Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Of Bartók, Brahms and Beethoven

For its final concert of the season, the Boston Philharmonic offered a curious pairing: a well-loved warhorse (Brahms's first symphony) rubbed shoulders with a prickly piece of modernism - Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, essayed by the virtuosic Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa (at left). It was hard to see precisely how these two pieces might illuminate each other, aside from their rather melancholy historical juxtaposition - in his much-delayed first symphony, the late Romantic Brahms raised, then put to rest, Beethoven's classicist ghost; while in the Second Violin Concerto, Bartók sent Romanticism careening into Modernism, against which it basically splintered. Not everyone would agree with that back-of-a-napkin summation, of course - and it was even harder to parse in this particular concert, given that the audience-pleasing Brahms wrapped up the program rather than beginning it. And perhaps not everyone would agree with my gut feeling that the Brahms succeeded, while the Bartók didn't - indeed, I'm hard pressed to explain precisely why I feel that way.

Certainly Ms. Takewaza is a force to be reckoned with, and could hold her own against the BSO or any other major orchestra (why she seems locked in a second-tier touring situation is probably a function of the classical-music political machine, which, well-oiled as it is, is careful to remain invisible to most concertgoers). Takewaza's sound is not particularly large, but it's clean, lean, and startlingly agile, and her attack can be ferocious. She clearly knew the Second through and through, although her Bartók was rather more a "classic" modernist than a late, late, late Romantic; the pensiveness of the music came through, and its sudden flashes of doom - but perhaps not its episodic lyricism; the music was driven by force rather than fire. And Ms. Takewaza appeared manifestly unhappy on the Jordan Hall stage - her personal pensiveness, in fact, offered an intriguingly meta comment on the music's. She seemed to have little connection with conductor Benjamin Zander, even though the orchestra provided her detailed, thoughtful support - the string section in particular followed her with something like a haunting shimmer. Still, one reason to catch a Boston Philharmonic concert is to see the interplay between Zander and his players, and here there was a curious void where often there's intense connection.

Said connection, however, was back with the Brahms - which offers the kind of big, rhetorical gestures at which Zander (right) excels. The orchestra played with enthusiasm, and while there was little in the way of interpretive innovation on display, the piece sounded glorious, and Zander did conjure some complexity in the famous last movement. Here principal horn player Kevin Owen brought an affecting, dying fall to the call which seems to summon Beethoven's ghost, and the ensuing theme - so close to the motifs of Ludwig van that some wags have dubbed the piece "Beethoven's Tenth" - rose in the strings and winds with just the right mix of warmth and sympathy: a reminder not only of Beethoven but also of what the Boston Philharmonic does best.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Borat outtakes across America

Off-topic, but still funny - in this video from ABC's "20/20," a public display of gay affection in Birmingham, Alabama, leads to a 911 call and a visit from the local cops. And keep watching for the Vegas cab rider who mentions how he would like to carry loaded weapons to defend kids against homosexuals . . .

Losing touch with reality

My favorite theatre critic distinguished herself again this weekend with this observation about the current New York productions of South Pacific and Passing Strange:

"You might not think that these two shows have anything in common, but ever since seeing them . . . I've been convinced that they do. And that shared quality, to reduce it to its essence, is one that at first sounds unlikely: They're both real."

Now I suppose that's a little better than "They're both good. Just really, really good," but it hardly counts as something worth publishing. It's not analysis - or even thought, frankly. It's just a kind of benighted self-reflection, a slight extrapolation of "Do I like this? Yes . . . yes, I do . . ."

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, if you're sitting at home sipping a cappuccino. "Mmmmm . . . rich and creamy . . . good feelings . . . this cappucino is really real"; who hasn't gone through something like that thought loop? Even a drowsy gastronome, however, often ends up bumping against reflections like, "Yes, but why does this particular cup of cappuccino taste better than so many others? Hmmmm! I must ponder this further, particularly before I publish my thoughts in a major daily!"

But the best Louise Kennedy seems to be able to manage in this vein amounts to lines like, "What seemed embarrassingly straight and square and fake just a few years ago now reappears as wonderfully straightforward, squarely built, and true. Did the times change? Did we? Probably both." Okay. This cappuccino was once not rich and creamy, but now it is. Did it change, or did I? Probably both. Mmmmm. Rich and creamy.

Of course, maybe it's better if Louise doesn't think about such issues too hard, because soon she's fielding deep thoughts like: "Nellie Forbush's story, like so many others in the native art form of this nation of immigrants, is the story of leaving home to find our true selves. That complicated, quintessentially American path - to move closer to ourselves by moving away - resonates throughout Nellie's encounters with her own "hick" self and with the strange new world she's landed in."

Wow. "To move closer to ourselves by moving away . . . that complicated, quintessentially American path." Mmmmmm. I just love that quintessentially American path. It's so rich and creamy. Meanwhile, of course, it occurs to the disinterested observer that perhaps something in South Pacific, and its naïvely self-affirming anti-racist message, appeals to many in an America facing its "Obama moment." But would Nellie Forbush vote for a black man for president? (Whatever the outcome in November, we'll certainly need a little cock-eyed optimism to heal the ravages of the Bush administration.) And is Louise even aware of that subtext - or is she simply cannily dancing around it in the manner of so many Globe writers?

Somehow I think I'm going to go with the "not even aware" option - if only because the rest of her review (of Passing Strange) is so similar in its cozily self-satisfied vacuity: the show is full of songs that "feel like the songs that Stew and his terrific ensemble simply have to sing in order to tell the story they want to tell." Then there's: "Like South Pacific, Passing Strange feels genuine - true to itself, not to someone else's idea of what a musical should be. . . .it feels fresh and right to see a show that simply wants to be what it is . . . Sure, it's wised-up enough to know that the musical is an artificial form - but it's wise enough to use that artificiality to say something real."

Louise does try to work up something like an argument - or at least a contrast - around the "irony" and "calculating fakery" of new musicals like Cry-Baby, but she doesn't seem to realize that this once again leads to the question, "But why does irony suddenly somehow feel dated?" That's where a review might actually begin. Instead she wraps up, by quoting Oscar Hammerstein II with the same awe Luke Skywalker reserved for Yoda: "There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be - it has to be good."

You see, little grasshopper, there is no why. There is only the real. The cappuccino simply is what it is. And it is rich and creamy. Mmmmmm.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dissing Dessa

Shows like Dessa Rose (now at the New Rep through May 18) are a critic's nightmare. The topic is slavery (hard to carp about a critique of that), and the laudable intent is to recall the forgotten voices of the women (and maybe the men) who suffered under its cruelty. And the cast is uniformly terrific; indeed, the voices here are the best heard in Boston in months, if not years - and these folks can act, too.

So am I a bad person if I hated it? Does it mean I have a secret sympathy with racism and sexism (the show posits an unlikely bond between a rich white woman and a runaway slave)? No, of course not - it only means I can't stand sanctimonious shows which pound into us messages we all long ago absorbed (or somehow figured out all by ourselves). For make no mistake, there's no bloom on Dessa Rose - indeed, this bouquet to victimhood is a real stinker, only made palatable by its okay (but hardly great) pseudo-gospel score, which is given a far better performance here than it deserves by a cast that could probably raise the roof with "Happy Birthday to You."

But to enjoy the vocal performances you have to continually ignore the show itself, which is the work of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who, tellingly, last collaborated on Seussical), with a book from lyricist Ahrens that's all but incoherent - major plot points go missing, and characters sometimes seem to be different ages even within the same scene. Flitting from one atrocity to the next with an alacrity that would embarrass most hacks (poor Dessa's beloved is murdered, then she's branded, then imprisoned, then nearly raped), Dessa Rose comes off as not so much a vehicle for outrage as merely outrageous, not to mention fatuously manipulative (indeed, somehow the bond it ditzily tries to convey between liberal white women and the victims of slavery goes peculiarly wrong; its all-too-contemporary sexual politics feels like an unintentional insult to both the slaves and the actual feminist abolitionists who tried to help them).

I'm not suggesting, of course, that real events like those portrayed in Dessa Rose never occurred; they did occur; white people did this to black people, and not so long ago, either. The fact that we don't have an American Holocaust Museum in Washington is a national embarrassment - that is, if we pretend for a moment that this country can still be embarrassed about something - and we could build next to it an American Genocide Museum, while we were in the mood to take a look in the mirror, to account for our campaign against Native Americans. But of course that will never happen - instead we indulge tripe like Dessa Rose, which merely offers us exploitation of tragedy; it's a kind of Oprah-driven thrill ride for white guilt that absolves us, via our tears, of any responsibility for our history. Where, oh, where, is the play about slavery that aspires to more than melodrama? That develops real characters, facing real dilemmas, and struggling against oppression with a flawed perspective, without the knowledge that history is on their side? Now that's a show I'd like to see.

But in the meantime, I suppose I'll have to settle for enjoying the chops of this cast, in which local powerhouses Leigh Barrett and Todd Alan Johnson have to all but sweat to keep up. The powerful, light-on-his-feet Edward M. Barker is already known to Boston audiences, but the startling brace of newcomers is spearheaded by the heartbreakingly raw Uzo Aduba, who gives Dessa the kind of commitment that almost makes her authentic. Aduba is provided agile, versatile back-up by De'Lon Grant (above left with Aduba), Dee Crawford (who appeared in last fall's Streetcar), Joshua W. Heggie, and A'lisa D. Miles. I'd love to see any of these folks again - just not in Dessa Rose! Indeed, the unintended irony of this show is that we had to wait for a musical about slaves to be introduced to most of them. Will I see Mr. Grant in the next Sondheim from SpeakEasy? Mr. Barker would be a natural for Cole Porter, it seems to me, and Ms. Aduba would be a fierce addition to any cast (she'll be seen next in the New York revival of Godspell). Will real color-blind casting ever come to the rescue of these and so many other fine performers who happen to be people of color?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Poem of the Week

Billy Collins (at left) served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. His collections include The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems, Nine Horses, and Sailing Alone Around the Room. The following poem is from The Art of Drowning.


by Billy Collins

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

Regietheater rocks on!

This just in from the "Because We Can" Dept., subcategory: Opera: photos from the recent "regietheater" (that's "director's theatre" in Deutsche, ya know) version of Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera ("A Masked Ball"), staged by Johann Kresnik in Erfurt. The production takes place "in the ruins of the World Trade Center," and features a female Hitler as well as some three dozen naked pensioners in Mickey Mouse masks. Needless to say, the show sold out. That's because the public knows great art when it sees it. Me, I just dig posting this wacky shit. My only fear is that such antics short-circuit the serious appropriation of these images by the culture; face it, the genuine cultural import of the World Trade Center bombing has just been eviscerated, and replaced with gaseous celebrity-culture "shock." But that's totally harmless, isn't it? Isn't it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

An eye-popping Drowsy Chaperone

"I hate theatre. It's so disappointing, isn't it."

Those lines would seem an inauspicious opening to a frothy musical like The Drowsy Chaperone (that's the Broadway cast at top, although it includes many in the current tour). But coming from the dark before the "curtain" rises, they at least honestly channel the conflicted feelings of the speaker (and his audience). Known simply as "Man in Chair," he represents the theatre queen in all of us - that sweet, unassuming, average schmoe who mourns what the musical has become ("Elton John, must we continue this charade?") and who hopes against hope every time the curtain rises that "the actors will stay out of the audience, there will be a story, and some tunes that take you away."

The problem with Drowsy Chaperone, the imaginary Jazz-Age show that Man in Chair conjures for us from a battered LP ("Yes, I have records," he says with emphasis) is that its story offers few surprises, and it doesn't really deliver those tunes - as in, the kind that take you away (although yes, its score is a helluva lot better than Elton John). The true surprise, however, is that somehow that doesn't matter. The show takes you away anyway, and more powerfully (and a lot faster) than anything I've seen in years.

This is almost entirely due to the sweet conceit of its narrator, that cardigan-clad "Man in Chair," and the masterly performance in the role by Jonathan Crombie (that's him at left channeling Andrea Chamberlain as a glamourpuss chorine), who poignantly essays the character's nebbishly intelligence and his longing for rapture, as well as his fluttery sense of internal defeat - as he puts it, "in the real world, nothing ever works out, and the only people who break into song are mentally deranged." Of course other "meta" -musicals have parodied the fizzy innocence of the 20's musical - years before Chaperone there was The Boyfriend, then Dames at Sea, but Man in Chair offers us a different perspective, I think, on the ditzy confections of yesteryear. Those productions pulled their self-awareness right up onstage; under the proscenium arch, they were hopelessly arch themselves, and congratulated us for being so knowing. Chaperone, however, plays its show-within-a-show absolutely straight; it never hints at its own ridiculousness, and if the Man in Chair sometimes does, it's in a tone of forgiving adoration. In a word, his nostalgia is almost a form of wisdom - he knows we're no better off being so knowing.

Although know his show-tunes he certainly does - he even offers us mini-biographies of the forgotten stars who pop out of his refrigerator (and closet) and slowly take over his dingy apartment (designed by the ingenious David Gallo). Their characters - with names like "Kitty" and "Trix" - include, of course, a Broadway star who's giving up everything for love, the producer who's determined to stop her, the handsome groom who tap-dances in tails, the loud-mouthed chorine who ain't as dumb as she seems, a Latin love-god, a couple of gangsters, an aviatrix ("Today we call those ladies lesbians," Man in Chair notes gently), and of course, the eponymous Chaperone, who's basically drowsy because she's so blowsy (with a martini glass perpetually at the ready). There's also Georgia Engel, of Mary Tyler Moore Show fame (which now seems almost as far away in time as the Ziegfeld Follies), doing her trademark, sweetly blank schtick as the tottering Mrs. Tottendale, who's always forgetting that "today there's a wedding!"

And not only does the show get its daffy plot just right, it also nails its dancing style - director (and former choreographer) Casey Nicholaw somehow delivers the genuine Jazz-Age article - the goofy windmills in place, the stunt dances on skates (with blindfolds!) - and even throws in silly asides, like what happens to the cast when the record starts to skip, or the power goes out. Indeed, the whole show is a kind of choreographic tour de force - even the Man in Chair flits about in something like a dance - and luckily, the cast has hoofing chops to spare, so even if they can't quite melt our hearts with song (alas, next to Chaperone, The Boyfriend looks like South Pacific), they can still dazzle us with fancy footwork. The entire ensemble deserves praise, but I'd be remiss not to single out Andrea Chamberlain's cart-wheeling heroine, Nancy Opel's gimlet-chugging chaperone (she was nominated for a Tony for this role, and deserved it), James Moye's ludicrous lothario, and Mark Ledbetter's beaming bridegroom (above, with Chamberlain). Of course, his happy-go-lucky attitude is not so hard to explain - by the time the curtain falls, you'll be beaming, too.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Laugh or Cry Dept.

Well, I laughed - at the spectacle of Terry Byrne trying to make up with David Miller of Zeitgeist Stage. She screwed him out of a few thousand dollars over her review of Blowing Whistles, but now tries to refill the Zeitgeist coffers with a feature on their latest, Spin. Ah well, what the old girl can taketh away, she can also giveth, I suppose, and no harm done, right? But no, I won't be reviewing Spin - my personal antipathy for Miller is too strong, and unlike Byrne, I do have some principles (not many, but some).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

In glorious Technicolor

Above is the original trailer for David Lean's version of Blithe Spirit. The film doesn't seem to have come out on DVD yet (oh when, O Lord, will we see a full-scale Lean boxed set??), but you may find a video of it at Blockbuster. I find the light, nasal cadences in these older British films quite intriguing - does anyone (other than perhaps the Queen) still talk this way?

(And here's to glorious Technicolor, invented - where else - at my alma mater, MIT!)

Getting into the Spirit

Phyllis Kay haunts Angela Brazil and Fred Sullivan in Blithe Spirit. (Photo by Mark Turek).

I'm often struck not only by the fatuousness of theatrical publicity, but also by the fact that it's diametrically opposed to the actual virtues of the product it's selling. Take, for instance, some of the marketing for Blithe Spirit, at the Trinity Rep through May 4. One feature hinted that director Curt Columbus would be treating the Coward classic "more like a hard-hitting Edward Albee or Sam Shepard play and less like a drawing-room comedy." The writer quoted Artistic Director Columbus further: “I know it sounds funny to say that . . . But you [must] treat it like a dysfunctional family drama.”

Taking up the planted meme, a Rhode Island reviewer later opined of the production, "No need to worry about having to endure a mannered, oh-so-proper drawing room farce. Columbus and his talented troupe of actors have grabbed hold of the human heart of this play, and come up with a dazzling romp . . where substance is at least as important as style."

Strange then, that the actual production should be merely a solid, reliably funny drawing room farce, with little or no actual emotional substance and bearing about as close a resemblance to Edward Albee or Sam Shepard as I do to Brad Pitt.

Not there's not much in the way of hidden depth to Coward - but there are universal currents running through his work: the rueful pull of love long lost, the deceits of sex, and the stifling constraints of domesticity, for example - not to mention the masculine desire for polygamy (just about every Coward play veers toward ménage), or plain old escape (before the final curtain, the hero almost always cuts and runs - a trope Trinity amends, btw). It is, of course, a frank portrait of a gay man's contradictory attitudes toward commitment - that it should be embraced as high comedy by conservative, heterosexual society is an irony, I suppose, that would puzzle only a few evangelicals.

So it's odd that Trinity should capture almost none of this subtext, and thus little of the play's romance. The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout was for once right on the money when he described the production (he meant this as praise) as "a flyweight farce devoid of deeper meaning." Director Columbus comes up with all manner of witty stage business, and his principals deliver, if not impeccable accents (oh, who cares, really) then at least impeccably poised bon mots and some inspired physical comedy. But a "hard-hitting" look at "dysfunction" it's not.

Of course maybe that's the whole point: it's somehow thought unhip to admit that Coward still works on his own terms, so we have to pretend we're doing Buried Child rather than Blithe Spirit - or at least we have to when our production trades so obviously in nostalgia. For the secret weapon of this Spirit is its superb set (by James Schuette) and the way it evokes a whole vanished world of elegant, overstuffed ease. Yes, move over Alexander Dodge - you've been bested at your own game; the Huntington's set for Present Laughter was smashing, but a tad Manhattan-generic, and lacked the thorough sophistication and specificity of Schuette's slightly skewed, chandelier-and-chintz fantasia (even the magazines stashed onstage are exactly right). My only possible quibble with Schuette's decisions was the Picasso over the mantle (would the real Noel have been so avant?) - only the painting itself, with its entwined, ghostly, angular lovers, was so thematically appropriate that I couldn't complain. What's more, not all the set's charms are on its surface - but I'll leave the details of its wonderful, poltergeistic collapse to your own discovery.

Coward rehearses for a CBS presentation of Blithe Spirit with Lauren Bacall (Ruth), Mildred Natwick (Madame Arcati) and Claudette Colbert (Elvira).

I'm going on about the set (and the generally superb design) because it seemed, intentionally or not, to be the production's major artistic statement - implying that Blithe Spirit, penned just after the Battle of Britain, was essentially about maintaining the plushly frivolous tradition of British farce even in the face of death. Just in case you've never heard the plot, it follows the otherwordly exploits of Charles Condomine, a Cowardesque writer who unexpectedly conjures the ghost of his first wife during a séance - much to the discomfort of his second wife. This, of course, is only an ectoplasmic tweak on the plots of Private Lives and Design for Living (Coward claimed to have written the play in just five days, and why not - he'd written it before) - but the script's astral aspects do offer the occasional spooky thrill, and it's easy to see that in London during the Blitz, the deployment of death as just another trope of 30's-era romantic farce would have a comforting appeal (the show ran in the West End for most of the war). And curiously, Trinity conjures an echo of this same sense of comfort in the present day, which, if not exactly on a par with the Blitz, does offer its own troubling sense of uncertainty.

And to be fair, the Trinity cast scrappily holds its own against all the chintz (if only just). Fred Sullivan, Jr. made a clever, credibly heterosexual Coward factotum - rather than suavely debonaire, he was impishly spoiled - but even if he seemed genuinely straight, he still didn't connect romantically with either of his two wives, living or dead. Angela Brazil meanwhile didn't even try to channel second wife Ruth's insecurity or controlling neurosis - instead she was athletically hearty, of all things, which was still fun, particularly when she was leaping into the air, searching for hidden strings to explain the "unexplained." Alas, Phyllis Kay proved just as hale as the ectoplasmic Elvira - quick with a quip, but about as sensual, or seductive, as Mary Poppins. Against all this too, too solid flesh, Barbara Meek was in a bit of a tight spot as the bike-riding medium, Madame Arcati - whose defining gag is that she's so earthily eccentric (as memorably essayed by Margaret Rutherford in David Lean's charming film version) - but Meek was up to the challenge, and made of Arcati an amusingly unruffled and honest professional. But the best performances of the evening came from Cynthia Strickland and William Damkoehler as two benighted upper crust guests at the séance - both deployed fully-developed characterizations with only a minimum of lines, but Strickland's frumpy matron, thanks to a truly ghastly dress and 'do, was truly a scream. She alone perhaps outshone the chandelier.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poem of the Day

The Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst, MA.

This is simply a poem I discovered recently that I've been meaning to post, by an almost-forgotten American poet (and Amherst resident), Robert Francis:

The Two Lords of Amherst

The two Lords, Jeffery and Jehovah, side by side
Proclaim that hospitality lives and Jesus died.

Jeffery in whitewashed brick, Jehovah in gray stone
Both testify man does not live by bread alone.

From sacred love to bed and board and love profane
One could dart back and forth and not get wet in rain.

How providentially inclusive the design:
Here are the cocktails, here the sacramental wine.

Here is the holy, here the not-so-holy host.
Here are the potted palms and here the Holy Ghost.

Tell, if you can and will, which is more richly blest:
The guest Jehovah entertains or Jeffery's guest.

- Robert Francis

The Earth as art

Move over, Alex Matter! It seems our humble planet has been churning out its own brand of gorgeous Jackson Pollock knock-offs. Above is a view of the intersection of the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert in Chile. You can see more planetary expressionism - courtesy of the Landsat 7, ASTER, and MODIS satellites - here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Horton Awards - explained!

Now I'm not a member of the Horton Awards panel, but I am an acquaintance of Forsythia "Fipsy" Aldertwitt, co-foundress of the Horton Awards, which of course were named after Cabot Sheridan Elliott "Lodge" Horton, the Dean of Boston Letters (particularly J and F), and the longest-lived drama critic in American history until he spontaneously combusted at 103½. As "Fipsy" and I have shared a certain mutual affection ever since I stumbled over the packing crate she was living in outside Louisburg Square, I thought I'd ask her a few questions about the so-called "irregularities" people have been pointing out to me in the nominations for the Horton Awards this year.

TG: First, Fipsy, I just want to say what an honor it is for me to be interviewing such an august and perspicacious presence as yourself.

FA: Why, thank you Bob. I mean George.

TG: And I want to compliment you - and the other members of the Horton panel - on the level of creativity you've brought to the nominations this year!

FA: Yes, well, these award ceremonies can be such a dragged-out royal pain in the ass that we thought this year we'd cut to the chase with fewer categories and a more innovative and inclusive mindset.

TG: I see. Can you give me an example of this innovation?

FA: Well, our latest inspiration was to combine the awards for costume, set, lighting, AND supporting actress all in one category. For the past several years our "competition," if you will - well, they like to think of themselves as our competition - the so-called "Norton" Awards, have been combining completely different disciplines under the general rubric of "Design." And there have been some complaints from the occasional small-minded costume designer about how her handiwork couldn't really be judged against a lighting plot. But the Nortoneers found that if you just ignore that kind of negativity, you soon find it fades away, and it's time for more "innovation"! So this year we made the very edgy decision to lump the supporting actress category in with the design disciplines, you know, just to mix it up, get jiggy wit' it - as well as one-up those pesky Nortoneers! So the new award will go to "Best Lighting, Costume, Set, Sound, or Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role." You can see that with five awards cut down to just one, we should be off to the after-party in no time!

TG: I also see a certain flexibility in the large, mid-size, and small theatre categories . . .

FA: But aren't those categories completely artificial? I mean, what's money, after all. I think this actually opens up opportunities for our smaller companies, not that I've seen any myself, but I'm sure they're worthy. And again, with awards like "Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Fringe, Mid-Size or Large Company, or National Tour," the award ceremony itself should be super-streamlined.

TG: But -

FA: Look, Bill, I know what you're thinking - the Horton panel just hasn't seen that much fringe, and they're trying to hide it - but let me assure you that is not the case. I've seen plenty of fringe in my time. Why, there's fringe on that curtain right over there!

TG: Yes, but -

FA: Just think of it as right-sizing, Tim. It's like a new paradigm. A Third Way. Everything has changed, and people just don't have the attention spans for all those separate categories. We're uniters, not dividers, and we're going to be playing "My Heart Will Go On" after anyone talks for more than ten seconds, just like on the Oscars! Because these days people are on the go, particularly when an open bar is involved. And if you're not down with that, well we're going to walk right over you. The Horton Awards are going to totally rawk!

What becomes a legend most?

Perhaps some cults refuse you membership. At least that's all I can make of the devoted fans of Dubravka Tomšič (left), the legendary Slovenian pianist who played to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in last weekend's Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall; after one of the lengthiest and most varied programs I've heard in years (Mozart, Scarlatti, Prokofiev, Srebotnjak (her husband), Brahms, and then the Appassionata), their applause held her through four encores (more Scarlatti, Chopin, Villa-Lobos, and Bach). No one could say Tomšič was ungenerous; indeed, she was lavish, loading her program with both warhorses and rarities.

Yet why did it - and she - leave me a little cold? I was more than slightly surprised at my own reaction (or lack thereof) as Tomšič's legend precedes her - she was advised on her concert career at age 12 by Claudio Arrau, then became the "only protégé" of Artur Rubinstein (although she doesn't sound much like either one of them), and her renown rests on a reputation for sternly Apollonian musicianship. Certainly she has some kind of steel in her fingers; otherwise they never would have lasted through that program. But at least during Friday's concert, her "Olympian vision" only intermittently convinced; indeed, her seriousness occasionally seemed to congeal and turn a bit grim. Part of this was the crummy Steinway she was playing at Jordan Hall, which only yielded so much to her deliberate touch. But part of it was her approach: she drove the Appassionata through force of will, not passion, and her reading of Mozart's melancholy Adagio in B minor was oblique and almost clinical.

Tomšič was far more convincing at the Scarlatti, Prokofiev and Brahms - three composers whom it's hard, true, to construe as any kind of musical group. But her slightly heavy touch brought its own mysterious weight to four Scarlatti sonatas (with trills that glinted with their own rich brilliance), and her intellectual diffidence proved surprisingly appropriate (in different ways) to both the galloping Prokofiev Sonata No. 3 and the ruminative Brahms Intermezzi. The encores were likewise a mixed bag - another memorable Scarlatti, a Chopin Waltz in C# minor with eccentric rubato, and then fireworks with Villa-Lobos's "Le Polichinelle" and a Bach Prelude arranged by Siloti. Perhaps the pianist had finally warmed up; at last she broke into a few shy smiles before the audience's applause. And to be truthful, there were times during this musical marathon when I might have joined in the adulation.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The art of the Hitchcock cameo

Ah, the wonders of Youtube! Here's a good guide to most of the best Hitchcock cameos - my favorites are his appearance in Lifeboat (that's him in the "Reducto" obesity ad) and his po-faced passenger next to Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. The films in order are: The 39 Steps, The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, I Confess, Vertigo, The Wrong Man, To Catch a Thief, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Marnie, Psycho, Lifeboat, Notorious, Stage Fright, Foreign Correspondent, and North by Northwest.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The harder they come

Ben Fainstein plots and plans in Howard Barker's A Hard Heart.

As I've written before, if this is the Athens of America, then it's a kind of Athens-through-the-looking-glass, where our well-funded university theatres ignore the best of what is written for the stage, and instead focus on second-rate texts generated by either their acolytes or a network of comrades-in-arms. Meanwhile, to get the real news on today's theatre, Bostonians must venture to the basement spaces in town, to the fledgling troupes founded on a wing and a prayer by recent college grads or those foolish enough to love theatre itself more than their theses on theatre. One such troupe is Whistler in the Dark, a band of (mostly) Middlebury College grads who in the last few seasons have tackled some of the most challenging texts in the postmodern canon. They first landed on the map with a flawed but still harrowing production of The Possibilities, a cool contemplation of the vicissitudes of war by British dramatist Howard Barker (below). Some two years later, they're back, with what is perhaps a lesser Barker, A Hard Heart, which ponders the costs a society is willing to bear in the fight against its enemies.

No doubt this paradox sounds all too familiar to those of us who've watched our civil rights go down as collateral damage in "the war on terror" - and hence, one feels, the current vogue for A Hard Heart, which dates from the early 90s but hasn't seen much production stateside until the last year or so. And alas, perhaps there's a reason for that obscurity: Heart is Barker at his most unvarnished, and most diabolically dialectical, with few of the baroque twists and or shocks that characterize his trademarked "Theatre of Catastrophe."

Not that there aren't catastrophes aplenty in Heart. The play - like much of Barker, it's an intellectual fable - follows the declining fortunes of the kingdom of Platea, ruled by a queen named Praxis (remember what I said about the play being unvarnished?), under siege from an implacable enemy - so implacable, in fact, that it has built an opposing wall right up against the wall-of-last-defense designed by Platea's self-described "genius," Riddler. With no way out, and literally up against the wall, Riddler (who doesn't so much spin riddles as embody one) turns inward for her next strategy, perceiving the only way out of Platea's dilemma is to make the city an unworthy prize while building up the cost of winning it. Thus the body politic begins to eat itself to fortify itself - eventually even the sacred places, the city's temples, fall to Riddler's ever-higher battlements.

As usual, the deadly solipsisms driving the logic of action ("my mind is engine-like in its perfection," Riddler tells us with characteristic modesty) is Barker's great theme, and he's at his best when his characters' arguments lead in unexpected, destabilizing directions rather than remaining stuck on a one-way track. But A Hard Heart feels as contained as its characters are, rather like a chamber piece (originally it was a radio play) pondering an escalating, but repetitive, dynamic. Its central interest is the mystery it conjures around Riddler - how she maintains her blindness to the destructive effects of her plans, all while shielding her personal life from their consequences (she insists on isolation and silence while concocting her plots, and saves her only son from conscription in the war she's running).

The irony here, of course, is that Barker openly disdains the illusions of atmospheric acting - and yet depends on it pretty much completely in A Hard Heart. His argument is too bare-bones to hold us through the play's length - it requires a major actress (such as Kathleen Chalfant, who recently did the piece in New York) with a fascinating presence to hold us through its repetitions. And alas, the Whistlers don't have access to Kathleen Chalfant. In fact, their usual director, Meg Taintor, takes on the role - and gives it the old college try, at least. But Ms. Taintor is simply too young, with too solid and wholesome a presence, to suggest the perverse, inner labyrinth of Riddler - much less insinuate the sick dynamic with her spoiled son (a too-cuddly Ben Fainstein). There's stronger work among the supporting cast - as queen Praxis, Eliza Lay, a mainstay of the local fringe scene, crackles on here, just as she did in Loves-Lies-Bleeding, and The Eight before that - I'm not sure what a girl has to do to win an IRNE or Norton nomination around here, because Lay seems overdue for both. Meanwhile Travis Boswell throws himself into the role of the homeless Seemore, who has his own implacable jones for Riddler - only he's actually not nearly disgusting enough to serve as her sexual nemesis, and he and Taintor throw off few of the salacious sparks of collapse.

Still, one can't help but applaud the Whistlers for again bringing a bit of the actual artistic life of the twenty-first century to the Hub. Those with a yen to understand the Way We Live Now would do well to ponder Barker's message, and the Whistlers' reach, if not their grasp - and to clamor for something like the same ambition from our larger houses, at least our university houses. It feels almost like some kind of bad dream that the great voices of our age - people like Barker or his cinematic cousin, Michael Haneke - should be so marginalized, while even our academic theatres behave like the equivalent of the Kendall Cinema, programming "arthouse" fodder (admittedly in two differing styles) for their respective alumni. Perhaps that's the riddle Howard Barker should ponder next.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Who was Rachel Corrie? (Part II)

Corrie burns a mock American flag before Palestinian children.

This is the second in a series of three posts planned about the (recently closed) productions of My Name is Rachel Corrie and Pieces at the New Repertory Theatre. After seeing both performances, I found myself intrigued by the issues of personal-vs.-political presentation they seemed to raise. Below is a conversation (via email) I had with Meron Langsner, Playwright in Residence at the New Rep, and the coordinator of the talkbacks, readings and discussions that surrounded the performances, as well as co-editor of the printed companion piece to the event, "Supporting Voices/Dissenting Voices."

HR: Many people saw the pairing of Pieces with My Name is Rachel Corrie as an attempt to "balance" the polemic of Corrie. The Boston Globe critic felt that it was "a pity that the New Rep found it necessary to create this kind of balance" because "the two plays together force us to view them through a reductively binary lens" and "no two plays in the world can exactly balance each other." Do you have any thoughts on those criticisms, or a response?

ML: Though I understand the impulse to reduce these plays to a position of binary opposites, to do so is really to miss the point of the entire project. As I said in many talkbacks as well as in the New Rep newsletter, these plays were not intended to present opposite sides of the conflict. To reduce the situation to two points of view is an extremely dangerous oversimplification. The phrase that we took as our theme was one I borrowed from Shai Feldman of Brandeis University; we were looking to gain a "more sophisticated understanding" of the situation. The sort of sophistication we sought would imply far more than two sides, and, as the plays that we produced were NOT binary opposites in terms of political stance, that sort of reductionism really doesn't apply.

What I would have liked would have been for more people to take in the event as a whole. Not just the two productions, but also the readings and films and academic panels. And of course the essay booklet. By taking in the entirety of the project, an audience member could have taken in far more views of the situation and gained a greater understanding of the artistic response.

HR: I felt that Pieces, although it dealt with a young woman who chose to serve in the Israeli army, didn't offer a strong political response to the statements of Corrie. (And the other play which had to be withdrawn dealt not with the Palestinian conflict but the raid on Entebbe.) In effect, the pairing amounted to a double bill about the life choices of two young "American" women (although Tirosh was Israeli, she returned to Israel from living in New York City). The Boston Globe explicitly reacted to the plays in this way ("The almost giddy young girl we met at the outset [of Corrie] has, by the end, grown into a far sadder, more complicated, and yet still resiliently optimistic woman."). Do you feel that implicit frame helped mute the reaction to Rachel Corrie (it seemed there was far less protest than the play has seen elsewhere), and do you think that, intentionally or no, the evening ended up re-framed as a tale about the political choices of two “American” girls, rather than about Israelis and Palestinians?

ML: I have to say that "the political choices of two ‘American’ girls" isn't really an appropriate frame. Zohar is an Israeli citizen who was doing her mandatory service and really did not have a choice in the matter. It would be like an American teenager's "choice" to go to high school.

In truth I really don't find Pieces to be overtly political. I found it to be more of a slice-of-life play that happened to take place at a crossroads in history. The talkbacks ended up being far more politically oriented than the play itself.

I also wonder about the idea of reframing because I believe that My
Name is Rachel Corrie
(though I do not have box office numbers in front of me) had larger audiences than Pieces. The frame of two young women's choices implies that everyone saw both plays.

As for the idea that the plays served as proxies for political statements, that was something we did not intend at all. I know that My Name is Rachel Corrie is in fact a strong political statement, and perhaps the controversy around it caused the impression of polarized opinions, but once more, the entire event - talkbacks, panels, readings, and screenings - is really what I would want to have remembered, not just the two plays.

I don't know if the reaction was really muted. We were criticized by people who were strongly pro-Palestinian for not presenting the Corrie piece by itself, and there was an occasional leafleter outside the theater handing out anti-Israeli material. There were voices raised against the Corrie piece as well, and occasionally talkback sessions did get heated.

Also, I would add that we met with several community leaders who had a stake in the issues that these plays were about. On the whole they seemed to understand what we were trying to do with this event.

HR: In your essay on the two plays, you mention that "poetic license is in effect" in the structure of My Name is Rachel Corrie, and you (bravely, I thought) point out that her journals, emails, and statements have been "edited," and that the play has political "blind spots" - Rachel (at left, in Gaza) never burns a mock American flag, for instance, as she was photographed doing (above). You justify this "blind spot" by stating "the character arc of their [i.e., Alan Rickman's and Katherine Viner's] Rachel would be broken by including such an event." Your argument, of course, would be quite strong if the "blind spots" didn't feel so politically coordinated. But they do feel politically coordinated - which could be interpreted as an artistic flaw. That is, shouldn't a true work of art about a political agitator consider its central character's politics fully, rather than simply from the character's perspective? Especially since Rachel's statements do offer a chance for such a consideration, which her editors have avoided?

ML: This question is perhaps the most difficult. I can't know or fully understand the motivations of the plays' editors. I agree that the edits appear politically motivated, and I disagree with the position that those edits appear to espouse. But if the dramaturgical task they set themselves was to create a sympathetic Rachel, they succeeded. I would in fact argue that they were not trying to create a play about a political agitator. We never experience the character of Rachel as aggressive, because the structure of the play would not support it.

I think that Stacy Fisher (at right, as Rachel) gave an outstanding performance and I was highly impressed with David Gammon's directing. Their artistic choices added to the sympathetic nature of the character, and put theatricality into the script where it was not inherently present. I cannot see the character that Stacy created burning a mock American flag.

As for the relationship between art and politics, that is a far longer discussion.

HR: I was intrigued by the attitude toward "the other side" in the opposing pieces. Zohar Tirosh, although never treating the Palestinians directly, nevertheless seemed to yearn for peace with them and regretted their situation, and seemed to imply that Rabin's assassination was a setback for Israel in moral terms. Meanwhile Rachel Corrie made no attempt to dramatize the Israeli position, or its possible justification. Do you feel, therefore, that the evening was politically "balanced" at all? Or could it ever be, given that, ironically enough, a dramatization of Palestinian terrorism might be even more controversial than My Name is Rachel Corrie?

ML: Again, I want to repeat that "balance" is not necessarily an appropriate frame for this project.

As for dramatizing terrorism, two of the plays that were given readings, Nitzan Halpern's Sow and Weep and my own b'Shalom had suicide bombing as central topics. In both cases that subject created very strong negative reaction in certain audience members.

So I agree that a dramatization of suicide bombing would have created controversy. There is a sort of apologist attitude towards terrorism against Israeli civilians that I find is all too common.

HR: I'm also curious how the talkbacks and other programs around the plays worked out. Did you feel a "dialogue" was indeed generated, or did participants seem more or less entrenched in their respective positions? Any thoughts, based on your experiences, on how other theatres might approach such "live wire" political plays in the future?

ML: The greatest forums for dialogue in my opinion were the panel discussions that we set up. I believe that those expanded people's points of views the most. In terms of the talkbacks for the plays, those varied night by night. I found that many interesting comments came from people who had already seen one play and had just experienced the other. There were also nights when most of the discussion was (rather surprisingly) not politically motivated at all.

As for how other theaters might approach such plays - I think New Rep did a very brave thing with this event, and not something that I have heard of any other theater doing. By creating a forum for multiple points of view we actually opened ourselves up to criticism from every side, and yet, once people understood what we were trying to do, they seemed more willing to listen to representations of opinions that they might disagree with.

That said, on a practical level I found the essay booklets to be a wonderful intellectual addition to the program. The spectrum of ideas represented in them side by side was a great example of what we were trying to do with the entire series, and that the booklet can stand alone as a lasting document can really only help further a greater dialogue.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Talkin' bout a revolution

Nigel Gore and Molly Schreiber debate the Travesties of modernism.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but you'd have to have been as blind as James Joyce not to have seen that Zurich in 1916 was the place to be. Nestled in the lap of Swiss neutrality as the belle epoque blew up around it, Zurich was crowded with the likes of Kandinsky, Klee, de Chirico, Ernst, Arp, and, of course Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin - whose (hypothetically) crossed paths form the crux of Travesties, Tom Stoppard's dazzling meditation on, and cross-examination of, modernism.

For make no mistake, Zurich's tiny teapot would pour a cultural tempest on the world as "the war to end all wars" wound down. Lenin would escape via sealed train to the Finland Station in 1917; Joyce would begin to unleash his über-Bildungsroman, Ulysses, in 1918; and Tristan Tzara, the founder of "Dada," would - well, actually Zurich proved to be his finest hour, but his anarchic manifesti manifested themselves for years via his surrealist comrades (indeed, he may, in the end, cast the longest cultural shadow of this trio).

But Stoppard engages these titans much as he did Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - by sending amongst them a nobody, albeit an actual nobody, named Henry Carr, a minor official who starred in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at a theatre whose manager was none other than Joyce (at left, in a photo taken in Zurich). The two sparred over money, with Carr suing Joyce, and Joyce counter-suing Carr (tellingly, the affair was over a pair of pants) - and Tzara and Lenin were in the neighborhood, after all, so Stoppard mixes all of them up in a fantasia based in the loosey-goosiest of fashions on Earnest, as it's re-enacted in flashback via the addled brain of the now-ancient Carr.

If this all sounds a bit Oxbridge-precious, well - perhaps it is; but it's dazzlingly Oxbridge-precious, because Stoppard is so lavishly witty, and his erudition so deep and yet worn so lightly. (Who else could have Lenin intone, "To lose one revolution may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness"?) What's more, Stoppard darts easily from the role of artiste to philistine: Carr may be a stuffed shirt and a prig, but he gives as good as he gets, and we can sense his outrage is a cover for the author's own skepticism.

For after all, even the title of Travesties can be taken any number of ways - is Stoppard ridiculing the artists he has in his sights, or instead only revelling in their work as the travesties they intended, and the Henry Carrs of the world insisted they were? Remember even Forster thought Ulysses was an attempt "to smear shit on the universe," (it is a kind of highbrow burlesque), Tzara endured no end of abuse, and Lenin (at right, on his arrival in Finland) twisted Marxism so far from its foundations as to all but parody it - and as for its practical effect on the world, well . . . that's both a travesty and a tragedy. Even the use of Earnest is itself a deep joke; after all, Wilde's comedy is a weirdly rarefied satire of Tory morals - precisely the worldview that modernism ridiculed and attempted to reform. To subject modernism itself to the same tropes - well, let's just say some might regard that as a tragedy. Or a travesty. Whatever - as in whatever you make of the wreckage of modernism's reformist ideals, it's not unlike the flickering chaos of Henry Carr's brain.

At any rate, under the direction of Diego Arciniegas, Stoppard's hall of intellectual mirrors is kept merrily spinning, and even if the cast isn't dazzling enough to disguise the lack of momentum in his ad hoc script, they put over the electrifying play of his ideas. (Once again we find the theatre scene's real intellectual life being sustained by its small companies rather than its large ones.) Of the central triumvirate, I was most taken with the Tzara of Alejandro Simoes, whose energy is consistently charming, even if he channels the Marx Brothers' anarchy-lite more than the darker fatalism of Tzara (whose pseudonym roughly translates as "sad country"). But I found Gabriel Kuttner's Lenin (another pseudonym, btw; his given name was Vladimir Ulyanov) a bit too placid, and Derry Woodhouse's Joyce not nearly testy or eccentric enough. And as senile ringmaster Carr, Nigel Gore tended to roar rather than explore the down-and-out loose ends of his character's senescence. There's bright work around the edges of the production, though: Lynn Guerra and Molly Schreiber ably chirp their way through the roles of Carr's Wildean factota, Gwendolen and Cecily (even when they're bopping about like mechanical dolls, or stripping á la some slightly sexist Monty Python sketch). Perhaps my favorite performance, however, came from Lorna Noguiera as Lenin's wife Nadya, whose best lines, of course, go "Da . . . da . . . da, da, da!" (Or yes I said yes, for you Joyceans.) The voice of modernity indeed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rumi for two

Listen to the cry of the reed, how it complains,
how it sings of separation:
"Ever since they tore me from my home,
My laments have moved men and women to tears.
I burst my breast, venting my sighs,
All to express the depth of my yearning."

The above lines (roughly) open the Masnavi I Ma'navi, or "Spiritual Couplets," of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, better known in the U.S. as simply "Rumi" (that's his tomb, above), and give an immediate sense of the compact, lyrical pathos of the great Sufi poet's work. They also (obviously) serve as the titular inspiration for Sinan Ünel’s The Cry of the Reed, now at the BCA's Wimberley Theatre through May 3. Indeed, Ünel was mulling a play based on Rumi's life before reports of the kidnapping of two journalists in Iraq gave him the idea of exploring the poet's philosophy instead, via the clash of cultures in the war-torn Middle East.

And the resulting play is, indeed, all about dislocation and dualism: it takes place in two countries and across two cultures, and two "scenes" often play simultaneously in the same space, with two protagonists in each (on one side, the two journalists are held captive; on the other, one journalist's lover and her mother desperately try to locate her). Even minor characters tend to bifurcate - the chief kidnapper is replaced by his brother, played by the same actor, and the comic relief in one half of the play has a much darker mirror in the other. Ünel has clearly attempted to physicalize, on stage, the central insight of Rumi: that we have been cleaved from God - or at least from spiritual unity - and that we long for re-unification. (A sense of this mystical integration is the central goal of the sema dance, the trancelike whirling of the dervishes that closes the play.)

The trouble is that Ünel may have developed a striking schema for Rumi's metaphysic, but he hasn't developed dramatic arcs (he needs two, of course) to explore it; nor has he developed plots that illuminate the ironic corollary to his main theme: that the religious fanatic can wander just as far from God as the atheist. Instead, the playwright has sketched half of his drama as a conventional thriller (the kidnapped girl - will she survive???) and the other as a sweetly pretentious "play of ideas" which trades in pontifical bon mots like "You're a lover of life - that's the foundation of faith." Uh-huh. Wow, that's like so deep.

Sean Dugan and Cigdem Onat in The Cry of the Reed.

Which in a nutshell is the problem with translating Rumi into drama - what reads as gnomic wisdom on the page can sound like outtakes from Yoda on the stage. Luckily, the Huntington has fielded a strong cast which can (almost) sell Ünel's deep thoughts; we never groan at the lines, we just slowly become aware the playwright is never moving past exposition into development. Forget about actual action: even the debate between secular and spiritual never really gets started - we can feel it as the premise of what's going on, but no one ever gets under anyone else's skin, or seems on the verge of changing his or her mind. The progress toward unification, which in the end must be the plot, never begins - instead we only get a poignant phone call, between the kidnapped journalist and her mother (now herself a Sufi mystic), which essentially goes nowhere.

Still, even though Cry of the Reed eventually falls flat, I'm more sympathetic toward it than I am toward synthetic "successes" like The Clean House - Ünel is trying to write a real play, about a challenging, elusive theme that's both ancient and timely. The sheer exoticism of its locales and cultural background make it refreshingly intriguing, and it sports a superb set from Eugene Lee (a bombed-out interior built entirely of doors) which perhaps conveys the play's premise better than Ünel does himself. There is also a performance of alluring poise from Cigdem Onat as the kidnapped journalist's mother (the role was reportedly written for her), as well as solid turns from Lisa Birnbaum and Darren Pettie as the journalists, Rafi Silver as a romantic jailer, and Amir Arison as a too-broadly-written (but still sharply performed) whirling wannabe.

The trouble is that it's hard to fight the feeling that to do Rumi justice, Ünel will have to rip out most of his scenes and start over, and that the dramatic structure he requires may be too radical for the Huntington's development process (the products of which tend to move toward a certain Broadway-bound mode). He's built himself a brilliant but empty frame - rather like Lee's brilliant, empty set. Now he has to furnish it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Led balloon

The Graf Zeppelin lifts off.

The succinct slogan of Rough and Tumble Theatre is "Theatre that doesn't suck," and for most of this ensemble's history, that's actually been truth in advertising: Rough and Tumble has brought any number of nifty original productions to life, via a clever mix of physical comedy, a lightly rueful worldview, and witty theatrical shorthand. The troupe hit a high point with Backwater, which actually conjured something like a movie camera's roving eye (it left the A.R.T.'s later attempt at translating Donnie Darko in the dust), and I'm Away from My Desk Right Now . . ., a wry satire of cubeland, was almost as memorable. But alas, with An Ocean of Air, the troupe comes up with a theatrical vacuum - perhaps Air doesn't quite blow, but only just barely.

The idea seems to have been to evoke on a shoestring the first round-the-world trip of the Graf Zeppelin (above), a challenge that seems - well, certainly within the Tumblers' grasp, given their earlier successes. But we wait in vain for the kind of "ooh and ahhh" moment (or even ironically "ooh and ahhh" moment) the concept promises; the Tumblers don't have the resources to successfully evoke the period, amd though they provide one or two zeppelesque props, they simply don't conjure the blimp - and if you ain't got the blimp, you ain't got blip. (This was particularly disappointing given the fact that I'd just seen Great Small Works illustrate a flood and a tornado on a tabletop - someone give Rough and Tumble their phone number!).

But even if it never hits anything like a theatrical cruising altitude, Ocean does occasionally get airborne. Sound designer Andrea Morales provides a convincing aural representation of a windstorm and its resulting "emergency landing" (the one moment the zeppelin comes alive for us). And the resourceful Irene Daly, Kristin Baker and Rodney Rafferty occasionally coax some light comedy from the quotidian script (generated by the Tumblers themselves). But other talented members of the troupe (Jason Myatt, George Saulnier III) seem adrift in what feels like an attempt to affectionately satirize their characters' calm skill. To be fair, I caught the show's first performance - still, the "plot" never achieves anything like an arc, and director Dan Milstein's pacing is for once inexplicably slack. As a result, the Tumbler's low-key self-regard begins to seem a bit inflated. Maybe it's time for a new slogan.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Zurich Chamber Rollercoastra

A wild musical ride via a commercial for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The hidden Haydn

Sometimes first impressions are deceiving, but in my experience, just as often they're spot-on. When I first heard Sir Roger Norrington (at left) conduct the Handel and Haydn Society, I commented the group had found "the perfect conductor for at least half its namesake composers," and my further encounters with Norrington's interpretations of Haydn (The Seasons, and now a third program, of the "Trauer" Symphony and the "Harmoniemesse" Mass) have only re-inforced that first response. Norrington's style is, yes, proudly idiosyncratic - and yet in some mysterious way, its wry classicism seems so appropriate to Haydn that the results feel not imposed, as a personal conducting style sometimes can, but instead like a revelation, and a nearly definitive one at that.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces, however, teased out a salient point about Norrington: he's more an orchestral than a choral conductor. Not that his work with the chorus in the "Harmoniemesse" was lackluster; it was, in general, quite fine - it simply wasn't at the impeccable peak that Harry Christophers brought the chorus to in this winter's Messiah. Perhaps this slight gap is really one of geography - Sir Roger is at his best when he focuses, in a direct, almost personal way, on the players before him (at times he looks almost like a kind of hypnotist) and the chorus is simply too far away, and too large a collective, for him to work his magic.

So it was unsurprising that the "Trauer" (or "Mourning") symphony proved the most exciting performance of the evening, while also demonstrating that Norrington isn't merely about frisky high spirits (although he did take the counterpoint of the finale at a thrilling clip). His reading of the celebrated Adagio - late in life Haydn asked that it be played at his own funeral - proved particularly moving, yet full of a sense of solace, not mourning.

The "Harmoniemesse" is a very different animal - mostly triumphal, yet seemingly infinite in its variety. Norrington shaped its various phases well, though I wouldn't say he actually unified them into a coherent whole; perhaps that's impossible (Norrington even paused between movements, as if to give them space). Still, the chorus sang with glorious color, and the soloists - Heidi Grant Murphy, Susan Platts, John McVeigh, and Robert Gleadow - sang with sympathy and power, although perhaps not always with the cleanest diction, or in exact alignment with the orchestra's lean classicism. My favorite of the group was mezzo Susan Platts, at left, who brought a rich, almost plaintive timbre to a pleasingly direct and honest phrasing - an intriguing complement to Norrington's eccentric, but utterly open and direct, conducting style.

O brave new world, That hath such peoples in't!

Could George W. Bush really be our most Shakespearean president? Slate thinks so, and here's their hilarious reason:

Shakespeare is famous for having introduced more words into the English language than any other individual. Those words have become so much a part of our vernacular that we no longer associate them with the Swan of Avon. Words used above—like birthplace, fixture, and assassination—originate with him. Perhaps Shakespeare's most enduring legacy lies in his unseen mark on our semantic stock.

Along this metric, Bush stands alone among the 43 presidents.
His coinages are the stuff of legend, including terms such as misunderestimate, mential, and embetterment. Many critics lament how busybody editors "corrected" Shakespeare's Quartos because they did not conform to their pedestrian notions of proper usage. For the same reason, we should not let stenographers "correct" Bush's contributions to our literary heritage. Bush's words do not belong to us. We hold them in trust—for our childrens, and for our childrens's childrens.

Is war just baseball by other means?

Last year's Fenway flyover.

A disturbing story in the Globe yesterday pointed out that the Red Sox opening day flyover cost taxpayers $100,000 in fuel alone. What's more, it turns out the Air Force scheduled 843 flyovers last year (which, using the back of this napkin, comes to $84.3 million in fuel costs, or more than half our entire funding of the National Endowment for the Arts). The Air Force claims the flyovers count as "training missions" - but then also admits that timing a flight against "The Star Spangled Banner" really isn't much like combat. (Maybe Dick Cheney is planning to buzz a soccer match in Tehran.) The article is at its weirdest, however, when it points out that for one of the pilots, "the flyover is an honor":

"Being able to represent our military in the opening game is pretty awesome," he said.

I had an odd little frisson when I read that - the kind that comes with the perception of a cultural shift moving beneath our conscious radar. Since when was it an honor for a soldier to consort with baseball players? I always thought it was supposed to work the other way around - that athletes operated as a kind of proxy military (why else sing the national anthem before the game) rather than actual soldiers operating as proxy athletes. The ubiquitous Air Force flyover also suggests a strange, shared sense of "global branding" of American sports and entertainment - that with our economic base hollowed out, we now explicitly link our defense department to our virtual entertainment world rather than our actual homeland. A small thing, perhaps, but worth noting.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Who was Rachel Corrie?

The interview above, with the actual Rachel Corrie, occurred just two days prior to her death after being crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. That tragedy inspired, of course, My Name is Rachel Corrie, the monologue culled from her diary, emails, and statements by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner. The script just finished a joint run at the New Rep with Pieces, a one-woman show by Zohar Tirosh about her own service in the Israeli Defense Forces (Corrie's nemesis). This pairing, with the issues of political and artistic "balance" it raises, has deeply interested me, although I decided not to write about it until I had the chance to see both plays (Corrie was sold out until late in its run). I'm currently discussing my thoughts and concerns with Meron Langsner, Playwright in Residence at the New Rep and one of the coordinators of the talkbacks, discussions, and readings which occurred around the performances to foster a dialogue with the theatre's audience. More to come about the questions posed by this controversial event.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The beauty of the Beaux Arts

Above is a Youtube video of the Beaux Arts Trio, recorded by a cellphone in Berlin, playing part of a Haydn trio (which served as an encore at last week's Celebrity Series concert in Jordan Hall). The clip gives you some idea, despite the low-fidelity sound, of what makes the group so special: its sense of "serious joy," as someone I know once put it. That joyful noise echoed more somberly this time around, as the trio is on its farewell tour, but spirits onstage were as high as ever: indeed Menahem Pressler, founding pianist and acknowledged "soul" of the group (for lack of a better word), despite playing for more than half a century with the trio, seemed as committed as ever to its supple, transparent sound. As the lone commenter on the Youtube video put it, "Menahem Pressler rocks."

Not that the Trio's younger members, Antonio Meneses on cello and Daniel Hope on violin (at left, on either side of Pressler) hung back in the shadows - Hope brought a spry verve to what amounted to a kind of tugging dialogue with Pressler, and if Meneses seemed a bit more reserved, he nonetheless played with a mature, intelligent polish that perhaps even more closely complemented the founder's touch. And said touch is still a marvel - Pressler's 84-year-old fingers utterly bely their age, with an agile yet tender attack that seemed to somehow scatter aural pearls from the piano. (It was Hope's plans for a solo career, not Pressler's desire for retirement, that led to the decision to disband the group.)

The ensemble's final offerings were Schubert's two trios, the B-Flat Major and E-Flat Major (which includes the famous Andante con moto heard in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) and a premiere from György Kurtág, Work for piano trio. The Schuberts tended to ramble, as Schubert often does, but the trio took both at thoughtful pace, and if they didn't fully cohere, so what - both were played with articulate, observant passion (the E-flat's melancholy themes were in particular warmer than in most versions). I was less taken with the compacted, lyrically minimal Kurtág, which was a series of lost, mournful sighs from the strings, drifting over chiming chords from the piano - like much of Kurtág, it seemed to evoke the postwar existentialism of Beckett without extending it. The trio helpfully played it twice (it's under three minutes long); perhaps further contemplation might, indeed, unlock a harrowing internality like that we associate with the great playwright.

When time came for the encores, however, it was clear the Beaux Arts had saved the best for last. All three were riveting, and all three were in utterly different modes. Shostakovich's "Devil's Scherzo" was pure, fiendish fire, with that edge of horrific glee so characteristic of the great Russian; a movement from Haydn (above) was a jubilant romp; and a final encore from Dvořák's Dumky Trio made a lovely farewell. Then there were the last, exuberant bows, and then silence. All three will keep playing, of course (we'll be able to hear Pressler at Tanglewood this summer, in fact), but it's hard to fight a certain melancholy at the thought that the sound of the Beaux Arts is now stilled.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Why I'll never win a Pulitzer

Word reaches us that the Globe's Mark Feeney has won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. We were even more amused to learn that one of the ten articles cited by the Pulitzer committee was a piece on Stanley Kubrick that I tore apart here. Congratulations, Mark - but let's hope you figure out Kubrick someday . . .

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Back to the Academy

During last week's concert by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields it seemed, at times, as if St. Martin wasn't just in the fields but also in a kind of time warp: here on the stage of Symphony Hall was the same lustrous, lovely sound I remembered from their classic recordings of the 60's and 70's, when they led what has since become known as "the Baroque revival." Here too was legendary founder Neville Marriner (at left), the man himself, due to the unexpected illness of conductor/pianist Murray Perahia. And I'm happy to report that the ancient Marriner (sorry, I just had to) looked ruddily vital and pleased as punch to be on the podium - almost as pleased as we were to have him there.

I'm not sure by what sonic alchemy the Academy produces its musical signature - that full, ravishing tone that almost pours forth from a gently sculpted architecture, but never quite; I'm simply happy to report that the mystery is still with us, and still as subtly ravishing as ever. The secret, of course, must lie somewhere in the Academy's sense of ensemble, and indeed, the string players were constantly checking each other during the performance, the way great quartets do; whether this means the conductor is no longer the focus (the group was originally "conductorless"), or that Marriner's sensibility is by now ingrained in the orchestra's bones, I don't know and don't care. I only know that throughout its opening Mozart symphony (No. 31), the Academy played with a cohesive, handsome balance that I've never heard the BSO achieve.

Of course a lot of musical water has gone under the bridge since the Academy (at left) and its style coalesced; the "Baroque revival" has morphed into the early music movement; and so the Academy's chamber-orchestra "concept," if you will, straddles what has now become something of a cultural divide. So I was eager to hear their handling - on modern instruments - of Haydn's "London" symphony (No. 104). The performance was gorgeous, although its golden sonorousness was most compelling in the dramatic adagio and andante sections than in the lighter allegro portions - perhaps because original instruments are, in the end, simply more sparkling than modern ones, and my ear has become "trained" to them. Still, Marriner brought infectious spirit to the "Spiritoso" finale, and it was hard not to be charmed.

As I felt I should have been by the lovely Yuja Wang, a virtuosic young Chinese pianist (at right). Ms. Wang looked stunning in two strapless gowns, one in shimmering blue, the other in revolutionary red; and her speed, agility, and structural rigor were beyond astonishing - when other pianists (even legendary ones like Horowitz) ramp up to Ms. Wang's preferred cruising speed, notes tend to either go muddy or missing, but here the keys struck were all the right ones, only at velocities that meant Ms. Wang's fingers were frequently a blur. (There are several videos on Youtube - including one I posted below - to bear testament to this; one is even titled "House of Flying Fingers".)

But alas, in the end I may have admired Ms. Wang - she is "awesome," if ever a pianist was - but I wasn't charmed. Yes, she has both speed and command, and these things are thrilling, but claims of her musicality seem to me exaggerated (at least so far). Ms. Wang is in some ways a prisoner of her own technique: although she can draw melancholic color from the keyboard when she slows down, once she hits the gas she loses all individual personality and tends to hammer, albeit accurately, which put her rather at odds with the style of the Academy. And she's drawn, a bit naively, to "showing us what she can do," instead of what the music can do; her cadenza in the Piano Concerto No. 24, for instance, seemed to dump Mozart for Liszt (even though the orchestra was still playing Mozart). She was most at home in the propulsive allegro of Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 10, which she played with brio - and her heart was obviously in her encore, the crazed Volodos transcription of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo" (again, see video below) which was dazzling fun (as encores should be), but could hardly be described as having much depth. Of course someday she may find her own voice; and then Ms. Wang will really be something to hear.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Marx attacks!

Ah, Bill Marx. The sweetly smiling visage at left (no doubt he was thinking of me at the time) hardly prepares one for the vat-load of venom hidden in those incisors. When I pointed out that his puff piece on the Huntington's Breaking Ground festival neglected to mention that critics were - how to put this? - personae non gratae at the festival, even though at least one of the playwrights in question actually wanted them to be there (or rather me, not him), he suddenly stopped tickling Ilana Brownstein (below right) with the feather of his pen and plunged its point into my side (on Art Hennessey's Mirror Up to Nature):

The heart-rending sight of Mr. Garvey fighting the shadows of assorted straw men (academia,left wing fiends, ememies domestic and abroad) is nothting new. But I am deeply worryed with his latest self-destructive delusional bout -- he is battling with his own shadow. Perhaps he is frightened by the sight.

A theater company can ask that a critic not come to a public reading or a production, but that request has no legal standing. There is nothing stopping Mr. Garvey or any critic from walking into Breaking Grounds and writing about what they see.

If he is stopped by the HTC from entering the theater he has something to complain about. Until then, he is punching at air, as usual.

No, sorry Bill - I'm punching a punching bag that looks a lot like you, and you know it. How else to explain the fact that, despite a barrage of insults, you never actually approach the central question of my piece? My point was not to simply wail about some imagined mistreatment at the hands of the Huntington, but to reveal that the theatre was attempting to shut down critical conversation about the process itself, and that in the meantime they were frustrating the wishes of at least one supposed benefactor of that process. Let me say it again - the Huntington is fully within their "rights," if you will, to operate their development process outside the critical radar. But then shouldn't a genuine critic be a wee bit more skeptical about it? To ask that no one review a script in development is perfectly understandable; to throw a veil over the very process of development itself is something else. And to have the supposed critical scourge of Boston seemingly pleased as punch with the effort is something else again, isn't it. (It almost makes you wonder - is Marx invited, while other critics aren't?)

As for the recommendation that I simply show up at the theatre anyway: really, Bill, only you could be such a jerk as to barge into a theatre where you weren't wanted (and even if I did so, I doubt the playwright in question would be much pleased). No wonder you call yourself persona non grata, and have obviously researched the legal questions involved!