Friday, August 29, 2008

The morning news

We are all, every day, becoming more and more like ourselves. But some days it seems we're more like ourselves than usual!

If, for example, you ever doubted the silver tongue of pundit David Brooks (left) was disguising an envious sneer, read this. (Also note someone in the comments points out Brooks plagiarized his best lines from Woody Allen.)

Likewise, to fully understand the clever vapidity of Globe reviewer Wesley Morris - and the strange belief of his generation that entertainment always trumps politics - read this.

And afterwards, for the cherry on this little journalistic sundae, be sure and check out Geoff Edgers's po-faced take on the demise of Snappy Dance Theater. Sometimes, I admit, I can't decide whether Edgers is a blank slate or some kind of genius. He even goes to the Boston Foundation's evil anti-funding queen Ann McQueen for a quote! Peerlessly hypocritical, McQueen affects sudden grief at the kind of outcome she herself was calling for not six months ago. Odd that she should have changed her tune, when nobody else has!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The lost Léger, or, more colleges behaving badly

I have little sentimental attachment to the work of Fernand Léger, so the news that Wellesley's Davis Museum somehow "lost" Woman and Child (left) didn't hit me in the gut the way the famous Gardner Museum robbery did so many years ago. Still, the scandal resonates in a peculiar way - it simply seems so incredible. How could the Davis have destroyed one of its greatest treasures (apparently it was tossed out while still in a packing crate after its return from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art)? True, the painting was in storage for months during the renovation of the Davis. Still, wasn't almost everything else?

And there are other oddities about the story. The Léger was packed, according to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, with works by Armand Guillaumin and László Moholy-Nagy - only those works seem to have been accounted for. And according to the Globe, the disappearance of the painting was discovered last November - nine months ago (in fact Wellesley has already gotten the insurance payment). One wonders why it took the college so long to make the news public. It wasn't, of course, exactly a secret within Wellesley, but the Globe story seems to imply that the college had only issued "two short statements" in response to its inquiries. Did they think everyone was going to just forget about the Léger?

Even more strangely, so far there seems to be no movement toward accountability. Davis registrar Bo Mompho seems closest to the events in question - one wonders whether or not she is facing an inquiry. One might ask the same questions regarding Davis Museum Director David Mickenberg. Valued at somewhere around $2.8 million, the Léger was surely one of the Davis's prize possessions. It hardly seems possible it could simply disappear without some kind of response from the college.

One can't help but feel a certain dismay at the whole affair - along with the dispiriting sense that this seems to be about what one should expect from our academic art museums. After all, not so long ago Boston College was promoting the now-discredited "Matter Pollocks" (the idea seemed to be that, despite the claims of scientific analysis, we should all be free to decide the paintings were Pollocks if we liked them). And wasn't Harvard essentially administering the Gardner at the time of its famous heist? (Never mind that a good chunk of the Fogg is currently falling apart and has to be replaced.) Makes you wonder what exactly it is these institutions are trying to teach.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Life on the bee list

Emy Baysic isn't one to be fazed by the likes of "phylactery.”

I've owed the North Shore Music Theatre a review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for some time now (this is its final weekend) and so I'm happy to report - at the last minute - that the NSMT has done a fine job with William Finn's latest Tony-winner. Director Jeremy Dobrish and choreographer Dan Knechtges have seamlessly transposed the post-Broadway version (mounted by Barrington Stage Company, which first developed the material) to the NSMT arena stage (one speller guilelessly observes, "I've never been in a gym in the round before!"), while adding a lot more scampering physical kick to several numbers. And the performances are strong all around, with at least three award-contenders among them.

But even though I'd give the production a solid "A," I think I'd only give the musical itself a "Bee +." (And as I was my elementary school's spelling champ, I'm pretty much the show's target audience.) Bee's book, though funny, is always a little thin, and in the second half (when it rather baldly works up more sympathy for the kids) a bit awkward, too. And Finn's score doesn't seem quite up to his usual standard - or perhaps it's that his quirky, rambling melodies are most striking when they lead to surprising, bracing little insights of the kind only neurotic adults can deliver, or appreciate. The kids of Putnam, needless to say, are loaded with "quirks," but rarely say anything truly unexpected (much less disturbing). This is what a friend of mine calls "cute quirk" - the slobby, asthmatic kid with the name that's always mispronounced, the perky Asian whiz who longs for once to fail, they all feel ever so slightly secondhand, like we saw them on some Judd Apatow series a few years ago. Indeed, the movie that set off the spelling bee craze, Spellbound, offered a far more genuinely quirky cast of characters - and even limned the shades of class and ethnicity that shadow the National Bee. Alas, all that has gone missing in Putnam County; instead we get liberal in-jokes about gay parents and the Bush administration (most of which fell flat up in Beverly, where it seems the last Republicans in Massachusetts have a redoubt).

Still, it would be wrong to pretend that within these parameters, the North Shore doesn't deliver a good time. Probably the best material in Rachel Sheinkin's book arrives in the vice principal's replies to the speller's incessant question, "Could you use that word in a sentence?," and Michael Mastro nails each cleverly knowing line with piss-perfect aplomb (I won't spoil them for you by giving any away). He's ably abetted by Sally Wilfert, who smartly channels the sexually repressed averageness of school administrators everywhere. Close on the heels of these star turns (and boasting the best pipes of all three) is the versatile Demond Green, who gives just enough satiric edge to both the bee's "comfort counselor" (a parolee who doles out hugs and juice boxes) and the bitchy gay dad of one of the contestants.

The performances of said spellers themselves (all played by adults) were consistently strong, but perhaps a little pushy. First among equals were Eric Petersen (as the now-iconic "William Bar-FAY") and local hero Miguel Cervantes (whose moment at the mike is undermined by a sudden e-r-e-c-t-i-o-n, at left). There were also engaging turns from Molly Ephraim, Emy Baysic, and Hannah Delmonte; only Clifton Guterman felt insufficiently grounded as future-stoner Leaf Coneybear (he did far better work in his coiled turn as the other gay dad). Together they kept the show's energy up, and the jokes flying; perhaps a little more v-e-r-i-s-i-m-i-l-i-t-u-d-e was too much to ask.

Today's poem

The poet and translator himself.

Pity the Elderly Gray Translator

by Vladimir Nabokov

Pity the elderly gray translator
Who lends to beauty his hollow voice
And - choosing sometimes a second-rater -
Mimes the song-fellow of his choice.
To sacred sense for the sake of meter
He is seldom traitor as traitors go,
But pity him when he quakes with Peter
And waits for the terza rima to crow.

It is not the head of the verse line that'll
Cause him trouble, nor is it the spine:
What he really minds is the cursed rattle
That must be found for the tail of the line.
Some words by nature are sort of singlish,
Others have harems of rimes. The word
"Elephant," for example, walks alone in
But its Slavic equivalent goes about in a herd.
"Woman" is another famous poser
For none can seriously contemplate
an American president or a German composer
In a viable context with that word for mate.
Since rime is a national repercussion
(And local holiday), how bizarre
That "skies-eyes" should twin in French and
"Cieux-yieux," "nebesá-glazá."

Such boons are irrelevant. Sooner or later
The gentle person, the mime sublime,
The incorruptible translator
Is betrayed by lady rime.
And the poem from the Persian
And the sonnet spun in Spain
Perish in the person's version,
And the person dies insane.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

James Levine, Guest Conductor

Okay, James Levine fans (and I know your name is legion, and not just at the Globe), quick - how many concerts will Mr. Levine conduct at the BSO this coming season? Here's a clue - the season consists of 29 separate programs (31 if you count two BSO Chamber Players concerts). But if you guessed that Levine was showing up for, say, two-thirds to three quarters of that season, you'd be wrong. By an order of almost 2. Mr. Levine will only be leading 12 (really 11+, as there's overlap between two of the programs) of those 29 (or 31) - a little more than a third, well short of one half. And his appearances are weighted toward the fall - next spring he'll only be in town for the month of February. It's hardly news, of course, that Boston's just one stop on Levine's global circuit, which includes not only his No. 1 job at the Met, but also occasional or regular stops in Vienna, Berlin, Bayreuth, Salzburg and Verbier. But one wonders, really, given this schedule - and his problematic health - just how much attention Boston gets from him outside of his appearances here. Of course Levine's performances are often thrilling (and occasionally not so thrilling, in IMHO), but I couldn't really say that the BSO plays generally better when he's not around - or at least, I couldn't say that it plays consistently better, or that he's forged a new "house style" which other conductors can rely on. And something tells me that consistency will become more problematic as time goes on, particularly this spring, when he'll really be more of a "Guest Conductor" than a "Music Director."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dance of the highest degree

While in the Berkshires last week I stopped by Jacob's Pillow to catch a performance by Stockholm 59° North, a group of principals from the Royal Swedish Ballet who have devoted themselves, in their spare time as it were, to the modern and postmodern repertoire. The performance made me very hungry to see this ensemble again. The company offered a premiere, Cicada, which proved honorable but slightly disappointing, from Cristina Caprioli, as well as two amusing pieces (Apartment and Pas de Danse, both 2004) from the former enfant terrible of Swedish dance, Mats Ek, and a creepily rousing grand-guignol finish, Castrati (2002), by Nacho Duato.

Cicada proved beautifully detailed, but ultimately belabored; make no mistake, Ms. Caprioli is a master choreographer, but this melancholic exercise - to a droning, doubly-minimalist score from Kevin Volans for two pianos, went precisely where we expected it to, and the exquisite phrasing of the dancers couldn't distract us from that. (One complaint - the program left us slightly in the dark as to who, exactly, was dancing what; luckily, the ensemble was equally skilled across the board.) By way of contrast, Ek's two pieces were lively, full of surprise, and emotionally up-to-the-minute (even if Ek himself is 63). This master's roots are in theatre, and both his dances told clear, quirky stories of what I suppose you could call modern romance. In Apartment, a sweet twentysomething pauses before her lover's apartment, pondering her relationship with him; and somehow in their ensuing pas de deux, Ek subtly reveals both her beau's charming immaturity and their unfortunate co-dependence: at the finale, she wound up carrying him offstage on her back. The effect was sad, but still bemused; Ek has both the sympathy and the distance of a great clown, or mime. Pas de Danse was even tougher on the modern male: its central sad sack was immune to the charms of his own girlfriend, only warming up when both were confronted by a happy country couple (their entrance, right through the back wall of the Ted Shawn Theatre (photo above), was a wonderful coup de théâtre). His former gal wound up waltzing off with the happy bumpkin (no fool she), which only led him to once again begin blowing his nose - sending his new, potential partner off on tiptoe, as again, the crowd chuckled ruefully.

Laughs were few and far between in Duato's Castrati, however, which dealt directly with, yes, castration - particularly the practice popular in the 16th and 17th century, in which the Church smiled on the emasculation of its promising boy sopranos, promising them careers both in the choir loft and beyond, on the burgeoning concert and operatic stage (yes, Catholics were abusing boys way back then, too; some things don't change). Fittingly, Duato costumed many of his men in priestlike robes, which gave them a menacing air of vaguely feminine vengeance - and set these cassocked birds of prey dancing to Vivaldi (the Four Seasons composer was himself a priest, and wrote music for an orchestra composed of abandoned or crippled children). This dark squadron was balanced by a group of strangely nymph-like men in feminine corsets - the castrati themselves, we assumed, beckoning to, and even tempting, the intended victim with the promise of their beauty and artistic power (the castrati, or at least the most successful of them, played an important role in the development of opera; you can hear a recording of one of the last singing here). Duato balanced these opposing forces admirably, and built the piece to a cringe-worthy crescendo with a sense of sweeping, inexorable command. It's rare that dance truly shocks and horrifies, but Castrati managed to do just that - and gave proof positive of the startling range, skill, and sheer fearlessness of Stockholm 59° North.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What I saw in Williamstown

Mark Harelik and Brooks Ashmanskas prepare to carve some ham in A Flea in Her Ear.

The partner unit and I spent last weekend out in the Berkshires, hopping among the museums and "cottages" before settling in Williamstown to take in the theatre festival, where Nicholas Martin landed after departing the Huntington. And the news is good from his premiere season - even my hosts at the charming Blackinton Manor (where you should stay if you're in the area, as it's lovely, and placed neatly between Williamstown and MassMOCA) had noticed a jump in the quality of the festival.

And no wonder - they were lucky enough to have caught the reprise of the Huntington production of She Loves Me, and had just been treated to a broad, but bright, rendition of Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. On the smaller Nikos stage I also caught the opening of a small-scaled but still compelling new play, Not Waving, by the promising Ellen Melaver. Three hits in one summer is nothing to sneaze at - indeed, they were almost enough to make me go back to catch David Storey's Home this weekend (but my wallet dissuaded me).

I'll comment briefly on Flea, even though it's already closed, as it did offer almost a textbook study of the pitfalls of Feydeau. Director John Rando painted with a broad brush, but the central male stars - Mark Harelik, Brooks Ashmanskas, David Pittu, and Carson Elrod - were able to slip from caricature to character and back like chameleons, and generally exuded just about the right air of exasperated propriety. Yes, Ashmanskas added his usual applique of physical clowning - but frankly, the precision of his schtick is always a kick, and was here also only the wrapper on an intriguingly perverse characterization. The leading women, Mia Barron and Kathryn Meisle, worked in a more staightforward mode of heightened naturalism, with strong, if not scene-stealing results. Alas, elsewhere there were gaps in the ensemble - both Tom McGowan and Debra Jo Rupp, TV stars with Broadway credits, worked in miniature, and weren't able to keep up with their co-stars (who were all natives of the living, breathing stage), and Feydeau is pretty democratic in his gags; everybody has to be in formation for the farce to really fly.

Yet I have to admit I've begun to wonder if Feydeau really does fly. Flea, which has better writing than most of his work (and was here translated with witty freedom by David Ives), as well as some genuine psychological insights, still falls victim to the same syndrome I've seen afflict every Feydeau farce I've ever seen: there's a fun build-up (here the opening scenes went swimmingly), and then a sense of anticlimax, and finally faint boredom, as the gears of the coincidental machine laid out in the first act go through their paces in the second. The lengthy "climax" of Flea - which takes place in a bordello outfitted with rotating beds - is hectic but slightly leaden, probably because the author pretty much dumps all the psychology of his characters and simply accelerates the pace of their games of hide-and-seek. Tellingly, he relies on look-a-likes for many of his jokes, only never dreams of exploring their character in the way that Shakespeare explores the psychologies of his twins. Instead the playwright keeps pounding out the same joke, over and over again (in itself a form of insanity): the first time the bed spins to reveal someone in their undies, it's funny - not so much the seventh time, or the seventeenth. A production's best bet is to either trim the sails of the ongoing mêlée, or carefully chart a descent from sneaky decorum to something near to madness. Only director Rando had set the performances at such a pitch from the outset that the cast really had nowhere to go. The academic literature would have you believe that Feydeau achieves some kind of anarchic, Freudian catharsis in the bathos he engineers (and apparently, from his program note, Ives does too), but all I can say is, somehow this version of anarchic bathos looks pretty bloody predictable.

Still, the show regained its footing in its final act, when it returns to something close to bourgeois reality (which in Alexander Dodge's set meant chintz, chandeliers, and pagodas of china - the bordello, meanwhile, was a gaping maw of vaginal pink). The machinery of farce receded slightly, and the actors had a little room to breathe, and they quickly won back my admiration. Would someone please cast Messrs. Harelik, Pittu, and Elrod in something in Boston as soon as possible? (It doesn't really matter what.)

This happy couple, Maria Dizzia and Nate Corddry, are secretly at sea in Not Waving.

Meanwhile, on the Nikos Stage, the Festival shifted gears to small-scale naturalism with Not Waving, by Ellen Melaver, which demonstrated (as other critics have also quipped) that even a day at the beach is really no day at the beach. Especially when said beach - here beautifully evoked by designer David Korins - has no lifeguard, and is known for a fierce riptide that recently drowned a man. Thus, perhaps, the title, derived from Stevie Smith's famous poem - you know, the one about the dead man who "was too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning" - a potent metaphor which the playwright teased out into variations on connection and disconnection, with the shadow of mortality playing over each.

Melaver's three couples - a mother and son, a husband and wife, and boyfriend and girlfriend - are each negotiating the currents of life, and facing major decisions - and each is putting up a brave show of contentment, security, what have you, in the face of some serious emotional undertows. But are they waving, or drowning? Can the young couple face another shot at pregnancy after two miscarriages? Can the teenaged couple weather their first bout of infidelity? Can the son convince himself (and his mother) that he's marrying for the right reasons?

The playwright teases out these issues with astute indirection, and at just about the right pace - what's more, she manages three convincing sets of voices, as each of her "couples" is from a different age and lifestyle. The script at first feels a bit cable-TV-light, in the manner of, say, Theresa Rebeck, but grows steadily more engrossing (and affecting) as it progresses. It helps that the show is so well cast, and acted with such convincing detail. The standouts are probably Maria Dizzia, as the wife quietly trying to survive the deepest of disappointments; Dashiell Eaves, as the son who doesn't realize his mother has actually transcended the issues he thinks bind them; Sarah Steele, as the rosy, sturdy young girl on the cusp of commitment; and Will Rogers as the goofy skaterboy who's far better at boarding than he is at talking to his girl (he builds a half-pipe rather than a castle in the sand). The rest of the cast is solid, if not perhaps quite as compelling. In what could count as the "lead" - the mother working through issues with her son - Harriet Harris offers a charming half-characterization: we see her immediately as the free spirit she has struggled to become, with little residue of the emotional control she once deployed against her offspring. This is of course a defensible strategy, but it leaves the early mother-son exchanges hanging in space (admittedly, conjuring the echo of the woman she once was would have been a trick). This single gap, along with a slightly contrived, affirmative ending, perhaps hold the play back from small-classic status, but aren't enough to to curb our enthusiasm for a more expansive work from Ms. Melaver. More, please.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

High culture at low prices

Don't think you can't see live theatre for an affordable price. This month two local theatres are offering early bird specials on their seasons - for one day only. On August 25, you can buy a ticket to any play in the New Rep's season for just $25. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 617-923-8487 from 12:00pm to 6pm or online, NEWREP.ORG, from 12:00pm to 12:00am. The shows on offer: Eurydice (by Sarah Ruhl), Cabaret, Three Sisters, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Martin McDonagh) and Exits and Entrances (Athol Fugard).

Meanwhile, next Tuesday, August 19, you can buy a ticket to any of the first three shows of the Huntington Theatre Company's season for just $27. Purchases may be made online, by phone, or in person at either of the two box office locations. The available plays are:Richard Nelson’s How Shakespeare Won the West, Jose Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted; and Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Lightning strikes more than twice

Off-topic, but this definitely belongs on your cool list. The above was (supposedly) shot with a Casio high-speed digital camera, with a top capture rate of 1200 frames per second. What's interesting is that you can clearly see the pulse from the ground to the sky, along the most "efficient" path of the initial "feelers." Yes, lightning DOES strike twice . . . in fact more than that . . .

Monday, August 11, 2008

And the Hubbie goes to . . .

Yes, it's time for one of my periodic backward glances at the best of what's been on the Hub's boards, in which I bestow the "Hubbie," my personal award for artistic excellence, which is, of course, utterly free of the compromises and collusions which beset the processes of other awards (as well as the foolish imperative to limit the award to only one recipient). Therefore the "Hubbie" is totally accurate. Trust me. The only downside of the Hubbie, in fact, is that there isn't an actual Hubbie yet to hand out. But perhaps someday there will be - I'm thinking maybe of a sculpture of Michael Phelps in lucite, holding up something inspiring. But in the meantime . . .

Just to backtrack for a moment - earlier in the season I noted the following superb performances on the local scene:

Maureen Keiller (above), Angie Jepson, The Little Dog Laughed, SpeakEasy Stage;

John Judd, Shining City, Huntington Theatre Company;

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

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

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

Georgia Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel, The Scene, Lyric Stage.

I'd like to add to that roster the following from later productions in the spring:

Tyler Reilly greets Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Angels in America.

Maurice Parent, Tyler Reilly and Bree Elrod, Angels in America, Boston Theatreworks;

Chelsea Cipolla, This Is Our Youth, Gurnet Theatre Project;

Jonathan Crombie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Broadway Across America;

Cigdem Onat, Amir Arison, The Cry of the Reed, Huntington Theatre Company;

Bhavesh Patel, The Four of Us, Merrimack Repertory Theatre;

Uzo Aduba, Dessa Rose, New Repertory Theatre;

Jennifer Harmon, A Delicate Balance, Merrimack Repertory Theatre;

Paula Plum (again, at left), Karl Baker Olson, The History Boys, SpeakEasy Stage;

Brooks Ashmanskas and Kate Baldwin, with a special citation for the entire cast, She Loves Me, Huntington Theatre Company;

Bianca Marroquin, Eric Ulloa, Bye Bye Birdie, North Shore Music Theatre; and

Georgia Lyman (again), Look Back in Anger, Orfeo Group.

But why limit the awards merely to actors? There was quite a bit of good directing going on this spring - and I think at least four directors deserve special mention:

Nicholas Martin, She Loves Me, Huntington Theatre Company;

Charles Towers, A Delicate Balance, Merrimack Repertory Theatre;

Diego Arciniegas, Travesties, The Publick Theatre; and

Michael Lichtefeld, Bye Bye Birdie, North Shore Music Theatre.

I'd also like to bestow some virtual statuettes on our talented local designers (actually, some are local, some not):

Janie E. Howland, set design, The History Boys, SpeakEasy Stage;

Eric Levenson, set design, and Christopher Fournier, lighting design, Some Men (above), SpeakEasy Stage;

Cristina Todesco, set design,and Jamie Whoolery, projections, The Clean House, New Repertory Theatre;

David R. Gammons, set design, The Tempest, Actors' Shakespeare Project;

John Malinowski, lighting design, King John, Actors' Shakespeare Project;

Cotton Talbot-Minkin, costume design, and Brent Sullivan, lighting design, Imaginary Things, or Treacle from the Well, Imaginary Beasts;

Bill Clarke, set design, and Martha Hally, costume design, A Delicate Balance, Merrimack Repertory Theatre;

Eugene Lee, set design, The Cry of the Reed, Huntington Theatre Company;

David Gallo, set design, The Drowsy Chaperone, Broadway Across America;

James Noone, set design, and Kenneth Posner and Philp Rosenberg, lighting design, She Loves Me, Huntington Theatre Company; and

Howard C. Jones, Bye Bye Birdie (above), North Shore Music Theatre.

There. I'm sure I've left somebody out, but no doubt they will occur to me in the next edition of Hubbies, which I hope to offer about midway through the fall season. Till then!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

President Buffalo Chip pimps out his First Lady

Okay, this clip is off-topic - but it's still fantastic. What could I even say? (It's also worth noting that this is hardly the first time McCain has insulted his wife - Wonkette has the word on the day he called Cindy "the c-word.")

Monday, August 4, 2008

Making Hay

Joel Colodner and Debera Lund catch a little Hay Fever.

We all know that dramatic effect is entirely dependent on the artist's perspective, not his or her material - but rarely has that verity been better demonstrated than in the current pairing of Chekhov's The Seagull with Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Publick Theatre. Both plays deal with neurotic, theatrical families on holiday, headed by fading actresses enmeshed in unhappy love affairs - but there all similarity ends; the two texts seem to exist not merely in separate worlds but separate universes. Indeed, whether Chekhov's masterpiece is, in fact, a comedy or not, remains a matter of some debate; but there's no argument over Hay Fever - the play's a hoot, and it seems like forever since it's been seen in Boston (for some reason, in the current Coward revival, almost all the other major plays have come first).

The Publick's al fresco staging (don't worry, bug repellent's provided), isn't, perhaps, quite the streamlined vehicle one could wish for - the cast is too often working against type to really put the bloom on this gilded lily, and the direction, by Diego Arciniegas, never brings things to the ironically feverish pitch one would like. Still, Arciniegas and his cast have found a witty throughline through the text; the dialogue always sparkles, even if the antics don't, and that's more than enough to enchant an evening, if you ask me.

As in all Coward, the "plot" of Hay Fever is essentially a situation pushed to its extreme, then abandoned: the members of the bohemian Bliss family have each invited a benighted member of conventional society over for the weekend, unbeknownst to the others. The guests are generally intended as toys for the egoistical play of their sophisticated hosts: Judith, for instance, the family matriarch who may have retired from the professional stage but will never retire from the emotional one, has invited up a lunkheaded athlete to be smitten with her. Meanwhile her daughter and son, the spoiled Sorrel and Simon, are expecting potential sexual objects, too - she, a "daddy"-like diplomat, he a calculating vamp. Meanwhile father David, a hack novelist, has invited up a ditzy flapper to "study" for future fiction.

Needless to say, there's not enough room, or even enough food, for everyone on this weekend from hell, and the self-involved hosts don't so much entertain their guests as deploy them - everyone trades toys - in a fizzy series of parlor games designed to stave off boredom with theatrical "passion." The whole thing escalates to a wild re-enactment of one of Mom's most melodramatic hits, a stinking piece of cheese called Love's Whirlwind, which of course the family knows by heart but to the guests seems a flagrant display of something close to insanity.

In its witty portrait of the terminally unhip helpless before the hip, Hay Fever rather startling presages much later drama - it might almost be Albee without the malice; yet pondering it against The Seagull conjures few "vibrations," as Oscar Wilde might say, and the leftover set from the Chekhov at times looks a bit odd with Rafael Jean's flapper duds draped over it (it doesn't help that said duds look rather secondhand). Likewise, director Arciniegas, who's never really been known for his blocking, doesn't provide much in the way of comic action (I've seen at least one Hay Fever that built into a ballet of precise physical cues). And several key roles are clearly miscast - the common-sensical Debera Lund seems a world away from the blowsy aura of Judith Bliss, Ross MacDonald is far too robust a presence for the pissy Simon, and Robert Serrell an oddly self-aware choice for the blockheaded athlete, Sandy. Still, everyone seems to get in the spirit of things, at least superficially, and the verbal comedy is soon bubbling happily along.

Certainly the whole whirligig depends centrally on Lund, who may not make much of a diva, but whose clever insights into the bottomless vanity of the Blisses keep zinger after zinger popping from Coward's witty quiver of lines. Meanwhile MacDonald, in his Boston debut, may not nail the knowing narcissism of Simon, but he's smooth, capable, and sexy, and that's almost as good (something tells me we'll be seeing a good deal more of Mr. MacDonald on local stages). Even Serrell makes a surprisingly likeable Sandy.

On more solid ground are Lynn Guerra, who's both polished and temperamentally right as the petulant Sorrel, and the ever-dependable Joel Colodner, who makes surprisingly light work of the stodgy diplomat. Better still is Hannah Wilson as the dim flapper, who understands at once that she's completely over her empty little head (her duet of awkwardness with Colodner when they're abandoned in the hall is probably the best thing in the show). Alas, two actors put their feet decidedly wrong: Dafydd Rees seems to phone in his performance as the family patriarch, and Cheryl Turski makes the calculating Myra Arundel a cold, unclever (if sexy) fish; this doesn't do much harm to the general ensemble, but when they're left alone together, the missed beats pile up at an alarming rate. Luckily, however, the other Blisses soon dash in to pull focus, and the whole soufflé begins to rise again - which is what makes the Publick's Hay Fever, in the end, nothing to sneeze at.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

What should an academic theatre be? Part II

In an earlier post, I pondered the arrival of new Artistic Director Diane Paulus at the ART, and how her resume seemed almost a parody of that theatre's notorious M.O. I simultaneously promised a second post on the problem of how to appropriately model an academic theatre. Given that we've had two such theatres operating in Boston for a quarter of a century without any serious public discussion of their respective stances, I felt some consideration of the topic was long overdue. Indeed, now I've decided to make this a quadruple, rather than a double, header, largely because I felt before attempting my own model of academic theatre, I might pause to consider at length how the ART/Huntington duet has played out.

But first I'll throw out what I feel is the underlying question this series should at least attempt to answer:

Why have an academic theatre at all?

Okay, more on that later. But let me say right away that I think neither Harvard nor B.U. really grappled with this question prior to the founding of either the ART or the Huntington. The ART pretty much appeared overnight in 1980 when Robert Brustein (at left) was booted from his deanship at Yale, and Harvard leapt at the chance of having him set up shop in the Loeb Drama Center (hoping no doubt he'd bring some of the prestige that had accrued to the Yale School of Drama with him). Likewise, in a kind of prestige-grabbing cascade effect, BU opened the Huntington across the river just two years later, in a move that was hard to perceive as unrelated to the ART's arrival. And it wasn't soon before the two institutions seemed to almost orbit each other in an artistic (or perhaps critical) sense.

To get at the nature of that symbiosis, I think I'll begin with its prime mover. A professor and then dean at Columbia and Yale during the tumultuous years of the sixties, Brustein had become known for his desire to instill a revolutionary politics within the drama long before he arrived in Cambridge (his books included Theatre of Revolt, Seasons of Discontent, and Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style). While proclaiming himself a revolutionary, however, Brustein was at the same time the consummate insider: superbly connected in East Coast academia (the leap, without a beat, from Yale to Harvard tells you as much), he also for decades filled one of the last paying "national" jobs writing on theatre (at The New Republic), and led a social life that included a redoubt on Martha's Vineyard and a "set" studded with artistic, academic, and media players and luminaries.

The irony of his lifestyle, of course, is hardly unusual in the academy, which is encrusted with "revolutionaries" comfortably ensconced in the establishment; and Brustein was at least a man of his word when it came to the theatre he ran: the American Repertory Theatre (a name consciously, if vainly, chosen for its national implications) was clearly committed to a modernist (later postmodernist) program of reform. The company seemed to see itself as a kind of intervention in its art form, openly injecting critical theory into its process in an attempt to revivify, if not revolutionize, the fabulous invalid. This was no doubt a heady notion in the ivory tower (the ART was a bit like a laboratory in which the physicists could tell the particles what to do), and in 1980 it was only part of a phalanx of theories by which professors had begun to usurp the authority of the authors and artists they supposedly studied - Barthes said the author was dead, and Foucault said knowledge was just a power structure, and Kuhn said empiricism was merely a shared paradigm; to the critical theorist, everything seemed up for grabs.

There were signs even then, however, that this revolution-by-proxy was essentially a virtual re-enactment of the sixties - now the "pigs" and "the establishment" were "the author" and "the canon," and the professors rather than the students were on the barricades. Such communal re-enactments are the bread-and-butter of social history, of course, so in a way that academic wave was no surprise. The problem for the ART, of course, was what theory, exactly, should be injected into the drama to make it flower in an appropriately revolutionary way. And while Brustein had long proved himself an incisive writer and analyst, once it came time to prove himself as a practitioner, he resorted, as so many had before him, to pastiche. The ART became known for a cool, almost clinical, presentation in an empty, Brechtian space. But within that notionally "epic" theatre frame, just about anything went, as long as it seemed somehow opposed to bourgeois convention in an orgiastic, Artaudian kind of way. Indeed, the youthful radical was always given the benefit of the doubt, while the apparent intent of the author was always suspect - a neat reversal which, by its own lights, obviously only traded one set of problems for another, and which didn't bode well for the enterprise's long-term success as a critical project.

Still, the theatre had some early triumphs, like Julie Taymor's The King Stag (above) and Six Characters in Search of an Author, directed by Brustein himself in his one burst of directorial power. Robert Wilson came back from Europe with a few visually (but not intellectually) dazzling post-surrealist extravaganzas, Philip Glass wrote some lesser works for the theatre, and Peter Sellars rolled giant pineapples through a couple of shows. And generally a loose link was formed with the circuit of bohemian stage artists running from Soho to the Continent and back (people like David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Susan Sontag often popped by).

But the list of immature, funereally mediocre, or vulgar productions began to mount; certain authors (like Williams, Stoppard, and even Shaw, for a while) were excluded from the playlist, the acting company remained highly variable, and the ART found itself in the embarrassing position of reviving King Stag and Six Characters over and over again, for well over a decade, to renew faith in its competence.

Moreover, the theatre's stance was not merely threatened by its own performance, but by larger trends. Once again, the times they were a'changin', and the modernist project (or at least the reformatory arm to which the ART clung) was in trouble. Modern architecture had transformed inner cities into wastelands, and serialism had nearly destroyed classical music; probably no other artistic movement had been responsible for quite so many obvious disasters. And slowly, despite the Stalinist attitudes of the thoroughly modern academy, postmodernism began to adopt strategies to avoid future horrors. Indeed, some of the major talents of the early days at the ART were quickly absorbed into the larger culture, but not for the reasons a reformer would have liked: Taymor became famous for the way her puppets tickled the fancy of the bourgeoisie, while Glass's reputation blossomed because his minimalism sneaked tonalism back into the concert hall. In short, the ART's postmodernism began to undo its modernism. At the same time our national politics underwent a thorough retrenchment; revolution, and even liberalism, went out in the 80s, never to return; politically, the ART was no longer part of the ferment, but instead was itself a kind of artifact. Meanwhile structuralism exhausted itself, the influence of critical theory declined, and eventually "the author" came roaring back via Harold Bloom and others.

And slowly the ART began to drift, although some of its early stars (like Glass) kept coming back, other members of the Soho/boho circuit took bows (Anna Deavere Smith dropped by), and the company finally staged Shaw (directed by David Wheeler, who became its lifeline to "traditional" theatre). But the whole project felt somehow moribund; again and again one left the ART slightly irritated but unmoved. Whatever effect the company was going to have on the larger culture had come and gone long ago, and at least half its productions were reliably bad. And the authors had had, in a way, their revenge on Brustein and his theatre: texts were somehow perceivable though all the postmodern camouflage, and the lingering impression of show after show was of the greatness of the play overshadowing the tinny posturing of its production. The company's Shakespeare usually felt overcomplicated, attenuated, or cruel; its Chekhov, dogmatic and forced; its Shaw, condescendingly arch; certainly none of these great authors had been made more "alive," more vibrant or relevant (indeed, ART productions were by and large duller than "traditional" ones). The experiment that was supposed to revive theatre, had, instead, been shown up by it.

But the experiment got a new lease on life via a twist on its object, thanks to Robert Woodruff, the ART's second artistic director. Woodruff, an undoubted directorial talent, held on to certain modernist ART traditions (often via co-productions with the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune), but also began to push the company toward the amplifications of pop - rock music in particular, but also the general sphere of mediated electronic entertainment and identity. The idea had a certain kind of appeal - the only "revolution" left with any street cred was the technological pop revolution, after all - which, admittedly, was a pseudo-revolution leading to isolation, not community (once a central tenet of theatre), but which via its transcendence of politics had enjoyed undeniable staying power (enhanced, no doubt, by the endless advance of its technology). Sheer popular success had always been the secret wish beneath much of modernist theory anyhow, and the cresting edge of cultural vacuum that theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard once surfed had clearly been bested, and utterly subsumed, by the ironic, knowing emptiness of pop. The ivory tower had already intuited that its arcane theories could be cut free from Marx and Hegel and re-framed as the herald of globalized, digitized market culture - and Woodruff began to re-orient the ART's "revolutionary" mission toward this new dispensation. Now authorial intent, once an elitist straightjacket on the masses, was re-conceived as mere pre-millennial baggage, a kind of beautiful ghost to be pondered nostalgically, but only as a benighted "background" for the au courant noodlings of the design team.

John Campion in Robert Woodruff's Oedipus Rex.

That Woodruff himself made complex, insightful stage pictures (in the end, that's what the ART's theory comes down to), and in general conjured an atmosphere of doomed extremity, made his shows compelling, for the most part, and at least partly justified his method. Indeed, for a season or two, it seemed his presence had rejuvenated the whole enterprise: aside from Woodruff's own work, the 2003 season, featured three startlingly good imported productions (The Syringa Tree, Foreign Aids, and the far side of the moon), and most of its homegrown efforts, like Dido, Queen of Carthage, you could at least make a case for. But things quickly began to fall apart again: the theatre's classical productions were sometimes all but unwatchable (Three Sisters, Romeo and Juliet), the rock'n'roll proved trickier to integrate into a theatrical frame than Woodruff had imagined (The Onion Cellar), and new movie adaptations went thud (Wings of Desire, Donnie Darko). Soon the Board moved in, perhaps motivated not merely by the variability of his output - which was certainly no weaker than Brustein's - but also by his prickly personal presence, and an M.O. which subtly undermined much of what the elderly academy held dear.

Meanwhile, over at the Huntington, a kind of philosophical riposte to the ART had taken shape, again with mixed results -

ah, but that's yet another post.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Harvard gap

As I gathered my thoughts about the role of the academic theatre in Boston, I found myself pondering again a certain fact that's rarely spoken aloud along the banks of the Charles, but which I call "the Harvard gap."

Egad, you say, dear sir, Harvard has no gaps! It is a perfectly smooth edifice of perfection! Uh-huh. I admit, the place is dazzling, but anyone can see said edifice isn't perfectly smooth - there's at least one gaping hole where the School of the Arts is supposed to be. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, I suppose. Does a great university have to have a School of the Arts? Perhaps not.

Still, Harvard acts as if it had such a school, and everybody else around here acts as if it did, too. And for a long time that charade worked pretty well, because - and here's what's interesting - a lot of great artists happened to go to Harvard, all the way down from such titans of nineteenth-century American culture as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James to post-war giants like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, and John Ashbery.

But for some reason, great artists don't go to Harvard any more. I'm not sure why, really, but it's obvious no major artistic figure has emerged from the college in what, thirty years? Indeed, the career of Peter Sellars - who was supposed to be a bearer of the Harvard arts flame, but who obviously lacked the genuine chops - perhaps marked the death knell of the whole phenomenon. As far as theatre goes, you might have to go all the way back to Arthur Kopit for the last Harvard man of any real significance. And it's telling that one of the last Harvard composers, Elliott Carter, has in recent years been lionized locally almost beyond belief. It's almost as if they know he's the last one.

So in a way Harvard ends up looking like a rarefied trade school (leading to its premier adjuncts, the Schools of Business, Law and Medicine), with, of course, a brilliant program in pure science as well, and a highly developed critical and analytic culture - but with little in the way of actual artistic ferment or presence. (This, to me, is clearly reflected in the stance of the A.R.T., but more on that later.)

Has Harvard come to terms with that reality, however? I'd argue no, and of course few people in the local area have the cojones to call the $40 billion elephant in the room to account. We still reflexively grant them the prestige of a hegemony they long ago lost. But some adjustment in the university's self-image may finally be in the offing. President Drew Faust recently called a task force together to review "the place of the arts at Harvard." Apparently someone realized the arts actually didn't have much of a place at Harvard, given the size, scope, and influence of the institution. But can Harvard ever re-attract artistic genius to its halls? It's an open question - and an interesting problem.

What should an academic theatre be?

After a reportedly troubled search that lasted something like a year, the ART finally settled on Diane Paulus (left), a Harvard grad and Obie-award winner, as its choice for Artistic Director. The good news is that the search is over, of course, and that we're now free of Gideon Lester's attempts to replicate past ART seasons. The downside of Diane, however, is that her résumé almost reads like parody. It's thick with pop-music adaptations of Shakespeare (The Donkey Show transported Midsummer Night's Dream to a disco and The Karaoke Show set The Comedy of Errors in a karaoke bar, while The Winter's Tale got a "gospel/R&B" treatment), and includes a pitstop in just about every ditzy directorial trend of the last twenty years: Mozart's Figaro got an update, of fucking course, as well as all three Monteverdi operas (they made it to BAM, naturally), which mixed with the likes of David Lynch (Lost Highway) and even Disney (The Golden Mickeys, whatever that was). Meanwhile her résumé lists no Chekhov, no Ibsen or Shaw, no Sophocles, no Marivaux, no Williams or O'Neill or Miller or Kushner, no Beckett or Brecht or - well, no anybody. Maybe she's done them, but she's certainly not advertising it - when it comes to classic texts, besides the Shakespeare travesties, she only lists Strindberg's phantasmagorical A Dream Play.

Titania goes clubbing in The Donkey Show.

You wonder, in short, if her career might have been devised by some imp at the Harvard Lampoon. It's hard not to get the impression of a very bright, very attractive careerist who read her "mentors" like a book and colored relentlessly within the postmodern lines. And note among all the disco and the Disney that there are few, if any, honest productions of interesting new plays by great playwrights; no, Diane was far too focused to do anything as silly that. That would have required, like, slavish obeisance to a text, dude! It would have blown the whole orgy of signifiers - not to mention the scene!

A scene from Paulus's Brutal Imagination, although it might be from any number of past ART productions.

So it's obvious (if you doubt me, check out the photographs of her work) that her artistic directorship will represent more of the same old, same old from the ART, where the late-70's Village never died (or rather, where it went to die). Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the Harvard search committee could have made a more conservative choice. One guesses the ART will remain mired in yesterday's critical theories, and grow more and more isolated from its community, aside from the Dresden Dolls' fan base, which is probably doing handsprings (along with the Dolls themselves, of course).

Sigh. But will the Huntington do much better? Will Peter DuBois, their incoming artistic director (who arrived after a far more smoothly managed search), actually connect with theatre, and with Boston, the way Harvard seems unable to? Maybe. He's done real plays - Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Beckett, as well as Churchill, Kushner, and others (including, yes, politically-correct lesser talents like Suzan-Lori Parks). DuBois has also, it's good to point out, run a theatre - in Juneau, Alaska, of all places (I'm not making that up), and he's been a mucky-muck at New York's Public, certainly a highly-pressured, high-profile perch. Needless to say, he's also acquainted with the New York (and Hollywood) stars that the Huntington, under Nicholas Martin, began to rely on to boost audience interest in their seasons.

All this, I think, bodes rather well - in case you can't tell, I care far less for postmodern theory and rock-n-roll than I do for theatre. And I'm hoping that DuBois will not only continue the policy of engagement with the city that Nicholas Martin was known for, but will also improve upon it. But what, in the end, should DuBois set as his goals? What should an academic theatre be? In Boston, unlike almost anywhere else in the U.S., we've got two of them, and yet their roles and responsibilities have been a topic of almost no public discussion whatsoever. They are perceived as simply adjuncts of the power bases their respective universities represent; local critics seem to think it's almost rude, somehow, to question the assumptions and goals under which they operate (and under which they gobble down public dollars). But in my next post in this doubleheader, I'll ponder what, exactly, should be expected of an academy that begins to operate as an arts practitioner.