Saturday, June 28, 2008

Anger management

Orfeo's video preview for Look Back in Anger.

All art operates within its social context - on which it depends to a lesser or greater degree. El Greco, for instance, would be ravishing but baffling without our knowledge of Catholic myth, which has remained (fairly) fixed until the present day.

But what happens when the context of a work of art vanishes? One hopes the reputations of the great would somehow soldier on, if in some new form - clearly the whirligig of time is the crucible in which artistic gold is centrifuged from dross; the true masterpiece will eventually find a new context (indeed, at the very top of the artistic food chain - say with Shakespeare - the work generates its own future contexts). But the rest - even those hailed as "revolutionary" in their day, like The Weavers, seen earlier this year - inevitably slip unheeded into the dustbin of history.

And alas, it's hard to pretend the dustbin won't be the final destination for John Osborne's fifty-something Look Back in Anger, now at the Piano Factory through July 6, and for several reasons. The first is that Osborne didn't deal with his context - the suffocating landscape of postwar Britain - directly; he assumed it instead, and so didn't have to build a brand new dramatic model from scratch (as Beckett had a year or two earlier with Godot). Sans any new structure, Osborne treated his supposedly revolutionary subject by subverting the tropes of its stylistic antithesis, the soapy, Terence-Rattigan-like "well-made-play." In short, Osborne attempts to evoke lower-class social drama via middle-class domestic drama. It doesn't sound like a strategy that's going to withstand the test of time, does it - although to be fair, it did suggest the technique Pinter and Albee later deployed far more effectively (by subverting the well-made play not with politics but absurdity).

The second problem with Anger is that not only has its original context vanished, but a new context has arrived which maps well to its materials, but doesn't flatter either author or play. In the year of its premiere, the cruel beratings of his wife by the play's hero, Jimmy Porter, read as deflected fury at the upper classes; today they read as spousal abuse. Is Jimmy raging at the injustice of his society, or is he merely a misogynist and narcissist operating under the cover of raging at society? The play's effect depends on this question, but the productions I've seen, while trying mightily to convince me of the first interpretation, inevitably left me with the second. And the river of piss and vinegar running through Osborne's oeuvre - along with lingering questions about the author's sexuality (the obvious source for "Cliff" always maintained that he and Osborne were lovers, not friends) - does little to wash away that intuition.

It should be said, however, that the current version, an Equity Code production from the new Orfeo Group, does about as good a job with the play as the others I've seen (although it's not nearly in the same league as Orfeo's previous effort, last summer's Marisol). Director Gabriel Kuttner has trimmed the text here and there (he should have trimmed more - Peter Hall's drastically reduced version was reportedly more successful than the original), and has shaped the material intelligently, if not always incisively (it's his first directorial effort, and frankly, Look Back in Anger should be no director's maiden voyage). More problematic is that Kuttner has drawn thoughtful work from his actors, but hasn't dug deep enough to overcome the fundamental miscasting of his leads.

Said leads - Daniel Berger-Jones and Liz Hayes - are two of Boston's best young actors, and of course good actors are always looking to stretch beyond their inevitable "types;" that's only natural, and just what you'd expect from an Equity Code production, which is designed by and for its performers. Still, when both leads are playing against type, and what's more, against each other's type, let's just say crossed signals and missed climaxes tend to be the order of the day, however talented each actor may be. To grossly overgeneralize, the essential conflict in Anger is between the smart but sexily crude Jimmy and his gently refined, yet subconsciously smug, wife, Alison. He's earth; she's air. Yet Liz Hayes is obviously the earthier, more believably working-class of the two, with naturally practical smarts that she tries desperately to suppress in a quiet, passive-aggressive mode. Meanwhile Daniel Berger-Jones is indeed a hunk, but is also a physical thoroughbred; tall and in gym-trim, with a refined physical grace, he's the natural aristocrat of the two. Still, despite the fact that they really should have traded roles, they both have their moments; Berger-Jones is at his best when he drops his occasional histrionics in the third act and simply toys with Helena, his wife's "girlfriend" who replaces her in his bed. And Hayes brings a memorable intensity to her final scene, when she re-lives the horror (the loss of a child) that her husband had wished on her earlier (nice guy, huh).

Risher Reddick, Daniel Berger-Jones and Georgia Lyman get past their Anger.

The supporting players manage better, perhaps because, unlike their costars, they're nestled comfortably in their respective types. Georgia Lyman is the standout, I'd say, playing yet another "other woman" - she looks smashing in her dark hair and prim blouse, and her accent is spot-on; my only feeling is that her hatred of Jimmy (which morphs "unexpectedly" into lust!) should be played with more energetic attack beneath her upper-crust poise. As flatmate Cliff (the role that gave Alan Bates his start), Risher Reddick is likewise mostly on-target with a tricky mix of conflicting emotion, and his fisticuffs with Jimmy prove robust and believable. Still, his accent seems to hop the pond from Wales to Tara with surprising rapidity, and he sometimes seems to lose focus along with his character. He, like Berger-Jones and Hayes, flourished far more in Marisol - which, if anything, is a weaker play than Anger. One wonders if there's something about these actors that makes them seek out challenging roles in weak plays - if so, I'd say they're better off with the wacky fireworks of Rivera than the bitter Method of Osborne.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mephistopheles stonewalls

John Yoo, one of the key architects of the Bush/Cheney torture policy, at House Judiciary Committee hearings yesterday. I think there's no comment necessary.

Why does New York get all the cool stuff?

Olafur Eliasson’s “New York City Waterfalls.” (Photo: Vincent Laforet)

A $15.5 million piece of public art - Olafur Eliasson's "New York City Waterfalls" has just opened, and it's obviously a stunner. Powerful yet whimsical, inspirational yet gloriously pointless, the four-site installation is just about everything (temporary) public art should be - plus no fish were harmed!

Which leads one to view Boston's pathetic new "Greenway" with more dyspepsia than ever. How did that disaster happen? How come Chicago can get "Cloud Gate" (left) and New York can get "Waterfalls," and yet after a zillion-dollar - and literally killer - public boondoggle like the Big Dig, we get precisely nothing? I mean neither of these two pieces is actually all that interesting intellectually or artistically - they're just big and graspable and charming. Can't the Athens of America at least manage that? Doesn't somebody have Anish Kapoor's or Olafur Eliasson’s phone number?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The moon is down

Minneapolis's Theatre de la Jeune Lune is officially out of business. Those of us who suffered through their last productions at the A.R.T. are hardly surprised, since without an academic clique like the one at Harvard, there's just not a large enough audience to support their kind of boringly dated "avant" work. It turns out that for years the company had been quietly accumulating a seven-figure debt; last year they produced no new work, but filled out their season (and the ART's) with repeats of earlier productions. There were also the usual purges and internal feuds usually found in these kinds of troupes. The bad news is that Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp are still exploring "ways to reinvent an agile, nomadic, entrepreneurial theatre with a new name that will create essential and innovative art for today’s changing audience.” Yikes.

You read it here first, cont'd.

The Globe finally notices the upheaval in the local gallery scene. Startlingly, the article was on the front page. Of course Hub Review wrote about this months ago - still, the piece is worth reading for an interesting new point regarding the international "art fairs" (like Art Basel Miami Beach) that have sprung up around the country. The fairs offer galleries a chance to snag international collectors, but at a high price - and those entry costs put pressures on the bottom line here at home. Sound familiar? Our cultural life is slowly being shackled to the power of an international elite - and don't imagine that elite is in any way American, or really of any genuine country or culture; it is simply the international manifestation of capital flows, and we'll wind up with the kind of "hot," superficial art that capital can understand and enjoy. Another surprise in the article (by Cate McQuaid, at whose opinions I usually snort, but who has done some good reporting here) is the role of the Internet in gallery sales - several local galleries note that 20-30% of their sales come over the Web. This strikes me as bizarre - one wonders if the purchasers have even seen the work "live," as it were. I worry more and more about the effect of the Internet on high culture - will it do to us what it's already done to pop, that is, produce a culture of globalized mediocrity? I think high culture will be harder for the Net to kill than pop culture was, but I'm still worried. More to follow . . .

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More criticism of the critics

At the suggestion of one commenter, I've decided to pull out of the comments on my "You knew this was coming" post the following response to those who wrote in urging a higher ranking for Carolyn Clay (left) of the Boston Phoenix:

Clearly Carolyn Clay has her defenders - and I'm certainly impressed by the poised, complex critical coiffures she's teased up, week in and week out now, for some thirty years. But I have to ask you folks - how would you describe her critical profile? To be a bit more pointed - do you even think she has one, beyond a need to always appear 'tasteful'? This is the problem with Clay - she writes more intelligently, I suppose, than the rest of her sorority, because she imagines the audience for the Phoenix is more educated, but is there an actual critical personality kicking around behind that calm façade? I confess I've no idea what's behind all the camouflage; she often seems to be typing up an elevated gloss on what she perceives as the educated consensus, and little more.

That's okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but I always think the most useful critics are the ones you feel you understand, if only because this allows you to put their raves and pans in some sort of context (as in, "oh they hated that, but they always hate that kind of thing, and I often like it"). And then there's the problem, as I've pointed out before, that when Clay does abandon the crowd, I often find she wanders out onto some weird critical limb that not only do I not understand, but which seems utterly unconnected to the rest of her work. Consider also that after thirty years of doing something, most people become known quantities - that Clay has remained so personally elusive might almost be the result of a strategy, which is a little strange to say the least.

And then there's the problem of a larger legacy, or critical stance, formed over the course of her career - but as far as I know, there's no book, no seminal essay, no nothing from Clay. And don't imagine there's been nothing to talk about: over the last thirty years, for example, the ART arrived in an explosion of challenging hits (Six Characters in Search of an Author, The King Stag) but then staggered and slowly failed. How did America's leading critic [Robert Brustein] go so wrong as an artistic director? There's also the rise and fall of Peter Sellars to consider, the struggle between the city's "real" theatre and its academic one, and I'm sure a half dozen other topics worthy of lengthy consideration. But out of Clay, over three decades, there hasn't been a peep on any of this. I know this sounds cruel, but this gap really represents an abject failure, not just of vision but of nerve.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Mark meant; or, Dido and Aeneas 20 years on

It was almost twenty years ago that I saw Mark Morris perform the role of Dido in Dido and Aeneas, in the Cutler Majestic, opposite the great Guillermo Resto (at left). Craig Smith was in the pit, conducting Emmanuel Music, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson sang the role of Dido. It was the American premiere, and one of the dozen or so evenings of my life that I will never forget (that's probably true of a number of people there).

Now, of course, both Lorraine and Craig are gone, and Morris is no longer dancing; instead he took Smith's place in the pit at the recent Boston performances (and acquitted himself quite well, as we knew he would). And Dido went on without him (at least onstage), and without Craig, or Lorraine, or Guillermo (who has also left dancing), or actually any of the dancers in that first premiere. If that sounds mournful, well, it is; I think it's hard for many younger Bostonians to appreciate quite what the emergence of Mark Morris in Boston and Berkeley meant at the time, and how the now-departed stars of the Boston music scene contributed to bringing it about. Mark was the big news in dance, and after a controversial period in New York, and rejection by Belgium, his reputation was cemented by us. It was one of the Boston community's single greatest artistic contributions of the last few decades, and it was a thrilling time to be thinking about dance critically - it was one of those moments when new art appears in a form which one can tell in one's gut has an air of greatness about it, but which is still mysterious, which has yet to be explicated.

Not that you'd realize any of this from the local print response to Morris; Boston embraced him, but some local critics did not. Over at the Phoenix, for instance, Jeffrey Gantz is still pretending the revolution didn't happen. "Was it meant to be camp?" Gantz wonders cluelessly of Dido, which, like almost all of Morris, slips easily from tragedy to irony and back. Of course to be fair, Gantz was always hampered in his appreciation of Mark by what appears to be homophobia; he just can't see how dance could be about something other than skinny sylphs being partnered by studs in dance belts, and the cross-dressing in Dido still has him in a tizzy. Indeed, he actually writes: "when [Dido is played by] a man, this Dido and Aeneas represents the attempt of homosexual love to break free of external disapproval and internal guilt." I'm trying hard not to laugh as I read that, but I'm afraid I'm failing. Really, what a maroon. You'd think this was 1969 and Mark had choreographed The Boys in the Band. Earth to Jeffrey: Mark Morris, and gay men in general, are no longer plagued by "internal guilt," and even "external disapproval" is dying a rapid death. Indeed, Mark's famous turn as Dido wasn't so much revolutionary as a confident announcement that the revolution was over. He was a gay man crossing gender lines to play a woman in a company marked by general diversity of shape, race and size, for a dance audience for whom this was no longer a big deal. (Needless to say, Gantz doesn't like dancers of normal weights either, and even approvingly quotes James Woolcott's notorious putdown of Joan Acocella and Mark, "Joanie Loves Chunky" - need I point out that Woolcott himself is morbidly obese?)

Amber Darragh and Craig Biedsecker as Dido and Aeneas.

Okay, claws in. As I said before, time marches on; and even if Dido and Aeneas proves timeless, right now it's on the "cusp" of timelessness, when it must break free of its original cast (and political cast). These days, the double role of Dido and her nemesis is played by either a man or a woman, on alternating nights (Amber Darragh, above and Bradon McDonald, below). I saw Bradon, not Amber, in the Boston performances, so I can only vouch for the latest model of the "drag" take on Dido - and already, inevitably, there's a distinct difference in the piece because of Morris's and McDonald's differing personae. Where Mark was tragic in a larger than life way -and made almost a brassy Sorcereress - McDonald is delicate and more internal, and his Sorceress is more tormented and perverse. McDonald's presence draws the piece away from its original classical stance (indeed, much of its initial appeal was its demonstration that diversity and classicism could dance hand-in-hand), and further down the twisting road of psychoanalysis (always implicit in the doubled central role). As a result, the most resonant moment in the dance is now the chorus's lament "Great minds against themselves conspire," as Dido descends toward her self-destruction.

Dido and Aeneas, of course, is about more than merely Dido - indeed, in formal terms it's a handy guide to the tropes and quirks of Mark Morris, especially the tropes and quirks that drive people like Gantz crazy. Sometimes, when I'm watching Dido, I ponder whether this is something close to the synthesis of dance and theatre practiced by the ancient Greeks - not only does Mark swing confidently between individual and choral movement, but he's far less interested in the modernist abstraction than he is in straightforward communication, both of dramatic story and musical structure. Thus he usually choreographs directly to the beat (rather than dancing around it, like Balanchine), and his movement edges toward mime, as well as an intriguing kind of symbolic gesture that's really his own. Often in Morris, one senses a deployment of abstract gesticulation that has been organized according to the musical variation of the piece (in Grand Duo, for instance, the dancers move from what appears to be a gesture for "agriculture" toward one that might indicate "industrialization" or "information"). In Dido, there's not only this pure symbolism, but also chunks of American Sign Language worked directly into the choreography (as when Dido signs her desire to "forget" Aeneas). This, of course, is another nod toward cultural inclusion, but it's also an intriguing intellectual statement - this is dance that is literally communication.

Needless to say, this leaves the erotic spine of both romantic and modernist dance far behind, and perhaps that's what Mark's critics can't really get their heads around. But of course to many of us, that's what make him special - that great ideas and feelings can be communicated in dance sans the sexual structure of ballet, but instead through what amounts to a kind of apotheosis of folk dance, or shared experience (there's always an overwhelming sense of community in Mark's great dances, particularly in their sudden bursts of joy). Thus some longtime Mark fans worry that his newer dancers aren't as diverse in size and shape as they used to be - and indeed, they are getting a bit more homogenously thin and muscled. Of course they're also getting more technically adept - that's the trade-off, I suppose, that Gantz and his ilk might pounce on. But can't they at least see that it is, in the end, a trade-off, and that a certain disinterest in technical extremity - like his disinterest in sexual conformity - is, in a way, what Mark Morris means?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It may already be starting . . .

After posting Katie Couric's accusations of sexism in the media, I thought it only fair to publish an image of buttons recently sold at the Texas State Republican Convention. I said in my post on Katie that the U.S. had behaved in a more sexist than racist fashion during the Hillary/Obama dust-up. But that of course could change . . .

Who could have contempt for Contempt?

Brigitte Bardot acts up a storm in Contempt.

I'm late getting to the re-issue of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt; I missed it when it briefly passed through town, and had to settle for the new Criterion DVD, which recently showed up on my doorstep via Netflix.

But now how I wish I'd seen it on the "big screen" (or at least the Brattle's screen)! For Contempt truly is a visual wonder - shot brilliantly in Cinemascope by Raoul Coutard, Godard's longtime collaborator, it reminds one of the ravishing glory that the widescreen was capable of. Coutard works miracle after miracle in the sun-baked expanses of a mysteriously depopulated Rome and Capri; imagine Antonioni in a sun-kissed palette of pastels and burning primaries, and you have something of the erotic charge of Contempt. All that and Brigitte Bardot's golden rump, too (above), contemplated often and at length - go on and tell me that's not Art!

Well, maybe it's not, but maybe it is - Contempt flips back and forth on that question, as it does on every question it considers, and it does nothing but consider everything, including itself. Indeed, in its cinephilic navel-gazing, Contempt seems to have popped out of some socio-historical time capsule; while contemporaneous works like, say, The Birds or Lawrence of Arabia seem somehow "timeless" to us now, Contempt feels hilariously of its period (1963, the era of 81/2 and L'Eclisse) the same way something like What's Up, Tiger Lily? does, because it's so drunk on its own arty assumptions.

To be fair, Godard's work always kicks up its heels with a wonderful adolescent verve (I hate to keep mentioning Antonioni, but Contempt is a bit like La Notte without the ennui). But the affectionate humor with which I viewed the movie was also cut with poignance - I can remember when I, too, thought cinema was a kind of operatic, world-cultural apotheosis funded by Carlo Ponti, and that Jean-Luc Godard could smash together Dean Martin, the Odyssey, and existentialism and somehow remake the world.

Of course now, it all looks ridiculous, and every time I saw Michel Piccoli wander through in his Dean Martin hat, like some costumed kid on his way to a Harry Potter party, I wanted to LOL. Godard's immature obsession with pop tropes both makes him entertaining and yet somehow undoes him over the long haul. Yes, yes, I know, they still take this kind of thing seriously in film school, but it seems, alas, that the world has moved on, and "cinema" is over, while the other fine arts have managed to struggle on - some limping, it's true, but all still definitely alive. And the great world masters with deeper roots in those other, older forms, like Bergman and Fellini (theatre) and, yes, Antonioni (literature) don't look quite as dated as Godard (even if, oddly, he's often livelier than they are). Nor have they been so sullied by fanboy critique (much less by homages from torture-porn auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company "Band of Outsiders").

Still, maybe I shouldn't hold the fanboys against their idol (at left) - so Tarantino perverted his message, that's not Godard's fault. And at any rate, there's plenty for grown-ups to savor in Contempt. Brigitte Bardot, whose bruised, carnal pout works beautifully as an actor's choice here, manages an impressive poise as the love object who's also, apparently, supposed to represent not only Art but the "irreducibly real." (I know, I know, but go with it, okay? It's Godard!) Piccoli is inevitably overshadowed by Brigitte and her bum, but likewise underplays cleverly and manages to hold his own (still, you end up longing for Belmondo). Jack Palance chews the screen as the crass Hollywood shark who's producing the movie of the Odyssey at the film's center (he's prone to philosophical pronouncements from a Mao-like little red book, that is when he's not shouting, "I like gods! I know how they feel!"). The stunt-casting of Fritz Lang as the project's director doesn't quite pay off as much as you'd like, but Lang has at least one great moment when he gets back in the sullied saddle for yet another shot, muttering "You should always finish what you've started."

The plot has to do with screenwriter Piccoli (and, of course, Godard) selling out to Palance and his filthy lucre - to whom (and which) Piccoli/Godard also (somewhat) pimps out his wife, Bardot (Godard briefly dresses Bardot in a black wig, like his own estranged wife of the time, just so his little band of insiders can get all the parallels). Sorry for all those parentheses, but whenever I start writing about Godard, I suddenly itch to include a lot of them, along with hyphens and back slashes, and phrases like "the irreducibly real;" the director's crazy hermeneutics are a bit contagious. At any rate, the tiny betrayal in the center of Contempt leads to Bardot falling completely and totally out of love with Piccoli, which of course, given the glory of her aforementioned bum, is tragic in a way Lear and Hamlet could never have dreamed.

This leads to the inevitable Godardian sexual micro-drama back in the hotel/apartment (as always precisely rendered in its natural, aimless detail), as well a whole lot more criss-crossing metaphorical exegesis, some gorgeously moderne architecture, and the sun-splashed sea off Capri. But don't worry, it's all fun, not to mention always self-aware - in subverting his own Hollywood budget, Godard is clearly biting the hand of his own producers - and even self-mocking (whenever Piccoli begins to mis-interpet the Odyssey as his own psychodrama, we can hear Godard openly, and honestly, laughing at himself). The only wrong turn happens at the very, very end, in which Godard allows himself the revenge he refuses his factotum; but this is redeemed by a truly unforgettable closing shot of the Mediterranean which does, indeed, fuse both Ulysses's gaze and the camera's - and which closes with the command "Silencio!" (David Lynch fans, take note). At which point one does feel, before that glittering stretch of ocean, with its imaginary Ithaca somewhere in the distance, that there's really nothing more to say.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Simply resistible

Naomi Hubert and Jarrod Emick make Contact.

Theatre events like Contact always depress me, because they feel more like symptoms than shows. It's hard, watching this smorgasbord of relentlessly dirty dancing, not to feel dismayed at the suburban sexual frustration it both reflects and feeds. So I feel I must ask all the men who are dragged to the musical theatre by their girlfriends and wives:

Gentlemen, can't you get your ladies off a little more often? Please?

Because if you don't, I'll have to sit through more shows like Susan Stroman's "dance play" now at the North Shore Music Theatre. And so will you. I mean face it, we both see through these naive paeans to feminine egotism, with their pseudo-romance, their men who are either absurdly boorish or so horny they're suicidal, and and their dangerous babes with aerobic dance routines. And we both know heterosexuality never looked better than when homosexuals stage managed it. We gave you guys wit, charm, elegance, romance, and tunes you could leave the theatre singing. Susan Stroman and her ilk give you The Producers and "Simply Irresistible," which is something this musical definitely is not.

So come on. Give me a break. You can do it; hell, I've done it, and I'm gay. And if I can do it, so can you.

Of course maybe nothing can save us from Susan Stroman. Even with their sexual urges sated, the suburban women of the world may not be happy with the enchanting sophistication of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. Maybe they really are, as they often appear, utter beasts. But how will we ever know unless we try?

And in the meantime, I know what you're thinking; Susan Stroman isn't that bad. And she's not. I ask myself, if I didn't know this show won four Tonys, would I be as hostile to its mediocrity? Maybe I'd be intrigued by the meta-concept of the book's three vignettes, which toy with the deployment of dance as fantasy (the only dance that's free of role- or dream-play comes at the very last moment). Or maybe I'd be more amused by the final "surprise" at the end of each "story" (although only one of these, the first, is remotely a surprise).

But does any of that really make up for the fact that Susan Stroman is just not that interesting a choreographer? Yes, I know, she can work up funny production numbers; the set pieces in Oklahoma! were strong, and the extravaganzas in The Producers, with chorines coming out of filing cabinets and little old ladies dancing with walkers, were studded with cute ideas. But moment to moment, or step by step, as it were, Stroman's just a little dull. Once you get past the gimmick of each number, you realize she's not nearly in the same league as Twyla Tharp, or Bob Fosse - I'd say she's not even as good as Gower Champion. Stroman simply has no signature; there's no individual, inner life to the work, certainly not enough personality to build a whole evening around. But in Contact, which has been stripped of song and has only a rudimentary book, she's the main event, and you slowly realize Stroman's like Oakland: there's no there there. Instead, there's number after number straight out of Dancing with the Stars: lift, high kick, pelvis lock and long, sweaty stare. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom! Over and over again, at faster and faster speeds, until all I can think is, make it stop!

But it doesn't stop, and it doesn't help that little in this choreographic torrent feels original. Even when Stroman borrows something worth having, however, she doesn't have the sense to keep her numbers to the proportions of the piece she's copying. The last half of Contact, for instance, is brazenly ripped off from Cyd Charisse's turn in Singin' in the Rain (Stroman doesn't even bother to change the costume); but while Charisse and Kelly went at it for maybe ten minutes (and of course worked up some broad, but genuine, lyricism), Stroman hammers away at the routine like the Energizer Bunny, ringing changes on the same material for something like half an hour, all to an endless pastiche of greatest hits from everyone from Benny Goodman to the Beach Boys. Don't get me wrong; the dancers are dazzling - they always are at the North Shore - and Naomi Hubert alone makes you forget all about Cyd Charisse (there's also outstanding work from Sean Ewing, Sally Mae Dunn, and Matt Rivera).

But watching these talented folks is like watching racehorses pull trolleys; Stroman never bothers to give them real material, like a genuine swing number, or a jitterbug, or a tango; she only delivers more and more television-friendly dance-fusion calisthenics. Indeed, even though the first vignette's from Fragonard, and the last from Sex and the City, the dances tend to look the same, because Stroman doesn't seem to be able to abandon her idée fixe, the utter primacy of athletic sex (sorry, "romance"). Indeed, the one thing that's really interesting (at least historically) about Stroman is how centered she is on what my mother used to call "the bikini area." In Contact, perhaps taking off from the dirty joke hidden away in Fragonard's "The Swing" (at left), there's very little doubt just which part of the anatomy everyone wants to make contact with. Is this realism, or just a phase dance is going through, like theatre did with The Vagina Monologues? Who knows, but by the finale - which follows a poor little rich boy who's contemplating suicide - we can feel Stroman's asking us to believe that nookie isn't just what's for dinner, it's also some sort of spiritual goal, not to mention the only thing that can keep our hero alive. Gosh, will he make it? All I can say is, when he suddenly reappeared in a noose (ready to, yes, swing), my partner murmured, "Is the show over now?"

Which leads me to my next thought: Is the Sue Stroman moment at the North Shore over now? She'll be back to choreograph Show Boat, true, but that's a real show and she should do a good job within its confines. And after a slew of lackluster contemporary productions like Les Miz, The Producers, and now Contact, the North Shore seems to be awakening, as it were, from some sort of bridge-and-tunnel bad dream, and is returning to its roots with Show Boat, Putnam County Spelling Bee, and 42nd Street. Not a concept show in sight, and thank God - I want my North Shore Music Theatre back!

And so gentlemen, maybe you're off the hook.

Friday, June 13, 2008

This week's poem

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Born in 1879, Wallace Stevens spent most of his life working in law and insurance; he only became known as a great poet late in life, with many of his major poems published well after he turned fifty. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is from his first collection, Harmonium, published when he was 44, which also includes the classics "Sunday Morning," and "The Emperor of Ice-Cream."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tell it like it is, Katie

Never thought I'd link to Katie Couric, but she lays it on the line here.

Next stop, Wonderland

Elizabeth Pearson, Jennifer O'Connor and Amy Meyer go down the rabbit hole.

Plenty of people haven't noticed, but there's a loose network of smart young actors working in Boston now - they're not loyal to a single troupe, but you'll find some of them most nights at the Piano Factory, or with Whistler in the Dark downstairs at the New Rep, or in the latest production from Way Theatre. Right now you can find a covey of them roosting at the Calderwood Pavilion in Imaginary Things, or, Treacle from the Well, a new show from the fledgling troupe Imaginary Beasts. Inspired by the classic Alice in Wonderland books, and written and directed by the (heretofore-unknown-to-me) Matthew Woods, Impossible Things aspires to be "an experiment in theatrical nonsense," in the manner of the Reverend Dodgson's grand experiment in literary nonsense. Whether Mr. Woods fully succeeds in that ambitious aspiration I'm inclined to doubt; still, his show is a surprisingly charming entertainment, marked by delicately evocative design and ingeniously poetic movement.

Indeed, as my friend Art Hennessey has pointed out, the costumes are the real stars of this show. Designer Cotton Talbot-Minkin (write that name down, local producers) clearly knows just what she's doing - her bio lists five British pantomimes among her designs - and she has beautifully colorized, and slightly eroticized, the essential look of John Tenniel's original imagery. No one's listed as set designer, but it should also be noted that the simple scaffold-and-curtain upstage works beautifully with both the costumes and Brent Sullivan's imaginative lighting - and the bow on the package is the inventive soundtrack (again uncredited) which mashes up everything from Dark Side of the Moon to that song you always hear on the calliope. In short, the design here is of a sophisticated piece, and often operates at a visual level (above right) you'd expect from a theatre with ten - or a hundred - times this one's budget.

Still, whether the text measures up to this vision I'd say is an open question. Like many a show inspired by a classic, this one is inevitably shadowed by its source, the actual Alice books, and Impossible Things sometimes feels like a smart tour through a Bennington or Vassar term paper, with an attendant, enthusiastic air of "Isn't this totally cool?" Which it is, definitely - I'm just not sure what the Imaginary Beasts have brought to the party that's actually new - and some things about Alice which I feel are central to its experience have mysteriously vanished down the rabbit hole.

For Alice, of course, is not so much whimsical "nonsense" as intellectually penetrating "non-sense," that is, a strange exploration of the conundrums slithering like slithy toves within the confident construct of our discourse. Carroll famously dithers between mathematical and linguistic logic (a topic in little evidence here), and a salient fact about Alice - that many people forget - is that frustration and anger are always banging about in it, violence is often incipient, and the sunny languor of its heroine is shadowed by the suppressed, pedophilic paradox of its author: i.e., that any congress with his dream girl will shatter the very quality that attracted him. To further explore these themes at the level of the source is one "impossible thing" that's probably too much to ask of Imaginary Beasts; still, some original extrapolation of Dodgson is the question the production begs, isn't it?

Instead, we get a poetic, lightly ironic gloss on Alice's addled, victimized femininity (there's only one boy in the show, the versatile Jordan Harrison). The script loosely follows the fate of "Mary Ann" - an obvious doppelgänger for Alice, Mary Ann was the White Rabbit's unseen maid, with whom he confused Alice at the opening of her Adventures in Wonderland. Mary Ann's identity, as conjured by Imaginary Beasts, turns out to be multifoliate, to say the least, as she endures travails similar to her literary sister's - summer storms, surreal tea parties, mysterious train trips, and other curiouser misadventures lead to a final encounter with the authorities (and perhaps even death) in what looks like a shadowy spider web.

But if at times the show meanders (sans, I'm afraid, the books' famous dream logic), it's still punctuated by striking imagery: the repeated appearance of a Magritte-like portent of death, twirling a parasol and trotting like the White Rabbit, was a particular favorite of mine, as was that summer shower, and a brilliant tableau vivant of a Tenniel illustration from Through the Looking Glass (above left). The show's individual performances were sometimes nearly obscured by the stagecraft, but there was still strong work in most episodes. Eliza Lay - who's now kind of the reigning queen of the fringe theatre scene - was, as usual, a standout, although she seemed a bit too ruminatively self-aware for either Alice or Mary Ann (or was the idea that Mary Ann was Alice all grown up? I wasn't sure). She may have been overshadowed, however, by Jennifer O'Connor, a mainstay of Whistler in the Dark, who was deployed in a dizzying array of roles, from a frog to a sheep to Marilyn Monroe (a thematically extraneous moment, I thought, but O'Connor pulled it off). Amy Meyer and Elizabeth Pearson, always light on their feet, provided enthiastic back-up in a similar variety of personae. This troupe certainly has great potential - but next time I'd like to see them deploy their skills - and Mr. Woods's visual talent - on an actual great script, rather than an also-ran of their own devising.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I still love She Loves Me

Brooks Ashmanskas brings down the house with the title song.

I went back to the Huntington's She Loves Me with some slight trepidation, I confess, rather like that feeling you get after a fantastic first date; was it real? Or were you in some crazy state you didn't understand - maybe something hit you on the head, and you hadn't realized it?

Well, I needn't have worried - it's real; the show was just as captivating the second time around. It was interesting to see how it had settled in - at first it wasn't as high energy as it had been on opening night (understandable - this was a Tuesday, after the actors' one day off), and there were a few muffed lines - but gradually it came clear that if the show was slightly less precise, it had actually grown in romantic atmosphere (to quote one of its funniest lines). And while the audience, a slightly tired weekday crowd (it had been sweltering all day) wasn't as responsive as a typical opening night crowd (which is usually stocked with board members, dedicated subscribers, actors, and friendly hangers-on), you could feel it gradually falling under the musical's spell. By the end, just as before, everyone was near rapture, and I was convinced this was one of the most charming shows I've seen in my life. And how anyone could doubt Brooks Ashmanskas's performance (above) is just beyond me. The partner unit has already seen it three times. If there are tickets, I'm tempted to make one last visit myself. It closes Sunday, but opens again in Williamstown on June 27.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Present perfect

"View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower," as installed at the MFA; photo by Tim Lowly.

Those who despair of the contemporary art scene are in for a wonderful surprise at the new Antonio López García show at the MFA. For here is "realism" - a mode largely disdained today - with not only a few new tricks up its sleeve, but also something deep and moving to say about "reality." If you thought you'd never see another new picture you wanted to stare at for hours, or if you thought the long love affair between the painter and his brush was over, then you must see this show. After several seasons of blinking chandeliers, assemblages of junk, and the other empty technical displays that have filled both the MFA and ICA, López García may restore your faith in what was once a sine qua non of great art: its sense of spiritual mystery.

Indeed, it's hard to believe that López García was quietly amassing this extraordinary body of work while Warhol was mass-producing soup cans, and Lichtenstein apotheosizing comic books. Perhaps the artist's sequestration in Spain allowed the small miracle of his career to occur: for ever since the historic face-off between Velázquez and El Greco (currently being re-enacted right next door, in a brilliant programming coup), realism and mysticism have been the two rivers running through Spanish art. Yet in López García, the two great currents become one - or rather, one flows beneath the other.

In fact, you can see the artist getting his feet wet in the shallows of mysticism early in his career - works like "Boy with Slingshot," (1953) which feels like a forced marriage between Balthus and de Chirico, push at us a vague sense of surreal import; in another painted relief, what seems to be the "ghost" of a child floats eerily down an empty corridor. At the same time, polychromed reliefs like "The Clothes Rack" (1963-64) feel like paintings trying to reach out into space, to provide a physical presence as well as an image.

It's that sense of "presence" that, once folded back into the picture plane, finally provided López García with his great theme. Many critics have commented on the artist's luminous palette, and almost hyperreal attention to detail - indeed, López García re-acquaints you with just how sensual an encounter with a painting can be - but few have commented on how he differs from "photorealists" such as Richard Estes, who were just as persnickety about detail, and who led the last significant resurgence of realism. Like López García, Estes often painted empty urban landscapes - but he was all about surface, often literally about reflection for its own sake: the scenes were dazzling, but jazzily flat. López García, by way of contrast, conjures a palpable sense of space in his imagery - even in "Sink and Mirror" (1963, above left), where, if you look closely, you can see he re-jiggers the perspective halfway down: we feel not simply the physical presence of the subject, but its existence - the painting is opening up to us as an experience, like the artist's painted reliefs seemed to try to do. When López García offers a study of his empty studio or bathroom (note in that mirror at left that we're not reflected in it), he produces not merely an image of incomparable verisimilitude, but also conjures the room's independent atmosphere, its own memory, if you will, as part of its "reality."

How is this strangely radiant, Vermeer-like atmosphere, achieved? The answer probably lies in the way López García's paintings somehow feel pregnant with time. (Indeed, if an Estes is a snapshot, a López García is a time exposure.) Perhaps the best example of this quality is seen in "The Dinner" (1971-1980, below) - and yes, you read those dates right, he worked on this piece for nineteen years. Indeed, the painting's history has become its true subject - notice the piece of pork down center, its rawness rendered with stunningly moist precision, perhaps because it's the oldest patch of paint on the canvas, the rest of which seems in various stages of flux. Some spots look plastered, then painted over, like testaments of decisions withdrawn and forgotten; the young girl stares out at us with sweet, slightly troubled dissatisfaction at her unstable surroundings, while her mother has all but broken up into distracted shards of fragmented attention. These pictorial peculiarities could easily be gathered under the modernist obsession with the physical picture plane; yet curiously, in López García, they seem to ramify into metaphor as well.

His giant paintings of Madrid exhibit a similar obsession with time's passage - indeed, their very construction suggests the course of their development: all the big ones "accrete," as it were, from several panels, added as the pieces expanded in scope. The work process leaves other traces: perspective lines and dotted grids, and even little "notes-to-self," float through the images like ghosts. And it's no coincidence, I think, that these obsessive views of the city always include new construction at the edge of town, sometimes even taking construction sites as their point of view (as in "View of Madrid from the Vallecas Tower," at top). Once again, time pauses silently, without our noticing, as the city grows of itself, pushing out into a desert and sky which shine with something bright but unknowable.

There are other wonders in the show - such as an Adam and Eve made literally of earth, save for glittering glass eyes - but for me perhaps the most affecting piece was "Skinned Rabbit" (1972, at left) a quietly tragic work that harkens back to the dead hares of Chardin, but glows with a delicately harrowing intensity. The poor creature, dead, flayed, and soon to be eaten, is curled into a fetal position, ready for its final rebirth, its dead eye staring blindly into the space it once thought it knew. It's hard to describe the metaphysical and mortal import with which López García has freighted this little red question mark, all while draining it of any pretension, or even sentiment, save a certain unassuming sympathy. Or perhaps "identification" is the right word. This is what we all become, after all - we're all waiting to die and be eaten - at which point the mystery of presence, which López García has spent his life trying to reproduce, will be silenced for us all.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

You knew this was coming . . .

Yes, I've decided to "chart" the print theatre critics - after all, they're performers too, my friends. But much to my surprise, it turned out to be far more difficult rating them than it was rating productions, and I'm not sure I've really got it right. Part of the problem is the simple fact that none of them are all that great, but they're all bad in different ways (the theatre companies are marvels of consistency by comparison); and part of the problem is that there are almost too many hypothetical axes to judge them against. Louise Kennedy was pretty easy to rate - her writing is superb, or at least it's a superb rendition of the Globe's house format, but she's intellectually incurious, not particularly engaged with theatre, and views herself and her peer group as some kind of objective lens; obviously one would rate her high on style, but low on substance. Terry Byrne and Nick Dussault were even easier - since both are clearly weak on both counts (so it's no surprise these two birds of a feather flock together). Carolyn Clay is trickier, though - her writing is dry, often expository and impacted, but also highly witty - the trouble is that her perceptions can be wacky when she has no academic guidelines to steady her, and of course she's made very, very big bets that went utterly wrong (such as her cheerleading for Peter Sellars). So how "perceptive" is she, really? It seems to depend on the day. And even if she seems brighter than, say, Ed Siegel, isn't he a bit more reliable (I wound up rating him higher on perception due to this consistency)?

Then there's the problem of what the axes should be on the chart. Some of these folks are intuitively perceptive, but hardly logicians - they can't really argue their cases. Others (like Bill Marx, who's not on the chart, as he's no longer in print) can develop a line of thought, but are far from dependable intuitively, and clearly have emotional issues which occlude their judgment. Jenna Scherer was another problematic data point - obviously smart, and the funniest of the lot, but too immature and moody to be useful; her real forte would be critical stand-up, if such a form existed.

Before you say it - why am I not on the list? Well, first, I'm not a print reviewer. And though I certainly think I'm a solid stylist, when it comes to the "perceptive/unperceptive" access, I'm really off the chart, literally, simply because I don't really do what these people do - I don't write "reviews," per se, and I often open up whole avenues of free inquiry, which they're not allowed to do. So yeah, in my conceited, arrogant way I think I'm better than any of them - but on the other hand, I'm not sure how well they could do against me if they weren't shackled to their editors' demands; it's only fair to compare them against each other, not me.

Lastly, some might call me on unconscious sexism - my two "most perceptive" reviewers are men. That might, true, be due to sexism. But it also might just be the case.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Night of Tomorrow's Stars

I spent last Saturday evening being charmed by the Boston Ballet School, which presented its Spring Showcase over the weekend at the Cyclorama. The School actually needs a space larger than that to really spread out - dozens of young dancers are enrolled at its various studios, north and south, and at least one of the works on display (Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht") looked a little squeezed on the temporary stage. But the youngsters and teenagers all managed well within its confines, even taking in their stride the unexpected (like the sound system's sudden failure) with a sweetly premature professionalism.

The students on view were from the School's "intensive" program, and it was clear from their poised presentation of various "Etudes" (accompanied with brio by pianist Tanya Foaksman) that they had all mastered an age-appropriate level of technique (toe shoes didn't appear until later levels, as they shouldn't). Indeed, the fresh-faced students sometimes appeared more nervous than they should have been - but then the relieved looks of "Yes, I landed that!" only added to the evening's appeal. The various deployments went by briskly, and the teachers had cannily given almost everyone a chance to shine, and even devised a few winsome bits of proto-choreography. Needless to say, the parent-heavy audience was appropriately adoring. It was also gratifying to see the vast majority of the girls (who still, alas, far outnumber the boys at these academies) looked to be slim, but at a healthy weight; there were only one or two skinny young things I wanted to take out for a cheeseburger.

After the kids strutted their stuff, the program was given over to dance excerpts for the senior students and "trainees" (many of whom already had taken jobs at ballets across the country), culminating in a performance of Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht," from 1980. The senior boys were first showcased in a series of Bournonville's "Enchaînements," or exercises that teetered on the edge of actual choreography, followed by a pas de deux from Rossini's William Tell featuring trainees Sylvia Deaton and Dylan Tebaldi. The blonde, beaming Deaton's attack was hearty yet precise, while Tedaldi made rather a bemused young swain (albeit a naturally musical one). Next came the requisite piece from Jorma Elo - this being the Boston Ballet School, after all - which was essayed with loose-limbed aplomb by Akiko Ishii, Yurika Kitano, Emily Mistretta, Brittany Summer, Isaac Akiba, and Jeffrey Cirio - some of whom occasionally seemed relieved to successfully dodge Elo's patented scissor-kicks (which I confess are getting a bit repetitive). Alas, Elo's finale was undone by a recalcitrant CD - I'm sure the kids were disappointed, but I wasn't, not really.

Finally came the big event, Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht," to the "witches' sabbath" scene from Gounod's Faust. If the subject matter gives you pause, rest assured the dance proved pretty tame for a satanic orgy - indeed, as my partner whispered, it read more like "Prom Night on Bald Mountain": the girls let down their hair in the last variation, which gave the final steps a frisky air, but "Girls Gone Wild" this was not. Still, it sports Balanchine's usual inventive music-visualization (rather compressed here, but danced as cleanly as the Ballet itself managed with Mr. B's Concerto Barocco), and ironically enough, it's utterly free of his usual sense of incipient doom. Again as usual, it also feels a bit like Sadie Hawkins Day: two dozen ballerinas face off against a single danseur. Luckily, the Ballet had a male trainee up to the job: Dustin Layton, with his powerful legs and dark good looks, was just the boy a girl would want to save her from a witches' sabbath, and he both sailed through his solo and partnered ballerina Rachel Cossar with sexy sensitivity. It's too bad he's off to North Carolina Dance Theatre, because he'd be a welcome addition to Boston's own roster. Miss Cossar, for her part, like Miss Deaton, has already been accepted to Boston Ballet II, and it was easy from her clean, classic line to see why; but with her wholesome looks she was rather miscast as the high priestess of a black sabbath - "Our Town," you thought, might be more her cup of tea. More in her element was the spritely Olivia Hartzell, who led the gamboling sorceresses with delicate vivacity. But to tell the truth, her happy smiles were matched on every side.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A night at the opera. And the ballet. With a little poetry thrown in.

I'm (very) late in posting about an enjoyable evening I had over a week ago, at the "Russian Revel" benefit for the upcoming Ballets Russes 2009 festival (which will be held next May). The cause is certainly a worthy one; it would be hard, in fact, to think of a company more worthy of commemoration than Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which was, to put it simply, not just a crucible of twentieth-century ballet, but a crucible of modernism in general, in which Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel rubbed shoulders with Picasso, Braque and Bakst, choreographers Fokine and Balanchine, and dancers Pavlova and Nijinsky (among many, many others).

The original idea for the evening, it seems, was to evoke the premiere of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 - but despite the looming image of Diaghilev upstage, this seemed merely a ruse for including all things Russes. Only the first number was closely linked to that original opening night, and said pas de deux, from Le Pavillon d'Armide, a forgotten piece "reconstructed" by Jurius Smoriginas, proved charming, but little more (although it was danced with a light, buoyant simplicity by Olga Konosenko and Nerijus Juska). Intriguingly, however, Le Pavillon looked more dated than moderne: the candy-colored costuming recalled turn-of-the-century bathing attire gone commedia, and the choreography wouldn't have looked out of place in The Nutcracker. Would much of the coming centennial look the same way?

Well, we couldn't ponder that long, because, for some reason, the distinguished poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko came next, even though he really has nothing to do with the Ballets Russes - even if, towering as he does literally as well as figuratively over Russian poetry, he was most welcome. Yevtushenko, who currently divides his time between Russia, New York, and the University of Tulsa, of all places, proved a sly raconteur, as well as a poignantly expressive reader of his own verse (so expressive, in fact, that he made the provided translations almost superfluous). Nattily attired in lightly clashing pastels, the poet let his wryly ingratiating manner belie the edge sliding beneath the surface of such sardonic poems as "The City of Yes and No," and "I Live in the Country of Sort Of" (a sly poke at American moral complacency) before suddenly dropping the smiling mask entirely in a bitter condemnation of the murderous Putin regime.

We were quite far, by now, from the proto-modernism of the gay, fey Sergei, but the program attempted to stagger back in his direction with arias from Borodin, Feodor Chaliapin, and Mussorgsky. Of these, the Chaliapin (whom I'm unfamiliar with), while perhaps the weakest pieces in musical terms, nevertheless made the best impression, via the deep colors and dramatic power of baritone Anton Belov's earthy pipes. But the programmers had saved the best for last (and one sensed somehow they knew it), with Georgian prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili's interpretation of Fokine's "Dying Swan." This piece, after years of over-embellishment (and the ministrations of such artistes as the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), now hovers somewhere near self-parody, but Ananiashvili took a surprisingly effective, straightforward, un-self-conscious approach. Her line was appropriately sinuous, but weighted, as she mutely sank ever closer to the earth. There was no self-pity here, merely loss - and if the celebration next summer can tap into something like her level of craft, it should be one for the history books.

Monday, June 2, 2008

No Torture. No Exceptions.

Off-topic, but this can never be said often enough.