan in a dog collar, if it pleases him and his spouse. And he should be able to do [so] without the depth or sincerity of his commitment being called into question . . .Sexual dissatisfaction and boredom are frequently cited by divorcing couples as a factor in their decision to split up. If we wish to stem the tide of divorce, Mr. Sullivan, we should not promote the idea that life presents us with an either/or choice between wedding bands and leather outfits in appallingly bad taste. We should make singles and couples, gay and straight, aware that they can have their commitments and their sexual adventures too.

Full disclosure: My boyfriend and I are going to IML this year.

Okay, so Savage isn't exactly a disinterested party in the debate. But then who is? I was struck by this little imbroglio and how it corresponded to the tricky politics of Blowing Whistles, which got at least one pan from a gay critic that read as slightly hysteric self-defense. In the play, the lead character, Jamie, has agreed to a somewhat-open relationship with his partner, Nigel, in which they share threesomes with the agreement that neither is ever to pursue said dalliance further than one night. But over the course of Pride weekend, Jamie faces up to the fact that Nigel can't live up to his half of the bargain: after we see Jamie hang on (just barely) to the agreement in the face of severe temptation, we learn that Nigel has, in fact, been shagging everything that's not nailed down, just as Jamie had feared. And Jamie walks out.

That, of course, is the story of one relationship. But stories like these tend to represent archetypes almost automatically on stage, and the two gay critics who wrote on Blowing Whistles both perceived it, to varying degrees, as a condemnation of gay promiscuity. Which left neither very comfortable.

I wasn't too surprised by these responses. I have to admit, Blowing Whistles is the first "gay play" I've ever read that pondered sexual freedom critically at all, even though such liberty has long been criticized in hetero culture, and gays have often claimed their eventual goal was to be enfranchised in said culture. Some have argued (from both sides of the political fence, as it were) that the "gay agenda" is, or should be, to actually transform the culture of heterosexual commitment. (This sentiment, in more bigoted form, is what often moved beneath the debate on gay marriage.) And indeed, Todd savages the larger, ditzily-libertarian culture that the indulgence of gay sexual license has produced; when he ridicules the "pages and pages of whores" that fill up the back end of gay magazines, he might as well be talking about any number of alternative Boston papers and sites, and the commercial culture they represent, which is hardly supportive of monogamy - not even "open" monogamy. And how is the average critic (many of whom get their paychecks from that culture) going to react to such a statement? My guess is, not too sympathetically.

But some folks from a local chapter of Boston Bears, at least, seemed to feel differently on opening weekend. They watched the show quite quietly - I could feel them bristle at times, as it were - but also with conflicted sympathy. And why shouldn't they? Blowing Whistles is one of the few plays I've read that deal with the issues of my life as I live it; I don't generally have to deal with Hollywood power brokers, or seraphim crashing through my ceiling. But as anyone who's been in a long-term gay relationship knows, fear, recrimination, and betrayal are always very much a possibility, and it's simply silly to pretend otherwise, or avoid open treatment of gay life onstage and retreat into standard martyr-hero-or-sidekick schtick.

As for Dan Savage (and Andrew Sullivan) - I suppose it's possible to construct on a blog a vision of a loving couple that constantly fucks other people - but something tells me that on stage this would never fly; indeed, theatrically, Dan and his partner could never do better than a laugh line on Saturday Night Live and its multiplex offspring. And the idea that one can demand the respect due commitment in society, while reconfiguring that commitment offline (or rather on line) into something else entirely, is, at best, pretty bogus. Respect and promiscuity tend to be odds - or, as Harvey Fierstein put it decades ago, "nobody marries a slut." Except, of course, another slut. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But can't we at least stop pretending, as Nigel puts it in the play, that we can have our cock and eat it, too?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Half the little dog laughed

In case you've missed it, SpeakEasy's current production of The Little Dog Laughed marks its debut in the "big leagues" of Boston theatre - to be specific, the Wimberley Theatre at the BCA, a 350-seat-or-so spanking new wonder, and probably the best place in town to see a show.

And said show is suitably crisp and clever (Little Dog is Douglas Carter Beane's witty exposé of the Hollywood closet) and neatly matched to the "slightly-edgy" desires of its audience. In a nice double whammy, the production also marks the big-league debut of Maureen Keiller (at left), one of the funniest ladies in town, who's been toiling in Boston's small theatre trenches for years, and is riding a wave of local good feeling.

So what's not to like? Well . . . a few things, actually, but I know I'll sound like a cad for bringing them up (for the record, again, my own show is playing just down the street, and has been loudly razzed by most of the folks praising Little Dog, so go ahead and take the following as sour grapes if you like).

But first the good news - Keiller is indeed to die for as the closeted-lesbian-power-agent Diane, whether she's vamping down the red carpet in steel-gray couture or texting a vicious coup de grâce over her cell. She's not as brightly ferocious as Julie White was on Broadway, but is instead sarcastically soignée, threading little veins of loneliness and despair through her poised bitchery, and thereby hanging by her gleaming nails onto a larger share of audience sympathy than you might suppose - indeed, more sympathy than her supposed victims (a closeted Hollywood actor and his hustler crush) ever manage to claim.

This isn't so shocking, given that Keiller's got almost all the best lines - indeed, to be honest, while The Little Dog Laughed is great fun, it's really only half a play - and Keiller's got that half, which is actually a spiel of brilliant, brittle monologues (which many, I admit, may feel make a pretty good evening all on their own). As if to underline this one-half-really-sings/the-other-really-doesn't structure, designer Eric Levenson has bisected his richly minimal set with a stretch of red carpet - and basically, the play's women battle over the plum lines on one side, while the men weakly wrestle with their limp wrists on the other.

For perhaps the real surprise of The Little Dog Laughed is that someone's nipping at Keiller's stilettos - that being Angie Jepson, who did strong work in Theatreworks' Midsummer last season, but has never hinted at the crackling energy she displays here. As Ellen, the down-on-her-luck party girl for whom the party seems about to be over, Jepson nails such Gen-Y bon mots as "I wouldn't recognize one of my emotions in a police line-up," mining them expertly for both their spoiled zing and their undertow of rue. Whenever Jepson's onstage, this show seems to be hers. What's more incredible is that she actually manages to make her role (half-besotted, half-not, with a bisexual rentboy) emotionally credible (which it's at least half-not).

Jonathan Orsini and Angie Jepson party on in The Little Dog Laughed.

Alas, the masculine half of Little Dog Laughed isn't nearly in the same league as these twisted sisters - although to be fair, neither is their material. Beane has whipped up a clever soufflé from several tabloid stories - basically, he combines John Travolta's hustler trouble with tales of Tom Cruise's former manager, and then mixes both with his own fight to get his play As Bees in Honey Drown onto the big screen. The playwright seems to think he's thus conjured a scenario in which we can believe a 'bi-curious' hustler might succumb to romance with a leading man, who then struggles to strike a blow for gay rights in La-La-Land - but actually, Beane dodges both these challenges. True, he's got the sitcom chops to keep his scenes moving, even if they never coalesce, but as the show progresses, and the power players begin their "parlor games for mean people," less and less, oddly enough, seems to be at stake. During the show's final "twist," we only end up admiring Diane's ingenuity as she remorselessly reconfigures a sexual pretzel into a happy heterosexual couple - because after all, did we really give any of these relationships an ice-cube's chance in Hollywood?

But even given the gaps in Beane's script, it has to be said that director Paul Melone has miscast actor Robert Serrell in the central role of Mitchell, the actor who's "like the guy next door, if the guy next door were dashing." Serrell comes off as a bemusedly ironic character actor - certainly intriguing in plenty of other roles, but emitting nary an ounce of "dash," and rarely connecting in a convincing way with Mitchell's inner conflict. Meanwhile, as his boy-toy-cum-love-object (sorry), Jonathan Orsini does a bit better, but sometimes coasts on his sexy inscrutability, and doesn't really scale his performance to the size of the Wimberley. Perhaps what hampers both is that they seem very not-gay throughout, as well as very not-happy about the glimpses of nudity and nestling the script demands. Who'd have thought The Little Dog Laughed would turn out to be about straight guys pretending to be gay? Somewhere, Tom Cruise and John Travolta's agents are laughing along with that little dog.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And now for something completely different . . .

I generally only post political videos exceptional in their wit or execution. This one is a classic (hang on till the first chorus - you'll know what I mean). With apologies to David Bowie.

Compare and contrast: St. Crispin's Day II

And now Branagh's version - he lacks the superbly reedy, almost clarion voice of Olivier, but more than compensates with a direct, man-to-man attack that somehow communicates the grimness of the coming task. See "Deconstructing Harry," below, for a consideration of the current Actors' Shakespeare Project version of the play.

Compare and contrast: St. Crispin's Day

Thanks to the miracle that is Youtube, we can compare, cheek by jowl, the two most famous versions of the "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Henry V. First is Sir Laurence Olivier, in medieval wig and high, slightly femme, King's-English dudgeon, rousing the troops before bright tents and a blue sky. Next comes Ken Branagh, exhorting his men beneath a butch haircut, gray skies and a lot of mud. Discuss among yourselves.

Deconstructing Harry

Leslie Banks opens Olivier's 1944 version of Henry V.

O, for a Muse of fire - to light a fire under the subdued staging of Henry V being offered by the Actors' Shakespeare Project! The production has gotten raves, with critics often pointing out that Shakespeare conjured the "vasty fields of France" in a "wooden O" (nearly) as humble as the Harvard Square basement in which the ASP performs. Yes, only the literal "O" on the floor of said basement has a big fat pillar sprouting right out of it. I know "a crooked figure may attest in little place a million" - but shouldn't I at least be able to see said figure, if not the million?

I worry that obscuring its productions architecturally is becoming something of an ASP hallmark. But truly, only rarely is the play itself obscured, as I'm afraid is the case here. If last season's Macbeth felt somehow pointless, this Henry is all too pointed: it plays for the most part as a calmly rendered lesson plan. And the lesson? In a nutshell: war is hell.

And yes, war is hell - no argument from me, or from Shakespeare, on that score. But, horrible as it is to hear in certain precincts of Cambridge, war is also glorious, and a zillion quilts and vigils can't change that. In fact, the kind of victory conjured by Henry V - particularly in its famous St. Crispin's Day speech - all but defines glory. There's no getting around it: in Henry V, Shakespeare has created the most stirring piece of war propaganda in history.

Yet he simultaneously subjects "war" to one of the most devastating critiques imaginable. This particular act of aggression, Shakespeare is careful to point out, stems from both the scheming of the Church (which is only too happy to distract the King from its own reform) and a direct insult to Henry's masculinity: the Dauphin sends him as a diplomatic "gift" a load of tennis balls (as in "here are some balls, since you haven't got any"). Can any true greatness spring from such a foundation? Alas, Shakespeare tells us, yes it can, even if the deeper moral cost is all but incalculable. Harry's declaration of war coincides with (or perhaps causes) the death of his ex-comrade Falstaff, who, as Harold Bloom would have it, represents all that is most authentically, if ignobly, human about us. And the campaign soon cuts down more of his cronies - in fact, the king even acquiesces to the hanging of his old friend Bardolph. At the same time, Harry becomes all but inhuman in other ways - he begins with banners flying, but is soon threatening innocent townspeople with rape, and eventually slits the throats of defenseless prisoners in a paroxysm of vengeance. And yet he emerges as a hero to those happy few at Agincourt, and even gets the girl, proving he has balls indeed (Molly Schreiber and Seth Powers seal the deal, above).

But shouldn't we be used, by now, to Shakespeare operating as his own contrarian? Isn't, indeed, this part and parcel of his "universality"? To be sure, the contradictions are so thick on the ground in Henry V that the play can give you moral whiplash - rendered all the more piercing because Shakespeare redacts his hero's inner voice. There are no soliloquies for Henry, despite his being placed in the most extreme moral positions, until very late in the play (and even then, half his speech is Henriad boilerplate along the lines of "heavy lies the head, etc."). This is highly unusual for Shakespeare, and lays down quite a challenge for any production, not to mention its lead actor: we must be satisfied for the most part with Henry's public speech, his voice as the State. But does he exist outside that voice, or within it, or at all, anymore? How is he reacting to, or forgiving himself for, the deaths of his friends? How is he registering his own moral descent?

These questions must strike to the heart of any production of Henry V, but the Actors' Shakespeare Project doesn't attempt to answer (or even formulate) them. Normi Noel's production is worth seeing as a thoughtful, well-spoken rendition of the text, but it never takes up the gauntlet Shakespeare has thrown down to his interpreters - indeed, this version plays as a kind of limp feminine "twin" to Laurence Olivier's famously patriotic, superficial film from 1944 (which deleted most of the troubling subplots from the play). Of course Sir Larry was trying to face down Hitler with his version, so he gets a pass on its revisionism; and I suppose Ms. Noel is trying to face down the Bush administration (which trust me, I hate as much as the next girl) - but somehow, that doesn't seem as compelling an excuse for dodging the play's content. Didn't Kenneth Branagh somehow manage the trick of deconstructing Harry after Vietnam (above left)? Surely some similar balance still exists after "shock and awe," but Noel doesn't find it.

As a result, the production is admirable, but never compelling. It doesn't help that only five actors double and triple their way through the required cast of thousands. To their immense credit, they distinguish just about every role, and manage the French (if not the Welsh) accents well, and in one good moment run off as the nobility only to run right back on as the rabble. But all the doubling also renders some juxtapositions obscure; the same actor plays Henry and Bardolph, for example, which makes sense as literary, but not as dramatic, comment, and the doubling of Williams and Pistol muddied a few key exchanges at Agincourt. Other whipsaw changes in scene and mood - from the vasty fields of France to the royal boudoir, for instance - are rendered all the more wobbly by actors who've just tossed off their chain mail. And while sensitively handsome newcomer Seth Powers certainly looks the part of Henry, he charts no arc in a role that demands one; he comes on pensive, as if he's already heard that Falstaff's dead, and stays that way till he's in Princess Katherine's arms (he does take a time-out for a solid rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech). More outward power matched with inner doubt would be more the thing, methinks. There are better performances around him, particularly Ken Cheeseman's creepily decrepit Charles VI, Paula Langton's wry chaperone to Katharine, and Doug Lockwood's reliable comic timing in his roles as Nym and Gower.

But then there's that pillar. I'm half-onboard the ASP's commitment to unusual spaces around town, but really, their Harvard Square digs, at least as configured here, have limits you just can't get around: for long sequences, I was watching Henry's back, as he conversed with someone else who was blocked by the pillar. To hell with the "brightest Heaven of invention" - I'd settle for an unobstructed view!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Thoughts on a professional paradox; or, the only post you'll ever read in which Terry Byrne and Bertrand Russell are both mentioned

To the many people who have emailed to ask why I ended my relationship with Zeitgeist Stage: yes, you guessed right, there's no love lost between me and David Miller. But that's not the main point. The point is that I also realized that any relationship with a theatre company was untenable. Obviously, after recent events, for a local theatre troupe to hire me would be roughly the equivalent of painting a target on its back - and no theatre deserves that.

Before I took the job of directing Blowing Whistles, I was most concerned, naively enough, about how other theatre companies would react to my directing, but they've by and large been quite supportive; it seems people trust me to deal honestly with their productions even when I'm in "competition" with them (whatever that means) - or, perhaps they simply don't want to endanger their relationships with me, as I'm known to give just about everyone a rave when I think they deserve one.

No, it's clear the deal-killer is going to be the other critics, who I think aren't going to be content with simply sending me nasty e-mails anymore (as several of them do). And being able to respond honestly to invalid reviews is something I think the blog has to be free to do - but again, that would only threaten the theatre companies in question, who must remain politely supine before even the most numb-skulled review. For instance, I'd love to ask Terry Byrne, who claims that nothing in Blowing Whistles would shock a "soccer mom," how many soccer moms of her acquaintance sniff cocaine off gay men's cocks. I mean I'm sure she knows some; I'd just love to meet them (and I'd really like to party with them)! But this is impossible without endangering Zeitgeist, so I can't. It's really too bad.

But hey, life's unfair, right? To be a critic and a theatre director is a bit like trying to be Bertrand Russell's barber who only shaves men who don't shave themselves; it's a paradox in which the professional logic of theatre and criticism collapses. The only way to transcend the conundrum is to be entirely self-sufficient, to be a kind of singularity. Maybe some day that will happen. But I won't be directing again until I'm sure my critical enemies can't do my collaborators any harm.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And a message to my critics

Okay, so anyone who has seen Blowing Whistles knows that Terry Byrne's review in the Globe was a vengeful hatchet job. (There's a far better review from Brian Jewell in Bay Windows now, if you want a more balanced assessment of the production.)

And I want to say that I understand how Terry Byrne feels. After all, I've been pointing out her deficiencies as a reviewer for months; what she did was only human nature. And her willful inaccuracy didn't violate the pseudo-ethics of her profession: after all, reviewing is entirely subjective, isn't it? (It's not, of course, not really; but never mind.)

But in another way, her actions were clearly misguided. Think about it for a minute: the obvious inference from her review is that she was trying to injure me. But how injured could I ever be by the insults of someone I don't respect? Not very. Byrne's project is pretty hopeless in that regard; she can keep throwing punches, but they're never going to land.

But of course she did injure someone - David Miller, the guy financing the production. She swung for me, but hit Miller instead, in the wallet (and I can't imagine she doesn't know that much of Zeitgeist's work is financed by Miller). And I also don't think many of us would have to write the Ethicist to understand what's wrong with that action. If you want to hit Peter, you don't punch Paul.

Now I'm not a colleague of Miller's anymore, so my advice to Terry - and the other critics I've critiqued over the past year or so - is truly offered with only their own best interests in mind. You want to hurt me, right? So save up your arrows for when my own money is on the line. It may happen one day, and then - go crazy! You'll have hit pay dirt that time, and you can all cackle at the Norton Awards over it. But till then - use your heads, will you? And if you can't do that, ask someone else to figure it out for you.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A quick word about me and Zeitgeist Stage

I think I should mention that as of Sunday I have permanently severed all ties with Zeitgeist Stage Company, so nothing I say on this blog should be construed as representing their views or opinions. I am still promoting Blowing Whistles purely out of a sense of responsibility to the actors I've worked with the past few weeks, but it would be a serious mistake to blame Zeitgeist in any way for any comments or analysis on this blog.

It's "pay what you can" at Blowing Whistles

Yes, I know, Terry Byrne trashed us in the Globe. But then I've been ridiculing her all year, and she was nice enough to spare my actors and pour her scorn on me alone, which is perfectly okay. So now, as the Globe itself might say, it's up to you. Who's right, Tom or Terry? Tonight's the perfect night to find out, as it's pay-what-you-can (with a minimum of $10, I think). BCA Black Box at 8 PM.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blowing Whistles opens!

Today's the day! Blowing Whistles officially opens this afternoon, against, of course, the Pats game. But surely our audience won't overlap with the Pats audience! (We hope.) At any rate, a number of critics wound up coming during previews - even the first preview - so in a way today is anti-climactic. But it's nice to have the official unveiling. I'm happy to report our talented cast - Joey Pelletier, Christopher Michael Brophy, and Brian Quint (l-r in photo)- are mining both the comic and tragic sides of the play with equal aplomb; indeed, some folks in the audience, after chuckling over gay folly in Act I, have left with tears in their eyes after the heart-rending second act. Which is pretty much the idea; what's most exciting is that straight people have seemed as moved as gay people, which speaks to the play's ultimate universality. Of course none of this would have happened without the contributions of everyone behind the scenes who make plays happen: Zeitgeist Artistic Director David Miller, who produced as well as designed the all-too-accurate set; Deirdre Benson, our omnipotent stage manager; Chris Fournier, our lighting designer (and fastest cue-builder in the world), Jenn Martinez, our up-to-the-minute costume designer, and Walter Eduardo, who built the best gay techno mix the BCA may have ever heard. To all of them, my thanks. Now on with the show. Blowing Whistles plays through February 9 at the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the BCA. You can order tickets (as many as you'd like!) here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What the ICA might have been . . .

People sometimes tell me I'm too harsh on the new ICA building,
by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. They think the harbor views and the "Mediatheque" are cool, and didn't it just win an award from the
Boston Society of Architects? Yes, but when you see a truly great museum, like the new Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (in Kansas City) from Steven Holl (whose only local work is Simmons Hall at MIT), you realize everything the ICA is not.

Gurnet doesn't waste its Youth

Chelsea Cipolla and Jonathan Popp in This is Our Youth.

This weekend was "load in" for Blowing Whistles, and as I've thrown my back out (yes, I know, making me even more crotchety than usual), I found myself able to take some time off and check out a few other shows around town.

The first of these was Gurnet Theatre Project's This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's take on spoiled, and despoiled, teens on Manhattan in the Reagan era. Gurnet's Dog Sees God got raves last year (alas, I missed it), and it's likewise clear from Youth that they are a company to watch: director Brian C. Fahey is a sensitive craftsman, and the three actors in his cast are all welcome additions to the local scene.

Lonergan's play is essentially a meandering look at two young men - the late-teens Warren and his drug-pusher idol, Dennis - who clumsily burn through (or snort) a cache of money stolen from Warren's dad (who of course doesn't love him). The script is perhaps a bit too movie-derivative for its own good; in his tale of stupid white kids drifting toward danger, Lonergan recycles at least one too many tropes from Quentin Tarantino: the casual drug use, the ditzy/slutty chick, the sexual ambiguity, even the obligatory briefcase stuffed with cash, they're all there (prior to being recycled AGAIN by people like Stephen Adly Guirgis). Well, at least give Lonergan props for being the first on the scene (Youth dates from 1996), and for delivering several arias of adolescent anomie that still ring true.

These long exchanges have earned for the play a certain cult status - movie stars who want quick stage cred often star in it - and the Gurnet cast is mostly up to the challenges surmounted by Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Casey Affleck, etc., etc., even if they don't quite conjure the play's 80's atmosphere (or its setting, the Jewish enclaves on the Upper West Side; in these actors' mouths, ironically anti-Semitic lines like "I am Jewlius Caesar!" go slightly wrong). Jonathan Popp brings a credible edge, and a rangy sex appeal, to the motormouthed, self-dramatizing Dennis, while Steven Rossignol provides well-crafted, thought-through support as Warren - although he doesn't have quite enough excitable, geeky vulnerability to carry the show once he's the focus. The real news of the production, however, is Chelsea Cipolla as the flakily argumentative Jessica. Cipolla pretty much takes the stage on her entrance and never lets go, in a performance that's not only an early candidate for best of the year, but should earn her shots at roles on larger stages. We eagerly await more from Ms. Cipolla - and from the Gurnet Theatre Project.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Theatre reaches the Marines . . .

From the New York Times:

Oo-rah! A Squad of Actors Takes Lanford Wilson to the Marines

Money quote from the article (the performance was basically monologues by playwrights like ex-Marine John Patrick Shanley by or about "manly types"):

Laughter came slowly at first. A row of marines squirmed, appearing to debate whether to leave. But they did not. Nobody did. People began laughing loudly. When it was over, after less than an hour, some even complained that it was too short.

Cpl. Richard Moulder, 21, who was dragged to the performance by his wife, said he was baffled at any suggestion that marines would not take to a show like that. “I mean these are the kinds of people marines are,” he said of the characters that were portrayed. “About everybody who is in the Marines is in it because they have a broken home or because they’re out to prove something.”

Can an Iraqi tour of Streamers be next?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Meanwhile, back in the cineplex . . .

Ok, Blowing Whistles is moving into the homestretch, which means everything is no fun right now and I'm exhausted, so I'm not going to try to blog about anything I have to actually think about; no theatre, art, music or dance - which leaves movies! My friend Art Hennessey posted a link to a discussion of film (including the Globe's Wesley Morris) over at that font of Ivy-League-sophomore contrarianism,, so I thought I would check it out.

Well, what I found only confirms what I've long felt - that film reviewing has totally succumbed to hyper-articulate infantility. Reading this stuff, I swear, is like watching toddlers play with their poop - only the poop is a kind of rarefied contemplation of the self disguised as criticism. Here are just a few samples:

Ringleader (and slate critic) Dana Stevens:

"Thanks so much for making this discussion sparkle and snap . . . I still find [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly] astonishing, visually daring, and devoid of sentimentality—and I say that as a viewer with a lifelong animus toward the humanist gimp-porn genre . . . [Bug] was one of those movies that's too small and too odd to make anyone's 10-best list but one that quite literally bored its way into the viewer's brain . . . I wish us all a year of buglike immersion at the movies."

Meanwhile critic Nathan Lee seems to be on some kind of critical, if not actually crystal, meth:

"In addition to that fab-nasty horror trio out of Toronto and the entire IFC First Take slate to come, I'm as pumped as anyone for the Blair Witch Godzilla Project hinted at in the trailers for Cloverfield. I'm currently writing a rave review of the beautiful and beguiling Opera Jawa. There's a stunner in the pipeline from underrated actor-director Jacques Nolot. Strand Releasing will open Before I Forget, his bold, acerbic look at the ties that bind several generations of gay hustlers and their johns, sometime this year . . Make your brain bigger right now by ordering a copy of Physical Evidence, his recently published collection of criticism, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, obviously; Season 5 of The Wire, of course; I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 2: Make Up To Break Up. Everything opening at Film Forum, especially Chop Shop, a knockout New York story from the wildly talented Ramin Bahrani . . ."

In another corner of the room, as it were, Wesley Morris is getting in touch with cinema in a different way:

"Southland Tales . . . struck me as a wildly imaginative, intermittently brilliant journey up its creator's own ass. (Not unlike—and here I'm really going to get in trouble—David Lynch's freaky, seductive, infuriating self-released odyssey Inland Empire. Lynch just happens to have a more compelling ass.) . . . I'm Not There is all conceit . . . The movie has experimental balls, but I couldn't get the zipper down to really feel them the way other people seemed to be able to."

Ooo, tee hee, naughty, naughty . . . but the conversation is actually at its most hilarious when Scott Foundas gets on his soapbox:

"Famously, the great American film critic Manny Farber found the role of "evaluation" in film reviewing—good/bad, up/down, four stars/no stars—practically worthless, and there's one particular adage of his that I've quoted so many times I should probably just have it tattooed on my forehead:

The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that.

Now, I know from reading the comments in the Fray here, and those that regularly get sent to our letters box at the L.A. Weekly, that there are a lot of moviegoers who would beg to differ with Mr. Farber's immortal words. They may think a film review should be a kind of consumer guide: Is this movie suitable for my children? Will it make me laugh/cry/feel warm and fuzzy inside? Or they may simply want to read a review that affirms their own opinion of a particular movie, that says they're "right" for having felt the way they felt about it."

Really - is Foundas possibly trying to assert that the giggling vapidity we've been reading is somehow superior to a consumer guide? He's got to be kidding. Gentle readers, if I ever begin to write as badly as the blithering, post-adolescent eunuchs at slate, please - just shoot me.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

And the envelope goes to . . .

Just because only a handful of people can win the acting honors at the IRNE and Norton Awards, I thought I'd set down a list of the performances I enjoyed the most in 2007.

But first a few specialty awards:

Most Versatile:

Brendan McNab - for intense turns in See What I Wanna See and Parade, then light ones in Side by Side by Sondheim and The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Most Reliable (3-way tie):

Will Lebow - The Cherry Orchard, Huntington Theatre/A Marvelous Party, A.R.T.

Will McGarrahan - Souvenir, Lyric Stage/Mystery of Edwin Drood, SpeakEasy Stage

Marianna Bassham - Love's Labour's Lost, Actors' Shakespeare Project, A Streetcar Named Desire, New Rep

Best Ensemble/Greatest Cowards (as in Noël) - (another 3-way) -

Victor Garber, Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Sarah Hudnut, Nancy E. Carroll, Pamela J. Gray, Richard Snee - Present Laughter, Huntington Theatre

Thomas Derrah, Will Lebow, Karen MacDonald, Remo Airaldi - A Marvelous Party, A.R.T.

Gabriel Kuttner, Diego Arciniegas, Susanne Nitter, Design for Living, Publick Theater

Really Good Ensembles That Weren't in a Coward Show -

Elizabeth Hayes, Angie Jepson, Risher Reddick, Shelley Bolman - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Boston Theatreworks

Maureen Adduci, Michael Steven Costello, Bill Bruce, Peter Brown, Melissa Baroni, Terrance Haddad, Emma Goodman, Amanda Good Hennessey, Ashley Kelly, Jordan Harrison, Jonathan Orsini, Michael O'Halloran, Gregory Maraio, Brett Marks, Curt Klump, Jacob Rosenbaum, Matthew Scott Robertson, Brian Quint, Mia Van de Water, Cheryl D. Singleton, Marlon Smith-Jones, Christine Power, Jeffrey B. Phillips (entire cast) - The Kentucky Cycle, Zeitgeist Stage

And, finally -

Individual Contributors

Jeremiah Kissel, Dick Latessa, Sarah Hudnut - The Cherry Orchard, Huntington Theatre

Merritt Janson - Britannicus, A.R.T.

June Baboian - See What I Wanna See, Lyric Stage

Cherry Jones, Chris McGarry - Doubt, National Tour

Debra Wise, Tuck Milligan - Orson's Shadow, New Rep

Kelly McAndrew - Brendan, Huntington Theatre

Jon Ferreira, Rick Park - Valhalla, Zeitgeist Stage

Greg Maraio, Daniel Berger-Jones - Mr. Marmalade, Company One

Kate Baldwin - The Three Musketeers, North Shore Music Theatre

Ato Essandoh, J.D. Williams - Streamers, Huntington Theatre

Kathy St. George - And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The year's best in theatre

Wait a minute! We haven't said good-bye to 2007 yet!

These are the days when "10 best" lists roam the earth - and as usual, most represent a weird effort at audience-segment-spanning. Said lists are strange beasts for a second reason - their limit at (or expansion to) a headline-friendly "ten" makes for weird judgment calls at the cut-off. Lastly, they tend to award favors to the well-connected (does anyone really think King of the Jews was any good?). So I'm going to ignore the custom of the country, and just cite what I thought were the best productions I saw in 2007, however many that may be.

But first, a few thoughts on some of the year's major stories -

The Changing of the Guard - the ART, Huntington, and North Shore all lost their artistic leadership this year. The North Shore was the first to announce a replacement - Barry Ivan - with the Huntington recently following suit by appointing Peter Dubois, late of New York's Public Theater. Both seemed solid choices grounded in the culture and tradition of each theatre (although Ivan's inaugural production as A.D. at North Shore, Les Miserables, proved a disappointment), so it seems unlikely the change of the guard will lead to much disruption in the status quo. The ART search, however, drags on as the one possible wild card - although with the elimination of avant entrepreneuress Anne Bogart from the running, there's a sense that a more conservative choice may be in the offing; certainly Woodruff's vision of Artistic Director as rock-and-roll impresario seems kaput (but fear not, Dresden Dolls, the ICA seems ready to take up the mantle). Meanwhile new Harvard prez Drew Faust has announced a re-assessment of the role of theatre at Harvard. Stay tuned.

Our Edifice Complex - 2007 was a year for new theatres - there's a gleaming new glass box at the ICA and a po-mo auditorium at Harvard's renovated New College Theatre (formerly the Hasty Pudding, at left). Both, however, are slight disappointments. The ICA is fine for its roster of World Music concerts (despite so-so acoustics), but dance there has proved a little problematic (Mark Morris practically stormed out in a huff during his group's performances there), and when the shades are drawn and you can't see the skyline, you realize how banal the space really is. The New College Theatre at Harvard is actually even more boring, despite its blood-red palette; tall as a canyon, with strange vents above serving as pseudo-decor, the space seems unable to make up its mind whether it's a theatre or a lecture hall.

The Conversation - Blogging on Boston culture seemed to take at least one step back with every step forward. We lost the acerbic, erudite Will Stackman to cancer at the end of last spring, and no new blogger has emerged to fill the gap. Larry Stark still keeps the home fires burning over at Theater Mirror, where he occasionally publishes new writers, but elsewhere fresh faces were few and far between. A new theatre blog, Word on the Street, started strong but then sputtered to a halt, while The Arts Fuse, featuring former WGBH poobah Bill Marx, all but went haywire, yammering away about the Matter Pollocks in between ponderous assessments of such up-to-the-minute figures as Edmund Wilson and John Coltrane. Meanwhile the print media moved into the space aggressively; you can't really call The Exhibitionist a blog, for example - it's too obviously a brand projection of the Globe, Geoff Edgers may be a nice guy, but he's not much of a critic, and too often it's simply a forum for press releases - but it's probably the biggest "blog" around, and I suppose in some ways makes up for the creeping loss of arts coverage in the Globe itself. So much for the promise of the Internet - it seems sometimes to boil down to just me and trusty Art Hennessey!

(And outside of theatre, Beantown cultural blogging seemed even more anemic. Not counting the sites connected with the print media, or presenters like Celebrity Series, for instance, I can't really think of a blog devoted to dance or classical music. If anybody knows of one, please clue me in!)

It's a Scandal, Such a Scandal - The shenanigans over at the Wang - sorry, the CitiCenter - finally caught up with its administration in a series of Globe articles. The Attorney General has let it be known that nothing illegal has actually gone down - still, the picture of outrageous executive pay, insiders getting plum jobs, and declining programming is not a pretty one. A shake-up is still in order, and potential donors should keep their checkbooks in their pockets until one is announced.

Have I left anything out? Probably. The Wilbur is in a kind of limbo, the Boston Foundation wants small arts organizations to close, and I'm sure there's something else I've forgotten entirely. But tempus fidgets, okay? So, without further ado -

There were six, not ten, great productions in Boston last year, and for the first time in awhile, none of them was by a small or mid-size theatre (except a benefit not on the regular season schedule). The ART had one striking success in Robert Woodruff's swan song, Britannicus, which was probably the most intellectually challenging (and rewarding) production of the year. When it comes to pure stagecraft, however, the laurels would have to be divided between the tour of Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Cherry Jones, and the revival of Present Laughter, featuring Victor Garber, under Nicholas Martin's direction at the Huntington. The Re-Invention Award would have to go to the tour of John Doyle's thrillingly stripped-down Sweeney Todd (left), which was strong enough to survive a weak turn by its lead (luckily he had Judy Kaye to back him up). The Huntington also staged a powerful production of a play which many people seemed to want to pretend was dated, David Rabe's Streamers (yeah, I'm sticking by it). Finally, SpeakEasy Stage offered the best time I had all year (in a theatre) with their benefit evening, "Sorry, Wrong Number."

There were at least five more local productions which were almost as good. The Lyric had a winner in Scott Edmiston's clever production of Miss Witherspoon, a rather thin pastiche from Christopher Durang (and Edmiston scored again at the ART, with the Noël Coward pastiche A Marvelous Party). Company One made the most of Noah Haidle's sweet-n-sour Mr. Marmalade, and the striking design choices of David R. Gammons put over the Actors' Shakespeare Project's all-male Titus Andronicus. And I'll throw in the energetically hokey Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the North Shore, just because I'm a sucker for cartwheels.

And whaddya know, that makes 10 shows. Oops, no - 11. But wait, there's more - tomorrow I'll take a look back at 2007 in art, music and dance.