Tuesday, September 30, 2008

They're just wild about Harry

Last week brought news that our own Handel and Haydn Society had announced its next Artistic Director - Harry Christophers (above), a frequent guest conductor of major symphonies around the world and founder of "The Sixteen," a leading British chorus and period instrument orchestra. At last season's performance of Messiah, I noted the following:

". . . somehow British conductor Harry Christophers worked a thrilling alchemy with the H&H singers. I may have never heard a chorus find such a precise match between eloquence and passion - somehow the line between word and song simply melted away under Christophers's direction . . . the Christophers version was something special."

So you can imagine I'm happy. But judge for yourself this weekend, when Christophers will conduct H&H's season opener, "Celebrate Handel!" at Symphony Hall. Remaining tickets are only $25 or less - more information here.

Dream Boat

Melinda Cowan (center) croons with Michelle Dyer, Natalie Wisdom, Regina Gatti and Jenny Florkowski in Show Boat. Photo(s) by Paul Lyden.

Few works loom over their respective genres the way Show Boat does. The first "serious" book musical, the sprawling giant took New York by storm in 1927, simultaneously expanding and refining what was possible on the Broadway stage. Its artistic challenge was matched by its political daring, as it dealt directly with the issue of racism on the Mississippi, and in American life in general (its racist characters' off-hand use of the "n-word" shocks even today). As for its score - well, few have bettered Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's masterpiece; it may or may not be the greatest Broadway score ever composed, but it is certainly the loveliest. The melodies easily rival the arias of Puccini and Verdi (though drawn from American sources), and the lyrics - let's just say few arias ever had it so good (the great gap between musical and opera, if you ask me, lies in the superiority of the American musical's lyrics).

Still, Show Boat is a little challenged as well as challenging - the ambitious book, drawn from Edna Ferber's novel, famously loses focus in its second act, as the plot paddles through something like three decades. Harold Prince's 1994 re-staging was a noble attempt at keeping the last half of Boat afloat as a kind of Tolstoyan meditation on the very passage of time; he cut a World's Fair setpiece, and punched up the arrival of the 'second generation' of show folk at the musical's end, rather than the reunion of (most) of the battered characters.

Judging from the North Shore's revival of Prince's production, his strategy was only partly successful - although Show Boat now does have some sense of epic depth as well as length. Its glory, however, still lies in its songs, which the North Shore seems to have realized, since they've assembled their best singing cast in years, and indeed one of the best ever heard in Boston. It's really too bad the arena itself is so weak acoustically, and the voices have to all be amplified - still, much of their beauty comes over nonetheless.

I don't think anyone could improve, for instance, on Philip Boykin's thunderous sounding of "Old Man River" (left), or Terry Burrell's heartbreakingly graceful rendition of "Bill" (below right). And for once the North Shore can boast a true lyric soprano and tenor in Teri Dale Hansen and Ron Bohmer (below), who together made "You Are Love" - one of the show's lesser-known songs - into a shimmering highlight. Indeed, one of the enduring strengths of Show Boat is how beautiful the minor melodies are (Prince even incorporated a haunting number written for the later movie, "Misry's Comin' Aroun'," here piercingly voiced by the sparkling Sharon Wilkins). Of course you knew this cast would shine in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but they also tear through "Queenie's Ballyhoo," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and many more. I have only one caveat with the musical performance - Prince gave the gorgeous "Why Do I Love You?" to Elaine Stritch, she of the eloquently lyrical croak. I can guess at the funny little poem Stritch may have made of this gem, but at the North Shore, Audrey Neenan - who is a very capable comic actress - simply doesn't have the pipes for it, and doesn't understand (as Stritch may have) how to make that part of the tender joke.

Teri Dale Hansen and Ron Bohmer, a match made in vocal, if not emotional, heaven.

Dramatically, the show is generally done in the North Shore's familiar hearty manner (here best evinced by the charming Gordon Stanley as Cap'n Andy) - which, alas, isn't always enough to distract us from the weaknesses of Hammerstein's book, which reduces all conflict to noble submission (particularly by the show's women). Meanwhile the Tony-winning choreography, by Susan Stroman, is slightly more subdued than we generally expect from the North Shore (and doesn't really exploit the arena stage's possibilities) but still includes some energetic stomps and and an electrifying Charleston near the finish. The set, by Evan Bartoletti, includes a serviceable evocation of the traveling Cotton Blossom, but is generally upstaged by Forence Klotz's sumptuous costumes (which neatly trace the passage of time through passing fashion). The most glaring gap remains the way the show simply drops Julie, the "mulatto" angel who twice saves darling, whiter-than-white Magnolia from ruin; if memory serves, Hollywood dragged Ava Gardner (!) back for a smiling-through-tears final scene - not a bad idea, actually. Still, given it was such a trailblazer, Show Boat remains remarkably successful in formal terms - and boasts a score that you will not only leave humming, but will also find impossible to forget.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Listen to Sarah and do the Great Schlep!

Nicky Martin news

In case you haven't heard, the word is that Nicholas Martin, former Artistic Director of the Huntington, suffered a "small stroke" on Thursday. Martin was in the middle of directing Noah Haidle's latest, Saturn Returns, and has been replaced in that role. He is, however, expected to make a full recovery after a period of convalescence. I'm sure his many fans will join me in sending Nicky best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The most powerful show of the year

Yes, I know proclamations like the one above tend to stir my readers up (remember the flak I got for my praise of Streamers?); but there simply is no other way to describe Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter's In the Continuum (at left, photo by Craig Bailey), being presented by Up You Mighty Race at the BCA Black Box through October 18. And this time I have the politics on my side - Continuum isn't some white-boy fever dream (like Streamers), but rather a harrowing look at a subject which, shockingly enough, has never been treated onstage by our larger theatre companies: the plight of HIV+ women of color.

Now I can already feel you backing away with a sympathetic smile - do you really want to spend an evening listening to a sermon with which you already agree? I understand that reaction, but rest assured this is no simple-minded polemic; it is instead a genuinely gripping piece of political theatre, hell, it's a gripping piece of theatre, period. Continuum is, yes, politically correct, and politically direct - but are those necessarily flaws? Playwrights (and original performers) Gurira and Salter may be baldly political, but they're never blunt, and they never operate in bad faith; we never feel ourselves being dishonestly manipulated into sympathy with the play's victims - indeed, this play is utterly unsentimental, and also often utterly funny, believe it or not.

All of which is due to the fact that Continuum is a very richly designed text. This loud, profane brocade follows two women - a married news reader, Abigail, in Zimbabwe, and a party girl, Nia, living large in South Central - as they come to grips with an unexpected double diagnosis: both are pregnant, and both have HIV. They have been infected by partners who were operating promiscuously on what we now call "the down low" (the play never makes it explicit how they were infected, but implies it was through heterosexual sex).

The play limns this terrible situation with sympathy, but also with unexpected irony. Abigail is a self-consciously "Westernized" professional (other friends have gone off to the London School of Economics), but her career is embedded in a secure home life shared with her young son and Stamford, the high-powered husband she loves; she practically shines with the confidence of successful people who have, in fact, earned their success and imagine it's some kind of vaccine against bad luck. Nia, for her part, is already adrift; she lives in some kind of foster care, has just lost her job at Nordstrom's because she was fond of "five-finger discounts," and dreams mostly of wine, weed, and Darnell, the high school basketball star whom she imagines is her ticket out of squalor.

Needless to say, Stamford and Darnell not only have their secrets, but also all the power in these relationships, as Abigail and Nia realize once their HIV status sinks in. Abigail faces being beaten and disowned (and may even lose her children) if her infection becomes known; Nia's plight is less dangerous, but still pretty desperate - she discovers her only hope of survival may lie in keeping quiet about Darnell, and manipulating him into a paternity suit once he makes it into the NBA. The scenarios here are unrelentingly grim, but also, let's be honest, they're simply accurate - and remind us with a shock how false so much uplifting, "empowering" theatre really is. If you imagine Abigail or Nia is going to suddenly triumph in the final scene, and belt out an Aretha Franklin hit - well, think again. And if you think all this sounds like simply a screed against the black patriarchy, well, at some level it is (the brothers deserve this, and worse), except for the fact that the authors never let women themselves out of their sights: Abigail and Nia find no solidarity with their female friends and colleagues, and not even with their mothers; indeed, it's often shocking how much misogyny comes out of the sisters in this play.

But all the thoughtful writing in the world can't ignite this kind of theatre without powerful performances; luckily, Up You Mighty Race has two of the strongest performers in town in Lindsey McWhorter and Ramona Lisa Alexander, who sometimes seem almost locked in an unspoken duel as to who will prove more virtuosic. Alexander, who has already won an IRNE, is well-known on the fringe (she's just been little seen recently while studying at Brandeis); the good news is that McWhorter (also from Brandeis, but already on her way to New York) is her talented match. McWhorter has the body of a dancer, but the soul of an actress, and as Abigail, both her poise and accent are impeccable - she's also able to access the most intense emotions while remaining completely in control and in character (her monologue about the possible deaths she faces from AIDS - done while hiding from her son's ongoing birthday party - all but brought me to tears). Alexander meanwhile continues her winning streak with a Nia who may be loud, sassy and self-indulgent, but is also obviously damaged, and still smart and warm enough to be likable despite her sloppy ways. Alexander is actually even more piercing as Nia's friends and neighbors; her evocation of Darnell's mother, who is well aware of her son's HIV status, is superb in its delicacy, and her take on Nia's drag-queen cousin is likewise startlingly well observed. (If you thought a woman could never suggest the gay man lurking beneath the surface of drag, well think again - Alexander pulls it off.)

I did have a few problems with the production. McWhorter and Alexander sometimes seem to be dueling not just terms of talent but also in terms of simple lung power (the Black Box is a small room, ladies). And director Akiba Abaka, who has in general given a strong, lucid shape to all the cross-cutting between L.A. and Africa, sometimes indulges herself in dance-like moves that aren't all that inspired, and at times even a little confusing. But these are forgettable flaws in a show that by its climax has become all but devastating. I guarantee you will not see a more powerful performance this season.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Note without comment

T and sympathy

"The T Plays" is a modest little evening put together by Mill 6 Collaborative that somehow packs more creativity and cleverness into its hour-and-a-half than most of the big shows on the boards right now. Don't think, mind you, that you're going to get anything at all in the way of production values here - the setting is bare-bones, in the brick-and-concrete Factory Theatre space, and the seats are no more comfortable than those on the actual T (and the one bathroom is upstairs). Nor is there much high drama on offer - again, the real-life T has provided wilder stories than any seen here. No, these scripts are precisely what you'd expect from a high-concept Gen X - Gen Y evening - quirky, self-aware little comedies, with unexpected twists. But as quirk goes, this is high-end stuff.

The gimmick here is that the plays on tap were written just last Saturday - after, or even during, an extended ride on the T. Mill 6 put up a similar evening last weekend, and audience favorites from both programs will take another bow next weekend. (Got that?) Of course this whimsical little stunt could be a recipe for disaster, except that Boston, almost unbeknownst to itself, has steadily developed a network of talented playwrights over the last few years. Most of the authors here were familiar to me from past successes, and most came through again with witty, well-crafted little gems.

Indeed, the most obvious "flaw" in the best of these was that the texts cried out for further development (and how many times have you wished that a play was longer?). "Because I Could Not Stop for the Silver Line, It Kindly Stopped For Me," by Kristin Baker and Dan Milstein (of Rough & Tumble Theatre), for instance, which cleverly plunks The Seventh Seal onto a bus, could still use at least one more emotional twist before its conclusion. Meanwhile Pat Gabridge's poignant "Recognition" - in which an adoptive mother recognizes the birth mother of her child on the Green Line - cries out even louder for an extension. Only one script struck me as meandering, and sometimes filling time - Ken Urban's "The Quiet Desperation of White People," which is actually bracingly frank and punchy until about three-quarters of the way through, when it takes an odd half-turn into questions of racism that feel a little forced. The remaining scripts, "6 AM: Violin/Viola," by Matt Chapuran, and "A Single Look Back," by John Edward O'Brien (who directed "Recognition," as well as Mill 6 in general) were less ambitious, but still consistently witty and well-crafted.

The acting, given the time pressures involved, was likewise surprisingly thoughtfully detailed and well-paced. Probably the best, most natural turns came from Faith Imafidon and Giselle Ty in "6 AM: Violin/Viola," and Bonnie Duncan and Forrest Walter in "The Quiet Desperation of White People," but there were really no significant gaps across what amounted to quite a large ensemble. This is the second or third intriguing production I've seen from Mill 6, and in fact "The T Plays" marks their tenth anniversary in this city, and yet they're still operating just outside the cultural radar. One wonders how and when Boston is going to build a ladder from its fringe scene into its "small theatre scene" (we just lost one of our best fringe actors, Eliza Lay, to New York, and more will inevitably follow unless the current situation changes). Could the BCA offer the occasional "Fringe Night" (or even a reprise of "The T Plays") in its Rehearsal Room A, or could, say, SpeakEasy or the Lyric host a late-night fringe cabaret after Light in the Piazza or Follies? Some sort of explicit connection between the actual physical sites of our mid-size scene and those of the fringe is required for both to remain healthy.

Then again, you yourself can always support the fringe, and it's easy to do so when its productions are as diverting as "The T Plays," which you have till Sunday to catch. You can even take the T.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The "greatest" president since FDR?

As the Bush administration winds down, it's harder and harder to avoid the sense that we've turned a corner of sorts - in fact, many corners, of many sorts. The nationalization of the mortgage market last week, and the coming nationalization of most of the major investment banks, and the ensuing recession and devaluation of the dollar that are inevitable anyway, are just individual pieces of the larger political and economic mosaic that the Bush era represents. What's interesting is how many of these individual pieces count as turning points: the first major act of terrorism on U.S. soil, the first full-scale "pre-emptive" invasion of a foreign power, the introduction of torture as national policy, the essential destruction of a major American city, the establishment of an extra-Constitutional security state, the deregulation and subsequent nationalization of Wall Street - these are all major "firsts," and together constitute a re-formulation of the American state unlike any seen since the Great Depession.

So it's time to recognize Bush for what he is: the "greatest" president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a historical shadow that may be at least as long, if almost entirely negative in its ramifications(he'll very probably be seen as the Caligula-like avatar of our decline). History, however, turns on stupidity; it depends, in fact, on stupidity. The brilliant Clintons cleaned up after Bush I; but can Obama clean up after the far-more-horrific Bush II? Somehow I doubt it, although I pray I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on Eurydice, anon!

On his "Theatre Mirror" website, long-time Boston theatre observer Larry Stark seems to be taking me (disguised as "Serious Critic") to task for my exasperated pan of Eurydice. I don't mind being argued with (in fact I like it) - I only wish that if the "Serious Critic" is me, that Larry would say so (although since he calls himself "Anon.," I suppose I shouldn't complain).

As usual, Larry loved Eurydice (he even signed his review with "love," as he always does). The problem with this assessment, however, is that looking over his output, it's apparent that Larry has loved just about everything he's ever seen; the question, therefore, is not which shows he loved, but which shows he loved more.

But anyway, back to Eurydice. Larry tries to float the idea that people who don't like Eurydice (i.e., the majority of the audience I saw it with) don't "understand" it - tellingly, he doesn't understand it either, but he still loves it - indeed, his lack of comprehension seems to make him love it all the more. (You wonder - if he had understood it, would he have liked it less?)

Ironically, however, Larry hints at a possible interpretation of Eurydice that had tugged at my consciousness a bit, too: does Ruhl intend the play as a meditation on daddy-love, and how it can kill actual romantic love? After all, it's Dad who precipitates Eurydice's death in this version (he's completely absent from every other version, and the myth, too), and he does twice mime the action of walking her down the aisle (which Larry perceptively describes as the "death" of their relationship). Plus he dances (he's got rhythm, like Orpheus, while Eurydice doesn't).

But while I'm sympathetic to this as metaphor, I can't pretend it works onstage, as Ruhl doesn't bother to actually develop it as a dramatic conflict (and it never quite coheres into a resonant stage-picture, either). Indeed, I'd have to say that Eurydice would be hugely more interesting if Ruhl had followed up on making dear old Dad more complex, and had treated Eurydice's Electra complex more suggestively. But she doesn't; what Larry is doing is perceptively analyzing the playwright, not her play. And isn't the playwright's job to actually limn his or her own inner life? Still, this could suggest its appeal to some viewers, who may recognize in its author, rather than its text, something like their own unspoken conflicts.

But then there's this whole "I didn't understand it, and I liked it" idea. Needless to say, criticism requires understanding at some level; or at any rate, it requires a response other than simple enthusiasm to the inevitable riposte, "But I didn't understand it, and I didn't like it." And do I dare to point out that I think I did understand Eurydice? I just didn't like it.

"Heart" to heart

I admit I'm fascinated by problems of taste and perception, and what they say about us. We all, of course, shrug off differences in taste as just part of the normal variety of life (which it is) - but that doesn't make them any less of a mystery, now does it. It would be one thing, of course, if taste were entirely random - but individual tastes tend to correspond, either harmonically or inversely, as if there were secret principles operating behind them.

What's really fascinating is the way perceptions of different people tend to be precisely inverted. I'm often struck by the fact that what I perceive as deep certain other people perceive as superficial, and what I perceive as superficial these same other people perceive as deep. The only argument I have for my own point of view, of course, is a purely historical one - what I have perceived as deep has generally turned out to be deep, and even classic. Does that mean, however, that I myself am "deep," or just a superficial person who likes deep material? Could those who worship before the superficial actually be the deep ones?

These thoughts are top-of-mind this morning because I've just read a round-up of the reviews of Light in the Piazza, and have once again been reduced to mute wonderment by the opinions of - wait for it - Louise Kennedy. I regard Louise, as most readers of this blog have probably guessed, as kind of a bane on local theatre, and it's always dismayed me that via her perch at the Globe she holds the most commercial sway over the scene. I will admit, however, that with Jenna Scherer now seemingly ensconced at the Herald, the average IQ of the print reviewers has crept up a notch. Unlike the Weekly Dig- which is essentially a humor magazine - the Herald keeps a tighter rein on Scherer's snarkiness, and this actually throws her brains into higher relief. She's writing for South Boston, yes I know, which throws a political straitjacket over her. But she's still braver (and blunter) than the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay, and so has far more salience as an actual arbiter of the culture (as opposed to a kind of hostess of the culture, which is how Clay sees herself). Not that I always agree with Jenna, mind you - but when I don't, I usually understand why; she has her generation's prejudices, while I have mine, for instance.

Now Jenna, Louise and myself all recommended Piazza (see my review below). But Louise's reasoning reveals a true mystery - as her reasoning often does. Take her review of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice - my friends and I are still chuckling over its pretensions, while Kennedy found in it "Grief. Joy. Energy. Terror. Laughter. Tears. Comprehension. Mystery." How is that possible, I ask myself, particularly since I don't actually doubt that her reaction was honest? I don't believe she's consciously talking down to her audience; but how could such obvious claptrap induce such a breathless response?

Perhaps her review of Piazza offers a few hints. I've long noted that director Scott Edmiston subtly sands down the edges on his material; he adds songs (or little dances) to lighten "downer" endings, and tends to cuten rather tricky relationships within his productions; I heard him once describe his job as "just loving the characters as much as I possibly can." But doesn't he really mean he sees his job as making the characters just as lovable as he possibly can (which is hardly the same thing)?

Needless to say, Edmiston pulls his usual tricks on Light in the Piazza; in one key moment, for instance, where in the original the heroine impulsively grabs the penis on a statue, Edmiston has her grab its buttocks instead - and so turns her action into a funny, rather than disturbing, vignette. He also soft-pedals the moral quandaries of the piece in several ways, and determinedly makes his hero and heroine more closely matched both intellectually and emotionally - I actually applauded these distortions, because the issues raised by the original weren't worked out successfully; but I still recognize that they are, in fact, distortions, aimed at subtly undermining the very premise of the piece.

To Louise, however, these little white lies amount to a revelation. "Amazingly, Scott Edmiston's production finds a subtlety and humanity in Craig Lucas's book that I simply did not see before," she writes. "This 'Light' is not just lovely to listen to and to look at; it's brimming with passion, forgiveness, and love."

Weirdly, she goes further: "What makes the difference? For one thing, Edmiston has downplayed the more caricatured aspects of Lucas's story . . . What's new at SpeakEasy - and it makes all the difference - is that now it touches the heart."

This fascinates me. "The heart." Whenever anyone mentions to me that something has "heart," the piece in question almost inevitably strikes me as synthetic. What does it mean, though, to view the synthetic as genuine - to even thrill to it? I actually mean no insult in saying of Edmiston that I can sense he's a very canny operator - because I sense he knows that, too. In short, it takes a high degree of smarts to insinuate sugar so subtly into a production - the kind of smarts, in fact, that require self-awareness; if you produce a sense of "heart" by clever manipulation, then you know it is not, perforce, actual "heart."

Louise, however, seems to perceive the (admittedly awkward, but still intriguing) difficulties of the original as "caricatured," while opining that the new, smoother version is "brimming with passion, forgiveness, and love." Indeed, the original's (slight) moral complications seem to have confused her (rather like Clara, the heroine of Piazza). This goes to the "heart" of her method, it seems to me - the soothingly calculated she proclaims as "passion," while thornier issues are "caricatured" - they're not as "honest," "real," or "true" - three of her favorite buzzwords. Likewise, she's a bit diffident before true greatness - just read her reviews of Shakespeare - while a sucker for the likes of Sarah Ruhl. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure she really feels that way, deep down inside. But that's what puzzles me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now that's-a Piazza

It's hats-off to Light on the Piazza. (Photos by Mike Lovett.)

Leave it to SpeakEasy Stage to come riding to the rescue. I'd given up hope that the new theatre season would offer any sustained pleasure until the opening bars of The Light in the Piazza on Sunday - and suddenly remembered what it was like to settle in with a classy production that delivers on its promises. It's only been a year since the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas musical blew through town like its heroine's hat, but director Scott Edmiston and his talented cast make a case for this early revival - indeed, at times their chamber staging seemed to shine a better light on Piazza than the slightly overblown New York original.

Although be warned: this is SpeakEasy Stage, and this is Scott Edmiston we're talking about, so you know the show is going to be sugar-coated. I can't think of the last raw or disturbing piece I've seen from this company (they even put a little lipstick on Fat Pig), and Mr. Edmiston in particular is a kind of theatrical Midas, although everything he touches turns to glucose before it turns to gold. Still, he spins the sticky stuff with wit and speed, and the critics (and the audiences) always gobble it up, so I can't really blame him; by now I'm willing to settle for brains rather than integrity.

And with Piazza, Edmiston's commercial instincts may be right on the money: the musical doesn't really know what to do with the moral questions it raises, anyhow. Indeed, Craig Lucas's book spends half its time setting up ethical dilemmas, and the other half backing away from them. The plot, derived from Elizabeth Spencer's novel (which became a movie with Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux) concerns a mother and daughter touring Florence who encounter - like so many American women touring Italy in the 50's! - amore, in the person of hunky Fabrizio, who falls headfirst for daughter Clara when her straw hat lands at his feet. Only it turns out Clara is a "special" child - a tragic kick from a pony left her (somehow) unable to develop emotionally beyond age 11. This, of course, is the kind of "specialness" that would generally put the kibosh on sex (at least in the theatre), that is if Clara weren't also blonde and gorgeous, and if there weren't a language gap to help disguise her impetuousness. So poor mother Meg is left in a quandary - should she reveal Clara's challenges to her suitor, who clearly has marriage on his mind?

In other words, should immaturity prevent you from having sex? You can see immediately why The Light in the Piazza is such a tasty chunk of gay catnip - thousands of show queens across the country have answered, "No, no, a thousand times no!" Sometimes I wish I could count myself among them - only to me it's rather obvious that Meg should spill the beans, and apparently Craig Lucas couldn't really think of a good reason why she shouldn't, either, so the second half of the show is a series of dodged climaxes, combined with a left turn into Meg's own romantic history: it turns out she never really loved her absent husband. What this has to do with her current moral dilemma is left unexplained, but we begin to sense we're supposed to applaud her as she decides to use her daughter as a romantic proxy. Okay, whatever. It's kind of fun to see the crafty Europeans being duped by the Americans for a change, and look at all the pretty costumes!

Or at least that seems to have been director Edmiston's approach. He seems all too aware of the contradictions in the material, because he tones down Clara's deficits (the original Clara's outbursts were a good deal more disturbing), and lightens up Meg's pain. And to push everything even closer to pure romance, he's cast a Fabrizio who sings like a dream, but whose puppyish good looks are free of any possible predatory intent - unlike the seductive hunk of the national tour. (Plus he doesn't seem too much brighter than Clara.) So when the couple finally walk down the aisle, it's hard to pretend their happily-ever-after is shadowed by any ethical quandaries or cut corners. But then the original didn't really pull off this mottled moral atmosphere either, so cue the soaring strings: The End.

And at any rate, the SpeakEasy production is a triumph of style over substance. The cast is largely new to Boston - most of our "old guard" is currently in Follies, over at the Lyric - and glitters with several potential new stars. Indeed, there's really not a weak performance to be found here. In keeping with Edmiston's direction, Amelia Broome (at left) perhaps doesn't quite limn Meg's conflicted depths as Victoria Clark famously did on Broadway - but she's a more convincing Southern belle, and once she gets on her steel-magnolia mojo, she's also a more convincing operator. Similarly, the lovely Erica Spyres stays on the lighter side of Clara's darkness, but she sings like an angel, and then unexpectedly delivers a genuinely tormented scene near the finish (where Clara struggles to explain that "there's something wrong" with her, even though she can't understand what it is). Newcomer John Bambery (below right, with Spyres) makes an appealing, if perhaps too innocent, Fabrizio (and made the most of his soaring solos), and there were also striking turns by Alison Eckert, Craig Mathers, Joel Colodner, and (especially) Carolynne Warren, who brought the house down during the all-Italian "Aiutami" - yes, much of the show is sung in Italian, with no surtitles (the admirable dialect coaching was by Christine Hamel).

Perhaps you don't need to understand the lyrics, however, because Adam Guettel's music is so ravishing - although to me it's slightly overrated. Guettel does provide a lyrical, light-yet-rich score that's slightly self-conscious in the Sondheim manner (although it doesn't, as some have claimed, much recall the work of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers). The music is studded not so much with lovely melodies as beautiful phrases linked by lotsa arpeggios, but its rapture gets a bit repetitive over the course of the evening: whatever may be happening on stage, the score sounds roughly the same. Still, it's beautifully handled by Music Director José Delgado and his six-piece band (who are partially visible behind the scenes, as that's all the rage now).

Meanwhile set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers has provided what amounts to one of Clara's sketches of Florence, rather than the fully-realized forum Michael Yeargan designed for Broadway, but it's quite evocative, and affords Edmiston several clever staging ideas (although there seems to be a little acoustic pocket over on stage right). Meanwhile the reliable Karen Perlow has provided suitably fluid, romantic lighting - and then there are the costumes. Designer Charles Schoonmaker has gone to town (and back), providing one ravishing period gown after another - sometimes it seems these ladies change between every scene, but we don't care, the results are so consistently smashing (and so perfectly tailored to the palette of the set and lighting). It's hard for me to recall a better-looking show on a Boston stage. There's deeper content to be found over at Follies, but when it comes to sheer stagecraft, nothing in town sparkles like The Light in the Piazza.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Broken Ruhl

Eurydice (Zillah Glory) goes to hell, and you're right there with her.

There are two Sarahs stalking the American landscape right now, Sarah Palin and Sarah Ruhl, who both elicit roughly the same reaction from me: how can this be happening??? Both are incompetent impostors, playing to coteries of girl-crazy partisans (Ruhl has been short-listed for the Pulitzer, and won a MacArthur grant). But since Ruhl is a playwright, not a politician, and currently enjoying a production of her latest effort, Eurydice, at the New Rep, she falls more easily within the purview of this blog.

First, however, a note of contrition: today I have to eat my words. Yes, I'm going to say what everyone is always hectoring me to say: I admit I was wrong. I confidently predicted that How Shakespeare Won the West would prove the season's biggest "disaster," only to see Eurydice immediately push it right out of contention, and indeed perhaps re-define how bad a play can be and still garner a major production in Boston. I'm sorry, Peter DuBois! There really are worse plays out there!

But my embarrassment should be nothing compared to that of other critics. Here's the Globe's Louise Kennedy, a long-time Ruhl fanatic, on the show:

"I need a new language to talk about Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" . . .Ruhl's reimagining of the Orpheus myth evokes so many emotions and thoughts at once that I find myself groping for words that don't sound like hollow cliches next to its complexity and depth . . . Grief. Joy. Energy. Terror. Laughter. Tears. Comprehension. Mystery. Yes, yes, Ruhl's story . . has all that. But there's also something . . . something . . . well, there isn't a word for how it feels to feel all of these things at once. Not in the language of the living, at least."

I'm cringing as I re-read that, because it seems to me that to love Sarah Ruhl's work amounts to a self-declaration of superficiality. I can only agree with Kennedy on one point: this play made me feel that I had left the land of the living. Watching it was like being in Hell, in fact, where someday no doubt I will have to endure forever the meandering jottings of some undertalented undergraduate's journal. Because Eurydice plays like a mix of the deep thoughts that might have occurred to Ruhl when her father died, or when she (perhaps coincidentally) broke up with some dude who played guitar. Apparently somehow she then came to believe these ruminations could serve as a "re-imagining of the Orpheus myth."

If only. Those outside the Ruhl echo chamber might note there's no dead daddy in the original myth (hence the character is simply known as "Father" - what, not "Dadditreus"?). But he's the focus here (even unknowingly precipitating his daughter's death), while Orpheus is almost a footnote; indeed, Eurydice doesn't "get" her husband, as she can't handle the simplest rhythms or even carry a tune (that represents a weird subconscious admission from Ruhl, IMHO, but never mind). With Orpheus on the sidelines, we can of course forget about the struggle between death and passion the myth gives voice to, and instead concern ourselves with the poignant mini-myth of remembrance that Ruhl constructs around "Father," who's all about caring for and comforting Eurydice, and even builds her a little house of string to live in.

You can probably tell from this that he's more Hallmark card than character; still, to be fair, there's a sad sweetness to a few of his exchanges with Eurydice, and the theme of memory loss, symbolized by the river Lethe, and water in general (Eurydice leaves Orpheus at their wedding to get a drink), is definitely a poignant one. Ruhl also conjures a few striking visual gambits in her meandering magic realism; it's raining in the elevator to Hell, and that house of string, though it takes awhile to build, does have some resonance as a metaphor for the evanescence of memory. There's probably enough material here for a winsome one-act.

But the play is clogged with so much Z-grade filler that it makes you want to scream, and it's pretentious as, well, Hell. Ruhl's The Clean House, which was a hit at the New Rep last year, may have been utterly derivative but was at least beautifully crafted. Here one senses Ruhl relying on her own, rather than received, resources, and suddenly you understand why she borrowed so much before - meanwhile, any commitment to craftsmanship has all but been tossed out the window. It's as if having received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, she decided that anything she came up with must, perforce, be genius. So her Eurydice is prone to pseudo-poetic non sequiturs (at one moment she babbles about a "philosophy of hats"), there's a good chunk of stage time devoted to a trio of talking stones who exude "attitude," and Orpheus just generally sounds stoned, too. Plus the whole piece feels knee-deep in disguised narcissism.

It would be nice to believe that the play somehow has tapped into wells of grief in its fans (Charles Isherwood of the Times also gave it an inexplicable rave). The problem with this idea is that I lost my parents over the past few years (one to Alzheimer's, so I know from memory loss), and the friend I brought to the show had also lost his. Yet I found myself staring into space, counting the lighting instruments during much of the show, while he fought back the giggles. In fact, when I think of all the tears I shed for my brilliant mother and gallant father, I find myself all the angrier at the silly little poseur who wrote Eurydice. But then, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, it takes a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. Real grief easily recognizes the kind of tender self-regard evidenced in Ruhl for what it is - an awareness seemingly rampant in the audience I saw it with, many of them elderly, most no doubt with grown children. You could see Indiglo watch faces flickering like blue fireflies during the show, and there was a good deal of yawning throughout. But my bored tolerance gave way to anger when Ruhl began quoting my favorite speech in Lear ("We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage . ."), not merely because the playwright was trying to puff herself up as the equal of Shakespeare, but because that perforce required dragging the Bard down to her own childish level.

As for the production itself - well, I'm not sure how better to apply lipstick to this particular pig. Director Rick Lombardo clearly senses the script's weakness, as he has cast three little girls to play those wise-cracking stones and distract us with their cuteness (oh, snap!). But he's also encouraged the talented Zillah Glory to overplay Eurydice (she's always gushing, and often even up on her tippy-toes) and he doesn't get much out of Brian Bielawski as Orpheus (but then what is there to get in the role as written?). The reliable Ken Baltin does much better by cagily underplaying "Father" (indeed, his final dip in the River Lethe almost made me forgive the playwright). The design is strong, but not outstanding; Janie E. Howland imagines Hell as a kind of blue martini, with glowing olives on giant swizzle sticks, which are lit evocatively by Deb Sullivan; Frances Nelson McSherry's costumes are even better, with a scarlet wedding gown for Eurydice (it's exactly the color of Orpheus's guitar), a little Jackie Kennedy ensemble for her arrival in Hell, and some fairly amusing punkette duds for those not-rolling Stones.

Still, it would take truly brilliant design to float this stinker. Something tells me that, MacArthur or no, Eurydice may mark the beginning of the end of the hype of Sarah Ruhl. Her rise seems to have been fueled by a certain kind of feminist politics, which is always looking to crown a new Sylvia Plath, as well as long-term trends in the academic theatre (Ruhl essentially puts right in the text the kind of surreal "poetry" that directors such as Robert Wilson used to 'violate' traditional dramas with). But can provocation survive being so boring? The crowd at the New Rep left the theatre talking openly of how mystifyingly dull the show had been. Luckily, when the critics lose their way, there's still word-of-mouth.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What should an academic theatre be? Part III

The Huntington at high tide: She Loves Me.

The fall theatre season has opened with one stumble after another - none more spectacular, however, than the Huntington's How Shakespeare Won the West. Explaining that particular disaster could take a while - so the time seems ripe to continue the series I began this summer on the proper role of the academic theatre - with a look, of course, at Boston's avatar of the "traditional" stage.

But first, a recap. The series was sparked by my realization that the American Repertory Theatre's incoming Artistic Director had virtually no classical theatre on her résumé, and that this had gone almost unmentioned in the press - even though it was rather odd, to say the least, for an academic institution to be led by a person whose major experience lay in re-styling Shakespeare and Mozart into pop (her greatest success was actually this summer's hot-ticket production of Hair in New York). Hub Review fans (and enemies) probably remember the following skeptical consideration of the M.O. of the ART, in which I pondered the curious circumstances of its founding (Harvard scooped it up wholesale from Yale, with little thought to its mission, but no doubt maximum awareness of its prestige, given Harvard's lack of a genuine theatre school).

I also tried to encapsulate the theatre's goal - which I've never heard any other local critic attempt to do - which I roughly described as a kind of reformist intervention in the theatre, along a modernist (then post-modernist) axis, with a repetitive emphasis on our awareness of performance as performance. "Revolution" was what the ART had in mind - a revolution that was supposed to be sourced not in the text but in its production, which, following a formula derived from Brecht and Artaud, would simultaneously keep sentimental identification with the theatrical effects at bay, while at the same time unleashing some kind of illuminating, quasi-sexual ecstasy in the viewer. That detachment and ecstasy were mutually exclusive didn't seem to bother anybody, because of course the theories animating the performances were never given coherent shape (and were made even fuzzier by post-colonial and post-racial political pressures, a loose promotion of all things Asian, and a heavy dose of surrealist bombast).

My sense of the ART's trajectory is more fully developed in that earlier post; what I want to consider here is how the Huntington Theatre evolved as its doppelgänger. It appeared on the scene only a year or two after the ART, under the direction of Peter Altman, and attached to a sponsor, Boston University, which actually had a School of the Arts. The challenge was rather obvious (although as usual, the press spoke not a word about it), but wasn't confined to academic one-upsmanship; there was also an intellectual component to the rivalry. The ART could easily be seen as a gaggle of academic dilettantes fucking with the classics along trendy theoretical lines, with little actual support from its university or the community; the Huntington, however, could draw from, and rely on, its university's commitment to the development of professional theatre. The implicit goal of the Huntington was not to revolutionize the theatre, but to preserve "the best" of it, in a setting that would be run by teaching professionals, not critics and theorists.

At first there seemed little contest, however, who had the upper hand onstage; I can barely remember any details from the productions of the Huntington's opening seasons (aside from their sets), while the ART scored several successes in a row (which it proceeded to milk for decades to come). Altman's vision did, indeed, seem to mean producing handsome, but unimaginative productions of plays which always honored the text, but seemed trapped in our received assumptions of what said text meant and how it operated (Time and the Conways? Design for Living? Did I even see those?). The spectacular sets (one of the best, at left) became a kind of metaphor for the theatre itself - tastefully impressive, but enclosed and over-determined (while the ART went "exploring" in the open air of the cavernous Loeb stage).

But a funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence. The Huntington began to tap into a real-world politics that eluded the ART in its ivory tower, with productions of Wendy Wasserstein and a long-term commitment to August Wilson. That genuine (if light) political content should be found in tired old naturalistic modes rather than post-surrealist extravaganzas seemed to discombulate the ART and its founder (Brustein eventually got into a ludicrous dust-up with Wilson, but that's another story). At the same time, the Reagan administration yanked much of the funding for the "radical" theatrical circle jerk, and the ART found itself pressed by monetary concerns into what Brustein sniffed was a "safer" path. Fewer white girls were smearing themselves with chocolate on its stage, and more conventional productions, with actual plots and characters, became more frequent.

And there, of course, the Huntington began to slowly gain an edge. The ART had already suffered such indignities as having Samuel Beckett himself try to shut down its ditzy update of Endgame; but stripped of their head-scratcher trappings, more and more of its productions began to look slightly vulgar or even incompetent, and it simply didn't have the actors to cover the range of roles in a classical piece (tellingly, there have often been great individual performances at the Huntington, while there have been very few at the ART). Meanwhile the Huntington's handsomeness began to betray an inner intellectual structure (particularly in the work of Sharon Ott and Jacques Cartier), and the theatre also began to mount spry productions of musicals (a genre which the deeply morbid ART couldn't even comprehend) via director Larry Carpenter, and could even boast the occasional classical triumph (Games of Love and Chance, directed by Stephen Wadsworth).

But it was a changing of the administrative guard, and the arrival of Nicholas Martin as Artistic Director in 2001, that suddenly turned the situation upside-down. Martin was a conventional theatrical spirit, but an undeniably brilliant director - and he arrived with an artistic associate to handle many of the administrative duties previously managed by Mr. Altman. Suddenly it seemed that perhaps the Huntington's "lack of vision" hadn't really been about any kind of intellectual gap in traditional theatre, but had simply been due to the administrative propensities of its management. Martin, both a New Yorker and a networker, began to call in his connections, and soon the Huntington was working uptown the same way the ART had worked downtown - and was hosting crackling productions (most by Martin) like Hedda Gabler, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, The Rivals, Love's Labour's Lost, and Present Laughter.

At the same time Martin's Huntington began to engage with its home city in a way that the ART had never done (and indeed had never thought to do). He began to hire local actors, and the company's participation in the expansion of the Boston Center for the Arts was probably instrumental in the opening of two new theatres there - a huge boon to both the South End, which became the "new Theatre District," and the city's smaller theatre companies. (What it did for the Huntington itself - which hasn't really been able to figure out what to do with its gorgeous new theatre, the Wimberley - is less clear.) The company also began to invest directly in playwrights by sponsoring fellowships and producing staged readings - and even took the landmark step of producing a locally-developed play on its new Wimberley Stage (Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew - above left - which has gone on to several other regional productions).

But there were still a few flies in the ointment of all this success. Note that the roster of stand-out productions above includes not a single new play - and indeed, despite the fact that Martin had re-oriented his theatre from the classic and toward the contemporary, the Huntington seemed unable to strike artistic gold there. It was hard not to feel this might be partly due to Martin's own networking - just as the ART had been stifled by its own boho clique, so the "development mill" that the Huntington had become a part of was simply ignoring great new work done by already-established playwrights. Somehow the Huntington passed on challenging new pieces by Albee, Kushner, and Churchill, even though these might have been ideal for its smaller space, and instead concentrated on plays by lesser writers either with hometown connections, or connections in New York (or on TV). Being an avatar of "professional" rather than "theoretical" theatre had its advantages, true, but it turned out to have its disadvantages, too, at least as far as the supposed "academic" component of its mission was concerned: indeed, at the Huntington, the ambitions of the academy seemed to have shrunk to those of the Public Theatre (or HBO). Ironically, the Huntington had now made its case for "traditional," classical theatre, many times over - indeed, only one of the ART's recent productions, Britannicus, could match the Huntington's best. But its idea of "new" theatre, and its programming of its new spaces (which it began to fill with turns from minor celebrity acts rather than actual new plays) was consistently disappointing - and indeed, Boston's smaller companies quickly began to take up the slack.

Now, of course, Martin has moved on, and Peter DuBois (left), late of the Public Theatre, has taken his place. But one senses the general problem of the theatre's mission may actually only have been exacerbated - at least based on How Shakespeare Won the West, a derivative pastiche pasted together by theatrical insider Richard Nelson, and a promised season heavy on playwrights with connections either locally (Richard Goodwin) or in New York (David Grimm, José Rivera). True, there's one major play by a living playwright in the Huntington's line-up - Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll - but this, too, was already tested in New York, and it has a built-in middlebrow hook in its sentimental take on pop music. One wonders if a hostility to the centrality of the theatrical text may in a way have taken root at the Huntington as well as at the ART - that both theatres have essentially abandoned the traditional commitment to plays in favor of a producer-mediated mode that the academy, one muses, should be the first to resist. It's also a little weird, frankly, that both should have begun leaning on rock music to attract audiences; are the traditionalists and the revolutionaries ending up in roughly the same pop-culture spot? More on that and other concerns in the final installment (I promise) of this series, in which I try to draw some lessons on what suits an academic theatre best from the strange, eventful histories of these two local examples.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Art Shark floods the market

How much would you pay for the corpse of Damien Hirst in formaldehyde?

In case you haven't heard, Damien Hirst, Britain's "most successful" contemporary artist, just staged a staggering successful auction at Sotheby's of his latest work - although it turned out the pieces were actually almost all knock-offs (above) of earlier work (like Jeff Koons, Hirst now supervises several facilities which generate his spot paintings, and spin paintings, and routinely plunk various dead animals in formaldehyde). It wasn't the art that was new - it was the fact that Hirst was circumventing the "art world" and selling his commodities (yes, that's what they are) directly to the public - the obscenely rich public, that is. There was some question as to whether or not the strategy would work - after all, Hirst was essentially flooding a market which dealers have always carefully controlled in order to fluff up prices. The principles of classical economics would lead one to believe that a surfeit of dead sharks (which are hardly distinguishable from each other) would lead to a decline in the price of each. But clearly at least this first gambit was wildly successful (to the tune of $200 M) - the recent boom in museum building has created a whole lotta real estate out there that has to be filled with something (one of these may well turn up at the MFA!). And of course despite its ridiculous price tag, a Hirst still looks cheap next to a decent Old Master. How long this particular party can keep going, however - particularly as the global financial market melts down - is an open question.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Repression never goes out of style . . .

Pope Benedict with his boy toy (both of them).

In her pan of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, critically-challenged Boston Herald fossil Terry Byrne remarked, "Despite the parallels with current economic woes, Fo's heavy-handed rhetoric feels dated. The production plays like a museum piece rather than a vibrant drama." Well, it turns out not everything about it belongs in a museum - particularly not its attacks on the Pope. It seems an Italian comedienne is just now facing charges for saying that the Pope will, in twenty years, "be where he ought to be, in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils — and very active ones, not passive ones.” (The Pope is widely rumored in Italy to be gay.) Details here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Westward, no!

Honey, do you think there's a real play out there? Susannah Schulman ponders How Shakespeare Won the West.

Now I'm not going to say "I told you so." I'm just going to say "ITYS." (That's a cool bit of text for all you non-celltards.) NOT saying ITYS, however, just might kill me after seeing How Shakespeare Won the West, the latest superbly pointless "new play" produced by the Huntington. I suppose I should be purring with schadenfreude - after all, I've been saying for weeks (no, months) that the Huntington should be doing actual new plays by actual talented playwrights rather than only those with connections in the development mill - and here, for his debut production, incoming Artistic Director Peter DuBois offers a show even more derivative than Mauritius, Theresa Rebeck's rewrite of Mamet (and predictably, Louise Kennedy loves this one, too).

Still, I'm hardly happy - I'm just slightly dazed, with a slowly fading "Uh - what just happened?" look on my face. On second thought, I know what just happened - I've seen it before! This time it's Nicholas Nickleby that's being recycled as a "new" play (playwright Richard Nelson hails from the RSC, which produced Nickleby, and director Jonathan Moscone even helmed a production of it in California). The only problem is that Moscone ain't Trevor Nunn, and Nelson sure as hell ain't Charles Dickens.

But never mind that; this former teacher of playwriting (at Yale, no less) still borrows most of the narrative techniques of that great production, and even rips off its famous first-act climax. Once again, the company offers a lot of choral exposition, as if there were yards of Dickensian prose to get through (which there's not), before getting to one classic melodramatic scene after another (which there's not). What's scary is that Nelson and Moscone (and the talented cast) get their pasted-together theatrical creature to walk, some of the time. "Development" can't provide inspiration, or meaning (or even a theme, apparently), but given a few quirky factoids, a playwright can crank out scenes, the developers can cry "There's a play in them thar hills!" and then everybody else can diligently fill in two hours with cute stage business like - well, nobody's business.

For the record, the pretext of How Shakespeare is the amusing ubiquity of Shakespeare during the Gold Rush years. Yes, child stars played Richard III in the nineteenth century, and that too-gay Lincoln had a woody for the Bard, and the father of his assassin, Edwin Booth, toured California performing Shakespearean tragedy (that's the happy family in Julius Caesar - Johnny's at left, as Marc Antony, not Brutus). Maybe there is a play in them thar hills, but if so, it would be a lot darker and murderous than How Shakespeare (After all, surely the most important intersection between Shakespearean actors and America occurred in the Ford Theatre!)

But whenever any tragic clouds lour at the Huntington, glorious summer is only a line or two away (by the bizarrely meta finale, the dead have even risen - and given birth!). Nelson's innocents abroad (yes, Mark Twain - or at least Huckleberry Finn - is also banging around in the mix) are a gaggle of wannabe Shakespeareans who, hearing that the West is hungry for tragedy, head for the frontier, where they find quite a bit of it themselves - which of course these happy few triumph over, as this is Amurrica. You sense - or rather you want to feel - that the playwright intends all this as an ironic gloss on our national optimism, not to mention our myth of manifest destiny (after all, Shakespeare coincided with a brutally expansive moment in British history, too). There are even a few scenes (such as an attack on Native Americans who, like everybody else, know true greatness when they see it and have a jones for Lear) when Shakespeare gives off hints of thematic, and even formal, ambition. But then the Huntington starts selling it, babe, and we're back in a warm bath of middlebrow swill, where we can glory in Shakespeare without having to actually sit through him.

It's not, of course, the actors' fault they're stuck in what was supposed to be the dawn of a new era at the Huntington (but instead represents continued pandering to its base). Still, it's almost hard not to resent their very facility as the show goes on, and on, and they hit their beats and get their laughs and in general keep the false bloom on this phony rose. (You can't imagine how good they'd be in a real play!) For the record, local heroes Will Lebow and Jeremiah Kissel demonstrate once again why they're local heroes (Kissel in particular slices the ham with consummate skill in a rogue's gallery of supporting roles). There's also strong work from Mary Beth Fisher, Kelly Hutchinson, and Susannah Schulman - although there's not really a single gap in this winning ensemble. What they're winning with How Shakespeare Won the West, however, remains a mystery.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Spiro's folly

Stephen Sondheim's Follies is something like the El Dorado (or maybe the great white whale) of his career - the single production so ambitious and demanding that it can never be reproduced. The original was inspired by a photo of Gloria Swanson mourning the Roxy Theatre (above), and was staged almost as extravagantly as its namesake, the Ziegfield Follies, with six-foot showgirls stalking the shadows of the Winter Garden Theatre. But it was also one of the first "concept" musicals, dragging an unwilling audience away from Hello, Dolly! and toward Hello, Albee! Perhaps that intellectual edge - plus a middling review from Clive Barnes in the Times - did in the show, or perhaps it was simply the gamble on the physical production; whatever the reason, despite a brace of Tonys, Follies closed after little more than a year, and lost money.

But since that premature closing its legend has only grown. Concert versions (and Barbara Cook) kept reminding us that this was one of Sondheim's greatest scores (with not only "Losing My Mind," his most haunting torch number, but also "Beautiful Girls," "Broadway Baby," "I'm Still Here," and more). But its musical legend almost begged the question: did the show itself - with its then-avant conceptualism, and interpolation of past and present - match Sondheim's ambitious mix of satiric pastiche and affectionate rue?

Well, we still don't know the answer to that question, even though the Lyric Stage, under Spiro Veloudos's direction, has just mounted a full production. Or perhaps "attempted" might be the better word. The Lyric has pulled off pocket miracles before (with Urinetown and 1776), but this may have led the little theatre that could to bite off and chew more than it can; plenty of shows can be boiled down to their essence, but the "essence" of Follies is its wrecked grandeur, and our relationship to that romantic ravishment. Without said ravishment, Follies looks like folly itself. It's not just that the Lyric is cramped (so the show's two time frames all but elbow each other for space), it's that what resources the theatre has have this time been squandered: Rafael Jaen's costumes may inspire their own legend as the least flattering wardrobe ever seen on a local stage, Janie E. Howland's set is drab rather than decayed, and Scott Clyve's lighting, overwhelmed by too many effects in too small a space, just looks muddy. And director Veloudos has cut too many corners to cover the cast of seeming thousands (the younger and older versions of several characters, for instance, vary in height by several inches). Let's face it, "the magic of theatre" can only stretch so far - if we're constantly bumping our heads on one technical glitch after another, we can never really lose ourselves in the show.

Indeed, I'd argue the production probably distorts the intended impact of Follies - in this stripped-down version, James Goldman's choppy, Albee-lite book is thrown into higher relief than it should be. The book does crackle with bitterly witty lines, but with the showstoppers it's supposed to frame gone missing (above), we're too aware of its gaps, repetitions, and odd vagaries. (What exactly does the high-flying Ben do for a living?) And a certain note of artifical hysteria in the lead performance - which seems gauged to a larger house - doesn't help matters.

The plot famously follows two former chorines, who "married wrong" years ago - and who now, crossing paths at a celebration of "The Weissman Follies" in a theatre set for demolition, have ample chance to ponder a few follies of their own. Soon they're being dogged not just by their regrets but by the ghosts of their former selves, and you don't have to be Frank Rich to figure that the theatre isn't the only thing ripe for demolition - although if you guessed that the characters' marriages are in Sondheim's sights, you'd have guessed wrong.

No, the Master uses the musical form itself for target practice - that is, when he's not conjuring its lost seductions. "Beautiful Girls" beautifully recalls Irving Berlin, "Losing My Mind" channels Jerome Kern, and there are nods toward the Gershwins, Porter, and most of the other greats of Broadway's Golden Era. Luckily, the Lyric's Follies comes through on the score of the score. Although there are a few balance problems when the brass come in, this is, I have to say, still a solid concert version of the show (Veloudos helmed an earlier one in 2003, with much the same cast). Even among the leads, the acting is a little variable - Leigh Barrett struggles quietly to play dumb, and Maryann Zschau comes on like a cobra and stays coiled throughout. But both nail their respective numbers ("Losing My Mind," I confess, always makes me lose mine, and even though it seems set low this time around, Barrett is as affecting as you'd expect). Plus there are saucy, broad turns from three other beloved local broads, Kathy St. George, Kerry A. Dowling, and Bobbie Steinbach. But only the reliable Peter A. Carey pulls together a great musical and acting performance (he can actually dance, too).

And truth be told, I'm not sure Spiro Veloudos is the ideal director for Follies, even given the means; mournful atmosphere is hardly his forte. Still, I can recognize a labor of love when I see one; it's just too bad that this time love doesn't see him through. Follies aficionados may still be satisfied, however, simply to hear Boston's showgirls tear through this terrific score one more time.

That 70s show

Imagine The Honeymooners crossed with Das Kapital - with running crossfire from the Vatican and Dr. Ruth - and you've roughly got the vibe of We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!(at left), the 1972 Dario Fo farce being revived by the Nora Theatre at their spanking-new Central Square digs. It's easy to see why the Nora feels it's time to revisit Fo's second-best-known play (after Accidental Death of an Anarchist): prices are spiralling upward, the financial system is edging toward collapse, and there's a palpable sense that the country is "on the wrong track." As someone once said, history may not repeat itself, but it does like to rhyme - and something of the dark, anarchistic edge of the 70's has begun to creep into the popular mood.

Still, before we get that party started, it has to be admitted that any production of We Won't Pay! faces several dilemmas. The first is that the play is essentially a premise designed to frame Fo's riffs on capitalism and sex; those who grumbled at his Nobel had a point, I'm afraid: as "literature" per se, with all the sense of structure and development that term entails, his plays barely exist. What's more, the show is also tailored to the stage chemistry of Fo and his talented wife, Franca Rame, its original performers, and their political bickering is very much of its time and place (as the work of any commedia artist should be) - that is, early-70s-Italy, with its hothouse atmosphere of strikes and hyperinflation, not to mention sexist passion curbed by Catholic repression. And it's hard to see exactly how to update these tropes; the left has never offered a convincing response to globalization's attack on the "working class," and these days sexual repression is better handled by the Protestants than the Pope. The result is that We Won't Pay! feels less like a call to arms than a touching piece of nostalgia: watching it, we're moved to recall the good old days when there was actually an operative critique of the ravages of the Christian Right.

That the Nora partially succeeds against these long odds is a largely a tribute to its hard-working cast. They may not have Fo in the lead role, but they've got Scott H. Severance, and that's almost as good; Severance has that rare combination of broad affect and physical precision that catapulted Jackie Gleason to stardom, and he almost makes you forget that much of this schtick is fairly forced, and there's not always enough plot to get us from Political Point A to Point B. He's nearly matched by Stephanie Clayman, channeling Anna Magnani as his long-suffering wife, who sets her own "prices" at the grocery store, and then spends the rest of the play trying to dispose of the stolen goods (usually stuffing them up her dress in one "pregnancy" after another; hilarity does not always ensue). Clayman gets able, ditzy back-up from Elise Audrey Manning (whose wispy hymn to "Saint Eulalia" is a highlight); Severance isn't as lucky with his cohort in crime, Robert Najarian, who has a pleasant presence, but never seems to figure out how to peel the role of this second banana. There's an even bigger gap in the energy of Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who never gives his various policemen enough attack (he's at his best in the contrasting role of an amusingly languid undertaker).

The new(ish) translation, by Fo specialist Ron Jenkins, is solid till the finish, when it puts one foot wrong by dragging in the L.A. riots (race doesn't really factor in the play). Meanwhile director Daniel Gidron keeps things moving, but doesn't always articulate his stage business to the farcical pitch required. And the physical production does not impress - the costumer (perhaps sensing those dilemmas I cited above) splits the difference between the contemporary North End (the leads) and something nearly Napoleonic (the police); and alas, the set just seems underdeveloped, and underdressed.

Still, there is that ominous sense of history's rhyme running under the production . . . If only we had our own Dario Fo, to respond to our current mix of war, sexual hypocrisy, fiscal irresponsibility, and rising prices! Now that's something I think we'd all pay for.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Richard Monette, 1944-2008

Word reaches us that Richard Monette, the longest-serving Artistic Director in the Stratford Festival's history (he only gave up the artistic directorship last year), died this week, of a pulmonary embolism. It would be hard to over-estimate his importance to the Festival, and therefore to classical theatre in America. Monette turned Stratford around financially, and his own productions (beginning with a tremendously successful debut production of Taming of the Shrew, which I caught in 1988) were always lively and intelligent (and it's worth noting that over the course of his career he actually directed the entire Shakespearean canon). The muttered criticisms of Monette - that he was almost too ready to cave to financial pressures, and that his directing tended to go for the easy laugh - were, yes, true, but it was hard to shake a growing affection for him for all that. A successful actor before he was a director (at left, he's with Martha Henry in a 1977 production of All's Well), Monette was responsible for attracting, and holding onto, a new generation of Canadian talent at the Festival, which during his tenured offered landmark productions of Waiting for Godot, Long Day's Journey Into Night, South Pacific, Into the Woods, Orpheus Descending, King John, Pericles, King Lear, Present Laughter, Private Lives, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Medea, and many others. All that - plus he was in the original cast of Oh! Calcutta! (how many Artistic Directors can claim that?). We can take comfort in the fact that Mr. Monette lived a full life, even if it ended far too soon.

Les Misbarack

This is cute. The only problem is that in Les Miz, the guys on the barricades lose.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's time to move on

Past time, actually. Seven years have passed since that fateful day in 2001 - almost twice the length of World War II, or nearly the time from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the campaign for Nixon's second term. A long, long time in political terms, at least as American life was once lived.

And yet we can't move on. For some of us, yes, the tragedy has begun to fade, or at least take its place in an appropriate timeline. Other Americans, however, keep licking the wound - indeed opening it afresh every year. Of course the Bush administration has had a hand in this, letting Osama bin Laden slip through its fingers again and again, the better to maintain its fear-driven mandate. Indeed, it's telling that suddenly the administration has begun skirmishing in Pakistan - finally, they're desperate to apprehend bin Laden, for the greatest October surprise ever.

But in the larger sense, bin Laden's capture hardly matters. In the larger sense, he won anyway, simply by enabling the most incompetent and reckless American president in history to send our country down the path of decline - perhaps unstoppable decline. He won by warping our national culture, by undermining and perhaps destroying our Constitution, by wrecking our standing in the world. His capture and execution will do nothing to reverse any of these horrific trends.

Perhaps the best way then, to mark another anniversary of September 11th is to ask oneself - how have I trancended the disaster? How have I begun to understand it accurately - that is, not as a cosmic clash between good and evil, but as a horrifying attack by a small band of terrorists with specific political aims? How have I begun to respond to those facts? How have I begun to resist those who trade on the horrors of that day for their own gain? How have I begun to restore America to what it should be, and not merely what it was? And most of all, how have I finally begun to forget, not the dead, no, but instead my own fear, my hatred, my wounded self-righteousness, my willingness to be duped? How have I begun to heal myself and my country?

The axe falls at the Davis

Nine months after misplacing a painting by Fernand Léger, one of Wellesley's most precious art objects, the Davis Museum finally responds to a public outcry and lets Director David Mickenberg go to "pursue other opportunities." Geoff Edgers (who for some reason has decided that the multi-faceted Léger was "a French cubist") has the story here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What I saw in New York

Patti Lupone takes her turn at "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy.

What's a weekend in New York without a few shows? I'm embarrassed to say, however, that this time I didn't seek out anything edgy - no, I went straight for the gay comfort food: the revival of Gypsy with Patti Lupone, and the debut of Harry Potter's magic wand in the revival of Equus.

Both shows only reminded me how misguided Broadway worship truly is -
because neither production, frankly, measured up to the best I saw in Boston last spring (or this summer at Stratford and Williamstown). There are plenty of reasons why this should be so, despite the fact that New York has the largest, deepest pool of theatrical talent (and, of course, money) in the country: shows tend to grow stale during their long Broadway runs, or end up openly catering to the tourist crowd, or are simply under-rehearsed or uninspired, just like everywhere else.

Gypsy, for instance, has probably declined somewhat over the course of its run: it's certainly still a strong production, but it's hard to understand the raves plastered across its marquee. Patti Lupone seemed a bit weary at the performance I caught, and only really let rip at the finale, "Rose's Turn," (which she did invest with both psychological and vocal power). And her Tony-winning co-stars, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, were likewise solid, but ever-so-slightly miscast: Gaines was a shade too elegant (and intelligent) to believably cast his lost with Mama Rose, and Benanti was too cool and calculating as young Louise to ever pull off a tearjerker like "Little Lamb" (especially against a stuffed lamb). Other roles (such as Tulsa) also lacked punch (indeed, up at Stoneham last fall, Louise and Tulsa were far stronger than their Broadway counterparts), and the reconstruction of Jerome Robbins's choreography only revealed that sometimes Robbins could be a pretty conventional choreographer. Diverting the show is; gripping it is not.

Equus, predictably, was even weaker - indeed, the largest drama of the preview I saw revolved around whether or not any of Daviel Radcliffe's young fans would be able to score some photos off their cell phones during the notorious nude scene (for a mere $160, you could sit above the stage in arena seating, to be closer to the reveal). It's true that as the disturbed young lad who blinds horses, Radcliffe does give his all as well as show his all (at left), and at times his damaged, scampering energy was actually compelling. But he hardly dispelled memories of Peter Firth's haunting turn in the role; his presence is simply not mysterious enough. And alas, as Dysart, his whiny psychiatrist, Richard Griffiths was even further from the famous standards of ruined, sonorous masculinity set by Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton; Griffiths decorates the proceedings with a mournful wittiness, but conjures little pity or terror.

And the play desperately needs a major actor to whip up said atmosphere, because it really can't manage it on its own. Playwright Peter Shaffer has one solid idea - our civilized envy of the boy's dionysiac experience with his horse-god; but he doesn't really know how to develop this insight dramatically - instead he merely has Dysart piss and moan about his emasculation for two acts while the boy's story slowly plays out in flashback. The horses - here expertly mimed by male dancers in eerily-gleaming headgear - do provide a thrilling distraction, but that's precisely what they are: a distraction (although some might find it interesting that this time around their homo-erotic context was hardly subliminal). Then once we're done with the naughty bits, the play abruptly ends - because, obviously, it's really just a vehicle. The actors hit their marks, we look into the pit, and then it's so long, Equus, son of Schmequus, and back to the suburbs as soon as possible. Bostonians might be glad to hear local heroine Sandra Shipley acquits herself well in the supporting role of a hearty nurse; likewise Trekkies might be intrigued to discover that Kate Mulgrew beams down for some highly "dramatic" confrontations with Dysart. Other than that, I'm not sure it's worth a trip - except for those who are wild about Harry. Or his wand.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Top dog again

Childlike glee meets pneumatic sex: Balloon Dog (Yellow), by Jeff Koons

A recent visit to New York brought me to "Jeff Koons on the Roof" at the Met, which I thought was worth a brief comment, as at the very least the show marks the official return of this narcissistic prodigal son to the embrace of the art establishment.

In the early 90s, of course, Koons had famously fallen from grace with a series of images called Made in Heaven, which featured himself and his then-wife, former porn actress Ilona Staller, in actual coitus (one of the milder images, Fingers Between Legs, is at left). At that point collectors collectively took a step back from the wunderkind's blunder, even though Made in Heaven was a logical development of his "work" (that word is in quotes because Koons, like many current artists, never fabricates his own pieces). Humiliated (maybe), Koons seemed to wander for a while in the wilderness - but Staller was soon history, of course, and he began to work his way back into the public consciousness with the creepy/cute Puppy (a gigantic tschochke made of flowers) and his "balloon" sculptures (one of the best of which is the centerpiece of the Met show).

Of course it's far too late to "do" anything about Koons; he's part of officially accepted art now, so we have to make the best of him. And there's a case to be made for him as the avatar of the Warhol-derived "school" of American art (Minimalism, which was in many ways a reaction to Warhol, is probably the other major American "school"). There's even by now a catalogue of pretty-good works - the basketballs floating in aquaria (Equilibrium), and Puppy, and maybe even the early vacuum cleaners. Perhaps not a cornucopia of achievement, it's true - but hey, Richard Serra had to get to the end of his career before he came up with anything really good.

And there's definitely an amusingly perverse vibe to the balloon sculptures, which are assemblages of shiny, streamlined phalli/breasts (Balloon Dog (Yellow) also sports on its knotted nose a crisply puckered anus). Here childlike delight meets pneumatic sexuality: this time the porn is just under the surface, which is glistening, supersweet, and faintly disgusting - classic Koons, and, I suppose, a kind of "comment" on pop culture (if it required such an obvious comment). Sacred Heart (Red/Gold), at left, is even more bewitching, perhaps because it's so impeccably fabricated (by someone else). Indeed, stainless steel never seemed so taut, or crinkled so alluringly. The piece's reference to Catholic theology (and the "Sacred Heart" of Jesus), however, struck me as something of an overreach; not because the Sacred Heart of Jesus isn't an erotic object, but because its eroticism is charged with deeper, darker currents than I think Jeff Koons can encompass. I mean how fertile a field, in the end, is Banality (another Koons series), especially given that he's tilled it for some thirty years, and has maybe twenty more to go? That's a whole lotta balloons. I wonder what Ilona's up to?