Friday, October 31, 2008

Hung up

Annette Miller in action in Martha Mitchell Calling. Photo by Kippy Goldfarb.

Sometimes seasons inadvertently beg rhetorical questions, and this one, laden as it is with new work, all but wonders aloud, "When is a play ready for production?" Alas, in regards to most of the shows this fall, the answer would have to be, "Not this one, not yet!" Few of the new dramas have felt finished; and oddly, those that have - November and The Lieutenant of Inishmore - have been farces in which construction outshone content.

But now we're confronted with a show that isn't just unfinished, it hasn't even been started yet - Martha Mitchell Calling, by Jodi Rothe, at the Central Square Theater through November 9. That the show is little more than story-theatre agitprop is all the more depressing given that it features a commanding lead performance from Annette Miller as Martha, and an amusing turn from Timothy Sawyer as husband John. It's also graced with a simple but evocative set from Cameron Anderson and nearly-ideal costumes by Govane Lohbauer. And director Daniela Varon certainly keeps things moving. In fact, the only thing that's missing from the production is the play.

There are, of course, the usual excuses for putting the show on anyway - "strong, passionate woman," blah blah blah (you know that drill), and of course the fact that the Bush administration has been repeating the sins of the Nixon administration, only this time without the brains, or the fraught moral weight. In Nixon's day, we fondly recall, the bad guys tended to eat themselves up with guilt; you could almost feel the POTUS rotting away beneath the glib mask he wore at his press conferences. (Meanwhile you get the impression Bush and Cheney sleep like babies; such is the innocent confidence of the new, improved evil.)

But be that as it may, a playwright's first duty is to his or her subject, and I'm afraid Jodi Rothe has done Martha Mitchell wrong. The playwright whitewashes her, of course - Martha was a Republican from Arkansas who hated the Kennedys (what does that tell you?), yet her politics are given a free pass, and her many unpleasant antics (she sometimes physically attacked reporters) are here reduced to cute sexual faux pas like showing up in a hula skirt to a party.

Still, this is only the standard for hagiography. But Rothe also robs her subject of her real story, her actual drama. Martha Mitchell was a woman who called reporters about the crimes her husband was in the process of committing. Yes, she "told the truth"; yes, her husband's boss was a bad man. But art is supposed to be about humanity and moral complexity, and Martha's story is nothing if not complex - indeed, when you ponder that it was she who lured John Mitchell from the Democratic to the Republican fold (incredibly, he once worked for Kennedy!), and then betrayed him - perhaps inadvertently - to the press, you immediately see in her story the outline of classic tragedy.

But Rothe only sees an opportunity to trudge point-by-point through the Watergate scandal. We get no substantial scenes between John and Martha, even though apparently he had her forcibly drugged, and even though once convicted, he opined that life in jail was preferable to "spending the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell." There's quite an arc there, for both parties. But you'd never guess it from this script: John never makes the primal claim for loyalty that you feel the jerk was entitled to, and Martha has no dawning moment of self-awareness - even though guilt was probably one reason for her alcoholic tailspin.

Even more damaging to Rothe's M.O. is the fact that using Martha as a tourguide to Watergate leaves out key points in the drama; truth be told, she was only a sideshow during much of the scandal, so in Martha Mitchell Calling we don't hear a thing about John Dean, or Sam Ervin, or Woodward and Bernstein, and we only get passing mentions of Deep Throat and John Sirica. So the play not only fails as drama, it fails as history. No wonder it's so dull. Miller and Sawyer do what they can with the reams of exposition, and have an amusingly frisky rapport (Martha's open sexuality is another point the play relentlessly hammers home), but they never get a chance to show us what they could really do with these characters - because, oddly, you get the feeling the playwright doesn't want to give them the chance. To Rothe, Martha Mitchell is just a puppet - much as she was for Nixon, at least for awhile - only now she serves a different kind of politics.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

When Irish eyes are blinded

Colin Hamell pulls a John Woo on Lynn R. Guerra in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

Horror, like history, repeats itself as farce. Only when it comes to the tropes of Quentin Tarantino, that seems to have happened post-haste. Just two years after the premiere of Reservoir Dogs (its iconic torture sequence, below), British (not, actually, Irish) playwright Martin McDonagh retreated to his room to adapt Tarantino's cinematic sadism to the stage, churning out seven plays in nine months - his entire stage corpus, in fact, which has been premiering at a steady pace over the past dozen years to ever-mounting acclaim (he's been nominated for four Tonys, but never won).

Torture as staged entertainment: Reservoir Dogs.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is the penultimate play in this brutal oeuvre (the last, The Banshees of Inisheer, has yet to be produced or published), and has at last reached Boston (at the New Rep through Nov. 16). And like its predecessors, it's got Tarantino's (and his own mentor, John Woo's) bloody fingerprints all over it. Which to cinéastes, who imagine theatre should be more like film, rather than its own art form, is undoubtedly a good thing. To theatre queens, of course, the fact that McDonagh is so obviously derivative is a bit more troubling.

Still, it's intriguing to ponder, through McDonagh's prism, how much like theatre Tarantino's early films often are (McDonagh may have been the first to perceive this, but was certainly not the last). Though fragmented, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs both operate via static scenes, often in enclosed surroundings, and it's rather telling that Tarantino has never managed the kind of purely cinematic sequence that, say, Scorsese or Spielberg (much less Hitchcock, Kubrick or Godard) toss off pretty much at will. No, like a playwright, Tarantino's always talking, and talking, and his camera stays at medium distance, watching his actors.

But to be blunt, McDonagh's a much better playwright than Tarantino, whose innovative structures are usually pretty sloppy. McDonagh, by comparison, is a precision engineer. Not for him the self-indulgent digressions that distend Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, or the tedious Grindhouse (which McDonagh would have boiled down to a short). Everything in a McDonagh play happens (or is said) for a reason; the author's a veritable neatnik of nastiness: by the bitter finale, every plot hole is plugged, every loose end tied up in a noose.

Which brings us back to The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Remember what I said about horror repeating as farce, about how Frankenstein inevitably meets Abbott and Costello? Well, McDonagh's brilliant insight in Lieutenant was that the torture scenes in Tarantino - which always involved ridicule of their victims - could easily be pushed to the level of boulevard farce. Which is precisely what The Lieutenant of Inishmore is; it's a comic contraption worthy of (actually, better than) Feydeau - only murder has replaced sex as the repressed desire of its characters, many of whom are members of the IRA.

This change, of course, gives the play whatever scrap of larger significance it has. While never making any explicit political points - and certainly never working through the actual checkered history of Ireland or Sinn Féin - McDonagh exploits his terrorists the way Tarantino did his gangsters: for every variation of violence imaginable. To these Irish wiseguys, even the slightest slight requires blood retribution, and mayhem has become routine, both for them and the larger culture (one funny exchange runs, "You can't walk down the street covered in blood!""Why not, who would notice?""The tourists!"). The only sentiment still allowed in Ireland, it seems, is for pets; hence even the most cold-blooded killer can have a cute attachment to, say, a kitten - indeed, the trigger for the plot of Inishmore is the murder of a terrorist's cat.

This soft spot, needless to say, is merely a contrivance (like fetishes are in Feydeau) to keep the plot going and the blood spurting - the aggrieved party is intent on vengeance, and even patricide seems nothing next to "catricide." To be sure, as the arterial spray becomes a gusher, than a geyser, it can be hard to recall that this is all slapstick. But at the same time it's impossible to read it as anything else. McDonagh has a point or two to make about the moral calculus of terrorism: in a nice exchange, a young IRA wannabe explains that the cows she blinds are "acceptable targets" because they were part of the food supply; the suffering of the poor creatures themselves, of course, has no place in the equation - tellingly, she eventually begins to put out the eyes of other terrorists, too, who become as literally blind as they were morally blind.

But without this very coldness, McDonagh would be without material, because he's rather a cold fish himself (I can't think of another playwright loaded with as much youthful contempt), and he doesn't seem interested in really developing his characters; they're just props intended for ironic effects (indeed, a last gambit to pull the play into semi-tragic, Synge-like territory goes wrong because of this utter superficiality). At the same time, though, it must be admitted that terrorists are McDonagh's perfect subject, in that we can share for them his cold regard - he can off them at will, and we won't mind. Indeed, he carefully metes out death only to the deserving in Inishmore, so the whole bloodbath ends on an upbeat note. The young woman in front of me stood up after the curtain, gazed at the blood-sprayed stage, and told her date, "That was cute!" and she meant it. It was cute.

Terrorists Ross MacDonald, Andrew Dufresne and Curt Klump convene in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Still, there's something troubling about that attitude. There's a direct cultural line from Reservoir Dogs to Abu Ghraib, and you have to wonder whether McDonagh's audience is any less morally bankrupt than his terrorists are. There's something more than a little Senecan about today's entertainment, and even though we're not yet literally killing people on our stages, sometimes I think it's really only a matter of time before we are; I mean, how much further can synthetic violence go? (By the end of Inishmore, characters are lackadaiscally sawing up fresh corpses on stage.)

Still if McDonagh's - and Tarantino's - material is steadily losing its power to disturb, that also gives me some hope. Maybe even stage blood has a shelf life. Inishmore feels very much of its era - i.e., 1995 - when Pulp Fiction was pushing adolescent buttons around homosexuality and race, and there was a Weimar-like mood surrounding the Clintons. The form morphed into pure torture porn like Saw after 9/11, but now times have changed yet again, and Tarantino's giggling sadism and homophobia (and even his libertarianism) all look immature, and a little sad: Grindhouse bombed, Saw VI is going direct to video, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, produced twelve years after it was written, is chiefly interesting for its craft, not its content.

And at the New Rep, David R. Gammons's production is generally worthy of that craft, although foamy brogues thicker than a head of Guiness sometimes dowse the lines, and a key piece of action occurs a little too far offstage. The production does have a major gap at its center, in that Colin Hamell, a resourceful and precise comic actor, is utterly unconvincing as the lead psychopath - but then that largely helps along the farce anyway, particularly given only one of his terrorist rivals is remotely frightening either. (The comedy's likewise helped by the fact that in the end, even the bloodiest stage business is always more artificial than movie violence.) The standouts of the cast are probably Karl Baker Olson as the amusingly twitty boy-next-door who discovers the stiff kitty, and Lynn R. Guerra as his wannabe-terrorist sister. Guerra is actually almost too comely in her Jean Seberg 'do, and her performance is sometimes a little pushy; but then again, she nearly makes the last act work, and that's saying a lot. Rory James Kelly provides solid comic backup as the terrorist's very dim da, and for awhile Andrew Dufresne brings a few frissons of real menace to the mysterious Christy. The physical production is strong, although not perhaps all that original; the thrash soundtrack in particular is something of a cliché - although I did like Janie E. Howland's monolithic stones, which stick up from the loam like dead, severed fingers. If only they pointed a way out of all the carnage.

A little perspective: you can vote however you like

The Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta sings out the message.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The coming crush in arts journalism

The news is dismal for the dead-tree media. The Christian Science Monitor is cutting back to just a weekend edition. Time, Inc. is reducing its staff by 600. Revenues at the New York Times and Washington Post are dropping. The Los Angeles Times just announced a new round of cuts - it soon will have one-half the staff it had seven years ago.

I can feel the difference in my own e-box. It used to be that I had to seek out tickets to arts events that caught my eye; now, they come to me. Sometimes desperately. Publicity people have discovered my personal and work emails, even my home and cell phone numbers. Alas, this does them little good - I'm already working at capacity. So to all of you whose press releases I haven't responded to - sorry, but I just haven't had the time; I barely have time to think through and type up my reviews and posts!

What they and I understand, of course, is that very soon the local print media will be cutting back arts coverage even further. The Globe, for all its flaws, has hung onto an "official" critic for each of the performing arts, as well as two film critics. But seriously, how much longer can that last? I'd be surprised if the current situation is tenable for more than a year, especially given that the recession is going to cut into two of the print media's remaining revenue streams - real estate and car ads.

So - can bloggers take up the slack? In a word, no. I do this for free, essentially (those Google ads maybe brought in $50 last year). I'm dedicated to it, and right now there's no reason I can't continue at my current level, but I could never take on actual reporting responsibilities in addition to my reviewing. I may have been able to tell that the Matter Pollocks weren't genuine just by looking at them, and I may have caught the scent of trouble at CitiCenter before it was reported, but I never would have had the time to actually dig into those stories the way the Globe's Geoff Edgers did. Indeed, I don't want to, not really.

And as far as I know, no one else on the Web wants to, either. Which poses something of a dilemma. In a word, the Web is killing its own golden goose - it's removing the economic basis of the medium which actually supplies it with most of its material. (I mean, what am I going to do without Louise Kennedy to kick around?) As the New York Times reported, Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, recently worried aloud that with the death of the print media, the blogosphere would quickly devolve into 'a "cesspool" of useless information.' Yes, the CEO of Google said that.

Is he right? Maybe. What I do know is that what the arts community needs most from the print media is its ability to do investigative journalism. Opinions can be left to the blogs - indeed, the Globe could probably set up a few critical blogs - or even a whole matrix of blogs - from creditable writers who would write for free, or nearly free. Yes, criticism in the smaller markets is going to come down to whoever is willing to do it for free.

But if they have to start cutting jobs, there's only two at the arts desk they have to hold onto: the listings guy, and Geoff Edgers.

Slow dance with development

Socorro Santiago counsels Monica Raymund in Boleros for the Disenchanted. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

From the fall season so far, it's clear the Huntington is more committed than ever to new play development - so committed, in fact, it seems to no longer be producing finished plays. Already on its stages we've seen How Shakespeare Won the West, Wishful Drinking and now Boleros for the Disenchanted - and there's not a fully-developed play among the three. (Over at the ART much the same tendency is in evidence - Let Me Down Easy, however, was at least described as being "in evolution," and I'm still mulling The Communist Dracula Pageant, although offhand I'd say it's far from finished, either.)

And this would be fine, of course, if both theatres weren't mounting finished-play productions - and charging finished-play prices - for these works-in-progress. Indeed, one begins to wonder if 'development' is ever intended to end for these plays or their playwrights; after all, why should an author go the extra mile and really "finish" a play when he or she can score a fully-mounted production with what's essentially a second draft?

What's intriguing about the drafts we've seen so far, however, is that in many ways they're highly sophisticated. Several have boasted a few striking scenes (the seeds, perhaps, from which their ungainly structures grew). And behind their various dramatic devices, we often sense an almost over-considered thematic "matrix," and even a genuine dramatic sensibility (tinted, of course, with ironic self-awareness), which, no doubt, is what drew the attention of the scripts' first readers (well, that and the celebrity of their authors - Rivera's been nominated for an Oscar).

What we don't sense is craft. Sometimes we even sense an unconscious contempt for craft. For when it comes to the hallmarks of integration that should mark a finished play - the modulation of pace, the sense of rising action, the sublimation of symbol into situation and character, the natural music of dialogue - all these scripts have come up short. Indeed, some have even made great, knowing sport of the fact that they were really immense skits without any of these attributes.

But to be fair, at least José Rivera's Boleros for the Disenchanted (at the Huntington's Wimberley Stage through Nov. 15) is tantalizingly close to completion. Then again it should be - this is actually its second full production, and Rivera did a substantial rewrite after the first (at Yale). No doubt he'll put pen to paper again after the Huntington run - and maybe after a few more "try-outs," he'll really have something! (But by then he'll also have completed the whole regional circuit.)

It's also only fair to admit that Rivera has set himself a structural challenge with Boleros: the play is divided between the beginning and the end of a long marriage (at left), with intermission as the "hinge." Specifically, Rivera has let us know, the marriage in question is based on that of his Puerto Rican parents, here "Flora and Eusebio," who came to the U.S. from that "Isle of Enchantment" (whose emigrants are, perforce, "disenchanted"). Thus the play is not only divided between birthplace and adopted home, but between a lot of other stuff, too: innocence and experience, chastity and promiscuity, faith and skepticism - well, you get the picture. Rivera gives himself a lot of thematic ground to explore. And I mean a lot.

And he's felt free to to go about that rather baldly, beginning with the symbolic names of his leads (I'm sure you have no problem with "Flora," but most U.S. audiences won't pick up on the fact that "Eusebio" derives from "devotion"). Rivera likewise allows his characters to veer off into either naked exposition or naked philosophizing (remember all that ground he wants to cover), in a lyrical voice that is clearly not their own but his. Still, in the first half the playwright manages to keep together a very conventional, but appealing, tale of a lovely young girl who must decide between two suitors, and her own attitude toward masculinity - in a nutshell, can Flora trust in the dream of lifelong fidelity, as personified by Eusebio, or should she surrender to sexual realism, as personified by the smooth-talking Manuelo?

Flora (Monica Raymund) confronts her choices, Manuelo (Juan Javier Cardenas) and Eusebio (Elliot Villar).

Needless to say, if Flora didn't pick Eusebio, and then endure disappointment, there really wouldn't be a second half to this play. But as it stands, that second act - in which the actors playing Flora's parents, Jaime Tirelli and Socorro Santiago, take over the roles of their children - is pretty lumpy, because there's little forward action, and a lot of theme-and-variations still to unpack: both Flora and Eusebio have lost their dreams (hers romantic, his financial), they've become images of the parents they sought to escape, and are their hopes, like their nostalgia, ever more than illusion?, etc., etc. Rivera has come up with one solid scene to anchor Part II (in which, while taking last rites, Eusebio must 'fess up to his sexual failings), and a pretty good "sub-plot" that's not yet fully developed (the aging Flora offers marriage counseling to a naive babe and dude). And the playwright is (honorably) at pains to delineate his characters' slow physical failure, a trajectory rarely considered on stage, but which we all must face. The results are warm and humane, and dotted with lovely grace notes, but still kind of a mess.

Boleros has potential, though - I hope Rivera actually gets that third production, so he'll do another rewrite. The second half simply needs a stronger throughline, with greater clarity given to Rivera's ironic under-theme (that Flora's insistence on fidelity may be a form of death-wish); the playwright's already halfway there, with a visiting nurse whose dose of pills could mercifully end it all. That plus the subtler interpolation of political background - and keeping everyone more or less in their own voice - could lift Boleros from prose into poetry, or even song.

And also justify a lovely production like the one at the Huntington. Director Chay Yew can't really cure the script of its ills, but he provides the proceedings with all sorts of subtle touches, and generally draws strong work from his skillful cast. The heartbreakingly beautiful Monica Raymund is the standout as the fiery Flora - and if, as her aging self, Socorro Santiago doesn't quite keep her glowing emotional embers alive, she does hold on to her weary judgmentalism. As Eusebio, both Elliot Villar and Jaime Tirelli are effective, if slightly superficial (Villar is actually at his best as the goofy, horny young dude of Act II). Maria-Christina Oliveras likewise conjures a full character from a few scraps as his uncertain bride, and the agile Juan Javier Cardenas, after impressing as the slick Manuelo, impresses again, and then again, as two very different parish priests. The reliable Alexander Dodge supplied the lush, but somewhat cramped, set. All I can say is it would be nice to see the whole team re-united once Rivera has finished his play.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Picasso hits the wall

Picasso faces off against Manet, with disheartening results. Elsewhere the show actually pits him against Velázquez (below).

There's a very interesting, if deeply unhappy, article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times today regarding the gigantic show "Picasso and the Masters" currently up at the Grand Palais in Paris. The blockbuster, which has been drawing huge crowds, is the latest in a series of museum shows which have paired the great modernist off against his classical sources (an earlier one at the Prado was pondered by the New Yorker last year).

Of course what's evident in the Grand Palais is that despite the insistent naiveté of "revolutionary" twentieth-century opinion, Picasso does not hold up against the Old Masters (who, as Auden put it so simply, were never wrong). In my opinion, Picasso doesn't even always hold up against Matisse; still, his cult seems somehow impregnable, as if once the bourgeoisie had accepted the fact that Picasso had value, it had to cling to the idea that he was some kind of super-genius. Or does Picasso's inflated reputation simply reflect the fact that he and Matisse are the only modernists who could even possibly compete with the Old Masters (and therefore we must pretend they win)? This leads to an almost poignantly contradictory situation: museums, sensing that Picasso and the Old Masters are the biggest draws around, inevitably are pairing the two. And Picasso loses.

Or perhaps this is all just evidence that slowly (sometimes very slowly), history tends to overwhelm dogma. One hundred years from now, I think any comparison of Picasso and Velázquez will look ridiculous. But what does that tell us about modernism? What kind of revolution produces work that in the long run is not as good as the modes it replaced? And what does the gap between Picasso and the Old Masters say about artists of today, next to whom Picasso is an Old Master? No wonder Kimmelson sounds so sour.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Scary movies for smart people

Holiday wishes from Norman and Mom!

Yes, it's that time of year again - the time when "Scariest Movies of All Time" lists proliferate in all manner of media (the Globe just posted a particularly lame one). So far, however, I've never seen a "Scariest Élitist Movies of All Time" list, so I thought I'd leap into the gap, with a list of movies that not only make you jump but make you think, too. Because the thing is, horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and fearless experimentation. So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror movies, always see the foreign original!)

So without further ado, and working chronologically:

Cat People (1942) - recently released on DVD, this thriller (produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur) is devoted entirely to indirection and poetic mood. Simone Simone is some sort of Serbian lesbian/were-woman who's transformed into a panther when aroused - and hubby is an all-American innocent who can't understand why she's afraid to do the nasty. I know, I know - killer pussy; it sounds ridiculous (and it is), but the panther attacks (see YouTube above) - particularly the one in which the beast slinks through the shimmering shadows around an abandoned pool - are masterpieces of suggested menace. The first of a short run of Lewton classics, including I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam. (Warning: be sure to avoid the laughable 80's remake.)

Dead of Night (1945) - the scares found here feel a bit prim today (and there's one weak attempt at "comic relief"), but the format - a kind of omnibus of tales of terror - was very influential, and its circular dream structure was both the first, and probably the best, of its kind. Two Twilight Zone episodes - as well as the Final Destination movies - were drawn from its (superior) vignettes, but it's the final episode, about a dummy that slowly drives its ventriloquist mad (Michael Redgrave, in YouTube above), that remains hauntingly effective.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's only directorial effort, this very strange thriller-melodrama isn't so much scary as ominously hypnotic. Robert Mitchum makes a convincingly murderous "preacher" who's after some buried treasure - and his night-time pursuit of the children (above) who know its secret is probably the longest, and most dreamily beautiful piece of surrealism in American cinema.

Les Diaboliques (1955) - Leave it to the French to work out the logic of the thriller to the nth degree; Henri-Georges Clouzot's gritty shocker introduced the "twist ending" that would eventually become cinema's standard. But even before that final scene, the movie is weirdly compelling in its sordid way, with little digressions into melodrama and even (seemingly) the supernatural. Other notable films by Clouzot: the grimly cynical Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la Peur.

Eyes Without a Face (1960) - did we mention surrealism? Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju's macabre, poetic classic all but defines it. The repellent story is about a mad doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who surgically removes the faces of captured girls to replace the ravaged one of his daughter (Edith Scob); the visuals, however, are all about haunting juxtaposition and dream logic. The image of Scob's glittering eyes moving behind their mask is alone unforgettable (as are the calmly-filmed surgical sequences, it's only fair to warn you).

Psycho (1960) - yes, I know you've seen it, but it's the source of an incredible number of pop tropes - the psychotic slasher, the out-of-the-blue murder (above), the twistedly "innocent" (and probably gay) hero/villain, the cheap-o production design and even such touches as Bernard Herrmann's "slashing" strings have all become embedded in the culture. But the movie also, believe it or not, has bizarrely tragic undercurrents, and formally, it fascinates for the way in which Hitchcock set up one of his standard templates, then ripped away its surface to reveal the frightening impulses raging beneath. Related: Vertigo, The Birds, the weirdly comic Frenzy, and Michael Powell's florid companion piece, Peeping Tom.

The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton's take on the The Turn of the Screw is not just the most literate horror movie ever made, it's one of the most literate movies ever made, period. Deborah Kerr is perfection as the sexually-repressed governess who may (or may not) be seeing ghosts, and her preternaturally mature charges may (or may not) be possessed. The movie lacks suspense, but makes up for it with the sheer beauty of its production, the subtle craft of its dialogue, and the fact that every appearance of the ghosts (above) is an imaginative tour de force.

Don't Look Now (1973) - Nicolas Roeg's fragmented film can feel very self-indulgent - especially during some of its fractured, improvised scenes. But stick with it: the final sequence makes up for everything with both a satisfying scare and a strangely persuasive suggestion regarding the interpolation of past and present. Plus the movie features Julie Christie naked (alas, it features Donald Sutherland naked, too).

The Shining (1980) - The Divine Stanley's one foray into pure horror sags in the middle, and never really manages to beef up Stephen King's superificial original with any real depth, but its banal, brightly-lit look, its atmosphere of floating dread, and especially its many chase sequences remain indelible. True, Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance can seem either genuinely horrifying or artistically horrifying, depending on the day I see it. But once Kubrick drops his pretensions and gets down to business in the last act, he shows he's still got his mass-market chops.

The Vanishing (1988) - George Sluizer's deeply disturbing "thriller" follows both a young man obsessed with solving his girlfriend's disappearance and a local magistrate who has become similarly obsessed with his freedom to do evil. But Sluizer's real theme is the inevitability of death, and our poignant denial of same - a theme which his climax drives relentlessly home. WARNING - do not see the American remake (even though it was helmed by Sluizer!).

Cube (1997) - Far from perfect, this chilling Canadian cheapie (above) nevertheless operates as both a visually elegant shocker and a genuine brainteaser. Seven total strangers awaken to find themselves trapped in a maze of cubes, each filled with gruesomely deadly booby-traps, and slowly realize they're human guinea pigs in some enormous survival experiment. Which means there must be a means of escape. One of those satisfying movies in which plot secrets are revealed just as you, too, figure them out.

Funny Games (1997 and 2007) - Michael Haneke's doubly-filmed provocation (this time the "American remake" is a shot-by-shot reproduction; a key sequence in the original is above) is for sensitive audiences perhaps the most gruelingly horrific movie ever made, even though none of its violence ever appears on the screen. It's essentially the standard psychos-torture-innocent-victims-in-a-lonely-place set-up, only reversed to turn all the punishment on the audience itself. All thrills, indeed every form of catharsis is deliberately frustrated in one brilliant gambit after another - and weirdly, even when the movie goes all meta on us, it doesn't lose its overwhelming sense of dread. Horror movies are sometimes the most intellectual movies around, and this is among the most challenging.

Cure (1997) - much has been made of "Japanese horror" in recent years (Ring, The Grudge, and especially the skin-crawling Audition), but Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's hauntingly oblique meditation on a kind of viral psychosis, remains the subtle avatar of the form. The final scene alone is a masterpiece of offhand horrific suggestion. Related films: Pulse, Bright Future.

Irréversible (2002) - Gaspar Noe's X-rated reversed-time narrative feels like Memento gone to hell; at times it's as unwatchable as Saw, but it's never merely torture porn. Instead, it's got quite the stern intellectual spine. Not for the sexually faint-of-heart, however; this film pushes horror's conventional obsession with sexual disgust to its limit - it even opens with a brutal murder in the depths of a sex club called "Rectum." At least there won't be an American remake.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Follies redux

Why is it productions of landmark musicals so often come in pairs? A few seasons back we were treated to duelling Candides, and now, fast on the heels of the Lyric Stage's "chamber" version of Follies (original poster at left), there's a full-scale rendition of the famous Sondheim juggernaut at Boston Conservatory this weekend, with a crack student cast. Only this time out, the huge production numbers are given their elaborate due, and the sheer size and scope of the show validate Sondheim's (and Hal Prince's) ambitions in a way the Lyric couldn't hope to do. Still, Boston Conservatory commits a few "follies" of its own in producing Follies.

The Conservatory's physical plant - i.e., its theatre - is famously inadequate to the demands of the shows presented there, and this time, the large orchestra required is plunked down right before the stage (no, there's no pit), requiring that all the singers be miked. Which results in not only a gulf between audience and performer, but a very loud sound mix with frequent balance problems. Intriguingly, the echo from the mikes sometimes conjured just the right atmosphere of eerie reminiscence - but in general, the kids on stage deserved much better than this. (The president of Boston Conservatory spoke before the curtain to inform us that help is on the way, in the form of an extensive renovation, but money is still needed - more info on how to help is here.)

But if you can stand all the blare, there are several vocal performances to savor here, and some strong acting and dancing, too. For once all the songs were in the right key, and high top notes posed no problem for the cast (o rare!). "Beautiful Girls," "Who's That Woman?," and in particular the extended "Loveland" sequence were transformed by the forces marshalled to put them over, and were aided immeasurably by Michelle Chassé's apt choreography (particularly in the gigantic tap number) and David Cabral's gorgeous, Ziegfeldesque costumes. Director Neil Donohoe didn't keep the long first half in tight-enough focus (I almost wished the Lyric's Spiro Veloudos had dropped by to crack the whip), but he had intriguing ideas for "Loveland" (including a poignantly ironic tableau for "Losing My Mind"), and managed well the interpolation of past and present that is so central to the show's haunting effect.

It would be unfair to review student performances against professional standards - except I think it's also unfair to ignore students when they surpass those standards; so I'll pass out bouquets to several of these young performers. The two female leads were both startlingly strong - Lauren Lukacek gave Sally Durant an almost frighteningly perky romantic naiveté, while Hannah Jane McMurray styled the even trickier Phyllis Rogers into a kind of glamorous ice sculpture. The leading men didn't fare as well, but while one of them, Bud Webber, didn't find his feet until his role turned to pure song and dance, once it did he was all appealing energy. There were similarly engaging turns in the famous novelty numbers by Haley Selmon, Babs Rubenstein and Lindsey Larson, as well as a spirited one from Kristina Elizabeth Morales that was somewhat undermined by her mike. All in all, there was enough sparkle on stage to make up for the occasional stumble, and those with a hankering to see Follies in something like the shape its creators intended are advised to hustle on over to Hemenway St. - you may never get another chance like this one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Haydn on high

The Collegium Vocale Gent.

You could argue that Haydn should always be heard in church; there's a true piety in this great composer that seems most at home in a chapel, so the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, with its golden Romanesque vaults, should have been the perfect site for last weekend's Boston Early Music Festival concert, "The Haydn Songbook," by Collegium Vocale Gent (above) and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

Yet while those gorgeous arches gloriously support the timber of the human voice, they often muddy its diction - and can even swallow the reedy vocalise of the fortepiano. Thus "The Haydn Songbook" sometimes did battle with its setting; it won out in the end, or at least settled for a luminous, satisfying draw, but some smaller skirmishes were definitely lost along the way. Kristian Bezuidenhout, one of the most exciting fortepiano players alive, probably has the largest score to settle with that sacred architecture. His readings of four Haydn keyboard pieces were dazzling in interpretive terms; as usual, he played with sensitive spontaneity and a sparkling, idiosyncratic attack that violated the convention but never the content of the music. But only his take on the famously haunting "Variations in F minor" achieved the kind of passionate crescendo he regularly reaches in performance; taking inspiration from the fact that the two sonatas he essayed were probably written for the clavichord, Bezuidenhout played them so gently that they all but disappeared in the high space of the sanctuary.

This was never true of the soaring sound of the Collegium Vocale Gent, which is one of the leading early music choruses of the world - still, they didn't seem to compensate in their diction the way, say, Boston Secession does, for the echoing presence of their venue (it didn't help, of course, that they were singing German). On the other hand, the vaults above burnished their twelve voices to an even richer resonance than they no doubt already had, and it was hard to fault a few blurred consonants when the tones of the chorus were themselves so beautifully balanced and ravishing.

And surprisingly, Bezuidenhout and his singers seemed to fit hand in glove (even though the Collegium is usually directed by Philippe Herreweghe). Sometimes, it's true, the lighter ditties (such as the drinking song "There is a time for everything," or the ruefully droll "Harmony in Marriage") came off as sacred music, but the group's witty take on the amusing "Eloquence" drew honest laughs from the audience, and elsewhere Bezuidenhout and the Collegium struck just the right note of luminous poignancy. Most of the "songbook" came from the end of the Haydn's life, and reflected his disappointments, his slowly failing health, and in general the weight of his accumulated experience. But the melodies still glowed with the humble faith that makes Haydn so deeply touching - and, simply put, they were utterly gorgeous. Alas, they were also interspersed with selections from a simulated "diary" of Haydn's, delivered by radio personality Rhod Sharp; the readings were inoffensive, but also felt somehow unnecessary; biographical notes or perhaps excerpts from the composer's actual letters might have been a better choice. But all was forgiven during such songs as the famous "Abendlied zu Gott" ("Evening Song to God"), which is perhaps the loveliest hymn ever written. Here it got both an exquisite first reading and a radiant encore, which hung in the air like a benediction over its listeners. It was hard to pretend at such moments that Bezuidenhout and the Collegium Vocale Gent hadn't put Haydn on high despite the odds.

Oh boy, I said - right again . . .

I've gotten a certain amount of grief over the past year for pointing out the reverse-sexist slant of Boston's leading print critics, all of whom are women. Probably the worst offender has been (yes!) Louise Kennedy of the Globe, and today she comes out swinging at the Lyric Stage's production of David Mamet's November (reviewed by yours truly below).

Louise admits the play is often funny, at least early on, but then suddenly pulls up short:

For me, though, the laughter stops whenever Mamet turns to the character who's not a white guy, the president's speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein. Clarice is a lesbian, and she and her partner have just adopted a daughter from China. That's so funny! And now they want to get married. Wow! Get a load of that - does it get any funnier?

This is a little hard to understand - does Kennedy really imagine Mamet is holding up Bernstein's lesbianism as a punchline? I'm gay myself, and certainly a vocal proponent of gay marriage, but I detected not even a hint of homophobia in Mamet's play. Sure, Mamet's got a history of issues with women - or at least he's got a history of deep distrust of women, coupled with a strangely intense involvement with his own masculinity (or doubts regarding same!). But most of this is decidedly under wraps in November; indeed, "Bernstein the Lesbian" is the only admirable character in the play - she's the "straight man," if you'll pardon the obvious pun (that I'm sure Mamet intended). The mystery about her character, as I pointed out in my review, was why she would ever work for her idiot boss.

But Louise goes on:

In the company of three men who are laughable because of their character traits - greed, cynicism, whatever - we get a woman who's laughable because - well, let's see. Because she's a woman, because she "bought" a baby, and because she's a lesbian. Sorry, not funny.

She's laughable because she's a woman? Strange, no one at the performance I attended laughed at her because she was a woman, and I don't think Mamet ever intended anyone to, either. True, Mamet has his Bush factotum bray that Bernstein "bought" her baby, but this is written (and played) as a crassly low blow - and one right out of the Republican playbook, anyhow.

What's weirder still about the review is how innocently it betrays Kennedy's own identity politics. When it comes to the Native American casino chief who shows up and does a war dance, she has this to say:

At least the chief, played with stomping verve by Dennis Trainor Jr., gets a few good lines. So maybe that's the lesson: If you're going to treat a whole sector of the human population as a joke, at least make it a funny one.

Hmmmm. Somehow I get the impression that if Louise were a Native American, her opinion would be quite different - i.e., the show was a riot until Crazy Horse showed up, then suddenly it wasn't funny! Indeed, if anyone has a bone to pick with Mr. Mamet over November, it's Native Americans - that casino chief really is just an intentionally "politically incorrect" one-liner. But I think lesbians, and women in general, should be willing to smoke a peace pipe with the playwright over November.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Take a trip through time . . .

. . . and through Boston circa 1903. Excerpted from an Edison Biograph film, the clip above was taken from a camera mounted on a trolley, which passes Jordan Marsh downtown, then miraculously pops into Copley Square. The YouTube clip was posted by the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP). Hat tip to Loaded Gun Boston.

Monday, October 20, 2008

November wins in a landslide

Adrianne Krstansky, Richard Snee and Will McGarrahan inhabit the (very) Oval Office in David Mamet's November.

In his recent essay "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'," David Mamet declared that his latest play, November (at the Lyric Stage through Nov. 15) was "a laugh a minute."

And he was right about that. This silly satire of presidential politics is a laugh a minute - at least for long, blissful stretches - and the Lyric production is the funniest show in town, hands down, and whatever your politics are you'll enjoy it, so run out and see it immediately.

But Mamet also declared that November was "actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views."

And boy, was he wrong about that.

So any reviewer of November faces a small quandary - how to accurately assess a play that succeeds brilliantly at what it's not intended to do. If Mr. Mamet had announced an intention to hybridize Neil Simon with Saturday Night Live, we would be forced to throw roses at his feet; for here is Lorne Michaels's familiar apology for white male asshole-dom (in the person of a very Bush-like Chief Executive) transported whole onto the stage - only served up with far better jokes, timing, and comic construction than SNL could ever manage.

But Mamet's goal, it turns out, was actually "a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view." And at this he utterly fails. And I mean utterly fails. As in, "Are you kidding? The 'disputation between reason and faith' never happens in your play!"

Now I know what you're thinking: that essay's just a publicity stunt, an incoherent pastiche of paeans to the Constitution and the jury system (good things, both) designed to build some political buzz for November. Sure, the play sports a few potentially offensive jokes about torture and extradition (in which the author comes off, alas, a bit like a Nazi chuckling over the Holocaust). But if Mamet's not 'brain-dead,' then he's still definitely liberal, because November closes on a note so sweetly left-of-center, it might have been penned by a Kennedy.

But here's the rub (at least for me): I actually wish Mamet had delivered the play he's pretending he delivered. If only he had made a case - some kind of a case - for conservatism; Lord knows, with the Bush administration socializing the banking system, the libertarian mask has slipped from the Republicans' face, and they need some kind of identity other than their current one as conduits for upper-class financial interest and under-class bigotry. But Mamet doesn't even try to supply a conservative M.O. - worse, he doesn't seem to be aware that he isn't trying.

And this gap does, I'm afraid, completely undermine the beautiful perpetual-motion machine that is his plot. If we pause even for a split second (luckily, Mamet never gives us that much time) to ponder the motives of his characters, November suddenly collapses, because its story makes no political or personal sense. The play is set in the Oval Office (here cleanly - and cleverly - evoked as a literal oval), with election day fast approaching, and a W.-esque Chief Exec, "President Chuck Smith," facing the fact that he's so unpopular, even his own party will no longer buy him air time. But inspiration strikes when a rep for the American Turkey Association shows up with a few gobblers to be pardoned for Thanksgiving, and the Prez puts on the squeeze for some big bucks - actually, 200 million bucks. At the same time, the presidential speechwriter - oddly, not a born-again Christian but a Jewish lesbian - has just arrived from China, with an adopted baby and her same-sex partner in tow. Oh and a bad case of bird flu. Can you write the rest? Well, maybe not till I tell you that she's just written President Smith the greatest speech of his (and her) career - only to get it, he's going to have to marry her and her partner on national television.

Now can you write the rest? Well, you couldn't write it as brilliantly as Mamet has; he's smoothly restyled his macho rhythms into the template of classic farce, and this whirligig all but glitters as it whirls. But if we pause to look beneath its machinery, we suddenly realize that the President doesn't really have any leverage with the American Turkey Association, and why, exactly, a Jewish lesbian would be serving in his administration is a complete mystery. In fact, the President himself is a complete mystery - his desperate, dopey self-awareness has some charm, but as a character he's an empty shell, a contrivance to keep the one-liners coming - or to occasionally serve as Mr. Mamet's (or the Israel lobby's) mouthpiece. Alas, Bernstein, his speechwriter, is likewise little more than a mouthpiece for NPR, and his major domo, Archer, is something of a cipher.

But how much more interesting November would have been if they weren't! If only Mamet had had the balls to craft a real Republican lesbian, like Mary Cheney or (dare I say it?) Condoleezza Rice, November might have been a play for the history books. For how better to thrash out a polemic of conservatism than among people from whom it requires personal sacrifice, or even internal contradiction? (And don't tell me such themes couldn't play out as farce - hell, they're playing out as farce right now, in real life.)

But for whatever reason, Mamet dodged that challenge, and so has written merely a very funny vehicle for very skilled farceurs. And the Lyric has put a posse of them at the wheel, with Daniel Gidron giving precise directions from a detailed map. As President Chuck, Richard Snee gives what is probably the technical performance of a lifetime; he catches every nuance of every wisecrack in the script. He doesn't supply, however, the inner life the text lacks - nor does he maintain the needy, egomaniacal energy that could make the play's gears spin faster and faster. Still, for the most part you'll be laughing so hard at his wackily stentorian delivery that you'll hardly care. As gal Friday Bernstein, the skillful Adrianne Krstansky doesn't exactly limn a character either (how could she?). But she manages her half - i.e., the only half - of the "polemic" with sympathetic, understated skill, and thus is always likeable, if only believable in her precisely-rendered bird flu. Will McGarrahan is equally deft as First Admin Archer, but perhaps could exude a bit more menace as we begin to sense he's one of many powers behind this particular throne. Meanwhile Neil A. Casey knows exactly what to do as the flustered turkey king, and of course does it impeccably. Alas, as the politically-incorrect Native American casino chief who arrives late on the scene, Dennis Trainor isn't quite in the same league as these old pros, but he does pull off a hilarious war-dance. And by then you'll have given this production your vote anyhow.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Smashing pumpkin

Lorna Feijóo as Cinderella, before the other shoe drops.

There's real magic in James Kudelka's Cinderella (being revived by Boston Ballet through October 26); you just won't find it in the dancing. Perhaps that's okay; certainly the production's imagery - its spooky pumpkinheads and eerie cabbage patch and witty, almost cinematic sequences - stay with you, and will haunt and enchant your average eight-year-old girl, who is and will always be this fable's target. So I suppose the rest of us can ignore the surprising lack of interest in much of Kudelka's choreography - I only feel a bit sorry for the Ballet's terrific dancers (and composer Sergei Prokofiev!) who really deserve better.

But back to that magic.

Taking a cue, apparently, from Matthew Bourne's "gay' Swan Lake, which skewered the Royal Family and played like a staged Michael Powell movie, Kudelka has devised a witty "update" for his fairy tale, plunking it down in a bold Jazz Age milieu designed by the talented David Boechler. And he's come up with all kinds of smart staging ideas, too, many of which are welcome and genuinely insightful: the glass slipper here becomes a toe shoe, for example - it's a perfect symbol of romantic maturity - and Cinderella has a neat little solo in which she hobbles around on just one. (This in stark contrast to her stepsisters, who walk around en pointe, but can't dance to save their lives.) And Prince Charming's search for his beloved (with that other slipper in hand) now literally covers the globe in an amusing montage, during which every foreign lass he encounters is wearing her national shoe (or clog, or ski). There are other wonderful moments: Cinderella's coach is now a luminous pumpkin that descends like a harvest moon, and she has ominous pumpkin-headed attendants, too, who ring down midnight (and even strip off her gown) with frightening violence. And interestingly, Kudelka has restyled the story as a rejection of the palace and its paparazzi, and centered it instead around the discovery of Cinderella's intrinsic goodness; she doesn't get her man, he gets her, and contentedly settles down with her by the hearth in her cottage in the cabbage patch.

So this production is never dull - until people start actually dancing; then suddenly our interest flags. Kudelka seems bursting with ideas about the story and its characters, but doesn't seem interested in any musical ideas. True, the Jazz Age is rather far from the elegant melancholy of Prokofiev's score, which often touches down in Eastern European folk sources (the autumnal sets key into this, at least), and we hardly expect Kudelka to do much with the Charleston (which takes a bow at the ball). But can't we have the wonderful staging and a little choreographic inspiration, too? The solos and duets simply don't go anywhere; Kudelka doesn't work through variations with any rigor, or even really posit any motifs, besides the obvious narrative ones of "Cinderella's sweeping" or "The Prince is falling in love." He actually saves his best stuff for the wicked stepsisters, who here aren't so much wicked as goofy: Kudelka dreams up endless ways for them to flounder on the dance floor, and the vampy Kathleen Breen Combes and the bespectacled Heather Myers play all of them to the hilt (they end up dancing with each other). As Cinderella, Lorna Feijóo was, as usual, technical perfection, but there wasn't much here to faze her, and although she was plenty winsome in the kitchen, she couldn't work up much chemistry with her Prince Charming, Carlos Molina (who had a confident élan in his solos, but proved an inattentive partner). The corps was in particularly good form during the ball, which was choreographed in patterned blocks (recalling such movie sequences as the climax of An American in Paris). And down in the pit, Jonathan McPhee and the Ballet Orchestra did full justice to the score; it's just too bad Kudelka didn't.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Anti-Musical! The Musical!

Watching Gutenberg! The Musical! (left, at the New Rep through Oct. 26), it's sometimes hard to fight the feeling that the "anti-musical" - the scrappy little show dreamed up in somebody's basement that parodies the musical form - is rapidly becoming as predictable as its target. It's not that Gutenberg! (which was dreamed up in the basement of Scott Brown and Anthony King), is bad, exactly, it's that we can see almost every joke in it coming well before it lands (in fact, we're practically out there on the runway guiding it in). And is that any surprise? Every aspect of the Broadway musical by now has been deconstructed to its foundations; the pickings for original satire are pretty slim, and Brown and King don't really uncover any new comic gold. Still, if you haven't seen Urinetown, Bat Boy, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, or [title of show], not to mention countless episodes of Saturday Night Live and South Park, I suppose Gutenberg! could still strike you as edgy and fresh.

To be fair, it does have some conceptual ambitions those other shows lack (as you might guess from the two exclamation points in its title). Its co-creators have not just the vulgar insincerity of musical tropes in their sights, but also the actual people behind them and the audience in front of them, not to mention the stupid, sappy dreams that feed them. Yes, Gutenberg! isn't just an anti-musical, it's also a meta-musical. The show's conceit is that it's a try-out, a reading of a new script by its creators, Bud and Doug, who wear every hat in the show (literally). Needless to say, Bud and Doug's enthusiasm for their project is in inverse proportion to its quality; to them, it's the greatest show ever, even though their choice of subject - the life and times of the inventor of the printing press - has no obvious theatrical potential. But this hardly fazes Bud & Doug; they simply import the dramatic clichés of the form wholesale, and the joke is not just their ham-fisted delivery, but the audience's presumed acceptance of their musical worldview. ("What is 'historical fiction'? It's fiction that's true," they inform us, and we sense we're expected to nod.) The show needs a serious theme, of course - so they pick the Holocaust (because Gutenberg lived in Germany); there has to be a romantic interest - so enter the lovelorn Helvetica (yes, she's named after the font). And what musical doesn't need a rock ballad, and a chorus line? Cluelessness is piled on stupidity as Bud and Doug grow ever more thrilled at the monster they're sewing together.

The trouble with this, however, is that you need at least a little wit to leaven all the dumb show in what is essentially an extended skit, and Gutenberg! doesn't have quite enough inspiration to cover its running time. Sometimes the clumsy non sequiturs do come together in clever ways - still, it's rather obvious the show began as a one-act and then was expanded beyond its natural length. And then there's the weird sense it gives you that somehow snark has become the new schmaltz. Gutenberg! is designed to comfort Williamsburg and Park Slope in precisely the same way that Phantom is designed to comfort Peoria; its knowing condescension is like a warm bath for us sophistos, so we can feel good about ourselves.

Still, the New Rep version always remains amusing, or nearly amusing, thanks to its stars, Brendan McNab and Austin Ku, who work so hard that you feel a little guilty for not liking the show more and want to make it up to them. McNab, of course, is a versatile local hero who has only recently begun to rake in the awards that long were his due; here, as the desperately dorky Bud, he's as frisky and resourceful as ever, even if I think there's a buried fuse in the character that McNab never quite lights (why else would he get all the Meat Loaf anthems and play the bug-eyed evil Monk?). Ku isn't really McNab's match when it comes to self-aware stage smarts, but his blankly innocent readings are perfect for Doug's glibly gay naïveté, and he's charming throughout (and has got the pipes to match McNab's). Director Stephen Nachamie knows how to keep things moving, so we never have to notice this soufflé isn't really rising, and Todd C. Gordon tickles the ivories effortlessly in any number of modes.

So what's not to like? Well, not much, I suppose - I just wish there were more to like, too.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Charting the season so far

Well, the fall season has arrived, and so has the recession, so I thought it might be a good time to think about the vexing issue of price vs. quality on the local theatre scene. One of my idiosyncratic charts linking the two is above. The lower right-hand quadrant is the place to be, the so-called "sweet spot," where quality is high yet price is low. As you can see, only Mill 6 Collaborative, with "The T Plays," and Up You Mighty Race, with In the Continuum, are solidly in the zone. Ticket costs reflect non-subscription single-ticket prices for a weekend evening. Of course you could have seen any of these shows for roughly half-price (well, actually at about 40% off) if you purchased tickets at the BosTix booths.

There are obviously two anomalies on the chart - two of my favorite shows this season were on the fringe, and there are no shows at the bottom of the "Low Cost/Low Quality" quadrant. This is probably due to my personal biases - I don't go to every fringe show I'm invited to, but generally only check out those in which either the play or the cast interests me. So one shouldn't infer from this that there are no bad, cheap productions out there. Still, it also seems clear from the chart that price is no guarantee of quality.

The most powerful (positive) political ad of the year

A message from Iraq War veteran Erik Schei in support of Representative Tom Udall, who is running for New Mexico's open Senate seat. Compare and contrast with the trash in the post below.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why don't just we drop the pretense . . .

. . . and call the Republicans what they are, that is, desperate, racist hacks who are all but calling for an attempted assassination? To wit:

The latest mailer from the Virginia GOP, in which Osama has been photoshopped to resemble Obama.

A Republican mailer in California claiming that if elected, Obama's image will grace "food stamps, not dollar bills."

Meanwhile the Sacramento County Republican Party posted a call on its website to torture Obama.

But perhaps this low-tech offering from the Republican rank-and-file says it best.

Funny girl

Carrie Fisher gets lost in space.

I confess I was never a Star Wars fan (in my experience, to really be one, you have to have seen the movies before the onset of puberty, and I didn't). But I was always fascinated by Carrie Fisher, who was obviously the strangest thing in that galaxy far, far away. It wasn't simply that her acting was bad (it was, but since then we've seen the likes of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor fall before the directorial scythe of George Lucas, so this is no shame). No, what made Fisher remarkable was the powerfully unhappy sensibility that filtered through her performance despite the movie's zippy artifice. Her Princess Leia was supposed to be smart and spunky; instead she was bitter and sharp, a judgmental bitch openly parodied as a very different kind of princess by Mel Brooks in Spaceballs. Fisher's anger may not have been likeable, but it was arguably the only genuine emotion in the movie.

If you're looking for the source of that wintry discontent in Wishful Drinking, Fisher's one-woman show at the Huntington through October 26, however, I'm afraid you're not going to get your wish - although it's true you'll get plenty of dish, much of it delicious. But then Fisher's life has been a kind of moveable feast of dysfunction, beginning with the apertif of the divorce of parents Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, then leading through such multiple courses as bankrupt stepfathers, bizarre behavior from Mom, failed romances, divorce from Paul Simon, alcoholism and addiction, marriage to a gay man, a stay in a mental hospital, and finally, after a friend literally died next to her in bed, a deep depression capped by a course of electroshock therapy.

It doesn't get much more purple than this, not even in La-La Land, and Fisher knows it. But along this crazily winding road, she discovered a talent hardly hinted at back in her Jedi days: she's a born comic writer, and has become one of Hollywood's top script doctors. The trouble with Wishful Drinking is that she's indulged this talent at the expense of her own show: Fisher has, in effect, script-doctored her life, punching it up with one liners and disguising gaping holes in the plot, while never providing her leading lady with anything like an arc.

Not that you mind at first; Fisher is a funny lady, and such extended skits as "Hollywood Inbreeding 101," her hilarious attempt (at left) to explicate the multiple marriages of her extended clan, are breezy and clever, and studded with the grace notes that only a writer would pick up (like the fact that Debbie Reynolds owned eight tiny pink refrigerators). She's refreshingly honest about her acting (and that erratic British accent she had as Leia). And while Fisher is hardly light on her feet (and her voice slowly flags), she's still on her toes as a comic performer, happily fielding questions from the audience and batting back witty, spontaneous ripostes.

Still, her story is defiantly superficial, and she sticks to it - Mom's too weird for words, the Leia PEZ dispensers were like totally humiliating, and oh my God, you won't believe what happened to me NEXT! The show hums along at about the level of Leno, but slowly gets stuck in one adolescent riff after another, even as Fisher's life after marriage to Paul Simon (the one episode treated with real feeling) got stuck on an elevator ride to Hell. Of course, as Fisher explains, "if you're known as a survivor, you have to keep getting in trouble to show off your skills." True, but somehow this hardly sounds like an explanation. Needless to say, Fisher's private demons aren't really our business, but then she has put on a show about them, hasn't she, and as said show gets more repetitive, and leans more heavily on jokes about pot and Leia's pussy, we realize said demons are never going to make their appearance. All this dish, and she never serves anything meaty! Fisher's opening gambit is to joke about the death of a close friend, and her ensuing shock therapy; but at the end of the evening, having come full circle, she's still joking about both, because it's the "funny slant" that keeps her going - survival is all about "location, location, location!" In short, she says, "if my life weren't funny, it would only be true." Well maybe yes, and maybe no - but it might also be dramatically compelling, if she'd only let it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The limits of Anna Deavere Smith

I've taken my time writing about Let Me Down Easy (above), the new "play in evolution" by Anna Deavere Smith which just closed at the ART (making this article a post-mortem of sorts).

I did this because I knew the show would be a box office success, as Smith has long since jumped into NPR-celebrity territory, and people who wouldn't normally be caught dead in a theatre would come to bask in the reflected glow of someone their friends had all heard of. So there was no reason to hype it, and frankly, there wasn't a glaring reason to criticize it, either - in purely theatrical terms, Smith was once again powerfully affecting in many of the vignettes she performed, which were loosely grouped around the theme of "grace."

But there are lessons, perhaps, which should have sunk in by now about Ms. Smith and the "verbatim theatre" which she all but created with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. Many reviewers did note that Let Me Down Easy was amorphous in theme and unfocused in attack: this time, rather than presenting a collage of viewpoints on a single event, Ms. Smith literally rambled the globe for musings on "grace," which she defined (with truly impressive broadness) as anything that transcended the body and its vulnerability. But while they were dissatisfied with Easy in its specifics, few critics pondered the artistic problems and limits of "verbatim theatre" that the piece clearly limned. By way of contrast, as I watched Let Me Down Easy, I was often deeply touched by the stories Ms. Smith told; but I also found myself pondering what her performance said about the form she had created (particularly given the popularity of that form today). In short - what are the strengths and weaknesses of "verbatim theatre"? What can it do, and what can it not do?

First, a few words about the strange way in which the form has come to be perceived - many seem to believe that "verbatim theatre" actually conjures physical presences onstage. But close attention to these performances reveals a very different reality. For instance, Anna Deavere Smith is not, to be honest, all that accomplished an impressionist; her voice can be powerful, but is neither particularly flexible nor well-trained, and her physical gifts as a stage performer are merely adequate. She only intermittently creates a genuine impersonation onstage (in Let Me Down Easy, for example, she manages pretty well with Ann Richards, but her attempt to channel the more imposing Jessye Norman is unconvincing).

But then the great advantage of the form Smith created was the way it allowed her to transcend these limits by treating the utterances of her subjects as "text." Smith side-stepped the issue of impersonation by emphasizing that what she was doing was re-creating, on stage, the delivery of a particular speech - complete with every stammer and hesitation - rather than a particular person. This gave her performances a curiously haunting, post-modern quality: her speakers were both present and absent onstage - it was their perspective, rather than their person, which Smith was, in effect, "curating" into a kind of theatrical exhibit.

I've spoken before about the growing influence of curatorial, rather than artistic, action on the cultural scene; indeed, it's getting harder and harder to find artwork that hasn't been "pre-curated," as it were, to a high degree. In retrospect, it seems clear that Smith was an early avatar of this trend. In our self-consciously diverse cultural landscape, in which the individual political perspective of the artist has become suspect, Smith offered a clever technique for sidestepping ownership of political content while simultaneously insinuating it (many of the Lubavitchers depicted in Fires in the Mirror found her treatment of them condescending and simplistic, for instance). Make no mistake, Smith's early pieces on race were complex, thoughtful performances - still, they proferred a certain liberal consensus rather than any singular, disturbing perspective (and to be blunt, the Lubavitchers are outside that liberal consensus). Likewise, while her techniques were perfectly tailored to evoking a communal response, they offered little in the way of deep individual vision - a gap all the more obvious (and problematic) in Let Me Down Easy.

Smith opened Easy with an ironic preamble about the origins of the song "Amazing Grace" (it was written by a repentant slave trader, and was drawn, many believe, from songs sung by his captives). I wondered if once again the problem of American racism would figure prominently in the piece, particularly in the context of liberal eagerness for self-forgiveness. But no sooner were the themes of forgiveness and sin laid out than they were not so much abandoned as extrapolated wildly. Smith touched down in the cruelties of horse racing, then did pit-stops in the insanity of both Iraq and the Rwandan genocide, then flitted through the topics of gardening and Buddhism, before settling for an extended stay in the inadequacies of the American health care system. The evening was rather like a guided tour of the grants she'd received over the last decade or so - and while many of the individual pieces were piercing (and even profound), their wild variegation didn't so much illuminate the meaning of "grace" as beat it down into a vague, common-denominator concept.

And this was because, in the end, Ms. Smith is not really a playwright, and Let Me Down Easy isn't really a play. One can, it seems, brilliantly curate the responses of a community to a traumatic event; one can't, however, perhaps curate a "theme" - there's no real consensus to be evoked on the subject of "grace," for instance, but only individual response, which a good play could serve to reveal through character and narrative. But while one could imagine many of the stories Smith told serving as riveting scenes in a larger frame, we left the theatre with no idea what said frame could or should be. Thus the play is constantly "in evolution" (and has been so for months, if not years) - but I think "stasis" is a better description of it; touching as it may be, it's hard to imagine how it could ever come together into a coherent statement.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When Harry Met Handel

When I heard Harry Christophers (left) conduct Messiah last winter, I felt pretty confident it was the best version I'd ever heard; and the impression that Mr. Christophers has a special affinity for Handel was only amplified by last weekend's H&H program "Celebrate Handel!" In the meantime, of course, Christophers has been appointed the organization's Artistic Director - so the coronation anthems for George II studding the program did double duty for the new King Harry, too.

If it sounds like I'm purring over the new crown prince, well, I am; it's hard to imagine H&H finding a better interpreter of at least half their namesake composers - and if they hang onto Roger Norrington as a guest conductor, they've got a lock on the other half, too. Like Norrington, Christophers is smart but straightforward, and conducts with physical verve and emotional openness - he's at home both with Handel's rhetoric and his sublimated rapture (which in his hands never seems to sound academically simulated, as it so often can). Throughout the coronation anthems the conductor drew a light, dignified energy from the H&H orchestra that sometimes built cleanly from quiet reflection to genuine joy ("My Heart is Inditing") and at other times spun on a dime from swimming lyricism to triumphant blast (the famous opening line of "Zadok the Priest"). His work with his singers was even subtler and more compelling; in collaboration with John Finney, Christophers draws performances from the H&H chorus that are consistent marvels of clarity, poise, and emotional commitment.

I longed for more from the choir, but the program, for the sake of variety (which is hardly a bad thing), had been divided between the gigantic anthems and a series of vocal "miniatures" from three of Handel's opera-like oratorios, Solomon, Jephtha, and Semele. Sung by Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (whom we'll see again at the Boston Early Music Festival in Antiochus und Stratonica), these proved a mixed lot, but definitely improved as the evening progressed. Ms. Keith looked luscious in a "goddess gown" that clung in all the right places, but at first her voice, though glowing at the top, seemed to fall away into breathiness at the bottom, and her presentation seemed fluid but mannered; of the selections from Jephtha, she only really impressed with the lyrical "Tune the soft, melodious lute" (above right).

When she returned for a suite from Semele, however, Keith seemed bent on redeeming herself. The voice had opened up, and she made a simple, poignant statement of the plaintive "My racking thoughts." Her biggest audience-pleaser, however, was "Myself I shall adore," in which she play-acted Semele's innocent narcissism to the hilt. A deeper interpretation, I think, might have hinted at the tragic consequences of this conceit (Semele winds up immolated thanks to her self-confidence) but as a stand-alone "number," as it were, Keith's witty take did no harm, and certainly delighted the crowd.

And the delight continued with the finale, "Zadok the Priest," which shook the rafters with its full-throated triumph. As the last notes died away, it came as a slight shock to realize that, due to H&H's programming, Christophers won't return till next year, when he promises to refocus the group's programming around its two H's (although the pieces he mentioned in the performance talkback ran the gamut from Bach to Brahms!). That year may feel like a long wait.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Music from chameleons

Can you find the Chameleons in this picture?

During the Chameleon Arts Ensemble's ten-year history,the group has become known for the uncanny ability to morph (like its namesake) from one musical color to another. A typical Chameleon concert leaps from style to style and even century to century with confident aplomb, and last Saturday's popular concert at the Goethe Institute, "Transcendent Music I Have Heard," proved no exception: the program ranged from the year 2000 to the 1853, and from Penderecki to Brahms.

But this once, perhaps, the Chameleons weren't entirely sure-footed. Or perhaps they simply weren't always leaping in synch. The opening musical offering, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, was one of the composer's last works, written during the Great War, and features the shimmering atmospheres he was famous for (sometimes pushed to ecstatic extremes), undercut by a growing anxiety and doubt. The Chameleons did well by both of the trio's modes, with Scott Woolweaver in particular clearly in virtuosic control of the skittering viola line. But the sonata also fascinates (or should fascinate) as a tapestry of motifs and phrases, with musical ideas being passed with exquisite facility between its three voices, and here the Chameleons' separate performances never quite made this subtle architecture cohere.

The larger forces mustered for Krzysztof Penderecki's Sextet (2000) were actually more unified, and gave this alternately chilling and piercing little poem of devastation a powerful reading. Penderecki was made famous by his massive Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and the Sextet, while more conventional in musical content than the Threnody, nevertheless seems designed as a kind of companion piece for European Jewry; its opening section is thick with a poignant cries from the clarinet (which sound a bit like Stravinsky doing klezmer) cut down by a dark second theme on a remorseless march. The following "Larghetto" section is, however, more ironically haunting than mournful; indeed, the horn is actually taken offstage to call - from what seemed an increasing distance - for a weighing of moral responsibility rather than simple sympathy. The Chameleons seemed to understand the piece through and through, and there was astonishing work from Gary Gorczyca on clarinet (screaming at times from the very top of its range). Still, the sextet's central idea - which I take to be that the horrors of the Holocaust must perforce dwindle into sad historical argument - couldn't quite forestall the awareness that our very distance from the Holocaust somehow doubles back into a second consciousness of our distance from the cultural frame of the Sextet itself. The Chameleons described the piece as one of the first masterpieces of the current century, but it felt like one of the last masterpieces of the last one.

There were no quibbles to be made, however, about the group's final performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1. The trio was written on the cusp of Robert Schumann's suicide attempt (an event of immense personal import to Brahms, who at the impressionable age of 20 was already emotionally entwined with the Schumanns), and then thoroughly revised by the composer some thirty-six years later. The resulting amalgam is somehow like a palimpsest of the essence of Brahms: its surging romantic emotion is controlled and complicated by classical means. But what's perhaps most startling about the trio is its seeming size; this is one of those Brahms chamber works that almost rivals a symphony in scope and power. It's also, despite its title, essentially centered on the cello, and the Chameleons have a superb one in Rafael Popper-Keizer, whose singing tone scanted neither the work's exuberance nor its sobering depths. He was brilliantly supported, however, by violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and pianist Gloria Chien (even if at first Chien had to shake off a little of Penderecki's pallor). The final movement was just as it should be - enveloping and transporting, and the audience showered the Chameleons with approval at its close.