Monday, March 31, 2008

Jocks:16; Drama Jocks:0

Tai Irwin's Boston Herald blog takes the Globe to task for ignoring the high school drama festival that the Globe itself sponsored. Money quote:

. . . you’d probably assume that the paper would cover the event and report on the winners – but you’d be wrong. Instead, on Sunday morning we got sixteen pages of the state’s top athletes, all professionally photographed . . . The message is very clear . . . once again it’s sports that matter most, even to the exclusion of intellectual and artistic activities. What a great thing to tell our kids, over and over again. Never mind the brain pursuits – the science fairs and business/educational coops, and never mind the arts, dance, music, drama. The thing that is going to solve all our problems and nurture all our values best is sports. Me, I love sports, team and individual, youth and lifetime. But here’s the great mistake – psst, they really don’t matter that much and we’ve created a monster, telling every kid that the regional soccer game they have to make next weekend is life or death. Truth is that the overwhelming majority of high school athletes are mediocre in the grand scheme of things, won’t be going to the Olympics and are just having fun. Just having fun. JUST HAVING FUN. But you would never know it from the glorifying of Sunday’s Globe.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The tipping point

Jennifer Harmon and Jack Davidson try to keep their feet in A Delicate Balance.

I don't often make it up to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, but friends told me I simply had to catch their current production of A Delicate Balance, so this weekend I ventured out to the wilds of Lowell. And I was glad I did. This Balance far outweighs the meager strengths of Trinity's muddled, miscast version last season - and if it doesn't quite limn the thematic labyrinth beneath Albee's haunting Pulitzer Prize winner, it still offers an evening with the kind of literate subtlety not seen in Boston in - well, maybe years.

A Delicate Balance almost requires subtle treatment because it's a rather delicate plant - it seems to have withered in its Broadway premiere, and its Pulitzer was widely viewed as a compensation prize for the earlier snub of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But critical opinion has slowly tilted in the play's favor - a crackling Broadway revival revealed just how ferocious its power games could be, and as Albee has re-asserted his status as America's greatest living playwright, productions have proliferated - this is the third, in fact, I've seen in a year (one at Trinity, another at the Stratford Festival in Canada, and now this one at Merrimack).

So I'm feeling, by now, as if I were a minor expert on this particular text - the good news is that it keeps giving up new secrets, and I'd be happy to settle down with it a fourth or fifth time. This despite the fact that it is, I admit, elegantly overwritten, which at first blush can make it feel a bit overblown. Of course some have felt that way about Albee's over-arching project - subverting standard Broadway fare with the nihilistic mood of the Theatre of the Absurd. In A Delicate Balance, it's drawing-room comedy that succumbs to existential dread - it opens with Agnes and Tobias, two wealthy WASP avatars, indulging in overripe repartee in some Westchester redoubt; but soon the couple - or rather their milieu - sinks inexplicably into a kind of dramatic panic attack. Their neighbors - and "best friends" - drop by unannounced, fleeing a nameless fear, and it soon becomes clear they have no intention of leaving. This only further strains the equilibrium of the household, which includes Claire, Agnes's live-in sister and drunken antagonist, and Julia, the couple's spoiled daughter, who has returned home licking her wounds from the collapse of a fourth marriage. Indeed, before the sun also rises, everyone will have lost their balance, with cocktails spattered and pistols brandished, all to the sardonic accompaniment of an accordion (I'm not kidding).

The trouble with - or rather the trick to - the underlying chaos of A Delicate Balance, however, is the play's muted, exploratory quality. In Virginia Woolf, it's obvious we're on an elevator straight to hell, but Balance instead hovers teasingly in something like the same vicinity. It's clear many of the earlier play's issues lie just beneath its highly-worked surface - with their only son dead years ago, and their daughter childless, Agnes and Tobias are facing a sterility much like that of Woolf 's George and Martha, and they are likewise grappling with a history of adultery, mutual humiliation, and old-fashioned emotional failure. But while in Woolf, Albee flays his characters down to their last secret (and then sucks out its marrow), in Balance, he leaves almost everything under wraps, lifting the veil of civilization only occasionally to reveal the horrors moving beneath.

This makes Balance both more humane than Woolf and harder to pin down; it floats somewhere between tragedy and farce, and its dynamics generate a spooky unease (or perhaps dis-ease, as Agnes insists her friends are carrying "the plague") without ever settling on a specific frame of reference or theme. Is it a critique of a social class, who suddenly face the terrible flip-side of their pampered aimlessness? Is it a satire of a family so dysfunctional that everything but the liquor cabinet has been compromised or lost? Or is it a tragedy of people whose emotional bargains have rendered them incapable of real connection?

Certainly it's very much of its period, which the Merrimack sensibly underlines (and Trinity attempted to dodge). Don't get me wrong - Balance is a universal play, but its particulars - its cocktail chatter about servants and jokes about one-piece bathing suits - resist updating or revision. Thus it's a pleasure to note that the entire cast looks just as they should - aging, but still country-club elegant, and in costumes (by the talented Martha Hally) that immediately conjure "swinging" late-60s Connecticut. Designer Bill Clarke's set is likewise a funereal delight, with a jet-black picture window that looms over the action much like the mysterious threat outside (when morning finally comes, what's really beyond the window comes as another pleasant shock).

Meanwhile director Charles Towers keeps the action humming along nicely - although sometimes only ensuring the play is "in shape" (as Agnes might say) rather than fathoming its strange depths. I longed, for instance, for more hints of tension between Agnes and Tobias, as well as a stronger undercurrent of self-loathing from Claire (who sexually betrayed her sister long ago), and a more destabilizing, gonzo explosion from daughter Julia, who all but throws herself across the wet bar as if it were the family hearth (which in a way it is). Most importantly, the production didn't quite bring off the sense of re-alignment in the last act, when we discover the genuine "fulcrum" of the clan is Tobias (who then, too late, sends out a desperate plea for connection).

But if the actors sometimes slight the play's subtext, they're pretty dazzling on its surface. Jennifer Harmon brings just the right graciously anxious sheen to Agnes's long arias - even when she's musing on her own sanity, or lack thereof - and Penny Fuller likewise knows where all the bitter laughs in Claire's boozy self-indulgence are buried. Meanwhile Gloria Biegler, though hardly crazed enough in Julia's meltdown, generally etched a complex portrait of wounded self-absorption, and as the invading "friends," Ross Bickell and Jill Tanner toed a highly amusing line between weakness and menace. I was least taken with Jack Davidson's Tobias, whose waters sometimes seemed to run still but not deep - until the character's surprising cry of pain in the last act, which Davidson made utterly convincing.

And it's that cry which I think, in the end, is Albee's signature - the naked, humiliating, all-too-human howl of men and women caught in the desperately cruel, contradictory vise of life. That hearing it expressed should render a deep kind of aesthetic pleasure - the pleasure of recognition - is one of the ironies of our existence, I suppose. But it's an irony worth savoring at the Merrimack.

Friday, March 28, 2008

One less tenant at CitiCenter

The big question mark over CitiCenter's future just got a little bigger. Boston Ballet announced a day or two ago that it would be moving permanently to the Opera House. Now the Exhibitionist reveals that Celebrity Series won't be booking the hall either, at least not next year (Alvin Ailey was all but an annual tradition). Who will fill the gap at CitiCenter? Stay tuned . . .

Magic island

Benjamin Evett, Marianna Bassham and John Kuntz ponder the music of Shakespeare - and the spheres - in The Tempest.

Ah, the Actors' Shakespeare Project; I never know quite what to say about this intrepid group's productions. I want to like them, because they're always intelligent, and the ASP itself seems like a bunch of genuinely nice folks. And I have to admit that when it comes to delivery of the text, the ASP is always quite strong; actually, The Tempest is not as well-spoken as Henry V or Love's Labour's Lost was, but it's still a model of articulate (though not lyrical) delivery. The troupe is even consistently inventive in its designs (particularly its lighting designs), with The Tempest probably standing as its strongest visual statement yet. This time even the troupe's signature use of existing spaces pays off handsomely: the high, elegant hall in which The Tempest unfurls, with its late-Victorian feel and vaguely nautical gallery, provides just the right atmosphere for director Patrick Swanson's music-hall-magician conceit: the show for once actually feels like it belongs in its assigned space.

So what's not to like?

Well, to most local critics, not much; The Tempest, like most ASP efforts, got sterling reviews, even on a national level (the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, who must be a buddy of Alvin Epstein's, once again dropped by and penned a rave). But I'm not much puzzled by this kind of thing anymore - after all, there's no tradition of great Shakespeare in Boston (and perhaps nowhere in America); I don't think the ART has ever delivered a really convincing production, and the Huntington's only memorable entry in the competition was Love's Labour's Lost a few seasons ago. Raves were recently delivered to the irritating Richard III down at Trinity, and I remember critics doing handsprings for the so-so As You Like It that toured at the Wilbur a few years back. And let's be honest - even though this is supposed to be the "Athens of America," and we're supposed to know from Shakespeare, none of our leading critics has much feel for the Bard per se; they are, instead, generally most excited by productions that are either blessed by some ditzy academic or that bend Shakespeare to this or that current trend (this is called "bringing the play to life!").

To be fair, this kind of thing is fairly muted at the ASP, although they do project an air of the Cambridge-style gypsy. The sense of 70s-era commedia can get a little relentless, ditto the rigid feminism, and there's a positive horror of the courtly refinement endemic to so much Shakespeare (and so The Tempest's masque must perforce be a burlesque). Within those crunchy limits, however, I suppose the ASP is about the best around. I certainly never wince at their productions; I just always leave a little dissatisfied.

Which is how I felt, in the end, with Patrick Swanson's directorial conceit (and make no mistake, despite its supposed focus on the actor, the ASP has slowly allowed directorial concept to seep into its productions). At first, the music-hall production design - paired, for some reason, with a sea-shanty score - felt wonderful, particularly in its opening gambit, in which a model ship rode a "tempest" onstage (via a bit of conjured canvas). And I was intrigued by Ariel's equestrienne costume (if not by Caliban's half-hearted sideshow-freak get-up, at right). Other design elements - the footlights, the trap-doors, the gauzy upstage curtain - felt just right, and Swanson enlivened several scenes with clever bits of stage magic.

Still, the idea wore thin - or rather, it somehow never grew, in the end, to encompass Shakespeare's rough, transformational magic. The same critique might be made of Alvin Epstein's performance as Prospero (at left). The actor is a living legend, with a resume that includes such landmarks as the original New York production of Waiting for Godot, and he certainly has the aura of prickly wisdom that only genuine experience can provide. But Epstein lacks the largeness of presence and purpose to fully embody Shakespeare's last great role - he didn't even attempt a sense of the character's arc, which should move from vengeful temptation to a mode that Auden onced called "beautifully diminished." You never felt that this Prospero was particularly dangerous, or that anything about his redemption was at stake - as with his Lear, Epstein threw tantrums, not tempests. And it didn't help that the actor was unsteady with the text; several pregnant pauses punctuated his performance, and he even patched the famous "Our revels now are ended" speech with a garbled scrap from Hamlet.

Elsewhere the performances were problematic in different ways. No one in the court brought much spark to their scenes (and I'd argue Gonzalo and Sebastian were miscast), and Mara Sidmore made a standardly rugged postfeminist Miranda (Jason Bowen brought more romantic charm to Ferdinand). But the clowns - the reliably bitchy John Kuntz and a grizzled, improbably swashbuckling Robert Walsh - were consistently fun, and Ben Evett's Caliban, after a damped-down opening scene, seemed to loosen up in their company. But then there was Marianna Bassham's Ariel - Bassham is one of my favorite local actresses, but I have to say that once we got used to her apparel (which I admit put her in a kind of straitjacket), her Ariel proffered far more calm than charm, and to little theatrical return. At a talkback after the performance I attended, the actress mentioned that she saw her Ariel as "a professional" - and suddenly I understood why the concept hadn't worked. Ariel is a tricksy spirit, not an MBA candidate. Can a "professional" Puck with a blackberry and laptop be far off?

Well, let's hope not. But am I, in the end, being too hard on the ASP? Certainly many think so, and I have to admit that spending an evening with this troupe always, at the very least, leaves me pondering some part of the play with renewed or refreshed insight. Perhaps this Tempest is not such stuff as dreams are made on, as it first promises; still, at its best it gives delight, and at its worst it hurts not.


Correction! Earlier today I posted the following:

You'd think no one would dare tamper with an icon like the Eiffel Tower. But you'd be wrong. At left is a rendering of a temporary remodeling of the landmark by Serero Architects. The new addition is intended as a "celebration" of the tower's 120th anniversary, and will double the surface area of the topmost viewing platform. And it's fine, of course, if it proves only temporary. But wasn't the tower itself supposed to be only temporary? At any rate, you can read more about the new platform, which is supposedly "generated" by the existing structure's "DNA," here.

But it turns out the whole "temporary remodeling" was something of a misunderstanding, caused by Serero Architects' posting of a proposed remodeling design on the Web. The Eiffel Tower's managers say, however, that there are no plans to change its appearance for its 120th anniversary. Whew!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The sub-prime arts scene

Everywhere you look these days, you can see the impact of the faltering economy on the arts scene. A few weeks back, Boston Theatreworks cancelled their upcoming production of The Crucible. Meanwhile local galleries are in turmoil, with several moves and closings imminent (not all, at least according to the proprietors, due to economic pressures, but it's hard to believe said pressures aren't playing a part in all the flux). The Boston Ballet announced not long ago that it would be cutting dancers from its roster, and just today came the news it will be relocating to the Opera House permanently - which leaves the struggling CitiCenter without a major tenant. And there's talk of the Wilbur next door becoming a comedy club. Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that for the first time in recent history, the BSO has been offering half-price tickets and other discounts? And of course there's ongoing chop at the A.R.T., which still lacks an Artistic Director. Fasten your seatbelts, arts lovers - our cultural renaissance seems poised for a major retrenchment!

With strings attached

I've been ignoring the Handel and Haydn Society lately, despite the fact that their spring concerts have been providing reliable pleasure, and sometimes much more - Philip Pickett's conducting of "Baroque Jewels" (combined with Nicholas Martin's light-hearted direction of several dramatic scenes) was a particular delight. But I promise all that is going to change, and what better place to start than last week's "Italian Virtuosi" concert, led by H&H concertmaster Daniel Stepner (at left), and featuring the luminous vocalist Dominique Labelle.

The program opened with concerti grossi by Corelli, Vivaldi, and Locatelli, before shifting into a slightly different mode with Handel's Il Delirio amoroso featuring Labelle. A purist might argue the evening was therefore neither entirely fish nor fowl, but I think only a specialist wouldn't have wanted a break after three (admittedly lovely) concerti grossi in a row. And to tell the truth, I wasn't entirely sold on the Corelli, which felt slightly tentative in its pacing and attack. The Vivaldi, by way of contrast, was lively and often captivating, driven as it was by an unlikely, yet lyrically bickering, dialogue between oboe (Stephen Hammer) and bassoon (Andrew Schwartz). The Locatelli was most surprising of all in its energy and depth of feeling - largely due to Stepner's own virtuosic turn as lead violin, and the obvious rapport he had with the other players (the collegiality at H&H remains one of its central strengths).

Then came Handel's Delirio, which is a kind of one-act-opera-for-one, in which the soprano provides her own scenic description, narrative, recitative, and aria. The text is a variant of the Orpheus myth, although this time it's the nymph Chloris who laments the death of her beloved Thyrsis and descends to the underworld to seek him. Once discovered, Thyrsis turns out to be something of a clod, but that doesn't deter the clever Chloris, who recommends a dip in the river Lethe to wash away any bad feelings - indeed, to wash away memory itself. The piece concludes with a poignant evocation of love after death in Elysium, with the strangely equivocal words, "If an eclipsed sun's bright light was no longer seen, at least it was seen in the imagination."

Okay, whatever works, Chloris. The sun hardly seemed in eclipse, however, when essayed by the radiant voice of Dominique Labelle (at right). Utterly secure in pitch, yet astonishingly fluid in her technique, and with a golden tone that bordered on the opulent, Labelle delivered one of the most memorable vocal performances in recent Boston history. She projects a solid, intelligent presence that perhaps wasn't ideal for the role, but her instrument - and its gorgeously warm classical balance - basically made any dramatic quibbles moot. When it comes to Handel, I'd say she has few peers - and while I don't see her listed in next year's H&H season, I'm hoping we'll be seeing her very soon after that.

And now for something completely different . . .

Last weekend the Great Boston Burlesque Exposition came to Cambridge, complete with hula hoops, feathered fans, and enough pasties to fill Harvard Square. As I've often opined on the ubiquity of male flesh onstage, I thought I'd throw my straight male readers a - um - bone, as it were, with this video from the Cambridge Chronicle. It may not be appropriate for the workplace, but trust me, you won't want to miss the gorgeous Gyna Rose Jewel's finale.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Handel with care

The Boston Secession, with Jane Ring Frank, right center. Photos by Stu Rosner.

Last weekend brought another memorable concert from Boston Secession, "Handel in the Strand" - and it's good to see I'm not the only one paying attention to this intrepid chorale these days (the Globe reviewed them again after a long dry spell). This time out, director Jane Ring Frank's program was more focused - which also meant, perforce, that the evening featured fewer wild, weird discoveries than usual. Yet its first half was focused not on Handel but on his most famous competitor, John Gay, whose The Beggar's Opera, a bitingly satiric and influential "ballad opera" (or opera with dialogue rather than recitative) actually replaced Handel's Italianate operas in popularity. Still, the long consideration of airs from Gay was by turns rollicking and ravishing - and even surprisingly romantic, particularly in a set of exquisite "realizations" by Benjamin Britten.

Here Jason McStoots (at left) deployed a classically light, but surprisingly agile and expressive tenor to moving effect in the Britten settings of "Were I laid on Greenland's coast," and "If the heart of a man is depressed with cares." This melancholy made an intriguing contrast with the acerbic selections from Brecht and Weill's more famous reworking, The Threepenny Opera - although the Secession singers proved adept at both modes: McStoots brought a bitter brio to "The Cannon Song," while Marc J. DeMille and Thea Lobo found the cold shrug within "The Instead-of Song."

The second half of the program, however, brought us with a vengeance back to Handel, but in oratorio, rather than opera, mode. Here Frank's contention was clear - that the composer cast a long shadow over choral writing throughout the nineteenth century and beyond - and her selections demonstrated her thesis impeccably. The opening "Sing Ye to the Lord," from Israel in Egypt, featured ethereal top notes from soloist Brenna Wells, and Jason McStoots returned for another passionate turn in "Then shall the righteous shine forth," from Mendelssohn's Elijah (capably conducted by Katherine FitzGibbon). Like the Globe reviewer, I longed for larger forces at times, particularly during the Brahms Triumphlied, but was in general surprised at how evocative the ensemble of strings and organ Frank had recruited to accompany her chorus turned out to be.

The evening ended with a classically quirky Secession flourish - the U.S. premiere of the "Hallelujah!" chorus from Paul Ayres's Messyah, a strangely phase-shifted reconsideration of the Messiah. Here the triumphal thrust of the original was fractured and refracted into several voices hauntingly out of sync - a fiendishly intricate effect which the Secession brought off with cleanly balanced control, perhaps born of their confidence that yes, Handel is still very much with us, and always will be.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A shining moment from Shining City

Above is a short sample of John Judd's performance in the Huntington's Shining City - a brilliant turn that should land him IRNE and Norton Award nominations. But Judd's hasn't been the only sterling performance so far this season. Other performances to recall and savor include:

Nancy E. Carroll, Paula Plum, and Bobbie Steinbach in The Clean House, the New Rep;

Will McGarrahan and Diego Arciniegas, Some Men, SpeakEasy Stage;

Jeff Gill, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Way Theatre;

Georgia Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel, The Scene, Lyric Stage; and

Maureen Keiller, Angie Jepson, The Little Dog Laughed, SpeakEasy Stage.

Congratulations to all! And to think we're only halfway through the spring season . . .

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No movie for twist endings?

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the past weekend I saw the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men for the second time - as my friends hadn't seen it, and I enjoyed it enough the first time to sit through it again. It is, as I may have posted earlier, an effective, if limited, movie with a memorable atmosphere - a kind of Fargo with sand, not snow, and a bit more depth. Only I confess that this time, as the notoriously frustrating (at least to some people) ending unspooled onscreen, I began to wonder if perhaps I had fully appreciated the movie's ambiguities - or at least the curious lacunae in its plot - the first time through.


As you may (or may not) have heard, No Country for Old Men, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, attempts to wring fresh blood from several pop clichés - a drug deal gone wrong, a briefcase full of cash, and an unstoppable hit man (Javier Bardem, above, in a Prince Valiant haircut). That the movie succeeds at some level is beyond question - its long, complex chases are gripping, the Coens keep us guessing till the finish (and as I'll explain, beyond), and the film features remarkable performances from Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kelly Macdonald. At the same time, however, a certain sense of repetition begins to dog the violence in the picture, a subplot with another bounty hunter goes nowhere, and the sudden "climax" is strangely amorphous (our "hero" does not escape with the cash, but gets killed for his trouble - and off-screen, and not by his chief antagonist, either). This has caused howls of execration from the fanboys who otherwise would have swooned over the movie's elegant mechanics - while at the same time drawing praise from critics only too grateful to reward some movie, any movie, for violating the calcified conventions of pop genre.

But it's actually after the death of the "hero" that the picture begins to get interesting - or at least, intriguingly ambiguous. Ellipses have already figured prominently in the story - the drugs themselves go missing sans comment, and Bardem's character ("Anton Chigurh," a name that almost cries out for explication) seems to always be in the right place at the right time, even eluding the building security of a malevolent corporation. But his final encounter with Tommy Lee Jones's pursuing sheriff proves his most mysterious. We see Chigurh in the darkness of a hotel room, waiting (he thinks) for a returning Josh Brolin (who actually has already been killed by a Mexican gang). But it's Tommy Lee Jones who comes to the door, and hesitates when he sees its lock blown open (a Chigurh signature). Jones then arms himself, and pushes his way into the room - from which the assassin has somehow vanished.

Jones checks the only exit, a bathroom window; it's locked from the inside. He then notices the grille has been removed from a duct in the wall - only it's too small for a man to shimmy through. Jones then slowly sinks onto the bed, mystified; he's already described his prey as a kind of "ghost" - indeed, Chigurh's favorite question is, "Have you seen me?" But could he actually spirit himself through an air duct? Without further explanation, the movie fades to its next scene.

Soon after, however, Chigurh has returned, very much in the flesh, to murder the dead man's wife, Carla Jean, who doesn't have the money he stole (which may, or may not, been recovered by that Mexican gang - another ellipsis). Chigurh is bent on the killing simply because he promised to do it if Brolin didn't fork over the cash (which he didn't). The best he can do, he tells the poor woman, is toss a coin and have her call it - on this she must stake her life. It's a trick he's pulled before, seeming to intimate that his murderousness is an amoral, objective fact, a form of fate, if you will.

Only Carla Jean won't make the call; she insists that the responsibility for his actions remain his own.

And then something curious happens. We see Chigurh leave Carla Jean's house, and wipe his boots on her porch - a motion he has made after other murders (blood spatters and trails are a persistent motif). But the second time around, I wondered - did he actually kill her? And if he did, why didn't the Coens show it (they've hardly been squeamish about earlier offings). I also noticed that Chirgurh had no weapon when he accosted Carla Jean - nor did he leave with one: another curious narrative gap; doubly odd in that friends have told me Cormac McCarthy leaves no doubt that Chirgurh offs Carla Jean with a gun.

Josh Brolin gets the party started in No Country for Old Men.

So what are the Coens up to? The sequence becomes stranger still. Chigurh makes his getaway by car, perhaps slightly less calmly than usual. He is distracted by two young boys riding their bikes down the street - and then is suddenly smashed into, without warning, by a passing station wagon. He drags himself from the wreckage, a shard of bone poking from his arm. The boys ride up and tell him an ambulance has been summoned, but Chirgurh refuses it; instead he pays one for his shirt (as Josh Brolin also did of a passing young man), wraps his arm in it, and hobbles off, apparently to set the wound himself (we've already seen him dig out bullets from his flesh). The last we see of him is a dark form limping down the suburban street.

The scene is weirdly evocative for reasons hard to pin down. First is the creepy sense that Chigurh may be able to survive anything - but weirder still is the feeling that perhaps fate at last has turned on him. What happened in Carla Jean's house? Whether Chigurgh killed her or not, he was forced to make a moral choice, to exercise his free will. If he did kill her, then there's a sense of divine justice in fate sending an errant Country Squire his way. But if he didn't, what does his becoming a marked man say about the universe?

Such teasing suspicions about the cosmos are, of course, a film noir staple - and are integral to the movie's aura of moral apocalypse rising from the empty plains of the 80s. But just how many options can a movie leave open before it becomes a little, well, incoherent? One moment Chigurh is a force of fate, the next, he's a ghost melting into thin air - but the next, he's an existential moral agent, and the next, he's a hunted man. That's quite a few reversals, particularly around a drug deal gone so wrong that neither the drugs nor the money can actually be accounted for. Perhaps the Coens are after something more than moral chaos - perhaps they're after a sense of physical, empirical chaos too. If so, that would explain everything.

No Country for Grown Men, or Is There a Cure for Ty Burr (Part II)?

Okay, this is a minor thing - but like many minor things, it hints at a much larger assumption moving beneath the surface of our cultural life. In a recent post on his "blog" (and I use the term advisedly) over at the Globe, movie critic Ty Burr wrote a paean to The Clean House (currently at the New Rep; I didn't much like the play, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better production). Burr's main point was that Clean House shifts in its focus and tone over the course of its two acts in a way that movies (at least today) almost never do.

In the old days, of course, things at the movie house were (a little) different - The Wizard of Oz makes one bizarre leap after another, The Bridge on the River Kwai heads down an unexpected road after its first act, and Psycho and The Birds basically implode and start over halfway through (indeed all these films morph quite a bit more than The Clean House, but never mind). This may, come to think of it, be due to the fact that classic movies are far more closely tied to the theatre than movie critics like to admit. Oz is in many ways a series of vaudevilles, Casablanca is a barely-opened-out stage play, and what is Citizen Kane's "deep focus" but an attempt to reproduce on film the atmosphere of the stage? Even today the open-mindedness of the theatre persists onscreen, but only at the arthouse - right now, Michael Haneke's Funny Games, for example, is twisting before its audience's eyes from torture porn into straight-on torture, without the porn (and most of Haneke's films are equally open-ended).

But Burr's point is nonetheless well taken, and one might imagine hints at an awareness on his part that generally he's reviewing hackwork - except for this telling, highly irritating aside:

I have to admit I'm fairly sour on the Boston area theater scene -- 20 years in New York followed by two subscription seasons at The Huntington that just about put me into a coma will do that.

To which I can only say - are you f-ing kidding? I just tried to find a new movie to watch this weekend. My options included College Road Trip, Drillbit Taylor, 10,000 B.C., Horton Hears a Who and Never Back Down - out-and-out junk that would never find its way onto a local stage. Okay, I know what you're saying - what about the Kendall? Even there the pickings were slim - In Bruges I had heard was overrated, and I just wasn't up for The Counterfeiters, yet another ironic WWII genre piece. (My friends and I settled on No Country for Old Men.)

So I had to wonder - Ty Burr was almost sent into a coma by two years of Boston theatre, while my eyes are glazing over just scanning the ads for what amounts to his daily diet? I mean really - seeing Hollywood product at something like Burr's rate would destroy my soul in short order, and I think would do about the same thing to just about anyone of any real sensitivity. It would be like eating the equivalent of a cultural Big Mac every single day - you'd wind up in the hospital, like that guy from Supersize Me. Indeed, Burr tries to limit his exposure to the toxic extremes of his own medium as much as possible - he hews closely to the Kendall calendar too, but is still sometimes stuck with "critiquing" the likes of 10,000 B.C. Me, I count myself lucky to have escaped from that kind of "entertainment" entirely, via the fact that I happen to be a writer whom hundreds of people want to read - without that, I'd never be able to afford my cultural calendar, and I'd be stuck at the multiplex many a Saturday night, just like everybody else, weighing the relative "virtues" of the latest chick flick versus Spiderman 7.

I know some will claim this is snobbery - but isn't that claim in itself a form of reverse snobbery? Indeed, I've all but given up trying to convince a lot of folks that I really like Shakespeare and Mozart - they're just too deep in denial. I'd only point out that it's hard to square their claims of snobbery with the fact that when real culture is presented at low prices, or for free - like the summer opera and Shakespeare programs on the Common, or the Met broadcasts at local cinemas - the public turns out in droves. They're hungry for the real thing - they by and large simply can't afford it!

Indeed, just indulge me in a little thought experiment - imagine, for a moment, that the tickets to local theatre productions - like The Clean House, The Tempest, or Some Men - were $10, and that Drillbit Taylor and 10,000 B.C. cost $50. Which do you think would be the hot tickets? And something tells me Ty Burr's blog would suddenly reverse itself - all at once, no doubt, the moviehouses would be full of catatonia-inducing sludge, while the theatres would be chock-a-block with lively, popular entertainment.

So don't fall for Burr's brand of flattering double talk - it's obviously false on its face. And ignore the silly adjuncts to his arguments, too - such as the old canard that those of us who frequent high culture do so only because "it's supposed to be good for you." Because you know what? It is good for you. You do become a deeper, more sensitive, more open person the more you're exposed to high culture. I don't see why that's considered uncool, or some kind of debit; the effect of the opposite claim is rather like hearing a smoker sneer at you, "Oh, the only reason you don't smoke is that it's healthier," or listening to someone snort, "Oh, you just eat fresh produce because it's good for you," as they wolf down an extra-large order of fries. I mean, what can you say? Except, of course, "Uh-huh; that's right!"

So my advice is to skip 10,000 B.C., College Road Trip, and Horton Hears a Who, and use the $30 you've saved to buy a half-price ticket at Bostix to Some Men or The Tempest, or even The Clean House or Shining City. You'll have a better time - and you'll be a better person, too.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ghost writer

Jay Whittaker haunts his office in Shining City. Production photos by Peter Wynn Thompson.

It's a commonplace lament in the theatrical world that this-or-that script "works better on the page than on the stage." But you'd be hard pressed to find a more intriguing example of this phenomenon than Conor McPherson's Shining City, now in its Boston premiere at the Huntington. For City almost perversely kicks away the props generally used to build and shape conflict: one lead character essentially monologues, while the other says almost nothing, and its scenes - which generally omit the events they discuss - are separated by weeks, or even months, of time. Indeed, the play seems all but opposed to a sense of rising action, much less structure - but almost by way of compensation, the script is impeccably structured in a literary sense. Upon reflection, one can see that almost every line, every bit of exposition, has been tied to its central revelation (which occurs in a shocking final image), but the question still lingers - has this been a drama, or an essay?

Yes, I know, before you say it - didn't Beckett, and other absurdists, dispense with "rising action" long ago? Well, yes - only Beckett's exploratory, philosophical themes were perfectly embodied by his elliptical "structure," such as it was. With McPherson, however, one senses a traditional narrative simply broken up into intriguing chunks - quite a different thing. And then there's the persistent impression that the playwright has told only half his tale - the curtain falls on a coup that actually shifts the story into higher gear rather than ending it (although perhaps McPherson feels that simply nailing down his tale to its essence provides enough of a "wrap").

Any critic is hamstrung in his or her analysis of the play, however, by the fact that so much turns on that final moment, and to discuss it openly may well ruin it, particularly McPherson, as is his wont, is trading in the enjoyably creepy tropes of the supernatural. The set-up is actually drawn from any number of modern chillers: an emotionally broken man (John Judd, at left) turns to a therapist (Jay Whittaker) because, he claims, he has begun seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife around the house. The therapist then begins drawing out the emotional material that could be causing these hallucinations. That is, of course, if they are hallucinations . . .

On such uncertainty many a pleasantly chilling cliffhanger, well, has hung - and make no mistake, McPherson has the old-fashioned chops of an Arthur Conan Doyle or M.R. James when it comes to the eerily suggestive; at many moments, Shining City (like its more accomplished cousin, The Seafarer) holds the audience bemusedly spellbound, as if we were once again at camp, shivering to goosebump-inducing tales around a crackling fire. McPherson also expertly conjures a very real, flesh-and-blood character to spin his spooky yarn - one given (with appropriate irony) a rude, earthy life here by John Judd, in a near-perfect performance that's a marvel of spontaneous timing and shifting mood.

Still, the play surrounding these uncanny flights of fancy - punctuated as they are by realistically Pinterian pauses - somehow dodges what we slowly sense should be its central concern. If the essence of therapy is "transference," in which the patient perceives his own complexes via his relationship to his therapist, then it's perhaps not giving away too much to say that McPherson (at right) has in mind to demonstrate a kind of "counter-transference" in Shining City - only he never actually dramatizes it. Instead he offers a subtle, and beautifully detailed, suggestion that all his characters (and, perhaps, all his audience too) are emotional ghosts, prevented from fully living their lives by complicated, unresolvable feelings, and of course that old bugbear, guilt over past sins. The poor fellow who's seeing shades is himself a kind of wanderer, driven out of his own home by fear; his therapist, meanwhile, is living out of his office, having left his girlfriend in the lurch with their baby; she, too, it turns out, now has no place of her own - everyone, in short, is haunting the "shining city" of Dublin, which may itself be a city of ghosts. And in such a bustling metropolis of lost souls, what's one more piece of itinerant ectoplasm? Or to put it another way, is a "ghost" any less "real" for being emotional rather than actual?

Or is a play itself something of a "ghost" if it never really engages these questions in an actual conflict? Some may feel that way after Shining City's sudden curtain - and wonder if, rather than a successful experiment in "dramatizing" therapy, the script actually represents a clever strategy for McPherson to leverage his well-known flair for monologue into a full-length play. Still others may simply feel satisfied by Judd's startling performance as the haunted patient - although perhaps less so by Whittaker's slightly-too-pinched turn as his would-be exorcist. The rest of the production is pleasingly subtle (a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, it's capably directed by the veteran Robert Falls) - although Santo Loquasto's soaring set, floating as it was in louring skies, seemed to me almost too obviously situated for ectoplasmic access. But then I suppose that's the whole idea.

Scenes from a marriage

Some Men surf for sex on the Net.

When Louise Kennedy dismissed Terrence McNally's Some Men (through March 29, from SpeakEasy Stage at the BCA) as "sweet, slick, and light . . . a harmlessly manipulative entertainment," I confess I was brought up a little short. The play had struck me as flawed, but at its best probably the strongest newish piece of dramatic writing I'd seen in Boston for a while; but was this simply because I was as homocentric as Louise is gynocentric? What was funniest was that I'd just dismissed the chick-littish Clean House as slick and manipulative, while Louise had been ready to hand it the Pulitzer Prize!

Of course, I'm not so silly as to suggest a Pulitzer for McNally. Some Men is at times frustratingly thin, epic in its scope but without a corresponding depth - which comes part and parcel, I'd say, with its structure: it's a pastiche of scenes from gay life over the last century or so. Nevertheless, McNally does pull together a skein of suggestive strands over the course of the evening, and several of his sketches pack a surprising emotional and thematic punch. Indeed, unlike The Clean House, Some Men stays in constant, if light, contact with real life - this isn't the kind of show where cancer victims talk about sex and eat chocolate ice cream before valiantly dying. It is, instead, the kind of show in which people die without any self-dramatization at all.

Which leads me to one of several gaps in the playwright's conception: he offers a single, unsatisfying scene about AIDS, which of course looms far larger in most gay men's consciousness, even today, than this slightly distant treatment implies. But then "slight distance" is in itself a classic gay stance; and McNally is quite right to insist that AIDS no longer defines us, as it did for a decade or so; it has been replaced as our defining issue by marriage, which the playwright deploys as a classic framing device. Some Men opens with a wedding ceremony, for an unseen gay couple: attending are nine men who will become our proxies for exploring gay life through the ages. Several are couples themselves; one or two have been married before, to women; some we learn are related, others only entwined - but soon McNally begins playing a bit loose with his own frame, as it were. Over the course of the evening, we meet many more characters than these nine, and part of the parlor-game aspect of the show is figuring out exactly how everyone connects with everyone else.

"Only connect," of course, is another gay mantra, by another gay writer (E.M. Forster), and it's interesting to consider the connections gay life has actually afforded despite its backbeat of casual sex. McNally's achievement in Some Men is to give a sense of how those connections gradually amounted - like his many vignettes - to something like a revolution, even if he sidesteps such main events as Stonewall (again, that slight distance). Instead, he lightly sketches what amounts to a Proustian timeline (I know, stop me before I go too far): over the course of Some Men, sandwiched in between the hustlers and the backroom sex (at right), an inheritance and a home change hands, and one straight family collapses, only to be reconstituted as a new, gay one; at the finale, we suddenly realize that, like Proust's Gilberte, gay men are now wandering around the halls of the heterosexual ancien régime, where we were once officially excluded.

Of course what all this means for gay identity remains a tantalizingly open question, which McNally never really attempts to answer. His real theme is instead the generational shift in gay consciousness that our liberation perforce has forced. What's striking about Some Men, in fact, is that while it accurately sketches the confines of the closet, it also mourns its passing. One character sighs that on the Internet, his wit, his "gay voice," doesn't seem to translate (typing LOL after a joke effectively kills it). Another older couple expresses surprise when a pair of earnest "gender studies" students question them about their oppression: "We thought we were living in a golden age!" they reply. Indeed, wry nostalgia for gay things past permeates Some Men; despite its confines, the closet in retrospect looks a lot more, well, fabulous than divorce court and Baby Gap do.

Not that McNally actually advocates going back there; still, he lets everyone have their wistful say, even those who sat out the Stonewall Riots (his most powerful scene). And it's at moments like these that Some Men packs the most punch - when specific observation deflates the mythic, and reveals the human disappointment that lurks even within the historic. As Will McGarrahan (above) puts it in that central scene, "Whenever I break out of a box, I sooner or later find myself in a bigger box." He then begins a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that just might be the most movingly self-aware version you ever heard; in a moment, McNally captures all the contradictions of gay identity, which longs most of all to somehow transcend itself.

Not all of Some Men is so piercing; in general, McNally is less good at conjuring scenes - and eras - that are far from his experience. Likewise he only lightly touches on issues of race (in an affecting reference to a Harlem dalliance of Lorenz Hart's, which neatly repurposes "Ten Cents a Dance" to its probable source). But perhaps plays should be judged by their best scenes, not their weakest - and at any rate McNally's wit and dramaturgical chops keep even his synthesized scenes humming along nicely, and the SpeakEasy cast is always up to the demands of the material (and then some). McGarrahan's turn in drag is peerless, but he is affecting in several roles throughout the show, which Diego Arciniegas nicely anchors in a subtle turn as the married man who leaves the closet for another man (providing the closest thing to a narrative thread McNally offers). The evening also boasts skillful comic turns from Christopher Loftus, Robert Saoud, Maurice E. Parent, and Christopher Michael Brophy, but the entire cast gets a chance to shine in one guise or other; the whole crew has the most fun with that central sketch, in which various varieties of gay dorkery convene around a white baby grand (perhaps rescued from Napoleon's, a long-lost Boston haunt!) to spar over show-tune arcana. I haven't laughed quite so hard at a Boston show in quite some time - nor have I been quite so touched. And I wasn't alone; by the finale, an older gay couple behind me was quietly sobbing. But then perhaps that's what happens to you when you watch your life pass before your eyes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Twistin' by the pool

Just a quick note about Metamorphoses, a new production of Mary Zimmerman's acclaimed adaptation of Ovid by the fringe company Boston Actors Theater, through Saturday at the BCA. I missed Ms. Zimmerman's extravaganza on Broadway, where Ovid's gods toyed with their human playthings like so many rubber duckies on the ever-changing waves of an Olympian (if not Olympic-sized) swimming pool. This watery grounding - along with the cast's dance and circus skills - by all accounts worked more than seven wonders with Zimmerman's good-but-not-great adaptation; but alas, Boston Actors Theater tries to make a similar splash with just three small basins in the BCA Black Box, and few of its cast impress unduly with their acrobatic chops. Still, Ovid's tales of love and fate still haunt, and Boston Actors Theater sometimes does convey something of their tautly erotic irony. I was glad to see Joey Pelletier (who endured my direction without complaint in the recent Blowing Whistles) play convincingly both the broad (Silenus) and the brokenhearted (Orpheus), but even busier was the amusing Jonathan Overby, who brought a light comic touch to several roles. Christopher Lyons likewise scored in two different veins of vanity as Narcissus and Phaeton, while Apolonia Davalos managed to somehow hold our sympathy as the incestuous Myrra (perhaps Ovid's strangest heroine of all). The most poised member of the cast, however, was 11-year-old Barbara Woodall, who brought a sad, disturbing languor to her impression of the demonic Hunger. Uneven it may be, but in its best performances this Metamorphoses transmutes into something more than it at first appears.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Off topic, but top of mind: this time Spitzer, next time . . . Clinton?

Is anyone else thinking what I'm thinking? Yes, Eliot Spitzer is a hypocrite and an adulterer, and is guilty of his crimes, and was no longer tenable as Governor of New York. Still . . . the government's intense pursuit of this case is intriguingly at odds with its actual social value (if they were really interested in discouraging prostitution, for example, they'd only have to pick up a copy of the Phoenix to catch some leads - they'd hardly have to track Eliot Spitzer's cash transactions!). And let's just say the Bush Justice Department has a certain reputation for targeting Democrats rather than Republicans . . .

. . . So something tells me an elaborate attempt at a sting is almost certainly in the works for Bill Clinton. Yes, we've all heard of Canadian MP (and F.O.B.) Belinda Stronach (with the Billster, above), who for a time was rumored as his current squeeze; we all presumed the Karl Rove slime machine was geared up for a reprise of that rumor. But what are the odds that Belinda's been Bill's only hobby for the last few years - and let's be frank, what are the odds that he has, perhaps, moved large sums of cash around, catching the eye of federal regulators . . ? To move in with federal charges against Clinton would be, I have to admit, a truly superb October surprise (and right up Turdblossom's alley). But if such plans are in the works, why tilt your hand with Spitzer? Does Spitzergate indicate that Bushco doesn't actually have anything fresh on Bill?

Oh, who knows. But this is the kind of moment when I suddenly start to care a lot less about Obama's lack of experience in, or enthusiasm for, real world politics . . .

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Forsythe Saga

When the curtain rose last weekend on Boston Ballet's Next Generation program (which I enthused about briefly below), the company no doubt thought that with a daring program of premieres, dominated by women choreographers no less, they had some right to expect a little praise from the dance press.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Well, perhaps that's a bit unfair. The Globe's Karen Campbell (once her review finally appeared) did write that the evening's risks "paid off nicely, not just for the art form, but for audiences as well." But alas, she then rated the program precisely backwards, giving the highest marks to the charming chamber piece by Sabrina Matthews, and the lowest grade to the big, thrilling new works from Jorma Elo and Helen Pickett.

But at least she was generally supportive, in the Globe's patented "now-don't-hurt-anybody's-feelings!" way. Not so the Phoenix's erudite-yet-dismissive Jeffrey Gantz, who labeled the program "overconceptualized and underchoreographed." "I wanted more individuality and more interaction," Gantz groused, complaining the evening was "more about human bodies than individual dancers."

The coup de grâce, however, came from the near-pan by Alastair Macaulay of the Times, who perhaps hit the nail on its critical head when he wrote: "My problem at Boston Ballet is with (the) house style." And whose style might that be? In a word: William Forsythe's: "I have seen too little of Mr. Elo’s work to generalize, but he cites William Forsythe as one of the 'master choreographers' with whom he worked closely as a dancer (as does Ms. Pickett, a dancer with Mr. Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt for more than 10 years). And all five dances were lighted by Mr. Stanley to appear School of Forsythe . . . a Forsythean tone dominated most of these works."

Macaulay's right about that much - Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, has definitely bought into Forsythe as the Next Big Thing, and chosen fellow Finn Jorma Elo as our leading exponent of Forsythiness. It would be nice, yes, if the Ballet would be more upfront about this focus - Next Generation was hardly a smorgasbord of different points of view, and the odd little opening folly, Téssera, in which the four choreographers performed in a schema devised by Elo, ended up emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences.

But is Macaulay also right about Forsythiness in general? I don't think so. A good primer on Forsythe, perhaps, is the excerpt from the seminal In the middle, somewhat elevated, posted above - set to a spooky techno score, the duet is only a small part of a long meditation on incorporating street and break moves into the technical language of ballet. Like much of Forsythe, the results are exhilarating, but cold - like a rush of arctic air - and somehow resistant to the kind of development we expect of serious dance. There's a sexual anonymity, even a commodification, to Forsythe, I think, as well as a persistent undertow of nihilism - as I once wrote, in between bursts of choreographic invention, the choreographer seems to be "just hanging around, waiting for the Viagra to kick in."

But at the same time, Forsythe grips you, at least initially, with his virtuosity, and his formal pursuit of a kind of "freestyle ballet" remains an exciting goal. More to the point, somehow the "School of Forsythe" at Boston Ballet seems to be transcending its master's limits. Jorma Elo, for instance, taps into a kind of exquisite poignance when he meets ballet halfway, as it where, and his latest, In on Blue (at left), was, I thought, perhaps even more haunting than his premiere from last year, Brake the Eyes. That piece, as many may recall, sent prima ballerina Larissa Ponomarenko wandering through a post-industrial shadowland pierced by throbbing, low-pitched sonar. This time, Elo conjured a gorgeous fairyland ballet and set it underwater (or at any rate in a kind of aquarium filled with intensely blue light). This submarine Midsummer Night's Dream soon disintegrated into strange, awkward duets for the men and women (the ballerinas carried on, legs "swimming," with the men sometimes crawling after), which in turn were menaced by surging "clouds" of dancers who invaded the stage with waves of rippling chaos. The work was obviously a kind of elegy for ballet itself - it was set largely to Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo (i.e., a love theme for the dead) - and its mournful romance was almost palpable. This piece, like Brake the Eyes, deserves a wider audience - the question for Elo is whether he can bring as much emotional resonance to looking forward as he does to gazing backward.

There was no question, however, that Helen Pickett had opened her own department in the School of Forsythe with Eventide, a big, broad, brilliant work (with the fiercely sinuous John Lam, above) that marked a huge step up from the accomplished Etesian. This time around, Pickett conjured a kind of globalized divertissement backed by an Indian-inspired (that's dot, not feather) soundtrack from Michael Nyman, Jan Garbarek and Philip Glass. The results played like Tchaikovsky-gone-Bollywood, or something the Sleeping Beauty might have watched before marrying Merce Cunningham in Bangalore. The results were also, I might add, dazzling; Pickett's control of space and scale were superb, and her variations simultaneously highly formal, lightly erotic, and slightly bemused. True, the piece awkwardly changed gears, and lost a bit of focus, in its duet-heavy middle section, but nevertheless regathered its energy for a truly stunning finale before a glittering chunk of Abstract Expressionism (neatly pulling one more avant-garde strand into the mix). My final impression was of a dance smartly poised between a dozen or more influences, schools and ideas, with a sense of the history behind each.

This sense of larger formal purpose is, I think, what distinguishes Boston Ballet today. The lesser pieces on the program - Gone Again, from Heather Myers, and ein von viel (that's "one of many") from Sabrina Matthews - were only "lesser" in their intellectual, not choreographic, depth; they were beautifully crafted, and perhaps even more "human," as Macaulay felt, than the pieces by Pickett and Elo, but they lacked the sense of formal exploration that "the School of Forsythe" all but stands for. True, in said school the dancer is subsumed by the dance - but isn't that often the case in formal explorations? (And Next Generation did, I should note, feature star turns from John Lam, Lorna Feijóo, Larissa Ponomarenko, Sabi Varga, Jared Redick, James Whiteside, and Yury Yanowsky.) And isn't ballet actually too often personality-driven (with some critics in this town all but fantasizing about their favorite dancers in print)? To me, the fact that the "next generation" should be given over to ideas rather than stars seems nothing to be blue about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Read it here first!

I know imitation is supposed to be the most sincere form of flattery - so why am I feeling slightly irritated? Ed Siegel is opining that Boston's major theatres should produce our major playwrights, while Louise Kennedy recently rewrote my posts about the A.R.T. Sure, it's nice to be the source of these people's writing, but really, can't they think of anything on their own? Of course it's interesting that here, on the Web, without a perch in the mainstream press, I'm actually more influential than ever. But at the same time, all I can say is - you can read it here first!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Should they all have hailed Macbeth?

Honey, where's the ketchup? Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart clean up in the kitchen.

I know, what's done cannot be undone; still, I wish someone had thrown some sort of critical obstruction in the way of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; they might have spared me $100 and an evening of rock-concert-level aural histrionics. But the critics spoke with almost one voice (except for Leonard Jacobs over at the Clyde Fitch Report): "fearsome insight and theatrical fire" (NY Times); "inspired . . . frenzied . . . symphonic" (The New Yorker); "directorial inventiveness matched by brilliant acting" (The Guardian).

To be fair, some of the gush is understandable, because this Macbeth is, indeed, brilliantly staged by director Rupert Goold, who crams in coups de théâtre almost cheek-by-jowl. As you probably know by now, the show conjures a kind of British Stalinist dystopia via a chilly, Saw-esque hospital/kitchen set, which the three witches prowl relentlessly as nurses, technicians, or cooks. Some of Goold's gambits, are, alas, ridiculous - as when the witches start to rap - but many others are sublime, including the weird sisters' dispatch of the Bloody Captain, the appearance/disappearance of Banquo's ghost, and the video projections of Birnam Wood (into which Malcolm's army vanishes in its camouflage fatigues).

But staging tricks can only get you so far, even when they come at you with such distracting rapidity (and volume). The sad truth is that Patrick Stewart makes a weatheredly sexy but emotionally flat Macbeth, and the seemingly-more-able Kate Fleetwood (perhaps as a result) basically flails about as Lady M, and no amount of rock-show fog or spurting blood can obscure that. Stewart seems to have taken a kind of whimsical nihilism as the be-all and end-all of his portrayal - which leads to a few intriguingly insightful laughs toward the finish, but little more; essentially, his arc is drastically foreshortened, then toyed with for two hours. We hear little of Macbeth's famous poetry (he's arguably Shakespeare's most poetic hero), and see even less of his descent into savagery; it's all cool, slightly cracked business-as-usual for Stewart, whom we half-expect to hear tell his murderous henchmen, "Make it so!" Stewart even willfully restyled Macbeth's final moment into a kind of suicide, which of course was all of a piece with his earlier despair - but, um, isn't change the essence of drama? Somehow I thought so. As for Fleetwood, I'd love to see her do this role again - she has a strikingly icy gonzo hauteur - only perhaps against an actor who can relate to her onstage. There was, in fact, only one memorable performance in the show - Michael Feast made a dramatic feast of Macduff, expertly articulating the most difficult moment in the text (Macduff's reaction to the news of his murdered children), and remaining intriguingly vulnerable to Macbeth's foul fiend to the finish. Now his is a Macbeth I'd like to see, but I suppose he'll have to pilot a television show - or maybe a starship - before I get the chance.

And just in case you thought I was exaggerating about Andrew Sullivan . . .

. . . here he is in Times Online, just yesterday:

The Clintons have always had a touch of the zombies about them: unkillable, they move relentlessly forward, propelled by a bloodlust for Republicans or uppity Democrats who dare to question their supremacy. You can’t escape; you can’t hide; and you can’t win. And these days, in the kinetic pace of the YouTube campaign, they are like the new "28 Days Later" zombies. They come at you really quickly, like bats out of hell. Or Ohio, anyway.

Now all this may seem a little melodramatic. Perhaps it is . . . One senator is still mathematically unbeatable. But that will never capture the emotional toll that the Clintons continue to take on some of us. I’m not kidding. I woke up in a cold sweat early last Wednesday. There have been moments this past week when I have felt physically ill at the thought of that pair returning to power.

"Unkillable"? "Propelled by bloodlust"? Yes, the girl has definitely lost her mind. But this time around there is this intriguing, probably unconscious, bit of psychological self-revelation:

The Clintons live off psychodrama. They both love to push themselves to the brink of catastrophe and then accomplish the last-minute, nail-biting self-rescue. Before too long the entire story becomes about them, their ability to triumph through crisis, even though the crises are so often manufactured by themselves. . .

Ah, Andrew. Whatever happens at the Democratic convention, we hope you get help.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Talkin' 'bout their Generation

I'm in New York, seeing plays with friends, but I had to put in a quick note about Boston Ballet's Next Generation, which I caught on Thursday night, as it closes Sunday. In a word, this is as exciting a program as the Ballet has presented, as thrilling (in different ways) as last year's premieres of Brake the Eyes and Polyphonia. Jorma Elo's In on Blue, set largely to Bernard Herrmann's morbidly lush theme from Vertigo, continues his rapprochement with romantic ballet in a haunting piece that is awkward,eerie, electric and ravishing by turns, and which may feature the most memorable lighting design I've ever seen at the ballet. But the surprise of the evening was up-and-coming choreographer Helen Pickett. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen bet big on Pickett, giving her a large contingent of dancers, including his top soloists, and she delivered, with Eventide, a strange and wonderful concoction exquisitely poised between (what used to be called) "East" and "West." I'll have more to say later in the week; but note the all-too-brief program ends tomorrow. If you care about dance in Boston, you'll want to be there.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Where the toys are

This is just a quick note about the charming evening of 'toy theatre' presented by Great Small Works at the Charlestown Working Theater last weekend. Led by local puppetmaster John Bell, the performance proved evocative and provocative by turns, even if it had little to do with the toy theatres of the nineteenth century, as Bell claimed in an opening song that was perhaps too academically-tongue-in-cheek for my taste. No, Great Small Works is hardly into the frissons of gaslit mellerdrammer - think of them instead as a version of the venerable Bread and Puppet Theater writ small, very small, sprinkled with the same gently crunchy politics, and delivered with a side of literary introspection.

Indeed, the evening's first offering, "Blue Skies" seemed to cram the vasty fields of Vermont onto a tabletop, with room to spare; the piece deftly illustrated floods and tornadoes - along with the social perfidy that has led to the repeated inundations of New Orleans. As usual with Bread and Puppet, social horrors were presented piercingly and yet at a certain sad distance, and natural phenomena were sketched ingeniously. What is the strange, sweetly acute pleasure we derive from the miniature? Is it an intensification of our usual response to mimesis (look it up), or something else entirely?

These and other questions floated pleasantly through my head during the more melancholic second half of the program, "A Walk in the City," which was inspired by the work of Italo Calvino, and did capture something of his sweetly rueful voice. Alas, the eponymous urban ramble perhaps rambled on too long, but as compensation included such small wonders as passing satellites (see above), and even a flickering movie - the production of which, like so much in this poetic program, struck me as no small feat.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Rewritten Richard

Brian McEleny cries his false heart out in Richard III.

The Boston critics raved over Trinity Rep's Richard III (which closed last weekend), so I schlepped down to Providence to see what all the fuss was about. I returned slightly nonplussed. I'm a fan of Trinity - because of its longevity, rapport with its audience, and general air of humanity - but I try not to let that prevailing attitude seep into my assessments of individual productions. Other Hub critics, I think, are not so persnickety - at least it was hard to see what so many saw in this Richard.

Director Kevin Moriarty, many pointed out, had aggressively cut and shaped the text - most notably he opened the show with a preamble of scenes from Henry VI, Part III in a kind of "Last Week on Wars of the Roses" montage. So far, I supposed, so good - although I didn't really buy that these snippets made the action of Richard any clearer. I grew disturbed, however, when lines from the Duke of Gloucester's famous soliloquy from Henry cropped up in the more-famous opening speech of Richard - which then capped with the Moriarty-penned line, "The plot begins!"

Uh-huh. And my indulgence ended. Where, exactly, does one say "hold, enough"? Where does "cutting and shaping" turn into "rewriting"? I think Moriarty's Richard III was right on that line - no, sorry, it was over that line. Don't get me wrong - Richard III is ripe for cuts - it's perhaps the longest of Shakespeare's plays (depending on how you configure Hamlet), with one of the Bard's most rambling "plots," based on personages who are neither easy to distinguish nor rendered with historical accuracy. A critic expects, with every production, a new "edition" of Richard.

But said critic shouldn't expect the wholesale butchery done at Trinity, in which director Moriarty took roughly the same attitude toward Shakespeare's characters that Richard took toward human life. Not that Moriarty only cut - he also invented whole scenes (in this version, Richard offs Lady Anne with his own hands, and a prince gets clubbed into oblivion), put famous lines into different characters' mouths (the Duchess of York refers to her own womb as "a kennel"!), and sometimes plunked characters at will into scenes where Will would never have put them.

Even this much tampering, of course, isn't necessarily wrong, if it works (Trevor Nunn, for example, pulled Twelfth Night apart and re-assembled it in his film version, which is often brilliant). But at Trinity, Moriarty's monster never really came to life. And it was obvious why - perversely, he'd cut most of the best stuff in the play. Gone (as in nowhere to be found, ixnay, poof!) were Mad Margaret and her curses, Clarence's debate with his killers, the Bishop of Ely's strawberries, the cool ruthlessness of the murderous Tyrrel, the little prince taunting Richard, the ghosts of Bosworth blessing Richmond - basically all the highlights (some purple, others blacker than black) you look forward to in the play.

As for the motive behind this madness, Moriarty was on record saying that "only Shakespeare scholars" would miss these details, and that his cuts were required by modern attention spans (the production clocked in at just over 2 1/2 hours - that's including fifteen minutes from Henry VI). To which I say, "Bullshit." The cuts and rewrites were clearly artistic decisions, designed to trim away both the motivation as well as the melodrama from Richard (he's lost his hump in this version, and his limp is from a war wound, so sayonara any psychosexual envy) in what played as an attempt to model the play as a vision of bureaucracy gone bonkers. The set looked like a bombed-out pavilion from Zaha Hadid (with one arm of Louise Bourgeois's Spider apparently having crawled over from the ICA), thus hinting at a fun "Murder at MOMA" interpretation, but instead Moriarty seemed to be half-heartedly offering half an allegory to the Bush administration. This, of course, is rather a tired trope, and shrinks Dick Crookback to the puny dimensions of Dick Cheney; what's more, Moriarty seemed to lack the courage of his convictions - I hoped in vain for Clarence to be waterboarded rather than drowned in malmsey, but for reasons unknown, he was garroted instead.

One soon forgot the particulars of each murder, however, as the body count mounted. Moriarty and his Richard all but dashed from one execution to the next - and did anyone but the director care who these people were? I've seen the show many times, and even designed the set for one production, but I've never been able to keep all these heads straight before they're lopped off, and I don't see why I should. What's important is to capture the rising sense of the charnel-house the state has become - which despite all the bloodletting, Moriarty utterly failed to do. At any rate, the sheer speed of the killings made nonsense of the opening gambit from Henry VI - why set up the cast of characters if you're going to mow them down so quickly? Indeed, the actors only barely individualized each victim as they rushed hither and yon (and as usual for Trinity, few had the vocal resources to project appropriately in the large upstairs theatre).

To be fair, Phyllis Kay made an interestingly mature and rueful Queen Elizabeth - her scenes with McEleney's Richard (at left) proved far more powerful than Lady Anne's. And McEleney himself, though lacking the killer charisma to make his rise to power credible, brought a compelling force to the sudden self-awareness that comes with the crown once it's on his head. But this was perhaps a case of too little, too late, particularly given the flat work done by much of the cast - who no doubt were often distracted, to be honest, by having to run around shooting cap guns at each other. Given that they were trapped in a production that was neither apt political metaphor, nor compelling character study, nor Grand Guignol melodrama, nor killer black comedy, nor fish, nor fowl, it was hard to blame them for phoning their performances in.

Monday, March 3, 2008

DJ drama

Who cares about cancer when you've got Häagen-Dazs? Paula Plum, Nancy Carroll, Bobbie Steinbach, and Cristi Miles get their groove back in The Clean House.

There's a kind of preternatural sparkle to Sarah Ruhl's widely-produced (and praised) The Clean House, now in a smart, shiny new production at the New Rep. The play is all but spotless; it practically gleams, like some finely-tuned theatrical machine, with a display of craft unusual in a young playwright. The only problem with this dramatic vehicle is that it's running on empty; there's no real pain in its "tragedy," and its "comedy" is superficial and derivative: it's actually hard to think of a single character or situation in The Clean House that isn't second-hand. Indeed Ruhl's great achievement is the seamless integration of so many received cultural touchstones into a convincing simulacrum of a real play.

I can already hear the howls of execration: who wants reality (and no, I don't mean realism) when a dramatic theme park is so much more fun? In truth, I believe I may be the only one who still cares about this particular point - I sometimes see myself as a kind of pale, word-processing Will Smith, wandering an evacuated cultural landscape full of latte-sucking zombies. But then, this is my blog - so here goes nothing -

Ruhl strikes me as primarily interesting because she exemplifies (indeed, perhaps encapsulates) a trend I see more and more in postmodern culture - call it the dj-ification of the arts. Like Paul Thomas Anderson (whose There Will Be Blood I critiqued below), she seems driven not by inner ghosts, or visions, or demons, but by a compulsion to better manage the culture she was born into. The Clean House, for instance, is more like a perfect mix tape than a play. What's weird is that I'm not sure Ruhl is aware she's a kind of multi-cultural drama jockey, spinning a sleek mix of high-end chick lit and arthouse hits. Does she realize she borrowed her joke-so-funny-it-kills from Monty Python, her dirt-obliterating-a-white-living-room from Tommy, her adulterous-apples-popping-up-in-other-people's-lives from John Updike, her medical horrors from John Irving, her chicks-bonding-over-chocolate from some Susan Sarandon movie, and her saucy Latin maid from too many 70s "foreign films" to count? Somehow I actually think she imagines this is all her own stuff. Which is a little scary.

What's scarier is the critics seem only too happy to cooperate with her delusions. To them, Ruhl rules. And in a way, I understand why: she's a dazzling technician. The beats all land precisely where they should, there's a clever, constant shift between "comedy" and "tragedy," and weirdest of all, Ruhl conjures truly original stage metaphors - perhaps the best of these was her way of leaving the jokes from her Portuguese maid untranslated, while offering us projected explanations of unspoken interactions between her characters (life is like an untranslated joke - get it? - so you may as well laugh as cry). The trouble is not her form, but her content - she's like half of the greatest writing partnership ever.

Still, if you've been in a coma for the last quarter century, you'll think The Clean House is utterly amazing and "true," and it's certainly being served up immaculately by the New Rep. Perhaps, as Louise Kennedy (who's something of an expert on this play) opines, this version gives the show's undergraduate "tragedy" short shrift. But then director Rick Lombardo is always superb at articulating comedy, and here he's working with a dream trio of local comediennes, so everyone is playing to their strong suit. Nancy Carroll once again proves she can do more with less than anyone else in Boston - here she brings down the house with little more than the flicker of an eyelid. And Bobbie Steinbach's warm, expansive brassiness is the perfect complement to her sorrowful, self-aware strings, while Paula Plum manages to find fresh, personal spins to such clichéd tropes as laughing-through-your-tears (or is it crying-through-your-chuckles?). As the sexy Latina (another character direct from central casting), Cristi Miles isn't really to the comic manner born, but she's energetic and appealing, and certainly earns her laughs with a fully realized performance. Ditto Will Lyman, who's almost believable as the husband who finds his soulmate in one of his patients - okay, the role is a certain kind of female fantasy, but Lyman is light on his feet and knows precisely when to let the funny girls take over. Kudos also to the production team - Cristina Todesco's set is perhaps more porn-star mansion than yuppie showplace, but it still looks great, and Jamie Whoolery's evocative projections subtly re-inforce the sense we're actually watching a movie we've seen before.

As for the "plot" - here's the set-up: uptight control-freak, neurotic sister, soulful, sexy maid, free spirit, errant husband, perfect living room. Can't you write the rest yourself? Feel free to throw some cancer and a "curve ball" in there to make it look original. Sure, it won't be as polished as The Clean House. But then few real plays are.