Saturday, May 31, 2008

Today's Poem

Filling Station

by Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color-
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) attended Vassar, where she met Marianne Moore, who dissuaded her from pursuing a medical career. She eventually won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her poetry, and served as Poet Laureate of the United States. She ended her career teaching at MIT, my alma mater - in fact, I enrolled in her poetry seminar there, but she was forced to withdraw from teaching it; she died a few months later."Filling Station" was published in The New Yorker in 1955.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dido returns

Above is the climax of the famous Mark Morris staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which electrified Boston (and yours truly) when it opened here way back in 1989. Well, Dido is back, only this time Morris is in the pit, conducting, rather than on stage. But will it be as compelling as everyone remembers it sans Mark? Clearly it will no longer be a statement about gay identity - but its inspired mix of dance and mime may prove all the more enduring without that political context. You can decide for yourself at the Cutler Majestic through Sunday. Tickets and more information available here.

And charting the theater companies . . .

I thought, after looking at my revised chart of the season, that I'd replace the names of the productions with those of their producing companies, to see if there were any patterns discernible. It turns out there were, although not any that were particularly surprising. The Huntington is variable, sabotaged more by its scripts than its productions, although it always stays in positive territory, and SpeakEasy the most consistent, again positively, although it never risks the most challenging scripts (that may change next year with Jerry Springer). Indeed, an analysis of the graph could lead to the conclusion that (surprise!) companies tend to falter with the most daunting texts. The ART veers too often into negative territory (admittedly, these assessments are by reputation only - I couldn't bear to sit through Julius Caesar, and I'm dragging my feet on Cardenio); interestingly, like the New Rep, the ART stands out as being far better at the weakest scripts it attempts, and weakest at the best scripts it attempts (the Lyric's a bit that way, too). The good-but-not-great standing of Trinity perhaps belies the critical rapture over Curt Columbus's work there. But other good news includes the strong double header from the Merrimack up in Lowell, and the home runs from the Publick and Gurnet. And the most depressing thing about the graph is that despite the success of Angels in America, Boston Theatre Works is now on hiatus.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Charting the season

Always seeking to make our aesthetic assessments more accurate, I thought I'd borrow a page from business consulting and see if I could "chart" the spring theatrical season against two axes. The results are above, with axes for "Material" ("Was it worth doing?") and "Execution" ("Did they make it worth seeing?") - rather a rough fudge, I admit, but I'm still toying with how to express other data. In the meantime, I find the results intriguing (your data, of course, may differ), and even somewhat heartening. It was nice to realize, for instance, that I could really compress the "Not Worth Doing/Not Worth Seeing" quadrant - only a few theatre companies were foolish enough to mount weak scripts (chosen, no doubt, for their clearly-targeted audiences rather than their actual quality), and of those most nevertheless managed strong productions. Perhaps somewhat discouraging was the lagging "tail" of flaccid versions of the classics, but these were overwhelmed in sheer numbers by the number of scripts that were worth doing, and done well, with at least half a dozen hitting the "sweet spot" of worthy script and worthy production.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Boston Foundation gets its wish! (Part II of what may be a long series)

Well, I'm sure there were some folks who were glad to hear that Boston Theatre Works is going "on hiatus," a fate which had already befallen Snappy Dance Theater; the Boston Foundation, which last winter issued a report (left) recommending that smaller, struggling arts groups "consider exit strategies", was no doubt pleased to hear the news. Likewise Boston Ballet's financial troubles were probably music to their ears. After all, it's nice to be right, isn't it.

I was very interested, in fact, to find out what the Foundation's response would be to the current situation. (For the record, Boston Foundation has in the past actually awarded grants to BTW.) So I sent Ann McQueen, one of the authors of the Foundation's report, the following email:

Hello Ann -

My name is Tom Garvey, and I write a local arts blog at

As you may be aware, I was highly critical of the recent Boston Foundation report suggesting that smaller, struggling arts organizations close up shop.

I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the current closings - or at least the "on hiatus" status - of groups such as Boston Theatre Works and Snappy Dance Theater. Are these outcomes in line with what you and the Boston Foundation saw as best for the Boston arts scene? Do you see the closings as allowing stronger arts offerings to flourish in their stead - even though both Theatre Works and Snappy Dance were award-winning groups with substantial audiences? Or do you perhaps see this is an opportunity for arts funding to more plausibly shift to minority groups, as your report seemed to suggest was the Boston Foundation's preference?

If you'd like to time to reply, or perhaps respond to a more thorough set of questions, I'd love to publish your response on my blog.

Thanks so much,

Tom Garvey
The Hub Review

So far, no reply - although you can ask her some questions yourself, at (the other author of the report, Susan Nelson, a consultant from Technical Development Corporation, wasn't listed on their website).

Now before you say it, I know - it's always shocking, and even considered rude, to confront stupidity directly - particularly monied stupidity. But really, haven't local foundations been given a free ride in terms of public opinion for far too long? Suddenly, I think, people are realizing how sub-prime the financial status of Boston's art scene truly is, how it was always underfunded, even in the boom years. For an organization like the Boston Foundation to have been encouraging small groups to go out of business, while happily pouring dollars down the money hole that is Citi Center, suggests a tunnel vision bordering on idiocy. (In the face of ridicule, including a "die-off" staged by local artists, McQueen later defiantly said she'd happily fund "mergers," but not actual "funerals" for small groups.)

What's intriguing, however, about the crisis at Boston Theatre Works is that it neatly refutes the legitimacy of McQueen's model - she imagined, as so many MBA types do, that superior art must, perforce, succeed in the "marketplace," if it's "scaled up" appropriately, and makes efficient use of its "unrestricted net assets." Sigh. But Theatre Works's most recent production - Angels in America (above) - was an artistic success that drew sold-out houses (I know, I was there) that still, apparently, didn't pay for itself.

I say "apparently" because I'm a little skeptical of the implication in Megan Tench's Globe article that it was rental costs at the Roberts Studio that finished Theatre Works off. A little back-of-the-envelope calculating, based on reasonable assumptions, indicates that at most the Roberts could have cost around $16,000 total for the run, while a sold-out show should have pulled in perhaps $8-10,000 a performance, or $40-50,000 a week. Clearly longer-term issues were at work.

Still, few would argue that we're better off without Theatre Works - and if it's "creative destruction" McQueen and the Boston Foundation were looking for, it's hard to see the "creative" side of this; what are the odds that an artistically stronger group than BTW will take its place? No, it's time instead to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Foundation mindset - which was always obviously an excuse to clear the field so the Foundation could more easily fund its friends' projects, and support a few minority groups, too. Indeed, it's actually past time to look for a more aggressive response from Boston's foundations and private wealth to the current economic situation, particularly a response that takes into account the aesthetic quality, and community implications, of the works proposed, rather than merely the "world-class brand" status of organizations like the BSO and the MFA, which have been sucking money into huge follies like giant atria and five-hour operatic obscurities. Perhaps Ann McQueen should hire a new consultant and start sketching out a new report.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Poem of the Day

The Black Swan

by James Merrill

Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
        Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
         Nearer to that green lake
      Where every paradox means wonder.

Though the black swan’s arched neck is like
         A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
         And the swan-song it sings
      Is the huge silence of the swan.

Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
         Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
         Transform, in time, time’s damage;
      To less than a black plume, time’s grief.

Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
         Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
         That does not change but is
      Always brilliant ice and air.

Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
         The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
         Forever to cry aloud
      In anguish: I love the black swan.

James Merrill's father was the Merrill of Merrill Lynch, and so this gay scion had a good chunk of capitalism's booty to fund a life of sophisticated pleasure and poetic endeavor. "The Black Swan," perhaps Merrill's first great poem, was privately published by his Amherst professor (and lover) in 1946.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

You'll love She Loves Me

Nancy Carroll and company hoof up a storm in She Loves Me.

Yes, I know, that's about as corny as a headline can get. But it's true - you will love She Loves Me, at the Huntington through June 15 - and if you don't, my friend, there's something wrong with you.

Because there's nothing wrong with this show - it is, simply put, perfect; even if She Loves Me isn't quite "the perfect musical," as Time magazine once claimed, it's still pretty damn close, and frankly this is the perfect production of it. It's also Artistic Director Nicholas Martin's swan song, and he clearly wanted to go out on a high note - not only has the Huntington dropped a bundle on some splendid production values, but Martin has pulled together a sterling cast from his solid-gold rolodex, and deployed every clever insight and trick he has up his sleeve, on a show that I'm sure he knew was the perfect vehicle for his wit.

So the evening's lightly sophisticated magic should be no surprise - only shows like this always are a surprise, anyway; this is the kind of production that makes you recall with a faint shock how transporting a show can be, how rejuvenated and alive it can make you feel. That She Loves Me is really just a commercial entertainment only reminds you of the heights to which entertainment used to aspire: based on the legendary Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner (at left, itself based on the play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, and remade as the forgettable You've Got Mail), the musical's creators (Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick) honor their source with nearly the same level of craft Lerner and Loewe brought to Pygmalion. Masteroff cleverly re-spins the time-honored plot about smitten pen pals who rub each other the wrong way in real life, Bock's music elegantly recalls the play's Hungarian sources, and Harnick's lyrics are hilarious without ever stooping to an obvious joke (after enduring the braying juvenilia of The Producers, She Loves Me felt like a long, luxurious bath in the pleasures of adulthood). Add to that lineage Nicholas Martin and this smashing cast (led by Brooks Ashmanskas and Kate Baldwin), and you have a kind of timeline of craftsmanship that somehow transcends itself.

Indeed, I found myself scratching my head, searching for something not to like. Let's see - the second act isn't quite as seamlessly delightful as the first; there's one obvious gearshift in the dramatic mechanics, and at least one "extra" song. The musical also lacks, I suppose, a knockout stand-alone standard, but its "book songs" are so sophisticated and ravishing that you somehow forget all about that. And I thought one of Kate Baldwin's dresses (at left) was a little too pink. That's about it.

The rest is pure pleasure. Brooks Ashmankas obliterates any doubts over whether he's a romantic leading man with a performance that combines both his famously sharp physical comedy with a lightly-rendered vulnerability (his grab-it-and-shake-it-for-all-its-worth take on the title song is probably alone worth the price of admission). And Kate Baldwin - the best thing about last season's Three Musketeers - is both romantically luminous and smartly sharp as the object of his affections. The entire cast deserves awards, both individually and as an ensemble (indeed, their professional give-and-take almost defines ensemble). I might single out Jessica Stone's wide-eyed-yet-world-weary Ilona, or Dick Latessa's melancholy Mr. Maraczek, but could I really do that to Jeremy Beck, Mark Nelson, Troy Britton Johnson, or Marc Vietor, not to mention the talented chorus and dance ensemble (led by the infinitely flexible Jason Babinsky)? No, I couldn't.

Nor could I ignore Denis Jones's hearty, bemused choreography, Charlie Alterman's sparkling music direction, Kenneth Posner's and Philp Rosenberg's atmospheric lighting, or James Noone's subtly charming, ever-changing set design. And whose inspired idea was it to put the orchestra up above the stage, where we could see them? Oh, who cares? Doesn't everyone have a prize by now?

Still, in the end, this triumph's true begetter is Nicholas Martin, who, before he left us, not only brought a new sheen to the Huntington, but presided over the opening of a new theatre in the South End (which all but rejuvenated that neighborhood), and the creation of a major playwriting program, as well as one of the city's most extensive outreach efforts. Mr. Martin is one of the few local leaders who can truly say they changed Boston for the better. Indeed, his departure is the only melancholy note struck by She Loves Me: we love him, and what will we ever do without him?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reproducing The Producers

There's always been something very meta about Mel Brooks's The Producers (through June 1 at the North Shore Music Theatre, above). It's a show about a musical so offensive that everyone takes it as camp that is itself a musical so offensive that everyone takes it as camp. If that sounds harsh, perhaps it's because The Producers, unlike its show-within-a-show, Springtime for Hitler, came wrapped in democratizing irony: everyone, the marketing insisted, eventually became the butt of one of Mel Brooks's Borscht-Belt jokes, so no one could be offended. This of course wasn't quite true: yes, Brooks blew raspberries at buxom Swedes and nebbishy Jews and racist Irish cops, but he dodged African-American stereotypes, while upping the ante considerably on the gay jokes (even revising the movie to squeeze his über-queen director into Springtime for Hitler): so much so, in fact, that The Producers became not so much a joke on Nazis as a poke at show queens. The New York production, of course, deracinated this new angle via Nathan Lane: after all, how could a show be homophobic with the screamingly nelly Lane as its lead? And how could a show feed into prejudice when its target was Nazism? Especially when it was being directed by a woman (Susan Stroman), and being staged in New York, for god's sake?

As we all know, this carefully targeted strategy worked. The Producers re-minted political incorrectness as schmaltz: it was taken as a nostalgic, hilariously ironic look at (all-too-true) stereotypes by a brassy mensch, and even became the perfect tonic to the fear and trembling that reigned after 9/11; these big, broad, bigoted jokes were American, goddamnit, and we don't really mean them, but we love them anyway! So take that, Osama bin Laden!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the North Shore. Somehow, some of that "irony" leaked out of the show, and there are weird moments in which The Producers teeters perilously close to being just as nasty as it wants to be. After all, you can practically hear that banjo from Deliverance echoing through the backwoods of Beverly, so I shouldn't have been surprised at the murmurs of shocked disapproval from the audience when the lisping, mincing "Carmen Ghia" and "Roger DeBris" (Stuart Marland, below) began tripping across the NSMT stage. True, the crowd minded its manners, and even for the most part eventually "got" the spirit of the thing; even though they hated fags, they slowly realized that this was all meant in fun. And the actors weren't actually gay; they were just playing people from New York, you know.

Sigh. Well, I know I can survive a little homophobia; haven't I been surviving it all my life? It's just that I'm a little dizzy from the spinning "we don't mean it-yes we do" tone of the show (and I really wish Brooks would try the same trick with, say, Mandingo!, or maybe Dessa Rose - it would be interesting to see Terry Byrne wrap her perm around that).

The trouble is, that even setting my outraged queeniness aside, I can't pretend that The Producers is really all that fabulous. Like Byrne, some critics have tried to work up an argument that the North Shore's in-the-round staging was problematic, and it was, at times, but only because, shorn of the proscenium spectacle lavished on it in New York, The Producers is revealed as pretty thin stuff: not only does the relentless thump of the punchlines grow wearying, but the score is pedestrian, the lyrics predictable, and the plot largely a convoluted excuse to get to "Springtime for Hitler" (which is the show's best song). Actually, contrary to Byrne's complaints, the choreography by Bill Burns was generally clever and resourceful in its aping of Stroman. But it didn't help that the North Shore's lead, Scott Davidson, played his exasperation whiningly straight, and in far too low and naturalistic a key. As a result, he had no chemistry with sidekick Jim Stanek, who styled Leopold Bloom (yeah, even Joyce gets ribbed) at a more appropriately broad, frenetic pace, or even Amy Bodnar, who was probably the show's canny highlight as the blonde, beautiful, boob-a-licious Ulla (above right). Luckily, everyone else had gotten the right memo: Stuart Marland, though he hewed closely to Gary Beach's famous performance, made a high-energy Roger de Bris, while Fred Berman (Carmen Ghia) and (especially) Madeleine Doherty (Hold-me Touch-me) made their broader-than-broad assignments genuinely funny. Meanwhile the hard-working chorus - always reliable at the NSMT - was dazzling as ever in a truly spectacular rogue's gallery of high-kicking ethnic smears and stereotypes.

To be fair, "Springtime for Hitler" was still a hoot, with its tap-dancing stormtroopers and showgirls with pretzels on their heads: maybe this protean number is all by itself worth the price of admission. Or maybe a personal command performance, sans the Beverly audience, might restore the broad-but-harmless, anything-goes sheen to the show. But then again, maybe it would still look like one great idea thwarted by a desperate desire to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Although I suppose that's not the North Shore's fault.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

King Yawn

Sarah Newhouse and Bill Barclay in King John.

Over at Art Hennessey's Mirror Up to Nature, I recently claimed that Shakespeare's King John was "quite theatrical." So now, faced with the arty tedium of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's version, I guess I have some 'splainin' to do!

But honestly - it is theatrical, really it is! I confess I was stunned by the discovery, too; the play doesn't read all that well, and nobody ever does it, so when I caught one, two, three rockin' productions in a row, I began to get the idea that the play was far more do-able than I'd dreamed. Well, now ASP has pulled me back to reality - although I still hang onto the belief that King John is more than just Shakespeare's rehearsal for various scenes from Henry V and Hamlet (among others).

It's true the plot is a labyrinth of forgotten English history - John, the weakling brother of Richard the Lionhearted, snatches the crown after his sibling's death, his grip steadied by the iron hand of his mother, Eleanor (yes, that one, of Aquitaine). But when John tries to assert his authority over his territories in France, he's confronted by the French King Philip with a secret weapon: the son of Richard - accompanied by his hysteric mother Constance - who arguably has a stronger claim to the throne than John himself. (Just to keep things interesting, Richard's bastard son is on the scene, too!) Needless to say, the coldest, most cynical machinations quickly ensue - indeed, King John plays like a horrific, undeceived X-ray of the power games in the later history plays, with the death (and even the torture) of the problematic young prince moving into view as the chief object of all these augustly pious personages (with the Vatican as the ultimate power broker).

But while director Benjamin Evett clearly understands the dark dimensions of this drama, he has decided to play it as black comedy rather than horrorshow, with minimal dramatic results. True, King John should crackle with bitter laughs - but Evett styles his grasping royal Mafia as caricatures out of The Sopranos or Pulp Fiction (or perhaps the producers of said fictions); their inner natures aren't revealed but forced on us, via a juvenile kind of louche decadence, from the martini-soaked opening.

And it doesn't help that roughly half the cast is mis-cast. As John, Michael Forden Walker simply doesn't evince the inner insecurity on which the first half of the play depends; likewise the coolly competent Janet Morrison hardly evokes the cruel heartiness of Eleanor's obvious balls (after all, the lady marched in the Second Crusade!). Indeed, when Eleanor's death leaves John at loose ends, we're surprised by his collapse, instead of immediately intuiting his doom, as we should. As for the rest of the company, I had fun mentally re-deploying the actors in more appropriate roles: Joel Colodner, who's playing the King of France, should really be playing John, and Sarah Newhouse should be playing Constance instead of Hubert, while Jennie Israel should be playing Hubert instead of Constance. Likewise Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who's playing the Dauphin, should really be playing the Bastard (or maybe Eleanor?).

How did all these people end up in the wrong roles? I'd guess it's because of the inner political dynamics of the ASP - but whatever the reason, it plays hackeysack with all the relationships in the play. Still, given their situation, the fact that the actors strike some sparks at all I suppose is cause for praise. Playing wildly against type, for instance, Newhouse almost convinces us that she might torture a little boy to death; likewise the stolid Israel makes a kind of case for a low-key reading of Constance's mad scene. Meanwhile Parent's Dauphin is certainly watchable (although he traces no arc from corrupt fledgling to hardened warrior), and even Walker manages some intriguing moments in John's final scenes - although by that point any such insights count as too little, too late.

Meanwhile Bill Barclay brings a clever, sallow wit to the role of the Bastard, just not enough rude cojones (and the need for same is really the subtext of the whole first half of the play, so their lack is acutely felt). Joel Colodner, as usual, is the most assured presence in the whole ensemble as King Philip, and once John Kuntz gets past his Guido-Sarducci get-up as the Cardinal, he does evince a creepy Catholic perversity.

To be fair, the play itself collapses about three-quarters of the way through (once that pesky Prince falls from his prison in the Tower). And it should also be noted that if Evett has completely misjudged the emotional tone of the play, he has still staged it creatively, using his current space (the basement of St. Paul's Cathedral) so fluidly that a squad of lighting assistants had to practically sprint to keep up with the actors. But in the end, clever blocking can't make a production, and actors shouldn't be casting themselves in the roles they want (which is I'd guess how at least a few of these mistakes happened). The ASP certainly has the talent onboard to tackle King John; but do they have the insight and the discipline?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Today's Poem


by Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
-- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin (left) is widely considered one of the greatest English poets of the second half of the twentieth century; some would say the greatest. Aubade, published in 1977, was his last major poem. In 1984 he refused the post of Poet Laureate, feeling that he was no longer writing poetry he considered meaningful. Larkin died of cancer in 1985. His last request was that his diaries be destroyed; they were shredded and burned.

The most thrilling dance of the year

Sometimes art doesn't require precision; sometimes primal energy is enough. At least that seemed to be the case last weekend, at Boston Ballet's "Three Masterpieces" program. There were wobbles throughout the evening - along with stretches of brilliance - but the concert ended with an unbelievable bang, via Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (most of the finale above, danced by American Ballet Theatre). Even here, things were a little muddy in spots, and by the finish the dancers (understandably) looked close to exhaustion. But it was still thrilling; not just the most exciting dance of the year, but perhaps the most exciting artistic event of the year, period.

But let's back up a minute - after all, this program purported to be about three masterpieces. But truth be told, it was only about two, and one near-masterpiece: Anthony Tudor's Dark Elegies, while certainly a brilliant dance, didn't really hold up against Balanchine's Concerto Barocco or the Tharp. Or perhaps the apparent imbalance lay in the fact that the Tudor was entirely a different kind of dance: Tharp and Balanchine made quite the modern/postmodern pair, with intriguing parallels in their differing deployments of movement through an abstract space. But Tudor was working in a naturalistic, almost dramatic mode, and his subject matter was practically the antithesis of Balanchine's and Tharp's (who were both working through differing modes of joy). Dark Elegies, however, unfolds to Mahler's quietly harrowing Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children, and seeks to evoke a communal response to said tragedy. Tudor's villagers work through their grief via a ritual which breaks into tiny spikes of mourning - until at last, to Mahler's final song, they find some sort of peace. Tudor's corresponding choreography is superbly understated, and Boston Ballet made it even more understated, perhaps to the point of losing the sense of slow transition to resignation; only Yury Yanowsky broke through with a sense of the grief roiling beneath the choral movement. Still, the piece was worthwhile purely for the orchestra's playing, and Philip Lima's singing - a performance the BSO could hardly have hoped to beat.

A precise tableau from Concerto Barocco - photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Under conductor Jonathan McPhee, the orchestra was in equally fine form for Bach's Concerto Barocco (with equally fine violin soloists Michael Rosenbloom and Lisa Crockett). Barocco is famously the dance in which Balanchine "became Balanchine," dispensing with the last remants of a romantic storyline to pursue an idealized neoclassicism. With Concerto Barocco, as Mr. B. put it himself, "you see the music and hear the dance," only the opening of the Boston Ballet was a little fuzzy and muffled: the corps, which proved so dazzling last week in Swan Lake, wobbled slightly but repeatedly in the opening unfolding of the piece (they gained a better footing as it progressed). Luckily soloists Lia Cirio and Melanie Atkins were appropriately precise; Atkins once again somehow exuded a theatrical presence perfectly matched to Balanchine, but this time she was outdanced by Cirio, who came through with an astoundingly clean and buoyant performance. As usual, Mr. B.'s danseur played a distant second to his women, but Pavel Gurevitch nevertheless partnered Cirio with sensitivity and panache.

Rie Ichikawa and Misa Kuranaga in In the Upper Room. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

The men were on better footing in Upper Room, where both genders mix in roughly equal numbers, some in ballet shoes, others in sneakers ("the stompers," Tharp called them, although this typically Tharpian dichotomy doesn't really come to much). The 1986 work is a poignant reminder that before Tharp stooped to choreographing Billy Joel musicals, she was something of a genius - and one whose influence is still clear in choreographers like Forsythe and the Ballet's own Jorma Elo. In the Upper Room takes its title from the New Testament verse in which the apostles retire to pray "in the upper room" after the ascension of Christ. And I don't think Tharp means to be ironic (indeed, she rather pointedly deploys thirteen dancers); instead, my guess is that the physical blow-out conjured here is meant as a kind of ecstatic prayer, a levitation to match the Ascension. Tharp's apostles, of course, are all Americans - they're carhops, station attendants, athletes, and cheerleaders, all dressed in red, white and blue - and Philip Glass's amplified (actually over-amplified) score gets at something nativist, too: the pumping optimism of his relentless, major-key arpeggios somehow evokes the happy, confident mindlessness of our collective mindset. And if at bottom there's nothing behind these joyous invocations but sheer physical prowess, then perhaps, at least for the length of the piece, that can feel like transcendence. By the finale, as the cheerleaders and gymnasts and ballerinas spun and jumped and raced forwards and backwards through Tharp's loose-limbed rhythms and ever-more-complex variations, the piece had become completely ravishing. True, the performance wasn't flawless, but it was enough to make the crowd leap to its feet, cheering. They knew, as I did, that In the Upper Room is the kind of dance you never forget.

Friday, May 16, 2008

From Russia, with love

Olga Kern at a recent New York recital.

Whenever the Russians come to town, it seems our own Russians come out to meet them in force. Last Thursday night at Sanders Theatre, for instance, before the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra took the stage, you'd have been hard pressed to catch a word of English between all the "da's" and the "nyet's" - and truth be told, you could hear more of the same even after the orchestra started playing. For this was apparently less of a musical occasion than a kind of homecoming for the crowd, which let its appreciation - and impatience -be known with rhythmic applause and general murmurs and expectorations.

The Virtuosi - who are currently on their 30th anniversary tour, under the baton of founder Vladimir Spivakov - entered the hall in Old World style, to a rousing response, but but at first seemed a bit rattled: their opening reading of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night sounded a bit ragged and thin - they played dramatically, but stridently; you'd never have guessed, from this performance, at the transcendent affirmation Schoenberg intended to convey.

But with the arrival of soloist Olga Kern (above), the concert suddenly righted itself. The willowy Ms. Kern looked smashing in a glittering black gown - and the crowd let her know it (they even more loudly approved of a costume change into sparkling scarlet, with matching red pumps). And as she essayed Haydn's Concerto in D Major, Kern quickly cast a musical as well as visual spell - with the orchestra suddenly cohering behind her. True, Kern plays Haydn rather in the mode of Rachmaninoff, which is not the current style in this bastion of early music, but her plushly romantic legato levelled all objections before it. And clearly this honorable mode is the true métier of the Moscow Virtuosi, which supported her with a warm, bright buoyancy.

Things got even better with the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 in C. Minor for Piano and Trumpet - the crowd had clearly come home, and now the orchestra did, too. The dapper Mr. Spivakov (right) tended to keep things at a brisk clip, but he really tore through the Shostakovich - luckily Ms. Kern hardly broke a sweat at the highest velocities, and even glanced at the audience during one dissonant thunk! with a look that read "How do you like that?" The piece, despite its fiendish energy (so typical of Shostakovich), is nevertheless built on an ironic little dialogue between piano and trumpet, in which the keyboard's crazed dance is greeted by a melancholic sigh from the brass. Luckily Ms. Kern's frenzy was neatly balanced by trumpeter Kirill Soldatov, who sometimes looked a bit winded, but nevertheless held his sadly dying falls for what seemed like minutes on end.

Despite the clear desire of the crowd, Kern begged off any encores - and the evening then took an intriguing turn toward a "Russian Pops" mode. First the orchestra offered a charming rendering of a light piece, "Aria," by the Austrian Friedrich Gulda, known for his collaborations with Chick Corea (and even Emerson, Lake and Palmer). I think "Aria" has few depths, but the orchestra played it winningly, if a little too quickly. The concert then headed south, toward the tango, of all things, with accordion virtuoso Nikita Vlasov leading two pieces by Astor Piazzoll, whose "nuevo tango" cuts the genre's doomy schmaltz with technical challenges and unexpected dissonances. There must be some secret axis between the Russian and Argentinian soul, because Mr. Vlasov played with light-fingered melancholy, the strings responded with dark fire, and the crowd ate it all up. By the finish - after several short encores - Mr. Spivakov was beaming, and accepting flowers from the crowd. And it was somehow a surprise, upon leaving the theatre, to discover Memorial Hall instead of the Kremlin outside.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Movin' along the highway

A 100-year-old church moves to its new home. From the National Geographic series "Monster Moves." Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

The ultimate poster boy

With Ennio Marchetto (above), the puns come easy. He's a total cut-up; a swami of origami. You won't believe how his show unfolds, etc. The jokes are all too appropriate because Marchetto has made a career of turning himself into a kind of visual pun: he's a drag artist who costumes himself solely in paper, with half the joke being how cleverly one change is enveloped in another. The results, which are rather like watching a gay caricaturist toss off sketches at life size, are consistently charming, if slight. And at just over an hour, his schtick is both short for a full evening of theatre, but also timed to end just as it threatens to turn into too much of a good thing. His best bits hint at sly satire of their targets (like the slutty Kylie Minogue who morphs into the Singing Nun), or conceal cute conceptual conceits in their design (an Indian goddess who evolves into a three-headed, six-armed vision of the Supremes). And even though the spotlight is on his two-dimensional disguises (created with long-time collaborator Sosthen Hennekam), it should be noted that Ennio himself is a well-rounded mime and performer, with buoyant physical energy and the ability to nail Barbra, Liza, Celine, and almost every other diva alive with a few broad but precisely pointed strokes. True, the piece feels slightly dated - Ennio is essentially an affectionate, pre-millennial show queen with an origami gimmick; he never goes for the deadly, in-bred brilliance of, say, Varla Jean Merman or Kiki & Herb. At the same time, though, he's always a kick, and never a drag. At the Wimberley Theatre through June 1.

Should there be a Hubbie? Or a Bloggie?

The recent Norton Awards only reminded me of the wayward nature of award committees. Not that the IRNEs are any less error-prone - I mean seriously, Man of La Mancha? (I didn't even see it, btw - I hate that fucking show.) What's strangest is when the two awards mysteriously align, as was the case this year with the mediocre No Man's Land at the ART. How did it garner so many awards, from both the IRNEs and the Nortons? "Philistines attempting to look sophisticated" was one analysis, and I'm inclined to agree. To be fair, the Nortons were mostly respectable - all the acting awards went to people who deserved them (aside from ALF's Max Wright), either for the work cited or other roles (award committees tend to play catch-up). The directing awards were a little odder - I'd never have given one to David Wheeler for No Man's, but Paul Daigneault came through with Some Men (less so with Parade and Zanna Don't, but then neither piece is interpretively interesting). The production awards were likewise a mixed bag - Kentucky Cycle was probably the only fringe show everybody saw, Clean House, Sarah Ruhl's recycled Susan Sarandon movie, got the Louise Kennedy vote, and No Child was a bone tossed to the ART (which gets verry pissy when it's not recognized enough!). Not generally as solid a group as last year's awards, I'd say, and the whole thing felt compromised by the fact that the Nortons are now dumping all design work - be it for costumes, sound, lighting, or set - into one category (just so everyone can go home early, I guess).

But could another award committee do any better? It's an interesting question. Is it time for a third local theatre award, a Blogger, or Bloggie, to be decided only by the electronic media critics, who by and large tend to be a smarter bunch than the printies - or at least, write for a smarter audience? Actually, it's probably past time - only somebody else do it, I'm too busy!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

And btw, if the Pulitzer committee is looking for a Globe article to honor . . .

. . . it should go to this one.

Laughing Wilde

The stars seemed aligned this season for a fascinating reconsideration of The Importance of Being Earnest - largely because the Publick just closed a rambunctious version of Travesties, Tom Stoppard's clever repurposing of the play as modernist critique. A return trip to the source material could have been brilliant - a kind of cooperative doubling unknown between local theatre companies, with the two productions orbiting each other like opposed artistic twins (rather in the manner of the play's separated-at-birth siblings, Algernon and Jack).

Alas, that didn't happen - even though the productions actually share an actor (Dafydd Rees). This Earnest, however, makes no pretense to exploring the play's philosophical underpinnings; of what Stoppard was talking about, the Lyric has no clue. To director Spiro Veloudos, Oscar Wilde's masterpiece is simply an arch little farce, perfect in its architecture; it earnestly pursues its laughs, and no more. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and to be honest, Veloudos has never shied away from intellectual challenge (indeed, in between Man of La Mancha and This Wonderful Life he's programmed more genuinely avant theatre than the ART). Still, even if it nails its laughs, the production feels like an opportunity lost; it could have been so much more.

And, truth be told, even as a traditional retelling of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, it's not all that memorable or subtle. Veloudos is smart, but tends to paint with a broad brush, while Earnest is etched with show-queen precision. And his young cast sends off exactly the "vibrations" (to quote the play) one might expect: they're to this manner neither born nor bred, and are doing their best to simulate it after two weeks' rehearsal. That they manage it at all is to be applauded; their accents are mostly in place, their poise carefully maintained; they're all talented and will go far. But no one who's seen a truly polished Importance of Being Earnest would ever be convinced by them.

On the other hand, if you've never seen Earnest, this will probably strike you as a revelation - in the same way that Vanya on 42nd Street stunned so many film reviewers with its depth. The atmosphere may not be there, but the jokes all are, and the production moves like clockwork (sometimes in a mode unconsciously like the mechanically-played scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily in Travesties). There's only one piece of problematic casting - as the Wilde factotum Algernon Moncrieff, Lewis Wheeler does his flat-out best, but he's still a little flat because he's simply not, at bottom, a bemused bon vivant, no matter how hard he tries. And as solid-citizen, straight-arrow Jack Worthing, Ed Hoopman deploys a sonorous speaking voice, but not much more until the last act, when he finally loosens up and has a little fun. The women fare slightly better - as Gwendolyn, Hannah Barth has the right romantic, daffily alienated sexual presence, but sometimes seems unsteady in her attack; meanwhile the more-assured Jessica Grant makes an appealingly straightfoward Cecily, but could use an ounce more inner mischief.

It's in the older generation that the production sparkles a bit. Beth Gotha makes an amusingly ditzy Miss Prism, and Bobbie Steinbach (above, with Wheeler and Grant) works her usual magic with Lady Bracknell. Steinbach isn't physically imposing enough, perhaps, to command the stage (Bracknell should be a real dragon, or maybe even a dragoon), but her command of the lines - many of which by now are dauntingly iconic - is witty and confidently low-key; she knows the way to land Wilde's insane circumlocutions is with impeccable dignity.

Alas, Steinbach's delivery sometimes reminds one of what might have been, if Veloudos had risked something a bit more surreal, rather than the Lyric's usual suburban naturalism. Earnest endures, of course, not just because of its witticisms but also because of its strange sense of size and weird hints at philosophical depth. Veloudos may understand that Wilde's homosexuality, and "double life," is reflected in the play (let's not parse "bunburying" too closely), but he doesn't seem to understand how it's reflected. To Wilde, as to any gay man, of course, the heterosexual norms of society seem utterly arbitrary - it was his brilliant intuition to take this insight and run with it (in earnest, as it were) in Earnest. Everyone's logic in the play is impeccable; but their premises are absurd. Indeed, Wilde pushes this far past any gay perspective - which is why turning Earnest into a drag show doesn't feel quite right, either. After all, Wilde skewers Eros, too, and utterly: Gwendolyn can only hit her G-spot with the name "Ernest," for instance, which seems ridiculous until you consider how the rest of us do it - with blonde hair, or big boobs, or extremities cut or uncut: all ridiculous conditions, and no more absurd than the desire for a certain Christian name. This utterly free perspective, of course, is why Earnest, which perhaps begins modernism in the drama, could also be turned inside out by Stoppard to critique modernism, and why, in a way, the play supersedes the mode it engendered. I suppose it's a bit much to ask a small company like the Lyric to capture all that onstage; still, I can dream, can't I?

Solar lily pads on the Charles? Or the Mystic?

Could art and engineering come together in a unique response to our energy crisis? Glasgow is considering the feasibility of "solar lily pads" in its Clyde River (above). Yes, the pads would float, and would be connected directly to the city's power grid. Could MIT and the City of Boston look into the same idea for the Mystic, or parts of Boston Harbor? More here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cry of the Reed Revisited

It came to my attention a week or so ago via Art Hennessey's Mirror Up to Nature blog that playwright Sinan Ünel, author of The Cry of the Reed, had begun his own blog to respond to what he saw as the "vicious and personal" reviews the show received.

I was pretty intrigued by this idea - it seemed at the very least like one more small step toward getting a genuine public dialogue going in this town about its theatre. But I'm a bit disappointed in Ünel's blog itself; it seems to be almost entirely praise of the show, emailed or called in by enthusiastic audience members. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and I expected to find a good deal of it on the blog - still, there's precious little analysis to be found in its posts; it operates more as wounded defense than actual response. So I posted the following comment on the blog:

Hi Sinan -

I understand your reaction to the negative reviews you received, and I'm intrigued by your use of a blog to respond. But I'd be even more intrigued if you responded to the points made in the reviews, or described how the reviews have affected your view of the work. Now that the play has closed, will you be pondering any revisions? I'd be very interested to hear about that.


Tom Garvey
The Hub Review

Sinan replied with the following:

Hey Tom - thanks for the question. As in all feedback, if the suggestion is intelligent, insightful, and will potentially improve the play, I will welcome it and use it. If it is hostile, insulting, arrogant, condescending or not particularly smart, it's more of a challenge. It's not terribly useful that much of criticism seems to have lowered itself to the level of the latter.

From you review I was able to extract one possibly legitimate point: Ayla's line "it's in everyone's heart."

Although your tone while addressing this - and other aspects of the play - is mocking, condescending and mystifyingly juvenile, I take your point. I might consider changing it.

Part of the purpose of this blog is to try to comprehend who these reviews serve. Do they serve the audience? Judging from the responses to your review - and the audience response to the play, this is not exactly the case. Does it serve the playwright? Judging from the tone of your review, this is not your intention. What is the purpose then? Simply to serve the critic and his ego?

I then replied:

Well, I suppose I can gather from this that I'm hostile, insulting, arrogant, condescending, and not particularly smart. No doubt all that is true, but surely you can see that you've subtly turned my question on its head - as if I were aspiring somehow to enlighten you, instead of the other way around. In other words, if you're going to value some audience members' responses more than others, you should have a stronger reason than the complaint that the people who didn't like your play are "mocking, condescending and mystifying juvenile." (Just btw, that makes your full characterization of your unflattering reviewers run to a full seven adjectives' worth of invective: "hostile, insulting, arrogant, condescending, not particularly smart, mocking, and mystifyingly juvenile.")

It's true I wrote one mocking line about some of your dialogue ("Wow, that's like so deep"), but the point was that Rumi's philosophical musings can sound like "deep thoughts" unless handled very carefully onstage. And the gist of my review was that the two "tracks" of your play didn't seem to connect - one was a conventional thriller with philosophical overtones, the other a debate that to me never seemed to get beyond the opening round. Did you feel that these two sides of your drama were eventually integrated? And if so, how? None of the praise you've posted has brought up this issue, which to me seems central - I mean, isn't that what the reed is crying about?

You wrap up by writing, "Part of the purpose of this blog is to try to comprehend who these reviews serve. Do they serve the audience? Judging from the responses to your review - and the audience response to the play, this is not exactly the case. Does it serve the playwright? Judging from the tone of your review, this is not your intention. What is the purpose then? Simply to serve the critic and his ego?"

I hate to break this to you, but I've heard several negative comments about Cry of the Reed - not everybody loved it. So maybe I was writing for those people. You also ask if critics write "simply to serve their own ego." Well, we certainly don't write to serve your ego, that's for sure. Honest criticism that could help the play is always hard to hear, I know that. But you seem to think that you can pick and choose just the flattering comments to blog about.

So far, no answer back to that last post, but you can see where this is going. I'm struck (yet again) by the slightly hysterical ad hominem attacks that always seem to be lobbed in the direction of cool (okay, cold) criticism around here. Yes, I know, before you say it: "Tom, you hypocrite, you've got the thinnest skin of all! Look what you said about Terry Byrne!" Yes, well - my point about Byrne was that I felt she delivered a particularly nasty review as payback for my criticisms of her reviewing skills. I still feel that way - although don't get me wrong, I don't think my production was "awesome!" I just never read an accurate description of it in the press (yes, I'd kind of like to write my own review, but that would be rude to my cast, and get entirely too meta even for me!). Byrne's review was nutty, and if you want to argue that it was her incompetence rather than her vengefulness speaking (a case several people have made), that's fine by me.

Ünel is in a somewhat different position, anyway - as was Ronan Noone, who tangled with me over Brendan here. Both make essentially the same response to their critics - there are people who like the play; it's selling out, etc., and the people who point out its faults are mean, vicious and bad - or rather "hostile, insulting, arrogant, etc." But do I have to spell out how that doesn't count as an "argument"? Rather than debate his case - or even clarify his themes or method - Ünel simply smears his critics (and Noone wasn't much better).

Of course a skeptic might come to a certain conclusion about the situation - that Noone and Unel don't actually counter their critics because they know there's truth in the critiques; they simply can't argue "on the merits." Ergo, the other party must be a snob, "heaping scorn from on high," blah blah fucking blah. And all I can say in response is "Shut up and figure out how you're going to resolve your subplot, Ronan." "Develop the relationship between your mother and her daughter, Sinan." In a word, get to work. And maybe people will like your play even more.

On the other hand, if you want to argue the merits of my review, or put forth your own case, post your comments right here. But try to leave the poison pen in the drawer.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Poem of the Day

Elegy of Fortinbras

by Zbigniew Herbert

for C.M.

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
there will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums drums I know nothing exquisite those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit
Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

(translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz)

Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924 in Lvov, Poland, and died in Warsaw in 1998. He survived both the Nazi and Communist occupations, and drew on both in his poetry. His collection Selected Poems was translated into English by Czeslaw Milosz.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

One for the history books?

The boys in the band of The History Boys.

Occasionally a play arrives that unconsciously underlines the way theatre is becoming a kind of private gay preserve. Alan Bennett's The History Boys, for instance (currently at the Roberts Studio Theatre, from SpeakEasy Stage) centers on a gay teacher with a certain peccadillo - he gropes his teen-age charges - that it's hard to imagine as a minor "flaw" in a straight leading man, at least if said leading man hoped to hang onto our sympathy. Yet sympathize with Bennett's hero, the crusty "Hector," who teaches in a lowly private boys' school in Sheffield, we are definitely expected to do. Yes, Hector is duly caught and punished before the final curtain, but we're repeatedly asked to smile indulgently at his transgressions - he compares his furtive feels to "benedictions," for instance (imagine that joke being made about a girl's breasts!), and he's finally dismissed not as a predator, but as "a twerp."

Now I don't mean to paint the objects of Hector's attentions as victims - after all, they're in the final year of British "public" (i.e., private) school, which is famous as a homo-erotic hothouse. So not unbelievably, they by and large laugh off Hector's pathetic pawing ("I'm scarred for life!" one snickers). Still, the whole subplot reeks of a certain kind of gay fantasy - playwright Bennett half-hints that the boys' indulgence of their pedagogue's probings is a part of their affection for him, and never faces up to the balance of power in the situation (although later on he does show an intriguing awareness of how it can pivot). To be blunt, the boys submit to Hector largely because he controls their grades, not out of any feeling for him (although said affection is quite probably real), and it's simply silly to pretend otherwise. Trust me, I know - I was once felt up by a professor myself (hard to believe, yes, but once I was young and skinny). It was hardly a trauma, and I liked the guy quite a bit; still, I've no illusions as to why I let him do it.

But of course any such realism would complicate the rest of Bennett's play, in which Hector (Bob Colonna, at left) does battle for the right and good against the creeping, careerist relativism of the modern academy. "Hector" - that's a nickname, of course, because his noble cause is lost, and his victories pyrrhic (literally) - believes in education for its own sake; his study hall is devoted to the useless knowledge that you can't make a widget out of but which we cherish as making us human (including everything from Auden and Hardy to Brief Encounter and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"). But the headmaster wants his boys to cut the mustard at "Oxbridge" (as we say nowadays), and so brings in a glib new history teacher, Irwin, who is all about postmodern spin over substance. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he whispers in his students' ears. "It's a performance." So soon the "history boys" are arguing the opposite of what they actually believe (or know to be true) simply because that's what makes a good show - and the play becomes yet another erstwhile battle for young hearts and minds. Of course we know who won this particular war (if you don't, just read Andrew Sullivan or Christopher Hitchens to find out), but the funny thing is, it does make a good show - and Bennett conjures some fresh, witty fireworks from his classroom campaigns.

The unspoken problem with the plot, however, is that it unintentionally demonstrates that slimy Irwin actually does make his students think more, and with greater insight, than Hector does; maybe glib contrarianism isn't as bad as it seems. But The History Boys can't really pursue its arguments to such an equivocally fresh conclusion, because it's distracted by its awkward sex-crime subplot - particularly when the "hot" boy in class, Dakin, having learned a thing or two about school teachers, sets about seducing Irwin. This bizarre twist is hard to parse (particularly in this production); Bennett seems to almost be pursuing some kind of vengeance on his villain, with a cool irony that's simply at odds with everything that has come before - and then, to top off the whole structural car crash, he throws in a motorcycle crash as his dénouement. I've never seen a play so carefully crafted within its scenes utterly jump the rails in its overall arc; but that's what happens to History Boys.

And that's what happens to Scott Edmiston's smart, but superficial (and sentimental) production. Edmiston, as usual, is brilliant with scenes with "heart," but doesn't quite know what to make of the characters' cooler calculations, and tends (again as usual) to punch things up with musical interludes. It doesn't help that some key roles are ever so slightly miscast. Bob Colonna is all roaring, bright-eyed eccentricity as Hector, but he never taps into the anxious, pathetic longing that hides in his persona's shadow - so his fall conjures little pathos. Meanwhile Chris Thorn essays Irwin with an accomplished sense of understatement - but shouldn't this bright, false new star be a bit more charismatic and attractive? How else to explain the way he arouses the interest of Dakin (played here by Dan Whelton with the requisite hots, but with not quite enough smarts, or dawning sense of competitive power)?

Luckily, there's more precisely-gauged work elsewhere in the production. The reliable Paula Plum (at right) makes short, deft work of the school's single, wryly defeated female teacher, while Karl Baker Olson twists with transparent pain as the gay boy who's in love with Dakin, too. The rest of the "boys" nail their sketched-in characters with appropriate energy. The design work is at SpeakEasy's usual high level - although Gail Astrid Buckley does little with the costuming to conjure the 80's, the play's putative setting (it's really set in the 50's, anyhow). Meanwhile Janie E. Howland once again triumphs over the wide, boxy feel of the Roberts with a wittily expert and lovingly detailed set. This superficial sheen isn't really enough to disguise the flaws in the play, but if you squint a bit, it may fool you into thinking it's at the head of its class.

Photobombers unite!

They hack into your Facebook page, photoshop the pictures you've posted, and voilà! Your special moment is ruined!

All photos from actual Facebook pages.

More hilarity ensues here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Foer of us

Bhavesh Patel is half of rather an odd couple in The Four of Us.

It's hardly a secret that The Four of Us (now at the Merrimack Rep) is a scénario à clef with the famously young, famously rich Jonathan Safran Foer at its center. In fact, said connection has become the slim, cynical comedy's chief marketing ploy; after all, the pitch is right there in the title. Sure, author Itamar Moses half-heartedly disguises "Jonathan" as "Benjamin," but the parallels between his script and his friendship with the Gen-Y novelist/Dave Eggers replacement are simply impossible to ignore. And even if the Merrimack muddies the waters a bit by making "Benjamin" Indian (which helps us forget that these two were basically smart Jewish kids who met at band camp), Moses eventually goes so meta (by the finale, the characters are watching the play, too) that we feel almost pinned to the postmodern wall: Admit it, Moses seems to be crying, you know who I'm talking about!

Yes, yes, Itamar, we do. And we admit we find him as irritating as you do. Foer skeptics (I count myself among them) who think of Everything Is Illuminated as brilliant-but-recycled will find a lot to back up their doubts in The Four of Us: "Benjamin" is a self-possessed prig with his nose to the keyboard/grindstone (Foer - at left - began writing to Susan Sontag at age nine) but with little in the way of original passion or vision. Indeed, a key problem with the clef of this play is that both "David" and "Benjamin" are self-aware but slightly dull; their late-night confessions are so dude-alicious (girls, beer, bands, and of course whether or not they're gay), that we simply have to take their being artists on faith. And as for being friends - why, exactly, do these likable young narcissists like each other? Shared ambition? Sense of humor? We never get a clue.

Although "David's" jealousy needs no explanation once a $2 million advance sends "Benjamin" into the lit-celeb stratosphere. Admittedly, Moses has a keen ear for (his own) envious psychological strategies - David is concerned that the payday may prove "totally spiritually corrupting" - and expertly punctures the ego of the unseen star who options Ben's novel (Liev Schreiber, who ineptly directed the movie of Illuminated, is the one with a real bone to pick with Moses). The playwright also conjures a smart, distracting series of formal tricks - flashbacks soon rub shoulders with flash-forwards, with the characters even commenting on them; it all plays rather like one of those puzzles you solve to stave off Alzheimer's.

But said tactics also stave off the need for development. Moses has an "out," of course, in that the yin/yang of this pairing is neediness vs. self-sufficiency (with the thematic sidebar of "needy" drama vs. "self-sufficient" fiction). Hence Ben's inscrutability, and David's pathetic attempts to penetrate it. Indeed, the final coup occurs when the "real" Benjamin asks the "real" David, "How could you write about me?" only to receive the reply "How could you not write about me?" There's something neat in this conceptual bow - but it's not really enough to tie up a play; if jealousy is eating away at something we have to understand what that something is. And at any rate, since when did complacent self-sufficiency ever put up with needy neurosis for long?

Still, the skilled cast and crew up at Merrimack manage, for the most part, to stave off these doubts, and keep us focused on Moses's jokes and structure. Bhavesh Patel makes of Benjamin an annoyingly confident, low-key buddy who's also a bit of a bully, while Jed Orlemann channels a sweet, slightly-damaged charm as David. And director Kyle Fabel never lets them stop for breath as they dash back and forth in time, as well as across Bill Clarke's witty set, which has apparently taken a tip from Liev Schreiber (whose apartment, according to Moses, is a shrine to his own image) in its wall-to-wall photo tribute to Ben and David. If only Moses's dramatic snapshots really got behind all those smiles.

Monday, May 5, 2008

There at The Creation

You don't find much more ambition in composers than in Franz Joseph Haydn, who tackled nothing less than the beginning of everything in his oratorio The Creation. But you also rarely find more humility; The Creation resounds not with the drama of its own creation, but instead echoes with a note unheard in music of late - the sound of gratitude. As the great composer, like a tiny god himself, re-conjures the world musically, he does so with a palpable sense of affectionate embrace (even "hosts of insects" and the lowly worm are greeted with warm bemusement). And since he only ponders the world before the Fall (we leave Adam and Eve before they touch that apple), the piece is suffused with a poignant optimism. The hosannas and thanks-be-to-Gods may get a little relentless, but they're still radiant, and heartfelt.

A performance of The Creation should, therefore, give off its own glow, while not taking itself too seriously - a poise that Boston Baroque managed admirably last weekend. Conductor Martin Pearlman (at left) clearly understood both the uplift and the implied regret of the piece, and he kept things moving at a brisk clip (as the text is pure exposition, it can get a little static). Alas, said clip was sometimes slightly unsteady - Pearlman keeps a lilting, eccentric beat, and as a result (I think), entrances and exits can be a bit ragged; many of the same musicians play more cleanly over at Handel and Haydn. The upside of said lilt, however, is a rhythmic freedom that brought real verve to Haydn's tone painting: the whales swayed before with us with lugubrious grace, and the "ponderous beasts" of the earth were greeted with a hilariously flatulent blast from a 9-foot contrabassoon. (You could almost hear Haydn chuckle at that one.)

The soloists were likewise in solid form. Tenor Brian Stucki had just the right timbre (even if he thinned out alarmingly at the top of his range), and struck an appropriately fond, cantorian tone. He was perhaps outshone, however, by soprano Sari Gruber and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. Gruber's tone was warm yet pure, while Deas almost reveled in the richness of his low notes - but both were at their best together, as Adam and Eve in the oratorio's final section. Rarely do singers have chemistry the same way actors do, but Gruber and Deas had exactly that in the teasing exchanges between the world's first couple, which exude a sense of surprisingly wise romance (despite their all-too-traditional sex roles). Of course we know what's going to happen, even if they don't - Haydn and his librettist, Gottfried van Swieten, offer only the faintest of foreshadowings (A&E both love the "taste of rich and ripened fruit"). But that knowledge only made this evocation of what might have been all the sweeter.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Who was Rachel Corrie? (Part III)

I suppose all plays are political, but to paraphrase Orwell, some are more political than others. Take, for example, My Name is Rachel Corrie (Ms. Corrie, at left) which repeatedly has threatened to unravel the liberal consensus that supports our current theatre - by alienating a substantial number of the Jewish members of said consensus. The show has been delayed and canceled in places like New York and Toronto due to protests, and when the New Repertory Theatre announced its production dates, the theatre packaged it with To Pay the Price, a patriotic meditation on the Entebbe raid drawn from the letters of Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu, older brother of the former Israeli prime minister, and the lone Israeli killed in that famous rescue. Only ironically enough, this time it was the pro-Israel play that got canceled - the Netanyahu family pulled the rights, with youngest brother Iddo Netanyahu stating that "there is an inherent incompatibility in the joining together, in one evening, of a play based on my brother Yoni's letters with the play 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie.' "

So the consensus remained unraveled. The New Rep, however, quickly announced a replacement production: Pieces, by Zohar Tirosh, which, due to its length, would be presented on alternating nights with Corrie - a small separation which may have ameliorated tensions around the project. But when both shows opened, the critics were none too pleased with the "balance" achieved. "It's a pity that New Rep found it necessary to create this kind of balance," sighed the Globe's Louise Kennedy. " . . . no two plays in the world can exactly balance each other . . . They're individual works of art, not position papers, and they must each be judged on their own merits - not just on how they connect to the real political issues they engage, but also on how they succeed as works of art."

Kennedy continued: "Neither is a perfect play, but "Rachel Corrie" is more expertly crafted, more movingly written, and, at least in these productions, more essentially theatrical than "Pieces." Let me emphasize that that's an aesthetic judgment, not a political one . . . "Corrie" is ultimately more persuasive because it starts by allowing us to see its protagonist as a naive, self-absorbed flibbertigibbet . . . the experience of actually watching the play leaves us less interested in [political] questions, and more interested in the development of a specific, flawed, but fascinating human being. The almost giddy young girl we met at the outset has, by the end, grown into a far sadder, more complicated, and yet still resiliently optimistic woman."

Meanwhile over at the Phoenix, Carolyn Clay subtly struck a pro-Israel stance: "There is no doubt that Rachel Corrie . . . offers pro-Palestinian propaganda," she sniffed, but still quickly fell in line with Kennedy: "What makes each [play] compelling is its piquant personal journey, not its political agenda." Meanwhile, over at the Herald, Boston's youngest theatre lady, Jenna Scherer, declared "Art shouldn’t require even-handedness . . . Issues don’t get more hot-button than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject on which you’d be hard-pressed to find an objective account. But shouldn’t that be all the more reason to allow an individual voice to ring clear without apology? Isn’t theater supposed to incite people to think and react?"

Of course calls like these from people safely protected from their consequences always ring a bit hollow - "Uh, react how?" one might legitimately ask Jenna Scherer. In comparison to these critics, I was more sympathetic to the New Rep's efforts at "balance," if only because I knew a bit about the threatening edge of Zionist sentiment firsthand: years ago, I directed a production of Sophocles's Antigone which I set on the West Bank, with Antigone burying a fallen brother who had joined the Intifada. I received, of course, threatening phone calls and letters, warning that if I "knew what was good for me," I'd never open the show. Of course, I never do what's good for me - I opened it anyway, and nothing came of the threats. Still, said threats gave me (and the actors!) pause, as something tells me they would Louise Kennedy, Carolyn Clay, and Jenna Scherer.

So "balance" has a certain practical argument on its side - and after all, unlike Toronto, we got to see My Name is Rachel Corrie. But there's a more slippery problem slithering through the critics' declarations about "balance" - as well as what they clearly thought of as an escape hatch from the whole imbroglio, the idea that these plays were compelling not as political statements, but as "piquant personal journeys."

This, of course, is the kind of diversity boilerplate that Kennedy, and to a lesser extent Clay, are always deploying - I'm still waiting for the Kennedy review that concludes "the tragedy of Hamlet is that the prince dies before he has the chance to become the warm, wise woman he has the potential to be." The trouble with boomer boilerplate, of course, is that this time, decoupling the "personal journey" from its politics is trickier than it seems - for both Rachel Corrie and Zohar Tirosh.

As I've pointed out in earlier posts, My Name is Rachel Corrie goes heavy on the young Rachel's quirky, appealing idealism - we see her bouncing around in tank top and boxers (Stacy Fischer, at right), yearning for some purpose beyond corporate materialism - but then omits her most extreme statements and actions once she gets to Gaza: we never see Rachel burn a mock American flag, for instance, as she was photographed doing, nor does she ever actually thrill to the killing of Israeli soldiers, as she did in her journal. Likewise, the organization she joined to get to Gaza - the controversial International Solidarity Movement, which many Israelis claim (with some evidence) has ties to Palestinian terrorism - is barely mentioned, much less analyzed. And the possibility that the homes Rachel was defending might have been camouflage for a network of terrorist tunnels (again, there's some evidence, which provides a neat explanation for that bulldozer) is likewise never cited.

So what kind of a "piquant personal journey" is this - toward empowerment, or pawndom? We can't really tell, because it occurs in an echo chamber - and not merely the one within Rachel's head, but the political echo chamber constructed by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, who generated the piece. Let me say right here that I'm probably in sympathy with Rickman's and Viner's political aims - while I don't deny Israel's right to exist, I also support a Palestinian state, and view Israeli settlements in the occupied territories with skepticism (one very welcome aspect of My Name is Rachel Corrie is that it decouples opposition to Israeli policy from anti-Semitism). So I suppose I should love Rickman and Viner's play. But the actual artistic questions posed by Rachel's life, which might be illuminated by her writing, must include ones like, "Why didn't the idealistic young Rachel end up fighting hunger in Darfur rather than dodging bulldozers in Gaza? Why didn't this candid, talented kid, whose journals crackle with insight into her cozy, crunchy home, ever ponder what exactly she was getting into?"

There are a few poignant hints that Rachel knew she was in over her head - "I'm really new to talking about Israel/Palestine," she admits, after she arrives in Gaza - which, as one wag put it, is a bit like stepping off the plane and announcing, "Me llamo Rachel!" Yet at the same time Corrie can state, without irony or qualification, that “the vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance." Ah, but what a difference a single suicide bomber makes! Essentially, Corrie never wonders whether the Palestinians are perhaps contributing to their own oppression; she only knows what she sees, and what she sees is admittedly terrible, and rarely contemplated by American audiences. But this gap in her awareness - which the authors refuse to illuminate - makes her death terribly sad, but not tragic, as she never reaches self-knowledge, or sees the possible flaws in her stance.

And thus, with apologies to Louise, Carolyn and Jenna, it's hard to applaud My Name is Rachel Corrie as a "piquant personal journey" - unless said journey is into the Stockholm Syndrome. On the other hand, it's also impossible for me to agree that Corrie and Pieces "are simply not balanced at all," because they are balanced in their respective blind spots. In Pieces, Zohar Tirosh as studiously avoids the political flip side of her actions as Rickman and Viner do Corrie's; Pieces does indeed "balance" My Name is Rachel Corrie; it just doesn't engage with it.

Pieces (with author/actress Zohar Tirosh, above) is a more gently pitched "personal journey" - in fact, it's the time-honored one through military service, here thoughtfully and gracefully enacted by Tirosh herself. The story sports the usual décor - the oppressive superior officers, the boyfriend who proves unfaithful, the brush with danger, etc., but the Palestinians, of course, are once again the elephant in the room. They're "over there," Tirosh often says, but she never goes there - so exactly what she's defending, and from whom, is never addressed. Of course her stint in the army occurred under Rabin, when rapprochement with Palestine still seemed possible, and her piece ends with his assassination (by an Israeli extremist sympathetic to the West Bank settlers). So in the talkback, the question inevitably arose - would Tirosh serve in the Israeli army today? Today, after the Second Intifada, and the advent of the suicide bomber, and the Wall? Today, when even as Israelis cry foul at the term "apartheid," they must face the fact that if current trends continue, they will soon be a Jewish minority governing a territory by force?

Would she serve? Would she want her daughter to? The actress, visibly distressed, slowly, sadly, shook her head "no." And several members of the audience immediately bristled.

The consensus, apparently, remains unraveled.