Friday, February 29, 2008

Why all the conservative gay-hate for Hillary?

Okay, this is off-topic, but it is something I've been wondering about, and it does at least partly concern the larger culture: why do Internet queens Andrew Sullivan (right) and Matt Drudge (below) hate, hate, hate Hillary Clinton quite so much, much, much? I leaned toward Hillary over Obama (although I'm happy to vote for him) because - can we be honest? - Obama is so obviously a blank slate, and in his short career he's never made much of an impression, except on the political pulpit. In fact, somehow I sense from him a certain disinterest in even getting things done in principle. Those imagining this paleoliberal messiah will be able to usher in a post-polarized paradise I think may be in for a very unpleasant surprise. But hey, I could be wrong - and after all, just because the Clintons ran the government supremely well once before, why the hell should we invite them back? I mean, that would mean facing the threat of oral sex in the Oval Office!

But oh yeah, what I wanted to write about - the general hatred of the press for Hillary, and the intriguing fact that this is best channeled by two conservative homosexuals on the Net. I know, I know, Drudge is supposed to be closeted, but please - I don't see why we have to play along with his private psychological drama here. So my question is: are these two representative of gay conservatism in general, and is gay conservatism actually representative of something in the culture at large?

I guess the nub of this admittedly amorphous query is American sexism, and how the Hillary-Obama match-up seems to hint what many have suspected but never articulated: that this country is more deeply sexist than it is racist. Rush Limbaugh can openly call Hillary a 'bitch' or a 'feminazi,' but he wouldn't dare trade in racial stereotypes with Obama. Or will he, eventually? Will racism, in the end, turn out to be just as virulent as the sexism that's apparent now?

That's entirely possible, but just this minute I'm intrigued by our sexism, and how it's being reflected in these gay commentators. There's a general perception that gay men and straight women share some sort of Sex-in-the-City-like sisterhood, but it isn't really true; in the end, gay men are men, not women, and there's a surprisingly nasty sexism that often surfaces out of our gossip and conversation. There's also often a lingering animosity between gay men and lesbians (who have reportedly been prominent in Hillary's circles). Yes, gay sexism exists, and it could certainly manifest itself against Ms. Clinton.

Still, making this simple case against Drudge and Sullivan (Sullivudge? Drullivan?) is tough, because both are such slippery customers. Drudge, of course, is hard to analyze because he doesn't really write that much, and his eponymous Report is a wacky, pack-rat mosaic in which space aliens and bat boy schmooze with Putin and Bush. Drudge's background is in McDonald's and 7-11 management, and it shows. It's easy to view him - via the lens of affectionate patronization - as more a trailer park eccentric than some envious Internet queen.

As for Sullivan - well, like the rest of the cream of Oxbridge and Harvard, he can push out a rich chunk of rhetoric from the old mental sphincter faster than just about anyone. But at the same time, even his fans I think would admit he's batshit-crazy; indeed, that's part of the fun of reading him: he's got the intriguing charisma that comes from being very fucked up, and his edge of hysteric, indignant offense is always pushing against the polished surface of his prose. Then there's the simple outline of his personal history: the promiscuous gay bottom who demands the right to marry within the Church, the conservative who claims he was pro-Gore (though he generally eviscerated Gore), then cheered on Bush before turning on him, too, all while insisting that Catholicism can be reconciled with libertarianism - really, the list of contradictions is just too long and too weird. I mean not many village sluts would have the cojones to demand a white wedding from the Pope, but Sullivan's up to the challenge. And this is, interestingly, what makes him so American; he often rhapsodizes about his love for our country, and I believe him, because we're insane in exactly the same way he is: we, too, are piously pseudo-religious, and believe fervently, if incoherently, in our right to perpetually, indignantly re-invent ourselves.

Some, of course, might ponder Sullivan's hatred of Hillary as actually a kind of endorsement (after all, he said of Gore things like: "fundamentally a political coward . . . a corpulent Cassandra . . . weaselly . . . one of the most naked opportunists in American politics"). And Sullivan's often driven by personal vendetta under the cover of principle (his long campaign against Howell Raines, who reportedly fired him from the Times, is one example). So maybe the current vitriol is just payback from the nineties. And is Drudge, meanwhile, still in some sort of psychological battle with his liberal, Jewish parents? Perhaps. Still, it's worth pondering the meaning of the curious correspondence between these two gay scourges.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Good-bye to all that

When Alfred Brendel (at left) took the stage last Friday night at Symphony Hall, in the Boston stop of his farewell tour (under the aegis of Celebrity Series), the atmosphere couldn't have afforded a greater contrast to a similar appearance from the Guarneri Quartet a week prior. The Guarneri had essentially partnered with a younger quartet, the Johannes, to give the uplifting impression that their legacy would continue after their own disappearance from the stage. But with Brendel, there was no sense of time's wheel, only of its scythe. The mood was elegiac, not just for the pianist personally, but for a kind of musical intellectual that he had come to represent: the literary pianist, let's say, who attempts to distill an individual classicism from the "texts" of the great composers. Today, the concert hall has begun to evolve into a market of musical niches, in which scholarly novelty is highly prized, with performers specializing in periods or schools, as well as the mastery of instruments designed to reflect earlier tastes and modes. Brendel, on the other hand, has always been more synthetic in his aims, searching for something like a linking thread of thought between what today are considered more and more disparate genres.

The trouble was that Brendel's farewell didn't make all that convincing a case for this approach. He programmed conservatively (not unusual for a late-career pianist), focusing on works from the great Germanic-Austrian tradition (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert). There were no showboat warhorses, and few demanding leaps or runs across the keyboard; Brendel's choices tended to be idiosyncratic (though not actually obscure), selected with an eye toward internal development rather than the easy pleasures of melody or ornament. Even an indifferent listener could sense that to Brendel, there were consonances and formal parallels between these choices that reflected some kind of Borges-like inner garden/labyrinth; however, his playing often turned a bit blurry, and in general felt ingrown; one sometimes felt one was listening to the memory of a great performance rather than the thing itself (at a meta level, a rather Borgesian experience indeed).

Put simply, Brendel's Haydn sounded rather like his Mozart, which actually even sounded quite a bit like his Beethoven, without much emotional force behind these similarities other than intellectual nostalgia. These days we expect to hear brilliant analyses of the differences between these titans; to hear them yoked so closely, I think, inevitably leads one to desire some novel synthesis, rather than a familiar one. Thankfully, Brendel seemed to break free from his inner restraints with Schubert's B-flat Sonata, Op. 960 (perhaps tellingly, Schubert's own farewell to the form), in which his attention to structure and musical "space" provided a lustrous underpinning to, rather than an overdetermination of, the composer's wandering, melancholic song. There were some lovely moments in his encores, too, but then again his Bach (and even his Liszt!) sounded rather like his other old masters. After his final, poignant bow, I'm unhappy to confess I wasn't all that sorry to say good-bye to all that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Take a deep breath . . .

And just enjoy "My Paper Mind," a lovely 'stratastencil' short (that means it's all made of layers of cut paper) by Javan Ivey. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

There will be boredom

Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier in the best shot in There Will Be Blood.

I don't, as a rule, pay much attention to the Oscars, except when they're a particularly wild travesty (as when Crash was handed the statuette over Brokeback, for instance). This year "travesty" seems impossible, although if No Country for Old Men falls to some spoiler, yes, a minor injustice will have been done. Not that No Country is such a great film - but for long stretches it's engrossing and has a few moments of genuine resonance: it's like an improved version of Fargo (and didn't that win? I think so). This hasn't been a particularly good year for movies - the fact that both Michael Clayton and Juno could be in the running for Best Picture tells you as much - and I sometimes wonder if we really need to have an Academy Award ceremony every single year. I mean, isn't it a bit odd that films like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia should share the same honor as Driving Miss Daisy and Braveheart, while such classics as Cabaret and Chinatown were cheated of statuettes? Can't we just skip the damn thing some years, and play catch up? It seems the only decent thing to do.

But back to the spoiler problem. This year's potential spoiler looks to be There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's mildly absorbing account of a ruthless oil baron coming to no good in turn-of-the-(last)-century California. I found it, like all of Anderson's movies, intermittently interesting but somehow incoherent at a deep level - to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no "there" there in Anderson's movies, no original artistic personality. For a while he was imitating Altman, to some positive effect, but There Will Be Blood is, in effect, a crazy quilt of sights and sounds borrowed from older, better movies. It's basically an Upton Sinclair potboiler dressed up in a Stanley Kubrick soundtrack and Terrence Malick photography, with Daniel Day-Lewis imitating Robert DeNiro in the lead. Now does that sound like it makes any sense to you? No, it didn't to me, either.

Yet our film critics have been doing cartwheels over this strange, quietly lumbering film. It seems I've seen the phrase "a work of genius" written more than once about it. ("A work of genius(es)" might be more like it.) That kind of tripe is easy to dismiss - what's weirder is Ty Burr's valentine to the pic in today's Globe, with such choice phrases as "the Gordian knot of . . . (a) contrarian epic . . . the arid glories of the setting, the cavernous hatreds of the hero . . . brilliant cinema . . . scenes of quiet grandeur . . . etc., etc., etc."

And to think I almost nodded off! To be fair, the "Gordian knot" of There Will Be Blood has one original and intriguing strand - the ongoing duel between Day-Lewis's "Daniel Plainview" and his smarmily pious doppelganger, Paul Dano's "Paul Sunday" (at left), a preacher as much on the make as the oil baron. Anderson always seems about to nail some brilliant point about the synergy of fundamentalism and capitalism - only he never quite does; still, the scenes between Day-Lewis and Dano have a resonance nothing else in the movie has, and sometimes crackle with a sense of satire rare in Anderson's work. But beyond this, most of There Will Be Blood is pretty bloodless. Day-Lewis, as usual, constructs a thorough physicalization, and we can feel his own intelligence constantly moving within his performance; we're also somehow aware that he has willed his own somewhat-shy disposition to daring feats of derring-do. Yet if an actor is to be judged by how well he builds a sense of personality, and sympathy for that personality, onscreen, then Day-Lewis fails utterly. He has become what DeNiro became long ago - a kind of anti-naturalistic actor, who uses the tropes of the method to form a carapace that conceals, rather than reveals, his character. Perhaps this is because any such revelation could be seen as vulgar; or perhaps it's that, in the end, Day-Lewis simply has no inner resources to match the personae of such matchless screen presences as Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn. Whatever the reason, Day-Lewis's performances always seem peerless, yet somehow empty; as with Anderson, there's no "there" there.

Day-Lewis is done few favors, however, by Anderson's script, which I gather streamlines the novel, but does so without any sense of growing momentum or rising stakes. Put bluntly, Anderson doesn't seem to know how to develop the Paul Sunday subplot, and he flubs almost every key moment in Plainview's tale: the moment when Plainview abandons his adopted son, the moment when he realizes his "brother" is a poseur - these turning points and more are oddly underwritten and underplayed, and hence don't have the impact they should. By the time of the notoriously bizarre denouement, in which at last there's blood between Sunday and Plainview, we've checked out of the story emotionally, and can only roll our eyes at what plays like a bad outtake from The Shining. And Burr is at his least convincing trying to justify this misstep: "There Will Be Blood commits the cardinal sin," he explains, "of breaking its narrative spell and announcing, along with its hero, that it's finished, done, over - go home already." So the final scene 'works' by revealing that the movie should already be over? That has to be the most screwball piece of logic I've read in a review in a long time - but perhaps in its foolishness it distills the essence of the critical response to the movie.

Still, one gropes for an explication for this madness. Is it that Anderson is still perceived as Altman's heir? Is it that he manages to make movies of some seriousness, admittedly, within the Hollywood system (no small feat)? Or is it that he seems, like Quentin Tarantino, to be at least as much a film critic as a filmmaker himself? Or is the chorus of approval for There Will Be Blood simply another symptom of this once-great popular art form's seemingly unstoppable decline? Maybe a friend of mine put it best as the lights rose in the theatre after the credits: "Well, that was no movie for old men."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Vandalizing vandalism

Some prime "splashed" street art in New York.

It so had to happen. Someone - a mysterious figure known as "The Splasher" - has begun vandalizing New York's artsy graffiti, throwing wads of housepaint over "street art" that was being leveraged into gallery shows and advertising contracts, often leaving behind a witty, crazed manifesto about "euthanizing your bourgeois fad." And the howls from Soho and Chelsea are just beginning. Hmmm. Maybe the revolution won't be televised - and somebody warn Banksy and Pixnit!

DeLillo on the down-low

In her review of Don DeLillo's Love-Lies-Bleeding, the Boston Globe's Louise Kennedy makes the following rather oblique statement:

On the smaller of two stages at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, a young fringe company is presenting the regional premiere of Don DeLillo's "Love-Lies-Bleeding" . . . This is a strange commentary on the state of our large local theater companies, if you consider that two earlier DeLillo plays were commissioned and premiered by the American Repertory Theatre.

A "strange commentary," indeed. One wonders why Kennedy can't simply say aloud what I've been saying for some time: Boston's major theatres are failing to bring us the news from our playwrights. The A.R.T. continues to pretend that directors are more important than writers, while the Huntington has become focused on developing talents in-house - which means, unfortunately, that said talents are often genuine but minor. Meanwhile, we've had to turn to the Lyric Stage to see Albee's The Goat, Boston Theatreworks to see Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, Zeitgeist Stage to see The Kentucky Cycle, and Company One to see Mr. Marmalade. I know I'm the meme engine around here, but isn't it time for even the cautious Louise Kennedy and Carolyn Clay to risk pointing out that this situation is precisely backwards? Even though two major academic institutions have standing theatre companies here, we're offered the boldest new theatre essentially below the mainstream radar, on the down-low, as it were. In a way, of course, this situation is a bonanza for small theatres, which can pick from the latest in challenging texts. On the other hand, it's a little frustrating for the rest of us, since our smaller theatres often don't have the resources to fully realize these demanding visions.

Brett Marks, Eliza Lay and W. Kirk Avery in Love-Lies-Bleeding.

And that's the case, I'm afraid, with Love-Lies-Bleeding, a laudable attempt by Way Theatre Artists at bringing off an intriguing, but flawed, experiment from DeLillo. The piece is, on its surface, a contemplation of euthanasia and its moral paradoxes, in which Alex, an aging, once-vital artist "locked in," as the doctors say, by two successive strokes, mutely waits - and perhaps listens - as his stump of an "extended family" circles his helpless body with a life-ending load of morphine.

But DeLillo is not solely interested in concocting some high-end counterpoint to Whose Life Is It Anyway? As usual, he's most concerned with the limits of knowledge, and the meaning of action within those limits. In such epics as Libra, White Noise, and Underworld, the interstices he reveals in American culture hint at conspiracy and unknown threat - in Love-Lies-Bleeding, by way of contrast, the threat circling the "hero" isn't fraught with epistemological doubt, but his actual current state is. So DeLillo proceeds to break his play up into allusive fragments - fragments which often frustrate any through-line reading, and are intended to keep us pondering precisely what we know about this moral dilemma and what we can know.

But the Way Theatre production, under the direction of Greg Maraio, sticks with a naturalistic approach throughout, so the constant narrative dislocations seem like shocks to the play's system rather than a positive structural element. To be fair to Maraio, DeLillo's structure is hardly a triumph - he slides uneasily out of philosophical speculation and into somewhat-wooden melodrama, so Maraio's approach is at least half-right. Still, some sense of alienated distance from the appearance of what's going on is clearly called for, but never delivered (or even attempted).

Despite these failings, there are at least two performances to savor here. Eliza Lay, though not as commanding as she was in The Eight, is still generally convincing as the wife of the stricken Alex, and delivers a moving, if conflicted, eulogy near the play's end. Jeff Gill, however, is the stand-out as the maverick artist (played poignantly in extremis by W. Kirk Avery), conveying an appealing energy in the character's younger days as well as a thoughtful, utterly unsentimental evocation of his travails after his first stroke. What's more, Gill alone seems to understand DeLillo's buried themes. Whether he's pondering hollowing out a cavern in a mountain to hold his art (a rather obvious metaphor for his own later state), or simply speculating on the identity of a remembered face, Gill poignantly illuminates the doubt that permeates the play. After all, perhaps Alex really has disintegrated within his skull (Gill's final moments hint that may be the case). Perhaps the family has hastened his death - but then again perhaps they haven't (questions of human efficacy haunt DeLillo). Perhaps Alex's art-filled cavern would mean immortality - but perhaps it would mean absurdity. And perhaps the Way Theatre production misses this piercing edge of ambiguity, but there's no doubt they should be applauded for staging Don DeLillo's latest.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Monologues against narcissism!

Georgia Lyman cues up her inner Nancy Sinatra in The Scene.

I was struck during Scott Edmiston's slickly entertaining production of Theresa Rebeck's The Scene (through March 15 at the Lyric Stage) by the fact that despite hearing what must be hours of monologue during the last few years, I haven't heard a soliloquy in, like, forever. Then, of course, I began to ponder what I meant by that thought - what was the difference between the two?

Well, I'm still thinking, but one clear contrast is that the soliloquy - at least as evidenced by its greatest practitioner, Shakespeare - is highly self-aware. Even the first of Shakespeare's great soliloquizers (Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI) voices acute, unsparing perceptions about his own moral and social status. And even the simplest of Shakespeare's characters plot and plan honestly in their soliloquies; they realistically size up their options, and what each option would mean - they're talking to us, but also to themselves, in as frank as voice as they can manage. Rarely, if ever, do we feel in a soliloquy that a Shakespearean character is fooling himself. When his or her real motivations seem to vanish in the psychological dark, as with Iago, we sense this is probably because our deepest urges defy analysis (if Iago were entirely self-aware, for instance, the problem of human evil would be solved).

But the post-modern monologue dodges self-awareness, much less realism, and generally operates in a mode of indigation. It is, in fact, the antithesis of the soliloquy, and derives, I think, not from the drama but from stand-up, in which performers secretly flatter their audience in a ritual of tacit mutual approval. The performer offers us a version of ourselves that's wittier than we could ever be, and we respond by agreeing with his or her observations and judgments: yes, you're absolutely right, that's just the way things are. But the stand-up is rarely if ever implicated in the gags and sketches he or she delivers, even when describing girlfriends, boyfriends, or bosses. The performer is careful to inflict insults on him- or herself, in deference to the audience, but is also always an observer, outside the dramatic frame, just as we are.

Television, of course, sensing the correlation between the emotional stance of the comic and the position of its audience, has long centered its dramatic structures on the stand-up: Roseanne, Drew Carey, and Seinfeld all operated as long-form variants of stand-up critique (famously, the ethos of Seinfeld was "no one grows, no one learns" - the essence of anti-drama, yet put forth, intriguingly, as its own brand of realism). And as monologue has suffused pop culture, it's begun to take over stage culture as well. True, monologue had long replaced soliloquy in the work of the absurdists - but there it still functioned as a mode of inquiry rather than indignation. Once transplanted to the stage, however, the stand-up monologue resisted such transformation - instead, it merely "flipped" in its effect. Whereas in stand-up, the monologue functioned as a mode of approval, on stage, it operates as a mode of critique. Now, we're invited to be indignant about the monologuist's own indignation, to appreciate their blindness and narcissism - while the character itself actually remains as opaque and uninvestigated as ever.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Kissel and Julie Jirousek try to get the rest of The Scene to work.

Well; to get back The Scene - after my own inner monologue - these issues seem to be at the heart of the "problem" with playwright Theresa Rebeck. She writes very funny and observant television material (she's worked on and off in the medium); yet the dramatic constructions in which she sets her amusing rants are either obviously derivative (Mauritius) or under-developed (The Scene). She doesn't seem to understand that the stage isn't just smarter than the screen, but also different in its very nature. We expect not merely to think "ohmigod, she's a monster!" of a character, but also ponder that character's specifics - as well as his or her past and future. And said specifics should, at their best, feel originally conceived, rather than received from some other cultural source.

And I'm afraid Rebeck fails on these counts, even though The Scene is often a hoot, accurately skewers New York's demi-monde, and would generally be perceived as a good night out. To be fair, it's not as synthetic as Mauritius, and there's one striking scene where Rebeck's play suddenly catches fire - discovered en flagrante in an adulterous embrace, her anti-heroine Clea refuses to quit the field, and in fact begins to tell off the wife she's just wronged. It's a jaw-dropping moment, and encapsulates neatly the shameless sense of entitlement that's arisen in the younger generation: "I know this is like a horrible situation and everything?" Clea snorts indignantly in her best valley-speak, "but there's no need to be rude." Unbelievably, the situation is still all about her.

But alas, Rebeck doesn't get much beyond ringing changes on this (admittedly impressive) narcissism. She claims to have been inspired by Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but the parallels don't feel all that close, and her story arc is pretty generic anyway: drifting middle-aged man (here called "Charlie") falls for party girl - who seems stupid but is actually alarmingly sharp (surprise) - which leads to the subsequent ruin of said middle-aged man. The End. Rebeck attempts to make her Mildred/Lola/Lulu surrogate, "Clea," somehow stand in for our age's general lack of moral integrity, but this never quite convinces; Clea may have her own weird kind of integrity for all we know - Rebeck never lets us in on what's going on inside her. Or inside any of the characters, really - why Charlie leaves his wife, why his best friend secretly loves her, and whether or not she's actually a bit of a "Nazi priestess" (as Clea calls her) all remain a kind of great undiscovered dramatic country surrounding Clea's and Charlie's rants, which are often memorably blistering. The drama might be more compelling if director Scott Edmiston had worked a little subtext into the action (particularly between Charlie and his wife) - but then he rarely does, despite his consistently smooth surfaces. As Clea and Charlie, Georgia Lyman and Jeremiah Kissel burn through their respective rants with passion and wit; sometimes, the play feels like a simple duel between their two performances. But whether a duet of monologues amounts to a play - or whether, even, the monologue is the best vehicle for dramatizing narcissism - is something I'm beginning to doubt.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A very fair Lady

The praise the local press showered on Trevor Nunn's revival of My Fair Lady was generally deserved, although I can't say that the show was actually critiqued very accurately. Nunn didn't try to re-interpret, much less re-invent, the show, thank God - in fact, he sometimes mimicked the original (stage and screen) versions precisely; but he did tweak the musical here and there, perhaps not always to positive effect. For some reason, for instance, the death of Edward VII was worked into the action - perhaps only to spare the costume designer from having to top Cecil Beaton's famous costumes at Ascot (which here, instead, was draped in mourning). And I wasn't particularly crazy about Matthew Bourne's slightly clumsy choreography, either (although he did devise a few amusingly equine moves for the horsey set).

The revival was instead chiefly notable for its general subtlety and intelligence (o rare!), its ingenious set (which transformed itself around a Crystal-Palace-like lattice from library to Covent Garden and beyond), and the performances of its two leads. Lisa O'Hare, as you probably know by now, combined Audrey Hepburn's looks with Julie Andrews's pipes (well, almost) in a charmingly scrappy performance that felt like a kind of wrinkle in the showbiz space-time continuum. As her bachelor antagonist, Christopher Cazenove likewise channeled his sole antecedent, Rex Harrison - but somehow came off as more sexless than Rex, which is of course perfectly appropriate to Shaw, but drained the air out of the show's second act, which depends on something like romance to stay afloat. As if to compensate, Nunn seemed to pour on the production numbers, which only slowed things down further. Luckily, the songs themselves remain evergreen - and, to Lerner and Lowe's eternal credit, seem to grow right out of Shaw's dialogue. Imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber pulling off that. No, no way, not even with a little bit of luck.

Teaching the torches to burn bright

Nelson Madrigal and Larissa Ponomarenko leave the balcony behind. (Photos by Gene Schiavone.)

What the New Rep and the A.R.T. couldn't do, Boston Ballet has done triumphantly: they've brought Romeo and Juliet to Boston, in a production that includes not a word of Shakespeare, but somehow conveys his essence via Prokofiev's classic score, John Cranko's nearly-as-celebrated choreography, a rich, perceptive design from the National Ballet of Canada, and an all-but-ideal opening-night cast. The results, it's true, boasted no innovative insights into the tragic romance; no shocking new light was thrown on the Bard's star-crossed lovers. What transpired instead was the best kind of traditional reading: one informed by the accumulated knowledge of the past, staged perceptively and performed exquisitely. What was most striking, in fact, was how the performance functioned as well as drama as it did as dance. After such entertaining bagatelles as La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet was a welcome reminder of the depth a 'story ballet' can really achieve; shorn of its swan-maidens and wicked witches, the form, it turns out, is up to the challenge of genuine tragedy.

Of course the ballet's triumph is largely due to Prokofiev's score, which rivals in its musical integrity Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Spring. Perhaps it's too bad Boston Ballet isn't using the composer's original version (Mark Morris is rumored to be planning a new production to it), but Cranko's insightful choreography is certainly worth preserving on its own, and he perforce worked from the 1940 revision (which finally silenced Prokofiev's state critics and brought the work success). Even in this reworking, however, it's clear how radically Prokofiev departed from the tradition of sweet divertissements favored by Tchaikovsky: if you're looking for an adorable pas de cinq or "tea" followed by "coffee," forget it; Prokofiev hews closely to Shakespeare's drama, and Cranko follows in his toe shoes, as it were. Indeed, it takes awhile for any pure dance to break out of Cranko's subtly rendered pageant; even the famous "Dance of the Knights," Prokofiev's grim accompaniment to the Capulets' masque, here is rendered as a kind of a swaying parade.

But don't worry, Cranko's just saving it up for his eponymous lovers, whom he graces with one inventive pas de deux after another - in which deep back bends and astonishing over-the-shoulder lifts underline the fact that these two are literally head-over-heels. The balcony scene - in which Romeo, thankfully, draws Juliet down to the dance floor - was pure rapture; Larissa Ponomarenko was in luminous form, and was partnered with sympathetic passion by Nelson Madrigal. Madrigal was less convincing in a trio with Mercutio (Reyneris Reyes) and Benvolio (Gabor Kapin ) - in which none had quite the lift to pull off a series of triple spins - but was elsewhere the perfect Romeo, easily shifting from melancholy to romantic transport and back.

The corps looked just as good, in a supple series of groupings that, like so much of the evening, toed a fine line between drama and dance. One sunny highlight was the towering Bo Busby's joie de vivre as the Carnival King(at left) - which was more than matched in dark intensity by Yury Yanowsky's brutal turn as Tybalt; indeed, Yanowsky probably delivered one of the strongest dramatic performances I've ever seen from a dancer (its only recent rival would be Kathleen Breen Combes's imperious performance in Giselle). Praise should also be showered on Susan Benson's versatile production design (and opulent costumes, which matched perfectly the autumnal colors of the set) and particularly Christopher Dennis' stunning lighting - which accurately conjured both night and noon, and hinted at the fragile atmosphere of such late nineteenth-century painters as Alma-Tadema. Indeed, the design was successfully poised between a number of cultural touchstones, somehow honoring the Italian landscape, the British visual tradition, and even the Slavic foundation of Prokofiev's score. This was one case in which design and dance partnered one another impeccably, with the happy (or perhaps unhappy!) result being a closer evocation of the Shakespeare's haunted, doomy mood than I've ever seen in a conventional stage version. This is a production not simply for balletomanes, but for bardolators as well.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Passing the torch

Last weekend's Celebrity Series concert featuring the Guarneri and Johannes Quartets inevitably struck a wistful note: the venerable Guarneri (at left) has been performing - in nearly their current form - since 1964, and has announced their imminent retirement; meanwhile the up-and-coming Johannes (below right), mentored by the elder quartet at the Marlboro Music Festival, is just now making itself known. The torch was being passed, as they say, before our very eyes, but the Guarneri eschewed the maudlin embellishments of the classic farewell tour. Instead, they shared the stage generously with the group they clearly see as continuing their legacy - joining them to perform a spanking new octet from the distinguished American composer William Bolcom, and then the joyous, universally-beloved Mendelssohn Opus 20. How many farewells, one might ask, end with a warm welcome for the next generation? Not many - but perhaps, with any luck, this gesture could become a trend; the Guarneri certainly left the stage bathed in as much, if not more, affection than ever - and any program that ends with the Mendelssohn Octet cannot, perforce, end in tears.

The Guarneri played alone, in fact, only briefly, in the concert's one moment of pure melancholy, "Passing Through," a new piece by Derek Bermel that conjures from a Beethoven motif a slight but touching rumination that's part elegy, part lullaby, and part benediction - for the Quartet itself, no doubt. The Johannes offered another, more challenging premiere, "Homunculus" by Esa-Pekka Salonen - a densely jagged piece remarkable in both its intensity and lyricism that seemed designed to display the young quartet's impeccable technique.

Whether the Johannes will develop a collective personality beyond the calm deployment of its startling skill remains, I have to say after a single hearing, an open question; clearly their none-too-secret weapon is lead violinist Soovin Kim, who brought off brilliantly several searing, singing passages at the very top of his instrument's range. Kim let himself be absorbed, however, into the ensemble sound of Bolcom's octet, which was satisfyingly complex, and even haunting at first, but didn't display much of that composer's signature energy until its last two movements (which seemed to quote here and there the famous Mendelssohn, as if Bolcom were glancing over his shoulder at what he knew would be on the program). When it did arrive, the Mendelssohn was suitably glorious, and Kim was in fine form, grinning to himself as he soared through the virtuosic passages of the first movement - though he hardly hogged the spotlight; the group honored the piece's symphonic form, coalescing beautifully in the nearly-skittering scherzo and the rambunctious finale. The crowd was soon on its feet, but there was no encore; perhaps we'll see the Guarneri again (they're performing through the end of next season), but the torch had been passed, and that was that.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Caesar salad

Caesar takes it in the gut, Shakespeare takes it in the back.

I wonder why Shakespeare draws out the worst - I mean the best (no, I really mean the worst) - in the A.R.T. I haven't seen Julius Caesar yet, but already I'm salivating. Judging from the early reviews, this promises to be one for the A.R.T. history books - only not soul-crushingly-boring-bad like Three Sisters, but so-bad-it's-good-bad, like Romeo and Juliet. The entire cast apparently bows with their butts to the audience, there's a car hanging over the stage for no reason, characters are costumed as Frank, Dino and the Rat Pack, and Caesar's assassination is played out as a dance number. Critic/comedienne Jenna Scherer's take in the Herald is priceless, Louise Kennedy's apologia in the Globe predictably spineless. I. Can't. Wait.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The new play squeeze

Above, a viral marketing video for Love-Lies-Bleeding.

A few recent posts on other blogs - and some emails that have wound up over here at Hub Review - indicate a rising issue in the local theatre community: we're churning out new work, but no one in the press will cover it. Over at The Mirror Up to Nature, blogger and playwright Art Hennessey points out that the recent IRNE nominations for "Best New Play" included two plays that, well, weren't really all that new (both had premiered elsewhere a year or two ago). The point is of course valid, although I wince a bit at its target - Larry Stark, the driving force behind the IRNEs, is perhaps the most devoted playgoer in Boston, and has probably seen more new plays this year than the entire staff of the Globe, Herald, and Phoenix combined. Larry has posted Art's email on his own site, the Theater Mirror, but so far has made no reply. I was pretty much outside the IRNE Nominations process this year, due to my involvement with Blowing Whistles, and I've never really been that much of an insider, so I don't have a dog in this particular fight. In fact, I think it would be too bad if it degenerated into a "fight" at all.

But Art's question is an indication of a growing problem in the city - one that's also reflected in my own e-transom. I constantly get almost begging emails from folks putting on new shows in town, at such places as the Piano Factory space (whatever it's called now) and Boston Playwrights, or the Black Box at the BCA, or the Charlestown Working Theater. What's most touching are the ones that essentially read, "I know you're the meanest critic in town but you're also the only one I think will take me seriously," which sort of belies the idea that theatre artists only want praise; like everyone, they want to be rated honestly, too.

I can't honor all these requests (I really should try to get to more small shows), but I'm struck by the desperation of many - and, of course, by the fact that many of the shows I do get to prove to be quite worthy. We have a "thriving" fringe - the only problem is that it "thrives" without any critical attention, or, therefore, much of an audience, and therefore will only thrive as long as its participants have money to lose. (Elsewhere on Theater Mirror there's a letter from Jon Myers lamenting the fact that his new play got no reviews from anyone at all.) And if you imagine that somehow this has no artistic impact on the city, ponder that Don DeLillo's latest play, Loves-Lies-Bleeding, is being premiered by a fringe company, Way Theatre Artists, at Boston Playwrights this weekend. That's right - not the A.R.T., not the Huntington, or even the Lyric or the New Rep. Don DeLillo is on the fringe.

So what's the solution? Well, of course one obvious solution - a blog on the Globe or Phoenix - is essentially, for reasons unknown, a non-starter; think of the train wreck the Exhibitionist has turned into and you'll see what I mean (Howard Stern, anyone? No? Then how about the BSO - they're a struggling but feisty little group that could sure use some publicity!). It's clear the fringe will have to get by without any help from the tunnel-visioned mainstream media. Some, of course, have managed successful viral marketing campaigns, and have actually found audiences. But the dearth in critical response creates a discouraging gap. Can theatre learn to survive without the critics? It may have to.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What does Harvard want?

It's a question worthy of Freud, of course, particularly when it comes to the A.R.T. As everyone knows, that theatre company is still looking for an artistic director. But has anyone really said aloud that the two candidates so far approached - James Lapine and Anna D. Shapiro - are both unusual choices, and rather strangely opposed? Both are essentially from the commercial theatre, with some academic connections - very slight for Lapine, true, but Shapiro is a professor at Northwestern (she teaches Graduate Directing there). Lapine is a librettist and director of classic Broadway musicals, and closely associated with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, while Shapiro is known for psychological realism, and directing several premieres at Steppenwolf (the latest of which, August:Osage County, is now a hit on Broadway). Both, of course, are very talented and highly accomplished people; but it's hard to imagine a job profile which would encompass both. You could argue that the two choices do indicate Harvard's interest in returning to some contact with the world of successful, commercial theatre, and rejecting the insular "avant-garde" clique of Anne Bogart (who for a time was a candidate), Peter Sellars, and their ilk. But beyond this, judging from Lapine and Shapiro, the field is essentially wide open. Perhaps that's as it should be, but, then again, perhaps that's not as it should be - particularly given that, not to put too fine a point on it, both candidates turned the job down. I'd hazard a guess that one reason both said no is that the search committee - and Harvard itself - has no clear idea of what they want in the job; and until that gets straightened out, something tells me the post may remain unfilled. In the meantime, who's planning the next season at the A.R.T.? Gideon Lester?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A mismanaged Misanthrope

Just a few words on the production of "The Misanthrope" that closed at the New Rep last weekend. I've never seen Molière’s (at left) supposed magnum opus work on stage (the play's brilliantly perceptive, but its thin plot and somewhat static oratory work against it), and alas, I still haven't, although the New Rep production was intermittently amusing, and did afford some sympathetic insights into the play's mismatched central couple. Director Adam Zahler updated the text to the belle epoque, but offered little apparent justification for the change (oddly, the play feels like a better fit for the present day), and didn't really deliver much authentic period atmosphere: the set was lovely, but looked more like a soda fountain than a boulevard hotel, and the costumes were similarly cartoonish. The astringent wit which one associates with the play was likewise replaced with well-meant buffoonery. James Lloyd Reynolds brought a good deal of technique to bear on the eponymous Alceste, Molière’s honest man in a world of hypocrisy, but somehow never conjured much sympathy for his plight (or his eventual undoing). Meanwhile Amy Russ was both too mature and too hearty a presence to convince as his sparkling, but possibly vacuous, beloved - and in concert with the antics of Jason Bowen and Karl Baker Olson, she managed to produce little of the play's requisite malicious fizz. There were still some good moments, however, mostly from Steven Barkhimer's philosophical Philinte, Billy Meleady's nimble Oronte, Ellen Colton's broad, but still appealing Arsinoe, and (especially) Zillah Glory's sweet, sadly wise Eliante. The translation was a new one, by Constance Congdon, which sounded, at first blush, like a slangy update of Richard Wilbur's celebrated version. I'm not sure Congdon won me over, but I'd be interested to hear more from her; she's also done The Imaginary Invalid and Tartuffe - the times seem ripe for either. Anyone? Anyone?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Naked white men and others

You can see this onstage . . . . but why not this? . . . . . . or that?

I know, I know, "Tom, stop picking on Louise, the girl can't help it!" But really, Louise Kennedy's such an accurate middlebrow barometer that what she can't help is to take cultural readings by mistake, as it were . . . Consider, for instance, her latest piece, "Three plays, no clothes, no problem," in which she ponders how liberated Boston has become, based on the recent "gay three-way" at the BCA. Apparently in Chicago, a theatre company balked at the nudity in The Little Dog Laughed, which Speakeasy presented in half-hearted fashion (I mean the nudity, not the whole play). Author Douglas Carter Beane protested the Chicago version, but approved Speakeasy's compromise - "I was so fine with that (one actor's back being turned to the audience)" he said, because "there's a bigger vision involved."

Indeed - and hooray for us, I suppose, even if the Speakeasy version of that gay connection wasn't all that believable - at least it happened. But then Kennedy moves on to the next local actor to appear in the altogether: local stalwart Diego Arcinegas, who's appearing nude in Speakeasy's next outing, Some Men.

I know, you're yawning already - another nude dude in a gay play (again by Speakeasy)! But of course what's interesting about Diego is that he's Latino. Which reminds one immediately of precisely whom you can see naked onstage in Boston - basically, gay white men. Or straight white men pretending to be gay. Kennedy, of course, never makes these connections - which made me wonder, suddenly, if she would be quite so philosophical about three concurrent plays featuring naked women. Something tells me she might have penned a rather different article about that.

But why? Obviously, as Arciniegas says in Kennedy's piece, nudity is "actually about vulnerability and identity." Indeed. Not to mention politics. A naked woman onstage is immediately politically loaded - at least, I think, to Kennedy - in a way that a naked white man is not (Kennedy even freaks out when she hears the "c-word" onstage). And as for a naked black man - good luck, casting directors! (I think Speakeasy had to go national to find a black man willing to strip for Take Me Out.)

Yet it's hard to find any rhyme or reason to these new mores. A woman who strips in "new burlesque" is somehow perceived as empowering herself. And no one seems to be able to criticize rappers like Snoop Dogg, who actually makes hardcore porn videos (left), yet still appears in mainstream movies and sitcoms. Does racism trump sexism, or something like that?

Perhaps the key lies in the fact that, unlike Snoop Dogg, most theatrical producers try to honor the idea that stage nudity serves some theatrical purpose - a position that's hard to maintain when the people with their clothes off aren't perceived as empowered. (Rap meanwhile seems to have no problem simultaneously railing against the exploitation of black men while openly exploiting black women.) But are gay men really more empowered than other groups? A decade or so ago a production of Steaming went up in Boston that featured a dozen or so naked actresses - certainly women haven't become less empowered since then, but aside from a glimpse at the Huntington last year, I haven't seen a lady's garden on stage in a queen's age. One has to wonder at a culture that is so hasty to approve of gay sex scenes, but seems to freak out at straight ones. Is our comfort level with nude gay sex due to the fact that the gay men involved are still perceived as men, or is it that the gays in the audience are themselves perceived as powerless, so the nudity doesn't matter? I sometimes wonder. But what's obvious is that the body politic still controls what we can show of the body, and yes, plenty of nudity is still "banned in Boston."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Walk like an electron

Will Lebow, John Kuntz and Karen MacDonald prepare to collide.

I know everyone says I expect too much of the local print critics, but there's a real downside to having average-joe (or -jane) journalists writing on the cultural scene - indeed, the reception to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (recently closed at the A.R.T.) could serve as one example of how poorly Boston is served by the Globe and Phoenix.

Now Frayn's play is, I admit, often entertaining in the manner of much upper-middlebrow melodrama; but as a "play of ideas," it is, like such shameless potboilers as Equus and The Elephant Man, hooey through and through. And frankly, there's no one in Boston's print media with either the brains or the balls to make that call.

But before we get to the critical reaction, let's ponder the play. Frayn conjures a kind of No-Exit-like limbo for three historical figures, two of them among the century's geniuses - Niels Bohr, father figure to atomic physics, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant upstart who wrested the universe, as it were, away from Einstein with his probability-based model of subatomic particles. Over the course of the play, this trio ponders, and re-ponders, a famous "walk in the woods" in Copenhagen between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941, during which somehow, away from the Nazi microphones which were surveilling Bohr's home, Heisenberg gave Bohr the impression (intentionally or not), that he was working on an atomic bomb.

Bohr, horrified, soon escaped occupied Denmark, and joined the Manhattan Project, which no doubt accelerated with the news of Heisenberg's activity. Heisenberg, rebuffed, returned to Germany and began furious work on a fission reactor, which, in one version of his story, was designed to produce plutonium for an eventual bomb. Upon Germany's defeat, Heisenberg was discovered literally in a hole in the ground (at left), working in near-hysteria on his failed reactor without even rudimentary safety controls. Technically, he was both wrong in his reactor design and in his assumption that the quickest route to a bomb was via a reactor; the Manhattan Project got further, faster, by simply separating existing isotopes of uranium (plus Heisenberg was wildly incorrect in his calculations - if he did them - of how much uranium he'd need). Still, despite being at the helm of a project that could have led to the vaporization of London and Paris, Heisenberg was never tried as a collaborator - like the brilliant Wernher von Braun, he was instead re-installed in the scientific firmament, at what became the Max Planck Institute, and spent the rest of his life essentially floating explanations for his past behavior.

Heisenberg (with Bohr in happier days, left) had many ways to revise his story, but the central question which he exploited was this: how could someone so brilliant have made such basic mistakes? Of course said mistakes look more obvious in hindsight, but Heisenberg was quick to hint that they weren't mistakes at all, but that he had, in fact, intentionally sent the Nazi nuclear project down the wrong path (and then wandered off the path to boot). This interpretation was undercut both by the ferocious speed with which he attacked the reactor project, and his own later conversations with his cohorts (secretly recorded in England after the war). In short, Heisenberg's story is a self-serving excuse from a useful genius, and that's pretty much that.

But not for Michael Frayn, who conjures in Copenhagen an elaborate game of philosophical hide-and-seek, forever hinting that we can't accurately guess Heisenberg's motives or even his actions - that instead, he's a kind of humanoid electron, always "scattering" into a probabilistic cloud before the slits of good and evil. Frayn of course is only following the lead of so many scientifically illiterate humanists - it's almost taken for granted now among the smart set that quantum mechanics implies some sort of historical, or even moral, uncertainty principle. How this should be - what the actual correlates are between matrix algebra and moral reasoning - always remains unspoken; yet somehow the idea survives, even thrives, at roughly the level of a Charlie Rose interview - a level that, frankly, you'd think Harvard would sniff at.

Yet here the A.R.T. was, positing the idea that the question of Heisenberg's culpability was somehow unanswerable and unknowable - instead of being simply an unpleasant fact that our society had long ago decided to ignore. Gosh, who can really say what his motives were at Copenhagen? Well, this question resonates only about as long as you try to square it with his later actions - then suddenly the best you can say is that he was of two minds, perhaps, at the start of his project, but then dove right in. And as for hints that Heisenberg hoped to get an agreement with Bohr that neither would work on an atom bomb - please; would anyone in Bohr's shoes have just sat tight in Copenhagen, trusting Heisenberg to do what was right? To be fair, Frayn does lay out what Heisenberg's success would have meant for the world - the end of London, followed no doubt by Berlin, then Paris - a cultural apocalypse before which the puny accomplishments of, say, Osama bin Laden would pale. But at the same time Frayn suggests the U.S. (and it seems Niels Bohr) bears some similar level of guilt for the actual bombing of Hiroshima, that we are perhaps even lower on the moral scale than his hero; no ditzy matrix-algebra morals for us, apparently!

Obviously, Copenhagen is Tony-winning claptrap - but at least it's entertaining claptrap, the same way Sleuth and Amadeus are entertaining, and it's skillfully brought off by the A.R.T. team. Still, it was troubling how little the critics engaged with its themes and theses. The play "dazzled and confounded" the Globe's Louise Kennedy, who then offered:

"Copenhagen" has provoked great controversy over its historical accuracy, especially with regard to Heisenberg's relationship with the Nazis. Feelings run high because it deals with profoundly troubling ethical questions and events arising out of the development of nuclear weapons during World War II . . . But director Scott Zigler's spare production helps to turn our focus from the possible discrepancies between Frayn's play and the facts to the broader but deeper concerns that are his true subject: What can we know? What should we do? How are we to live?

Uh-huh. Okay - here are the answers to those questions: What can we know? That Heisenberg, for whatever reason, was a collaborator. What should we do? Refuse to rehabilitate his reputation. How are we to live? By not collaborating with Nazis and their ilk. I mean really. She then tries to compare Frayn's sophistry with Shakespeare's willful misrepresentation of Richard III - which was committed over 125 years after the facts in question (as opposed to 50), and of course led to the creation of one of the greatest characters in literature. But Kennedy actually tries to posit the following:

"In time, I think, Frayn's "Heisenberg" and "Bohr" will become similarly detached from their counterparts in reality; our questions about whether Heisenberg helped or sabotaged the Nazi war effort will remain in the sphere of history, while our reading of the character "Heisenberg" will enrich our consideration of drama, ethics, and the largest questions of human nature . . . Even as I make this argument, I find myself wondering whether I agree with it. Facts matter, after all, and it has become pretty clear that Frayn, like Shakespeare, gets some facts wrong. That matters, too, especially if it gives any aid and comfort to those who attempt to minimize the evil of colluding with Nazis. Ultimately, though, I think my unease and perplexity is part of what Frayn is trying to provoke. He wants us to know that stories get things wrong, that any attempt to see "what happened" is colored by the storyteller's shaping of the story and then further refracted by our own interests, biases, and blind spots."

I don't really know what to say about this other than that the most interesting thing about it is watching Kennedy, like Heisenberg, try to wriggle out of her own position. But can she really believe that "Heisenberg" will ever matter as much to the culture as "Richard III"? And needless to say, any critique of the play's "quantum morals" - even the idea of such a critique - seems to be beyond her. Let's just say if Louise is ever called for jury duty, I think she could hold up this review as evidence of why she should be excused.

Over at the Phoenix, meanwhile, Carolyn Clay didn't do much better:

The play has stirred controversy, with allegations arising as to its scientific accuracy, not to mention its portrayal of lightning rod Heisenberg, who spent his 30 post-war years stepping lightly between identities as Nazi thwarter and bomb bungler. But the play is not intended as docudrama. Rather, it is a metaphorical musing in which Frayn applies scientific method (including what the characters might call the Elsinore principle) to a consideration of history, responsibility, and the human heart.

Clay never wrestles with the fact that the play is far more insidious as a "metaphorical musing" than as a docudrama, and as for "history, responsibility, and the human heart" - really, has she no sense of perspective?

Well, perhaps she has little hard knowledge of the ongoing controversy about Heisenberg. Draft letters from Neils Bohr have recently come to light which pretty much plant a stake in the heart of Copenhagen; in these letters, Bohr recalled Heisenberg declaring during their 1941 walk that "Germany would win the war and that he did not wish to be on the losing side." Put that line in the middle of Copenhagen and the whole pseudo-intellectual soufflé falls flat, doesn't it. Suddenly there's no cloud of probability, no competing Copenhagen interpretations: there's only a simple, hard-headed calculus of the kind scientists like Heisenberg and Bohr were in the habit of making every day.

What's intriguing is the fact that there probably is a fascinating play to be written about Werner Heisenberg - a theoretical genius (though not, thank God, a practical one!) so dazzling as to eclipse, perhaps, even Einstein. Heisenberg was reportedly no anti-Semite, and disdained the crude world of realpolitik - and ironically, he even opposed West Germany's acquisition of nuclear weapons after the war. So how was he drawn into the Nazi nuclear project? By his vaulting ambition, his romantic sense of his "German-ness," his belief that he moved in some otherworldly realm of "truth," above the common fray? It's a question that might someday yield a dramatic character to equal, yes, Richard III.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Return flight

The Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

It's been almost fifteen years since Tony Kushner's Angels in America opened in New York, and nearly two decades since it was first workshopped in L.A.; and yet, as the current revival by Boston Theatreworks proves, much of it sounds as if it could have been written yesterday - even if the ravages of AIDS are now (mostly) behind us. Perhaps this is because while the medical landscape has changed, the political one hasn't, which I note with a heavy heart. It would be nice to say that Angels is "timeless" or "prophetic," as some recent writers have claimed, but I fear Angels seems timeless simply because the times haven't changed that much; we're still stuck in Kushner's brilliantly-evoked polarizations, and the play itself reflects this strange gridlock. Indeed, while the first half, Millennium Approaches, all but longs for some new vision that could truly transform the culture, its companion piece, Perestroika, contents itself with the thought that any such revelation would somehow be a step back.

It's an odd, contrarian position for a work of art to take (Angels is one of a rare breed - the self-refuting classic), and it's hard for me to pretend that I've ever been deeply satisfied with Kushner's masterpiece. But one can be dissatisfied and still dazzled, and Angels remains, even in its current stripped-down staging, amazing. In the breadth and salience of his analysis of millennial America, Kushner has very few peers - as in no peers - and his scenes are studded (particularly in Millennium) with speeches which are, in and of themselves, indeed timeless in their mix of electrically accurate attack and rueful wisdom.

And with all due respect to the superb Mike Nichols film, these speeches should be heard live, on stage, rather than on your widescreen. They demand to be heard in an agora, a public space, as they operate as rhetoric as well as character, in much the same way that Angels is more dialectic than drama. Kushner conjures the most disparate samples of America imaginable (gay New Yorkers and Mormon Republicans), and then smashes them together - often ignoring the exigencies of time and space - to consider and re-consider them as theses and antitheses (a technique far more successful onstage than onscreen). The resulting mix of "magic realism" puts us, as more than one character puts it, at "the threshold of revelation," as it's Kushner's special genius to perceive the parallels between his opposed worlds: the Reagan administration is crawling with gays, the Mormon hero is closeted, and of course, an angel appears to the AIDS-ridden hero, Prior Walter, in a parody of Joseph Smith's famous vision. The opposite poles of the 80s - AIDS and its corresponding political plague, Reagan (one invading the immune system of the body, the other the body politic) thread through and into each other throughout Millennium Approaches in ways that still stagger us with their insight, imagination and sympathy.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder drops in on Tyler Reilly as Millennium Approaches.

But alas, in Perestroika, the dialectic ends not with synthesis but refutation. From the opening moments - in which "the world's oldest Bolshevik" derides us for our lack of a guiding cultural vision - we can sense that Kushner is backing away from the closing challenge of Millennium ("The Great Work begins!"), and though he toys with "restructuring" his Mormon hero and his consort, the "logorrheic" Louis (an obvious self-portrait), by his finale little of the promised "great work" seems to have been accomplished. The gay Mormon has been told off and banished from the play, and his wife has vanished into the ozone, literally - only his mother has been integrated (for reasons never quite made clear) into the circle of politically chatty Cathys Kushner assembles around the Bethesda fountain (at top) in his final tableau. But then perhaps that's the only real angel in the play - since AZT, which couldn't save Roy Cohn but preserves Prior Walter, also came from Bethesda (headquarters of the National Institute of Health).

So it seemed, as I sat down to the new Boston Theatreworks version, that I'd never actually left Angels - everybody sounded just the same as they did in the 90s. But then I had to admit - the Clintons, like political AZT, managed to control Reaganism, but couldn't cure it. Gay men are still marginalized, the Mormons are deeper in denial than ever, the country is still riven by a falsely wholesome "conservatism" - and as a result, directors Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis have been spared the task of revising or updating this play. This is, essentially, the original production - writ a bit smaller, with a slightly grittier edge, but with no surprising new insights or angles. Still, a quite solid cast generally keeps it afloat; even if, as the text loses focus in Perestroika, the production meanders more obviously than the New York original years ago, it's still a highly accomplished, and often deeply moving, version.

It also features, alas, a slightly uneven ensemble; the production essentially depends on three central, sterling performances: Bree Elrod's darkly haunted Harper, Tyler Reilly's wry Prior Walter, and especially Maurice Parent's bitchily regal Belize (at left, with Richard McElvain). This trio is ably abetted by Christopher Webb, who's perhaps a shade too dark as Louis (but who nails Kushner's politically-correct conversational convolutions) and Richard McElvain, who makes a sad serpent of Roy Cohn, but lacks the old dragon's requisite fire. Meanwhile Susanne Nitter brings an intriguing air of acidic bemusement to Ethel Rosenberg, but doesn't really find a center to the (underwritten) role of Mother Pitt, while Sean Hopkins is too often an attractive blank as her (overwritten, but underdeveloped) gay son. Still, as a whole the cast can claim to have successfully wrestled Angels to the boards - as can Boston Theatreworks.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Girl's Guide to Bad Shakespeare

It only takes a few minutes for the sad truth about "Shakespeare's Actresses in America" to sink in: we're supposed to be pretending that Rebekah Maggor (at left) is really pulling this thing off, and she's so not. It's not that Ms. Maggor lacks talent; she's a statuesque actress with a cool yet exotic presence who naturally conjures an aura of faintly bored sexual challenge, and I'd be interested to see her essay any number of roles (Hedda Gabler comes immediately to mind). What she's not, however, is the kind of chameleon who can believably inhabit the styles of about a dozen other actresses (her own presence is just too palpably obdurate). Yet that's precisely what she has set out to do, in a 70-minute tour of famous turns by such stars of the past and present as Ellen Terry, Eva Le Gallienne, Mary Pickford, and even Elizabeth Taylor and Claire Danes.

The results are a weird kind of waxworks, in which Maggor successfully captures the outward style of each actress (and hence the conventions of her day) but fails repeatedly to channel their inner essences. This gap is most obvious when she's mimicking the ironic shrugs of Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet, or Elizabeth Taylor's tinny, spitfire diction in Taming of the Shrew (performances with which many are familiar through film and video). Yes, Maggor accurately apes these women's mannerisms, but not their method: she misses both Danes's quicksilver intelligence and Taylor's near-slatternly sensuality - so what we get are their diction and tics grafted onto Maggor's own elegant, distant presence. The result is that "performance" after "performance" seems really, really bad - in fact, each seems bad even within the standards of its day.

I mean, sure, it's fun to mock the noble tremolo of actresses from a century ago, like Ellen Terry and Julia Marlowe - but something tells me these women made the conventions of their age work on their own terms. Ditto Anita Louise, whose Titania here looks almost absurdly daft, but who seems utterly at home within the art-deco artifice of Warner Bros' Midsummer Night's Dream (also available on home video). Predictably, Maggor's on firmer ground with roles that more closely fit her own skills - she threw off some sparks as Lady Macbeth, for instance - and it was interesting to hear Desdemona in Yiddish (via Celia Adler), or Hamlet in French (via Sarah Bernhardt). Notes on Paul Robeson's debut as Othello at our own Brattle Theatre - via Maggor's tour guide, the intriguingly butch producer Margaret Webster - were also welcome. But you can't really say that Maggor made any of her actresses look good - and as somebody once said, ay, there's the rub.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The fat lady sings for the Pats

Some days being a queen who only cares about opera, ballet, art and theatre definitely has its advantages . . . my condolences . . .