Friday, November 28, 2008

Of love and war, once more

Jennifer O'Connor and Samson Kohanski in Mary's Wedding.

I owe Whistler in the Dark a few notes on their latest, Mary's Wedding, which plays upstairs at the Calderwood through this weekend. I've dragged my feet on walking down the aisle with Mary, however, because I really don't have too much to say about her. I suppose I could be outraged that the Whistlers - long an idealistic bastion of provocative new work - have gone all commercial on me, but I don't blame them (somehow I'm not surprised Howard Barker wasn't paying the bills!).

And to be honest, it's hard to resist the simple, okay, clichéd, charms of Mary. Many may be shocked to discover that I'm a sucker for honest sentiment, but I am, and author Stephen Massicotte knows just how to spin time-tested narrative threads into a delicate yarn of love and war, with a tone that approximately crosses The Glass Menagerie with Our Town.

The play has a slight postmodern gloss, in that it's all happening within Mary's head, but don't worry, this narrative trick is only milked for tears, not formal experimentation, and nothing very surreal or psychologically revealing bubbles up from Mary's subconscious, anyhow. Instead, her "dream" follows roughly the arc of many an honorable wartime tearjerker - and we are, after all, still in a time of war (remember that?). Young Mary, an uppercrust Brit newly arrived on Canada's shores, and her equally young love, Charlie, a handsome innocent who's a crack horseman, meet cute in a thunderstorm (cue foreshadowing), and are soon enjoying bareback horse rides together and reading aloud from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Lady of Shallott" (ohmigod, cue more foreshadowing!). Surprisingly enough, Mary's mother wants nothing to do with this lowly, if hunky, young man, but before that recycled plot can get started, the Great War intervenes, and Charlie is sent to the vasty fields of France with Canada's famous horse brigades. From then on, there really isn't a single surprise in the script, but Massicotte's touch is so light, and his feeling for his secondhand tropes so genuine, that the play never really feels like hackwork; it feels instead like the welcome return of a familiar flower you'd thought had perished long ago.

And the Whistlers tend this unprepossessing little bloom well - indeed, their stripped-down version makes sweet virtue of necessity. In Mary's dreams, she herself impersonates Charlie's new comrades on the battlefield, and Jennifer O'Connor manages this trick with surprising ease - arguably, she's stronger as the sergeant who befriends Charlie than she is as the rather plummily-accented Mary. As Charlie, newcomer Samson Kohanski doesn't bother with a Canadian accent (thank God), but concentrates on this idealized young man's gentle good nature, which he brings off convincingly. Director Meg Taintor keeps things sweet but simple, and so the incipient syrup in some of the scenes never congeals, and she's ably assisted by designer Emily Nichols, who merely dresses the space with appropriate props, and lighting designer Erik Fox, who pulls off several evocative moments with limited means.

Of course the resonance of Mary's Wedding owes as much to our current mood as well as to the play's author and producers. Once again, the country has realized that war is folly, and that the lives of innocent young people have been destroyed by it. It would be nice to pretend that Mary's Wedding is merely a period piece; except, alas, it obviously isn't.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Relatively speaking

Ah, the "two cultures." They seem to be alive and well, even if C.P. Snow's famous formulation of the rift between the sciences and the humanities has been revised almost as often as it has been cited. These days, I suppose, you could best describe the "two culture" divide as being between scientists who continue to insist that their research results in empirical "truth," or at least empirical validity across myriad cultures, and literary intellectuals, who insist that no, science is embedded in culture nonetheless, because - well, I'm not sure why; it does seem that science's validity across every frame of reference (it even works in France!) would silence these people. Indeed, if science were actually embedded in a single cultural frame, the vast international cross-pollination of scientific research that we observe every day would be impossible. But never mind! Have you read Thomas Kuhn? He explains it all for you.

Of course it's not really fair to lay the weight of that ongoing debate on a slight, charming show like Einstein's Dreams (left), now at the Central Square Theatre through December 14. Still, the show does seem to want to be seen in that context. It's being produced by an outfit called Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT, a joint effort between my alma mater and the Underground Railway Theater to "develop new plays about science to provide the general public with a better understanding of our increasingly scientific and technological world." Judging from its first effort, alas, it's so far fallen short of that goal: Einstein's Dreams communicates almost nothing coherent about Einstein, or the Special Theory of Relativity, or the paradoxical nature of space-time in general. Still, it's not a bad evening out - a sweet, light piece of postmodern story theatre that never reaches the scientific sophistication of your average Nova episode, but is diverting, and sometimes even touching, all the same.

The trouble with its larger ambitions, of course, is the same problem that has always dogged the "two cultures" debate: the scientific illiteracy of most humanists. True, many scientists, engineers, and techies in general can seem culturally, or at least socially, retarded; still, a lot of them have read Shakespeare, many more dabble in conceptual or technological art, and most are avid, and sometimes even superb, musicians. They're more than halfway over the "bridge" to the humanities. But try to think of an actor or painter or writer who could hold his or her own at a particle accelerator. You see the problem? The vast majority of our "intellectuals" can rattle on ad infinitum about the mind/body problem or Cartesian dualism, but ask them about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and you'll almost certainly get a blank stare. And you can forget about the actual meaning of the Special Theory of Relativity - tellingly, when an actor in Einstein's Dreams attempted to write down its famous Lorentz transformation, he got the equations wrong (he clearly learned them visually rather than mathematically, rather the way ABBA used to sing its English hits phonetically).

So it seems whenever the two cultures meet, scientists find themselves facing humanists who basically haven't learned even the rudiments of their language; rather obviously, if there's ever going to be a translation of scientific meaning into humanistic meaning, humanists are completely unequipped to do it. Instead, they compensate with a parallel universe of "discourse" - and Einstein's Dreams is, I'm afraid, actually a case in point, although it's clearly well-intentioned (and never irritating). Alan Lightman's original bestseller was a short, light variation on Italo Calvino: a series of metaphoric meditations on "time" that pretended to derive from Einstein's development of the Special Theory. It didn't, of course, not really; Lightman's conceits - a land where time ends, a land where time goes backwards, a land where times goes in circles, etc. - conjured a rarefied melancholy, but said nothing about the actual intellectual challenges posed by Einstein (who never dreams about Hendrik Lorentz or Henri Poincaré, who were actually on his mind; like all pop culture, Dreams insists that Einstein came to his conclusions in an intellectual vacuum rather than an ether). Instead, Lightman's musings were elaborations of common postmodern tropes, that, true enough, grew like dandelions once Einstein had broken the traditional understanding of time. But styled as an evocation of his subconscious during the development of the Special Theory, I'd say they actually obscure the real meaning of Einstein's achievement (if anything, they map a bit better to the dilemmas of quantum mechanics, an entirely different kettle of metaphysical fish).

Which isn't to say that Lightman's skits aren't often damn cute, and sometimes genuinely moving, and are ably acted (at right) by the versatile Debra Wise, Steven Barkhimer, and especially Robert Najarian, who turned Einstein into a graceful commedia acrobat without ever losing some sense of his quiet depth. Director/adaptor Wes Savick gave a good account of the book - he hung on to much of its text verbatim - while Evan Harlan provided an apt live musical soundtrack. And Wen-Ti Tsen's simple set - really just three moving panels - poetically evoked all manner of environments (even cosmic ones).

Best of all, however, Einstein's Dreams concludes with a short talkback with either Lightman himself or an MIT or Harvard professor (depending on the night). The evening I attended, Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek took the stage, looking like he'd just stepped out of central casting, wisps of uncombed hair, tweedy jacket and all. Wilczek, of course, quickly demolished the intellectual pretensions of the play, but in about as gentle a way as one could imagine (while the actors stared into space with fixed, uncomprehending smiles). And the discussion which ensued was probably the most invigorating I can recall in a theatre in years; probably due to Wilczek's presence, the place was full of MIT students, and to put it bluntly, MIT has the highest ratio of brains to b.s. of any college in this benighted burg. For awhile we all breathed the clear, cold air of thoughtful conversation rather than "discourse" - I suppose for me it was something of a nostalgia trip (even though I, too, could no longer write down a Lorentz transform to save my life), but that doesn't mean I'm not grateful.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Has Tom Stoppard gone soft?

Lenin, meet Lennon: René Augesen and Manoel Felciano in Rock 'n' Roll.

Sometimes the set at the Huntington is better than the play it was designed for. At least I'm afraid that's the case with Rock 'n' Roll, this year's model from Tom Stoppard, on the theatre's main stage through December 13. Douglas W. Schmidt's set is fantastic - a gray, Communist-era courtyard, turned on its side so we're gazing up, as if from its drab floor, at a bright patch of empty sky. Here, in a nutshell, is Stoppard's hook: the promise of freedom that rock 'n' roll has always held for anyone, anywhere, trapped in a life of denial.

But then the play starts, and Schmidt's beautiful sketch of an idea slowly drifts through an exegesis so muddled and self-mythologizing that you have to wonder:

Has Tom Stoppard gone soft?

Now I know what you've heard from the other critics: that in this play the author balances his "heart" with his "head." Not really. Oh, the head is chattering away as ever, but basically, whatever the "heart" - or rather the ego - wants it gets in this sometimes witty, and sometimes touching, but ultimately silly pseudo-intellectual epic. And what that heart wants is to imagine that by listening to Syd Barrett and the Rolling Stones, the baby boomers - or perhaps Tom Stoppard himself - brought down the Berlin Wall. Yes, Stoppard has actually borrowed the theme of Rock 'n' Roll from Hairspray (although the conceit of that musical probably had more validity).

But first, a little background. Stoppard's plays (the author, at left) have always been a mix of critique and pastiche - the big ideas in them always came from other people. At his best, however, the playwright conjured stage metaphors for this recycled content that glittered almost as brilliantly as the borrowed ideology. Re-imagining modernism via Oscar Wilde, for instance, is savage and inspired (Travesties), while the landscape that slowly reveals the tension between classicism and romanticism comes to seem heartbreaking (Arcadia).

But eventually Stoppard's method hardened into formula: pull together a group of intellectuals (Lenin, Joyce, A.E. Houseman, Magritte, Bakunin, whoever), find a forum in which they can all intersect (a country house, Zurich, the text of Hamlet), and then set the Oxford Union top spinning (although surprisingly, Stoppard never attended university; like Shaw, he's an autodidact). The results were often dazzling, but it's also been true that when it comes to his own deep desires, Stoppard could suddenly be a little stupid: in Arcadia, for instance, the author insisted that sex would somehow overcome the power of entropy because - well, just because, that's why; because otherwise it would be really too bad.

And alas, much of Rock 'n' Roll is devoted to similarly wishful thinking, much of it driven, perhaps, by regrets regarding his own biography. Born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard was spirited out of the country soon after the Nazis marched in and didn't return until the late 70s. Yet despite this family history of dodging fascism (or perhaps because of it) Stoppard at first insisted proudly on his prerogative to be completely apolitical as a writer: ""I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application," he said early in his career. "They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness."

But it seems a longing for usefulness began to creep up on the playwright anyway. He met Václav Havel in the late seventies, and began to speak out about civil rights abuses in Eastern Europe and in general. And political content - generally anti-Communist, and extolling individual rights - began to appear in works like Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth.

Now, in Rock 'n' Roll, we have a forced union of these two personae - the apolitical libertarian becomes, in effect, the accidental revolutionary. Stoppard's alter ego in the play, Jan, bounces back and forth between Cambridge and Czechoslovakia, arguing for apolitical individualism with England's academic left, all the while becoming more and more drawn to the underground Czech rock scene, his true passion. But alas, his fave band, the Plastic People of the Universe, are eventually arrested, and Jan along with them, because the fact that they blow their minds via secondhand psychedelia is somehow considered a threat to the state (perhaps because such inward noodling refuses to even acknowledge the state).

Years pass; through various slightly-boring intrigues (some involving the Cambridge leftists he once opposed), Jan is freed. And then eventually, Czechoslovakia is freed, too, in the "Velvet Revolution" following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jan once again hooks up (à la Howards End) with the daughter of his opponents in Cambridge, in an atmosphere of tentative, slightly fatuous, mutual forgiveness. And the Rolling Stones play Prague. Rock 'n' roll triumphs. The end.

An early Floyd hit, "See Emily Play," with Barrett goofing on guitar.

And if history were really as simple as the lyrics on a single, Rock 'n' Roll might be convincing in its passion and its pretensions. But alas, it's not. Of course, along the way, there have been many conversations on politics in the incisive Stoppard manner, some ironically diverting, some less so - but the author's overriding theme seems to be that the "spirit" of rock 'n' roll, rather than any particular ideology or course of action, brought down the Wall. What's more, that "spirit" seems to have been embodied most purely in the person of Syd Barrett, one of the founders - and christener (he dreamed up the name) - of Pink Floyd (see above). After contributing much to Floyd's techno-psychedelic sound, however, Barrett sank into psychological instability (see below) and had to be ejected from its ranks - a trauma which inspired much of the band's best work on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here (itself a guilty valentine to Barrett). And now Stoppard has hopped aboard this particular meme, perhaps sensing it could be bent in the service of his usual method, and worked Barrett into the background of his play (Barrett lived in Cambridge until his death; here, the characters are obsessed with him, and he even makes a cameo, perched like Pan on a garden wall).

A very-cute Barrett trips out on magic mushrooms in this home movie.

The insinuation seems to be that it was actually Syd Barrett rather than, say, Václav Havel (or Mikhail Gorbachev!) who brought freedom to Eastern Europe. Which is a sweet, old-fashioned notion that the sharp, old-fashioned Stoppard would have torn to shreds (hence, it's always insinuated rather than actually stated). True, rock 'n' roll's individualism had a particular resonance in Czechoslovakia (its "Lennon Wall" - evoked in photo at top - stood for years as an anti-Communist pop protest). And true too, Syd Barrett was a major figure in rock 'n' roll. And - gasp - Pink Floyd even put out a post-Barrett album called (wait for it) The Wall. But Stoppard's thesis is, alas, rather like seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast on eBay - he pulls together three suggestive coincidences, adds a half-baked case against reductionism (via a touching, but dubious, discussion of the mind-body problem) - and voilà! You're a hero if you bought The Piper at the Gates of Dawn!

Only funny, communists still control China, despite the fact that the Stones keep going through the motions in stadiums across the globe. And after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic rocked on, but sans Slovakia, while much of Eastern Europe melted down economically - and today Russia is essentially held together as a quasi-dictatorship floating on petrodollars. Why can't Syd fix that? And don't Rush Limbaugh - and neo-Nazi skinheads - love rock 'n' roll too? Yes, I think they do, along with ne'er-do-wells the world over. So it's a funny thing, this idea of a "world spirit" of rock - it may match up to the disparate points of personal biography Stoppard has assembled, but does the resulting pastiche really conjure the wider vision of his earlier work? No, not nearly. In fact, I'd argue, it only conjures a nostalgic illusion - and a very narrow one at that, and nowhere more reductive than in its vision of rock 'n' roll itself. Even though the show covers two decades, its soundtrack is almost entirely limited to bands playing during the Prague Spring (essentially the Microsoft version of rock); there's no room in Stoppard's history for punk, or funk, or metal or grunge - well, the list goes on. I suppose you could justify this in terms of the fact that Czechoslovakia seems to have seen rock as frozen in 1968, too - but really, what can you say about a playwright who calls Syd Barrett "the great god Pan" except, "Has he never heard of Prince?"

Okay, so Rock 'n' Roll is a big love letter to self-centered boomers and their 60s-era rock tastes disguised as a thoughtful play. Still, on the bright side, Stoppard has made the disguise pretty elaborate, and the Huntington puts the dialogue over with intelligence, and even at times inspiration, and has dressed the play up beautifully (that set keeps doing wonderful things). And the production features one superb turn, from René Augesen, that is, simply put, the best performance of the Boston season; every actor and actress in this town should see this show, if only to see, once and for all, How It's Done. Please bring back Ms. Augesen in a better play, ye Huntington gods, and as soon as possible, too; if I could see her in Shakespeare, Shaw or Chekhov, I'd die happy. Elsewhere the large cast is a bit more variable, but never below a high standard. Jack Willis manages to keep the part of the blowhard Marxist going, even though Stoppard doesn't give him any top-drawer arguments to make (to be fair, I'm sure there are members of the British left who approximate this character). A somewhat more serious problem registers in the central performance of Manoel Felciano as Jan - Mr. Felciano is a talented actor, but perhaps not quite charismatic enough to hold us through the rambling scenes Stoppard has devised for him (he's not helped by Carey Perloff's slightly vague direction).

And if I sound particularly riled by what I think of as the "bad faith" of Rock 'n' Roll, perhaps that's because the play really couldn't come at a worse time. The heyday of Stoppard's aesthetic position - that of the navel-gazing, hard-rocking libertarian - has suddenly ended. Like so many gods before it, libertarianism has failed, and failed utterly - just check out the Dow Jones if you doubt me. These days everyone is looking toward some revision of the leftist tropes of the New Deal for salvation - and no one more so than the free market players who once used libertarianism for political cover (if the play had one more scene, set in 2008, imagine what an ironic coda it would make!). Tellingly, Syd Barrett (at left, near the end of his life) died just after Rock 'n' Roll premiered in London. If I were Stoppard, I'd take that as an omen.

Maid to order

Joan (Andrea Ross) is blessed by the Archbishop (James Bodge) in Saint Joan.

Stuart Little and Our Town fans must be doing quite the double take at the Wheelock Family Theatre this season: the current mainstage show is Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw, a lengthy late work that's long on dialectic and a little short on family fun.

But hey, I'm not complaining; Boston hasn't seen Saint Joan, I think, since a Huntington production some twenty years ago, and although the play isn't top-drawer Shaw, it still rocks a lot harder than, say, Rock 'n' Roll, the Huntington's latest offering. By some sad coincidence, all the really interesting plays so far this season have been at least twenty-five years old; what that says about our mania for "new work" I'll leave to my readers' imaginations. Suffice to say, three cheers for the Wheelock for resuscitating Saint Joan, and in such handsome form (the subtle, detailed set is by Anita Fuchs) - even if some artistic corners seem to have been cut for the sake of accessibility.

Not that the text seems particularly abridged - but as Joan, the Wheelock has cast the talented Andrea Ross, who's the right age, and with whom the Wheelock's audiences can easily identify, but who's nevertheless utterly wrong for the part. Ms. Ross is a pretty, healthy, modern teenager who's smart but prone to pout; Joan, on the other hand, was a gender-bending live wire whose history-changing charisma no doubt derived - as such power generally does - from unresolved psychological issues. Not only did she hear voices from the Great Beyond (as in my favorite painting of her, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, below), but she was both maniacal about her virginity and all but bent on dressing and acting like a man - in particular, like a warrior (which was far more transgressive in Orleans in 1428 than it is at Newton North today).

It's true that Shaw himself leaves these issues largely unexplored; as always, he's fascinated by feminine charisma without wanting to delve too closely into its sources (catch-all causes like "The Life Force" will suffice). But his larger social thesis - that saints are both necessary and impossible - nevertheless depends on an exciting but insufferable Joan, and it's hard to see how the likeable Ms. Ross could fill that bill. Productions generally rely on older, more experienced actresses to project the requisite intensity - Carl Dreyer's film, for instance (see clip below), which only a few years after Shaw's premiere would eclipse his play - depends in no small degree on the almost frightening commitment of its star, Maria Falconetti.

Dreyer's intense The Passion of Joan of Arc , with Maria Falconetti and Antonin Artaud (climax above).

On the other hand, could the Wheelock's audience relate to such a complex, unstable figure? Hard to say. But I was struck by how closely the kids over 11 or so followed this production - which was a good thing, because without a compelling Joan, a production must rely on the clever combat of Shaw's dialogue. Here the Wheelock actors generally did a solid, but not sparkling, job. Alas, a certain tendency to view congregations of dead white males as necessarily dark in the their intents diluted the moral complexity of the proceedings, and made Shaw's longest debate a bit wearying even for me. Still, several actors brought astonishing conviction to their roles. Shelley Bolman often charmed as the milquetoast Dauphin (the historical one was actually quite a bit less charming - here, as elsewhere in Saint Joan, Shaw re-purposes characters from his earlier hits rather than devising new ones). And there were appealing performances from De'Lon Grant and Gerard Slattery, as well as a detailed and confident - but perhaps too arch - one from Bill Mootos. The most memorable turn, however, came from Luis Negron, whose anguish at the realization that whatever his rationale, he had essentially burnt to death an innocent child, was utterly compelling. Negron's final scenes gave some sense of how powerful even minor Shaw can truly be.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bum rap

From left: Saartjie Baartman; a Victorian bustle; and Kim Kardashian.

"The facts are horrible. The play that Lydia R. Diamond has built from them is beautiful. In the tension between these two conditions lies art."

That's what Louise Kennedy of the Globe said about Voyeurs de Venus, the play by Lydia R. Diamond now wrapping its Boston premiere by Company One. And it would be a very moving statement, if it weren't complicated by the fact that a) playwright Diamond distorts the facts about her subject, Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. "The Hottentot Venus," and b) her play is transparently a piece of propaganda - or really, just a clever career move - rather than "art."

Not that I expect anyone to pay much attention to the real Ms. Baartman, or the actual quality of this show. Agitprop that expertly exploits the politics of its day is always held up, for a time, as pure art, before eventually being re-, and de-valuated. Such will be the case with Voyeurs de Venus. But in the meantime, it's a hit - precisely because it flatters and titillates its audience while appearing to take on a taboo (that show-biz "perfect storm" sought by every showman from P.T. Barnum to Larry Flynt).

So I sat through it the other night in resignation, and accepted the show as a form of (light) penance for all the truly horrific sins against Saartjie Baartman. Only any thoughtful observer would have to conclude that it's a false penance, because Voyeurs doesn't exorcise the exploitation of Ms. Baartman so much as re-animate it - then, it was sold as science; now, it's sold as feminist guilt. To me, that only makes this year's model hypocritical, not beautiful, but I have to admire its marketing. And to be fair, Diamond has constructed a pretty thorough, if fragmented, X-ray of the nexus of sex and race through the juxtaposition of her protagonists, Ms. Baartman and her fictional biographer, Sara Washington (Marvelyn McFarlane and Kortney Adams, at left); she simply has dodged or denied the meaning of that juxtaposition.

And the case of Ms. Baartman is (as usual) far more complex than the playwright would have us know. Diamond keeps insinuating that Baartman was paraded around naked (few scholars agree), was used as a sexual plaything by dozens of men (again, unlikely, although she probably fell eventually into prostitution), and was even transported in a shipping crate (again, a legend). The conditions of her exhibition were degrading enough - she was displayed in form-fitting sheaths, with hanging feathers and ornaments hinting at her supposedly outsized labia (racial sexual differences were a Victorian obsession); and her viewers felt free to poke at her (and she would sometimes hit back).

Still, her sad situation was not unusual - she was only one of many human sideshows in London at the time, and Diamond never clues us in that abolitionists sued for - and won - Baartman's release from her supposed servitude, and raised money for her repatriation(she had been enslaved in South Africa, but slavery was illegal in England). At the trial, however, it was revealed that Baartman was actually not enslaved, but under contract to her exhibitor; she dropped out of sight, then re-surfaced in Paris some years later, being exhibited by an animal trainer, S. Réaux. This marked a new level of de-humanization, and she soon attracted the attention of naturalist Frédéric Cuvier, "the father of anatomy," and posed nude for images for his "Natural History of Mammals," in which she was accorded all the dignity of an ape. Poor Saartjie died only a year later, by differing accounts from syphilis or pneumonia. But her final indignity was to occur post mortem; Baartman had always refused requests to appear naked, or expose her genitalia in public. But after obtaining possession of her corpse, Cuvier issued a detailed report regarding same, and even preserved her genitalia, brain, and skeleton - in fact, her skeleton and a plaster cast of her body remained on display in Paris until the 1970s. Her remains were finally repatriated to South Africa, at Nelson Mandela's request, in 2002, and given proper burial. Amusingly enough, the Musée de l’Homme, which had displayed Baartman for something like a century, replaced her exhibit with one extolling the virtues of "diversity."

Dr. Cuvier goes all medieval on poor Saartjie in Voyeurs de Venus.

Horrifying, no? And certainly worthy of dramatization. But for some reason Diamond feels the need to embellish this grotesque history (above) - in her version, for instance, Cuvier actually poisons Baartman (wasn't he creepy enough already?), and jerks off to descriptions of African genitalia. Meanwhile, the playwright seems hyper-aware of the cultural significance of the "Hottentot Venus" anatomy (the Victorian bustle was only the first of many homages - see Lopez, Jennifer, and Kardashian, Kim), yet can only react to this cultural imagery with horror (her modern heroine dreams about butts and tits repeatedly, then wakes up screaming). And weirdly, Diamond constructs a parallel, modern version of Baartman's story for her lead, but then ignores completely its implications.

This even though the parallels between Diamond's modern-day Sara and back-in-the-day Saartjie are almost too obvious (in case you didn't know, "Saartjie" even means "little Sarah"). Like Little Sarah, Modern Sara senses her professional career depends on her African womanhood, and so she exploits that identity accordingly; only modern Sara is a skinny, "white-acting-and-appearing" Ph.D. who's "beautiful and smart", but worries that people don't really appreciate how articulate she is - about as far from the illiterate "Hottentot Venus" as one could imagine. On the down low, however, Modern Sara's actually emulating her subject: she cheerfully admits to sleeping her way through much of college, and even betrays her (white) husband and beds her (black) editor once she lands the contract to write a big coffee-table book (sorry, "novel" - with pictures) on Little Sarah. Like her subject, she is deep into self-exploitation - only she doesn't seem to realize it; instead, she pisses and moans no end about whether or not she's exploiting Baartman. Of course she's doing that too - she's whoring herself and pimping her subject (as is the playwright). But because she feels all guilty about it, we sense we're expected to forgive her - or at least sympathize.

Today's worshippers of the "Hottentot Venus" are black, not white.

Well, sorry, but count me out; if you don't want to exploit your sister, then don't take the money, honey. To be blunt, Modern Sara is, as she puts it herself, a "narcissistic bitch," and I soon grew tired of her complex regarding those juicier than herself, as well as her phony self-lacerations - and forget about those late-night screams; I mean, when I see tits, even I don't do that! And I kept waiting for Diamond to somehow connect her heroine's inner dialogue with the outer structure she was ensconced in - surely, I thought, the scales are going to fall from this woman's eyes at some point! But no such luck. I sometimes wondered if Diamond didn't intend her entire play as a kind of meta-satire of the collegiate consensus on race and sex; but if so, Company One and its audience don't seem to have connected the dots. Yes, Modern Sara looks a little uncomfortable when she accepts an award for acting as Saartjie's modern-day Cuvier - but does she realize that she's subbing for both exploited and exploiter? I don't think so.

So why, exactly, is this play so internally contradictory? Why does it operate as more of an academic strategy, a kind of PowerPoint presentation onstage, then it does as a drama? Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Diamond seems aware that the imagery of the "Hottentot Venus" is still very much with us, but can't explicitly admit that its racist frame has been turned upside down. The Victorians sublimated Baartman's behind into the bustle; today, women like Ice-T's wife (at left) actually have their derrières surgically enhanced, and show off the results (for awhile, this was the most popular plastic surgery in America). And this new standard of beauty is not being enforced by white colonialists, but by African-Americans themselves. Yet Diamond seems intent on making these sexual images a manifestation of racism, perhaps internalized racism - she just never writes any convincing scenes demonstrating this counter-intuitive thesis.

Indeed, in terms of its seeming themes - and its many dance numbers - the play is both overlong and yet bizarrely underwritten. It proffers one provocation after another - white girls in grass skirts, and Africans in bustles, and minstrel shows and horror movies - but doesn't offer any actual scenes to make sense of them. It's kind of like a grab-bag of ideas sparked by Saartjie Baartman (an academic brain-dump, if you will), without any of the dramatic winnowing and honing and analysis that should have come next. True, I have to say Company One hasn't done badly by the resulting mess. The set (a rotating wheel around an oh-so-symbolic bed) may be noisy, but it's apt, and several performances are thoughtful and striking (including both Saras, Kortney Adams and Marvelyn McFarlane), while others are amusingly tongue-in-cheek (Michael Steven Costello, as the crazily tumescent Cuvier). Others, it's true, are more naively rendered, and director Summer L. Williams doesn't really know what to make of this thematic car crash - still, she keeps things moving, and there's certainly always something to watch (entrails, boobs, you name it). But I couldn't help but think, as the curtain fell, of poor Saartjie Baartman. She's still waiting for a real play to do her justice - and a real playwright, too.

Put this on your cool list

Buddhist monks in Thailand have built a temple out of Heineken bottles. This puts a whole new spin on reincarnation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Acid dreams

Mrs. Barker (Kelly Rauch ) gets comfy in The American Dream.

It seems in Boston these days you have to go off the grid to find a theatre willing to tackle plays of real intellectual challenge. Our larger houses are currently diddling with the likes of Rock 'n' Roll or The Santaland Diaries, so it's comforting to see that companies on the fringe are still risking their rent checks on truly edgy (if older) material like Albee's The American Dream and Pinter's One for the Road, presented through this weekend by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater.

And if this double bill isn't quite a dream come true, Theatre on Fire's effort is still a provocative and engrossing take on two plays that haven't lost their power to trouble (and even shock) the conscience. Indeed, what's interesting about this twofer is how even though you couldn't call them cutting-edge (there's nothing formally new in the Pinter, and the Albee has already inspired a thousand skits on Saturday Night Live), they nevertheless still cut deep. Not much has really changed, it would seem, in our alienated national psyche since the 1961 premiere of Dream. And of course torture, the topic of One for the Road, never really took root in American soil until the Bush administration (and if you're confident the incoming president is going to change all that, you may want to think twice).

It is, of course, this rise in American sadism that provides a rough correspondence between Dream and Road - Albee reveals the essential emptiness of American life, and Pinter muses on what would eventually fill that vacuum. Still, the two operate in very different modes, and Theatre on Fire proves most at home with the bald satire of Dream. Albee described his play as ""an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." And all that's pretty relevant today - American life still isn't peachy-keen, and more than ever consists of ritualized seduction, competitive consumption and violence, disguised by mores and "morals" that still ring hilariously hollow.

Thus "Mommy" and "Daddy" in The American Dream are first seen in an absurdist theatrical space borrowed from Ionesco, sunnily enjoying their own vapid contentment; a hot topic is the difference between the colors "beige" and "wheat" (although in the witty set design, most everything, including the characters, is white). They're soon joined by an even more aggressively self-satisfied neighbor, Mrs. Barker, the president of the local ladies' club, who's more than happy to strip off her clothes (above) if she's asked politely. There's only one fly in all this honeyed ointment - the cantankerous, truth-telling Grandma, whom Mommy and Daddy are hoping to bundle off with "the Van Man." But it isn't long before Albee is grafting these caricatures onto his own life story - Mommy and Daddy once had a secret adopted son (Albee was just such a child), whom they found unsatisfactory as a product, and so essentially tortured to death. But his replacement is just over the horizon - the hunk whom Grandma immediately recognizes as "the American Dream": handsome, hot, eager to please, and as empty as his admirers. The play ends on an upbeat note (of sorts), with Grandma's escape, and everything even dreamier at home than it ever was before.

Theatre on Fire's Artistic Director Darren Evans generally knew how to keep Albee's bitter laughs coming, although he may have pitched this dystopic vision at slightly too high and arch an angle (Mommy in particular, I think, given the tales surrounding Albee's adoptive mother, should be a crueller force to be reckoned with). Still, within those limits, there was smartly poised work here from Christine Power as Mommy and Kelly Rauch as Mrs. Barker, while Ann Carpenter got in her hearty licks as Grandma. I had more doubts, however, about Terrence P. Haddad's perversely blank American Dream; this blatant symbol (in a playpen of blatant symbols) should still operate as something of a character, sniffing out the opportunities in his new environment, and only slowly revealing that beneath his Marlboro Man exterior, there's no "there" there. But Mr. Haddad played the role as a void from the get-go, which I think subtly undercut Albee's climax.

Similar interpretive problems sometimes dogged the more problematic One for the Road. The piece, written as a cri de coeur against American-sponsored torture in the developing world, depends on a charismatic, densely-layered performance in the central role of "Nicolas," the cultured torturer toying between sessions with his abused victims (Pinter took the part himself on several occasions, to great acclaim). But in this admittedly challenging role, the talented Jeff Gill (at left, with Craig Houk) connects with the material only intermittently, perhaps due to the way director Evans has styled the piece.

Hard as it may to believe, One for the Road, like all Pinter, is a veiled power game, even if torture victims would seem at first blush to be utterly powerless. But Pinter's great insight is that within the consciousness of the torturer, who has, of course, unleashed the unspeakable within himself, they have accrued a moral power as great as his own cruelty, and thus pose a terrible psychological challenge. Evans (and Gill), however, concentrate on the superficial horrors of Pinter's exchanges - through which we glean hints of what, exactly, has been done to chief victim "Victor" and his family. This certainly sends shivers up and down the audience's collective spine, but the warped interior of "Nicolas," with its self-righteous core ("I'm making the world clean for God!" he insists) streaked with eroticism and sudden veins of panic, remains largely unlimned. Likewise, Craig Houk, while essaying Victor's terror and abused psyche expertly, never quite captures the victim's growing attempts to understand, and even battle, his captor. This gap is understandable, perhaps, but really too bad - it would have been nice to pair an American dream with an American mirror.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sacred music gets its groove on

Jane Ring Frank in action.

You go to a Boston Secession concert expecting two things: 1) the cleanest choral sound in town, and 2) the smartest, most adventurous programming anywhere, courtesy of Jane Ring Frank (above), the chorale's charismatic leader (think Cambridge's answer to Sarah Palin, only with brains and talent). At last Saturday's concert, "The Sacred Imagination," however, we didn't always get enough of #1, at least not at first, due to a miscalculation on Frank's part in the arrangement of her singers. She made up for this misstep in the second half of her program, however, which was given over to Alfred Schnittke's brilliant Requiem, a lengthy, rarely-heard funeral Mass that it seems Boston Secession was born to sing, in that it's both deeply serious and yet deeply - well - funky; in a word, funeral music with a groove.

But first, the bad news. The concert's opening number, Bach's Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, lacked the clarity Boston Secession is known for, largely because Frank had arranged her singers into quartets rather than blocks (all the sopranos together, all the tenors together, etc.), and the great joy of Bach is his brilliant counterpoint. That rolling sense of intersecting contrapuntal lines, however, tends to dissolve in resonant vaults like those of First Congregational Church (this was a problem last month for the superb Collegium Vocale Gent, too, which also sang in quartets), and with each fugual "voice" essentially scattered, Boston Secession simply couldn't overcome the laws of acoustics (and oddly, their organ and cello accompaniment sometimes sent an unexpected overtone through the mix).

If, of course, Frank and Boston Secession were aiming for a "blended" sound rather than a contrapuntal one - well, we've tried that now, so we don't have to do it again! Certainly there was nothing wrong with Frank's direction of the chorus per se - she gave the piece a joyful lilt, and adjusted the mood appropriately to her next piece, Brahms's more sober (and Bach-derived, though perhaps more canonical than contrapuntal) "O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf."

The singing got better still in the second half, although perhaps here the "adventurous programming" side of the Boston Secession equation took center stage. Although Frank tried to tie Alfred Schnittke to the German tradition of Bach and Brahms in her pre-concert "lecture" (another staple of Secession concerts), this seemed to me something of a red herring (although it's true enough that Schnittke was of German descent, and his work sounds vaguely like German Shostakovich). To be blunt, there's simply a strange, uncrossable chasm between the German choral tradition and Schnittke's eccentric "polystylism," which tries to meld ancient modes, modern harmonics, and pop percussion - and, believe it or not, largely succeeds. And unlike the Bach or Brahms, Schnittke's Requiem faced death squarely, with a mix of poignant mourning and something close to horror - in fact, we half-expected to hear the squeal of an opening tomb during the "Dies Irae" or the "Tuba mirum." The chorus (re-arranged, thank God, into blocks) was riveting throughout, as were soloists Jason McStoots, Jennifer Ashe, Mary Gerbi, Adriana Repetto, and counter-tenor Martin Near (who doubled on bass!). There were a few balance problems with the amplified instruments, but the larger revelation was how startlingly well the electric bass and guitar blended into Schnittke's doomy, fraught soundscape. And what can you say about a "Credo" that has a backbeat except, "Well, why shouldn't the Credo have a backbeat?" It would take more than one hearing to fully assess or analyze this strangely compelling piece of music, but my hat is off to Boston Secession for bringing it before the public. Here's hoping we hear it again, and often.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Christmas with the Devil

Billy Meleady battles his demons - literally - in The Seafarer. Photos by Mike Lovett.

My friend Art Hennessey and I sometimes ruminate on the problem of assessing the value of plays per se when we can only perceive them through the shifting screen of performance (and no, reading it to yourself in your study is no substitute for performance, all you armchair Shakespeareans). Pompous thing that I am, I like to imagine that I can sense the quality of a text "through" such vagaries - at least to some extent. And while I'm not about to abandon that position (do I ever abandon my positions?), the new SpeakEasy Stage production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer (now through Dec. 13 at the BCA) does give me some new perspective on the problem.

First, some background. Last year I caught the New York premiere of McPherson's latest, under the direction of the author himself, with a cast which he had (mostly) brought with him from across the pond. The seasoned ensemble fit their roles just about perfectly, and the only actor I had qualms about - TV star David Morse, in the lead - always held up his end of the script, and managed to be quite gripping at its terrible climax. And in retrospect, it's clear that as director, McPherson perceived every weakness in his play - really his first fleshed-out, plot-driven drama - and disguised them well, punching up the action here or there, adding a song, and generally cutting against the material's depressing squalor with spry black humor.

Now perhaps it's unfair to compare a Broadway production to a Boston one - but then again, Scott Edmiston managed a re-thinking of Light in the Piazza that held up well to the New York original, so perhaps it isn't that unfair. And it must be admitted that much of the time, in the SpeakEasy version from director Carmel O'Reilly, The Seafarer is oft at sea, and only a shadow of its Broadway self. In short, this is one of the strongest plays SpeakEasy has done in years, yet it's one of their weaker productions.

True, some of the drama still works - not as devastatingly as it did on Broadway, mind you; but McPherson's spooky little fable about Christmas with the Devil has moments that are powerful enough to be director- and actor-proof, and at these climaxes for the most part O'Reilly stays out of the way. But elsewhere her lack of craft is evident as ever (she ran the ill-fated Súgán Theatre company, whose demise some people have blamed on my negative reviews). Once again, O'Reilly doesn't adequately block her scenes (but spreads her actors across the space at roughly 10-foot intervals), has little sense of pace or dramatic flow, and is generally so earnestly downbeat in her approach that it never occurs to her to cut against the surface of a play; one would never guess, for instance, from this gently dour version, at the wickedly antic tone McPherson brought to his foul first act.

Or maybe this is just a guy thing; maybe a woman could never perceive that alcoholism can be fun (although something tells me some women perceive that only too well!). But that cynical perception is key to The Seafarer - the lost souls drifting on a sea of spirits in McPherson's dingy flat are literally blind with drink, but they're that way because they enjoy it, and without that spark of pleasure the first act seems meandering and repetitious (because, perhaps, McPherson's dramaturgy is sometimes rather rough carpentry; prior to this he has written extended monologues). Only the central character, Sharky (Billy Meleady), is resisting the siren call of the bottle, and he's battling his demons with little support from his blinded brother Richard (Bob Colonna), or his nearly-daft neighbor Ivan (Larry Coen), who can only focus on scoring another wee drop as they slouch toward a particularly pathetic Christmas Eve.

But then a real demon shows up, in the person of Mr. Lockhart, a friendly chap who's stopped in for a card game. Only the suave stranger is hardly what he seems, and what's at stake in the last hand depends on a promise Sharky made long ago, in a prison cell - and the only thing he has to throw in the kitty this time is his mortal soul. It's a neat, time-tested set-up, and McPherson's sure touch somehow makes it all credible; the lights flicker once or twice, Mr. Lockhart hints at knowledge no human could possess, and we're suddenly transported back to the campfires of our youth, spellbound by tales of encounters with Old Nick. What gives this pitch fresh punch, of course, is its haunting resonance with Sharky's alcoholism, and his guilt at how it has ruined his life. He deserves to lose his soul - he's all but thrown it away anyhow - and he knows it. And Lockhart's vision of the cold loneliness of Hell is as utterly familiar to him as it is to anyone who's turned to the bottle for comfort (as McPherson, himself a former alcoholic, knows well).

It's these postcards from the afterlife, in fact, that make The Seafarer so memorable; soliloquy is McPherson's forte, and this time he's given the devil more than his due - Satan's evocation of not an inferno but a frozen waste, where the soul is confined forever in a space smaller than a coffin, may give you nightmares at least until Christmas. But what's most striking about this vision of the damned is its sense of desolate loss, its forlorn solitude. What makes Hell hell, Lockhart (or "locked-heart") insists, is that there's no one there to love you - just as there's no one to love the alcoholic - and we suddenly feel sympathy for the Devil when we perceive he feels nothing more keenly than his own loss of God. "Why does he love you, and not me?" he hisses, and his eternal hatred of all things human suddenly seems all too natural, and darkly tragic.

Or rather it would, except that director O'Reilly has made the mistake of casting her old colleague Derry Woodhouse as Lockhart; Mr. Woodhouse has his resources, but his essential gentleness is almost the polar opposite of what we expect from Old Scratch, and his (admittedly creepy) soft-spokenness makes him come off as a possible child molester, not a fallen angel. Compounding this problem is that as Sharky, the talented Billy Meleady (left, with Woodhouse) gives such a recessed performance that we never even guess at the springs of affection which could still redeem him from his fate. The rest of the cast is on firmer footing, although they can only support, not save, the play, and even here none of the performances had fully cohered by press night. As the blind and stingingly funny Richard, Bob Colonna gives probably the most satisfying performance, although he was hampered by memory problems and relied on a certain generically irascible attitude; still, I felt as his interpretation grew more lived-in and specific it could mature into something memorable. The reliable Larry Coen was likewise halfway there as the dazed, dorky Ivan; Coen understood the role, but hadn't yet spun it into the shambling piece of whimsy it has the potential to become. Meanwhile, as fifth wheel Nicky, Ciaran Crawford seemed competent and looked just right, but again hadn't begun to explore the feckless vanity of this seedy ladies' man.

The physical production was likewise slightly uninspired. Perhaps sensing the menace gap in the central role, sound designer Benjamin Emerson leaned heavily on the old whistling-wind sound effects, and lighting designer John Malinowski piled on the spooky lighting cues. J. Michael Griggs had a fairly good idea in suggesting Hell via a boarded-up, empty attic, but in spreading his set across the breadth of the Roberts Studio he inadvertently contributed to the show's lack of focus. Perhaps these all sound like small things. But I'm afraid with this play, the devil really is in the details.

What I saw at City Hall

At Saturday's protest before City Hall. Photo by Beth Adelson.

I could only stay at the Prop. 8 protest for about half an hour on Saturday (before scooting off to Saint Joan), but even those few minutes were enough to lift all the gloom (and more) that the Catholics and Mormons can dish out. I left feeling for the first time that yes, full civil rights for people like me are, indeed, not a long shot but inevitable. What made the difference? The scores of straight people - almost all young - at the protest. In the rain. With homemade signs supporting my rights, not theirs. There were a few straight folks at the State House protests back at the start of the marriage struggle (along with, I kid you not, nuns praying on their knees and even a guy dressed as Jesus dragging a full-size cross back and forth). But nothing like this. The dark forces in Rome and Salt Lake City are powerless before this generational shift, I think. As for the black community - well, just try to find a person of color in that photo up there (there were a few, but not many). When will African-Americans look in the mirror and realize their mistake on today's great civil rights question? Maybe not for years. But then again, maybe we won't need them, either.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Show me the money

Not so fast! Sarah Newhouse, Robert Walsh and Jeremiah Kissel hold that thought in The Merchant of Venice. (Photos by Stratton McCrady.)

Last week, Phoenix theatre sybil Carolyn Clay opined that "Naming The Merchant of Venice after Antonio is like naming Medea after Jason." Hmmm. Earth to Carolyn: it's not usually a good idea to bet against the Bard's artistic decisions. And I'll let you in on a little secret: The Merchant of Venice is named after Antonio, its eponymous businessman, because he is the play's haunted center, its slippery, unstable moral fulcrum. Portia and Bassanio, the young lovers Lorenzo and Jessica, even Shylock himself, all inhabit competing side shows branching from, or orbiting, his central thematic pillar. Many of Shakespeare's plays circle questions that are never answered, and in fact defy solution: "Why is Hamlet feigning madness?" "Why does Iago hate Othello?" In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio operates as a kind human factotum for a similar thematic question; he is the play's contradictory heart made flesh. So if you ain't got Antonio, you ain't got The Merchant of Venice.

And the Actors' Shakespeare Project ain't got Antonio; hence their current production of this problematic, but always compelling, comedy is no more than intermittently interesting, despite a daringly nasty turn as Shylock from Jeremy Piv - oops, I mean Jerry Kissel! The production gets into trouble the way many honorable productions do: by exploiting Shylock as a proxy for our modern horror at anti-Semitism, and then allowing said horror to overwhelm (or replace) the thematic complexity of the drama. This, of course, is understandable in a production whose director and star have made much of the fact that they are practicing Jews; and for us Gentiles, it allows us to feel good about the fact that we're not Nazis (some of us are just Republicans, that's all). And I suppose director and star deserve credit for going where goyim would fear to tread, and making their Shylock an obvious jerk - even a stereotypically crass, greedy "Jewish" jerk (albeit in subtle air quotes); this is arguably the most anti-Semitic interpretation of the character I've ever seen. But a new twist on Shylock by itself doesn't allow audiences to limn the cultural conundrums that Shakespeare explores in Merchant. And in a weird way, it actually lets Christianity itself - Shakespeare's real target - off the moral hook.

But don't get me wrong: The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, no question, and any production must grapple with, and somehow justify its existence against, this content. But it is that very rare beast, an anti-Semitic tract written by a man who is obviously not, personally, anti-Semitic. (This should be your first clue that something very strange is going on in The Merchant of Venice.) Compare the play, for instance, to Marlowe's blood-curdlingThe Jew of Malta, and you suddenly realize that Shakespeare effected nothing less than a revolution in the stage treatment of Jews. True, his characters routinely spout anti-Semitic epithets, and Shylock is at some level a kind of object (as all the characters are) in a carefully-constructed dramatic paradox. But it is no exaggeration to say that Shylock is not only one of the most potent characters in literature, but also a great tragic figure (stuck in a romantic comedy!). Indeed, he's basically the first draft for Lear, arguably the greatest tragic figure in Western culture. And no anti-Semite would ever write a tragic Jewish character; bigotry just doesn't work that way.

Certainly this jarring dichotomy between character and context is part of what has kept the play alive for, lo, four hundred years. But the Actors' Shakespeare Project, and director Melia Bensussen, essentially undo its underlying tension and turn it into a hip, downtown version of Free to Be You and Me (crossed with Entourage). Although in Bensussen's vision, it seems you're only really free to be you and me if you're heterosexual and white. For Bensussen lets pass the play's racist moments (yep, Shakespeare throws a few of those to the crowd, too) seemingly sans comment (she gives some of them to an African-American actor, which oddly enough makes them more, rather than less, palatable). And via Robert Walsh's unpleasant non-performance as Antonio, she gelds the Bard's most complex and subtle portrait of a gay man (my tribe, by the way); in her panic to attack anti-Semitism, she seems to forget all about homophobia.

Now okay, maybe Antonio's not gay - maybe he's just a heterosexual man passionately in love with another man (Bassanio). Whatever. But whether or not he's a pitcher or a catcher, Antonio has to be in love, or The Merchant of Venice makes no sense, as at a deep level it's a meditation on the paradoxical co-existence of love and money. Essentially, Shylock keeps love and money separate, while Antonio, like Christian culture in general, mixes them promiscuously; indeed, he tries to make money "breed" not more money but love; seen in this way, he and Shylock are mirrored, rather than identical, twins (a constant trope in Shakespeare). But because Bensussen can only see the "money" half of this equation, she makes Antonio and Shylock alike only in that they're both assholes (whereas in most productions they're anything but). Hence Walsh's Antonio, rather than being melancholic or neurotic, is cold, arrogant, and derisive - he doesn't hate Shylock because he subconsciously perceives his moral challenge, he hates Shylock simply because he's a prick. And Jeremiah Kissel's Shylock is equally priapic; like, yes, Ari Gold, he's a walking psychological tic, obsessed with besting Christian contempt via high-octane, cynical comedy.

The only problem is that said "contempt" isn't actually part of the play; this ongoing showdown, manic as it is, is extra-curricular; it has to do with the text's milieu rather than the text itself (which is actually putting Christianity under a far more probing microscope). And Kissel's strategy - which is sometimes virtuosic technically - utterly misses much of Shylock's emotional resonance. For surprisingly enough, Shylock is a deeply romantic figure: he loves his religion, and the daughter who betrays him, and his lost wife, and even (a bit) his bigoted Christian servant. Indeed, because he's so hard-boiled, we have more trust in Shylock's love than in anyone else's in the play. Perhaps the text's most devastating moment, in fact, comes when he discovers his daughter has bartered a family ring for a monkey; a ring which "I had of Leah when I was a bachelor," he whispers. Rings loom large in this play, as seals of romantic love, and symbols of the kind of "bond" we are forbidden to break (unlike the perverse contract on Antonio's flesh). Indeed, in that one moment, as in a flash of lightning, Shakespeare subtly up-ends his whole structure, and lets us know that Shylock was secretly truer to love than Bassanio or Antonio proves to be; but in the ASP version of the play, the impact of the moment goes missing; it's just a sad grace note.

Like much of the production, unfortunately; indeed, I began to lose track of the missed opportunities in this performance. Jessica never seemed to notice that her new Christian friends weren't very Christian, and Lorenzo's discourse on music, itself one of the Bard's most lyrical songs, here came out pretty flat. Likewise Bassanio, played as a total "dude" (Robert Serrell, with Sarah Newhouse, above left) lacked even the interest of his own mysterious affections, and didn't seem much moved either by his mistress or by Antonio's predicament. And an entire thematic level had gone missing, too - that is, the theme of generational duty in which Jessica and Portia are mirrored (Jessica betrays her father, Portia honors hers); in fact the director entirely cut the early comic scene which announces the theme. So much for that, I suppose.

So what's left of The Merchant of Venice in the ASP version? Well, the usual drifting staging we expect from postmodern Shakespeare, dressed up in vintage or club clothing (another cliché by now; designers, please stop shopping at the Garment District!). The exciting space at Midway Studios is at least always interesting (and works best for the shadowy Venice of Jessica's escape), but could have been far more interesting with more focused lighting. There's one very good, broad performance from Doug Lockwood as Aragon; he does the standard schtick in the role (speech impediment, femme pomposity) but invests it with such commitment that it works, as usual. Meanwhile, the talented Marianna Bassham heads back to the trailer park for her interpretation of Nerissa - as she has for many roles - but still keeps the laughs coming, while Michael Forden Walker puts an interestingly low-key, slimy spin on her trashy new hubby. In what's arguably the lead, Sarah Newhouse makes a smart but somewhat superficial Portia; she's all sparkling, ribald intelligence - quite the convincing junior partner - but betrays few romantic (rather than sexual) depths, and even less in the way of real wisdom. Then again, the poor woman was fighting her costume for half the show (a tiger-striped halter top circa 1975, above left); no wonder she looked unwise! But then maybe out in Belmont you can't find a wardrobe for love or money.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How Marjorie garbles the issue of art in the academy

A few weeks ago an article in the Globe's "Ideas" section by Harvard's Marjorie Garber (looking nobly far-sighted at left) caught my eye - and I'm sure a few others in the Boston area; yet I've read little discussion of it since. Titled "Higher Art," the piece dealt with the question of how universities could, or should, integrate the arts into their curricula - and thus, at a slight rhetorical remove, with the local question of how Harvard might further address this issue in its own curriculum, by even, perhaps, finally establishing a School for the Arts (a need that's often been discussed in this blog). Thus the piece was probably scanned with interest by those Bostonians wondering if and how Harvard might make its big move.

But alas, the article gave at least this reader great cause for concern. I've read Professor Garber's writing with interest before (and even attended a class or two of hers), but I have to say on this question she exhibited little of the intelligence or insight she has routinely displayed in her field of expertise. One wonders, based at least on these few tea leaves, what rude beast might even now be slouching toward Allston/Brighton to be born.

For while I think it's only appropriate to expect that an article subtitled "Universities should become society's great patrons of the arts" might present some sort of argument backing up said claim, Garber offers really nothing in the way of argument, but only a series of gently pretentious proclamations. She begins with the observation that today it's the "visual intellectuals" like Jeff Koons (self-portrait with former wife, above left) who are the big draws at Harvard, rather than dead literary has-beens like Jacques Derrida and boring old T.S. Eliot (at right). Yet the work of these new celebrities, Garber notes, "has not reached a comparable importance in the curriculum," an apparent injustice which leads her to wonder aloud, "what should the role of art be in the modern university?"

A heady question, surely - and it's at least possible that the answer might be that the role of the arts should be reduced in the university. But Garber doesn't ponder her query too long; only a short paragraph later, she's suggesting that "it may be that the time has come for the university to become a patron of the arts, embracing and funding the actual making of art on a new scale . . . [and] integrating the arts into the main intellectual mission of the school."

Yeah, but maybe that time hasn't come, Professor. Maybe instead the time has come to make such a case rather than blithely assume it. But why bother with a knotty debate when one can breathlessly opine that "the making of art . . . belongs in the university . . . nothing could be more central to the life of the university"? Indeed, Garber's not even fazed by the fact that what she's proposing is "a rethinking of what constitutes academic work."

In the tired old traditional definition, of course, "academic work" had to do with something called "truth," and was generally construed as research into an empirically defined subject, to reveal something physically verifiable, or historically valid, or at least logically sound. Of course a school for the arts can meet most of those criteria via instruction in technique or repertoire, with contemporary artists prominently featured as visiting or adjunct professors. That's pretty much the conservatory model. But that's not what Garber has in mind.

And here's where things get interesting, because Garber begins to balance a project of truly epic scale on thin, or even non-existent, pretexts. She tiptoes around the issue of actual tenure for practicing artists - mentioning that "the arts do not lend themselves easily to tenurable standards" - yet also suggests that universities should bring to bear on the arts their "institutional traditions of judgment, peer review, and freedom of ideas" and should give artists "a home during the prime of their careers." To me, that says something a lot like "tenure," but Garber never quite utters the fateful word. In an artful dodge, she instead asserts that "In thinking about how universities can take a more ambitious approach to the arts, we can find a useful model in how society approaches science."

Yes, Garber is calling for a "Big Art" establishment to match the "Big Science" establishment, with its "big staffs, big budgets, big priorities, and big place within the intellectual and fiscal economy of the university." Surely such a false analogy between art and science could only be proposed by someone who doesn't, really, understand science, and sure enough, Garber is soon babbling that "As with scientists, artists' work is theory in practice, marked by repetition, experiment, the exploration and testing of materials and technology, and the imaginative as well as the actual configuration of time and space." Re-reading that, I don't know whether to laugh or cry - "the imaginative as well as actual configuration of time and space"! Could this woman sound more silly?

Still, it's worth noting that despite its big staffs and big budgets, "Big Art" is apparently supposed to be institutionalized sans tenure. And here perhaps is Garber's one bow to the the actual intellectual justifications of "Big Science." Because the salient difference between art and science, of course, is that artistic "experiments" aren't really experiments in any rigorous sense at all; they have no hypotheses, and there are no externally verifiable results. The fact that we call so much art "experimental" is simply in deference to artists' desire for the prestige that long ago attached to science as its methods proved so fruitful. But there is no corresponding "method" to art, and thus no chain of discovery or systemic theoretical development - and hence any "knowledge" derived from artistic "experiments" is essentially chimerical (or at least political). Therefore while pretensions to tenure for purely artistic work may satisfy postmodern literary and critical desires, they simultaneously undermine the very arguments for academic freedom on which the concept of tenure rests. And in practical terms, it seems unlikely that tenure would benefit the arts, given that the vast majority of tenured professors, as surveys routinely show, actually produce little controversial or cutting-edge work, and the tenure process itself leads to paralyzing group-think. (Certainly in Harvard's case, its recent record in new architecture and public art gives one little faith in its ability as a patron.) In short, tenure would probably be bad for both the university and the arts. Artists should not - and must not - be tenured, at least if you want the arts to remain at least as interesting and free as they currently are.

But that still leaves open the question of "Big Art" - or at least what exactly makes "Big Art" different from what universities do already. Sometimes, in fact, Garber's proposals sound surprisingly modest - at one point she says, "Universities would create open spaces for art-making, with natural light, high ceilings, flexible flooring (for dance and other performance activities), and acoustic sophistication." Uh - does she mean a studio? This is about Harvard building some studios?

Elsewhere, however, Garber makes it clear that the facilities of a mere "conservatory" just won't do; instead, she announces that "Big Art" should involve "world-changing projects" that are "international in scope" and depend on "expensive, delicate and complicated tools and equipment." Really, I'm not making this up; Garber is actually calling for tens, or maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars to be invested in huge, international projects that will result in - well, who knows, but whatever it is, it will be BIG, and the artists will no doubt agree that it's great, and that it constitutes "progress." Celebrities will no doubt be involved, and perhaps the professors who mix with them will even become celebrities themselves! (Above left, more from Garber's favorite "visual intellectual," just because I get a kick out of thinking how big his "art" could get with a few million from Harvard.)

Most of this, of course, is simply the same kind of air-headed rhetoric used to promote movies and TV shows. But beneath the afflatus, the kernel of Garber's proposal seems to be something like this: universities should hire artists to produce sponsored work on a grand scale. She argues for this proposal by vague, and often false, analogy: art is like science (wrong), or at least like applied science (wrong again), or at the very least "gives pleasure, and provokes thought" (okay) and is "cross-disciplinary" and "advanced" and "collaborative" and other good stuff.

But Garber never honestly tackles the real questions at the heart of her proposal. If, for example, artists aren't really "tenurable," if their work actually cannot be evaluated by academic standards, then under what rubric should they become "academics" anyhow? And if they are not hired as academics, but as applied practitioners, like, say, the employees of MIT's Lincoln Lab, or the Broad Institute, or other redoubts of "Big Science," then how, precisely, should their work be rewarded, or evaluated? The investment in these institutions was justified practically, by actual technological and economic advance. Art has no such standards, and Garber offers no blueprint for developing them. And she never begins to ponder the circular aspects of an academy which studies a culture which it itself is producing. It's likewise hard to believe that vague prophesies of "progress" will cut the mustard in a funding environment facing the restrictions of the coming recession. Put all these issues together, and somehow I think the proponents of "Big Art" will need a more thoughtful spokesperson than Marjorie Garber.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Deconstructing Hoffmann

Offenbach abandons his pedestal in Tales of Hoffmann.

Every season has its landmark artistic moments - the ones you know you'll remember for years to come. The Boston Lyric Opera production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann is one such moment: it's perhaps not quite as great as BLO's previous pinnacle, the Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson Xerxes from the mid-90s, but in some ways it's actually more intellectually satisfying than even that best-of-the-decade production. It will be remembered as one of the artistic high points of the year, and you are advised to catch one of its remaining performances.

That it has been somewhat under-praised locally merely reminds one that the BLO doesn't get much respect in this provincial burg, perhaps because something of the atmosphere of the "passionate," red-sauce opera house, in which La bohème and Madama Butterfly are in endless rotation, still clings to it. For years, of course, BLO was held back by the ire of the Globe's Richard Dyer, who openly longed for the resurrection of Sarah Caldwell's operatic career, and seemed to see Boston Lyric as a kind of vulgar upstart to be crushed. And now that the divine Sarah, alas, is no more, local opera goers have begun to look to Opera Boston for more challenging (or obscure) musical fare - even though that company's recent productions have been musical disappointments. Still there's some truth in the conventional wisdom about the two group's respective programming; Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann certainly fits neatly into the been-there-done-that "Greatest Hits" opera bin. Every now and then, however, Boston Lyric knocks a warhorse out of the park - most often in co-productions with other companies, in which it can marshal more substantial resources. And Hoffmann (co-produced with companies in St. Louis and Colorado) is one of those home runs - it's been completely rethought and re-invigorated by its design and directing team, and is for the most part beautifully sung, and so prances onstage like nobody's business.

Indeed, the high spirits of the production, I think, somewhat belie its artistic rigor. The design/direction team, Renaud Doucet and André Barbe (who come as a unit), has eschewed the atmosphere of erotic fantasy we usually associate with Hoffman, and has instead worked out a playful, slightly surreal approach that leans towards the tropes of Jules Verne (a contemporary of Offenbach): what look like slices of the Eiffel Tower decorate the painted drops, and a chunk of the Gare (now Musée) d'Orsay is often center stage (above). Essentially the production occurs in a kind of science-fiction transit station, through which Hoffmann moves from one technical illusion to another.

This emphasis on technology may surprise traditionalists, but it's actually a deep comment on the opera's milieu; not for nothing is the first love of the eponymous Hoffmann a mechanical doll. The appetite for technical gratification was probably born in the nineteenth century, and was nowhere more intense than in Paris, a hotbed of scientific investigation and expositions, and, perhaps not coincidentally, also the acknowledged center of legal prostitution. And what, in the end, was the courtesan but a kind of living implement of pleasure? Tellingly, Doucet and Barbe make puppets a recurring motif in their production - even a tomb becomes a giant one - and they turn the mechanical Olympia (below) into not just a toy but a sex toy (while in the Venetian interlude, the pleasure-boats themselves are built of women's bodies).

Gerard Powers falls hard for Georgia Jarman's Olympia.

This is only one of the production's intellectual gambits, however - indeed, there are too many cleverly resonant staging ideas here to count (although to be honest, a few are a bit too broad). Picking up on the self-referential nature of the story (Offenbach saw his own life story in E.T.A. Hoffmann, who made himself the teller of his fantastic Tales), Doucet and Barbe throw Offenbach himself into the action, in the form of a statue (those dolls again) who steps out of his own memorial, along with the monuments to virtue who become his companions. Soon he's even picking up the occasional aria or, Proust-like, managing some stage business (at the finale, he's even "killed" by his own creation). The end result of all this is a physical production that actually achieves what opera is always supposed to do: that is, produce an artistic effect in which every aspect of the performance (and not merely the musical or dramatic ones) is integral.

Creator is killed by his creation at the climax of Tales of Hoffmann.

Which doesn't mean this Tales isn't often musically superb - although, it does, I have to admit, suffer from a slight gap in its lead role. Tenor Gerard Powers has a clarion top to his voice, but a less burnished middle, and while he's at home in the role's knowing comedy, he is not, perhaps, convincing as a romantic roué. Still, Powers provides a solid fulcrum around which more dazzling performances revolve. Local heroine Georgia Jarman (she studied at B.U.) essays not one but all four of Hoffmann's loves, a musical marathon which she brings off with aplomb, via a voice flexible enough to manage the technical requirements of each character (all of whom sing in different styles). Jarman was dramatically most convincing as Giuletta, but vocally most moving as Antonia (the most sympathetic of Hoffmann's loves, and the one with the most sophisticated music - unfortunately Jarman allowed her passion at times to get a little bug-eyed). Jarman alone is reason enough to see this show, but she may actually be bested by Michèle Losier in the trousers role of Hoffmann/Offenbach's alter ego and muse. Losier spends the whole evening in bronze paint, which doesn't seem to faze her in the least, nor hobble a performance that's both ravishing vocally and utterly convincing dramatically. There were other performances to savor - Matthew DiBattista did light, agile work as Offenbach, and Gaétan LaPerrière, though at times a bit stiff physically, deployed a menacingly rich baritone throughout his four characterizations (another marathon), and conjured a potent chill in his turn as the seductive "Doctor Miracle," whose last appearance in the audience offered yet another thematic thrill.

Down in the pit, maestro Keith Lockhart brought a light brio to the score (although perhaps the famous "Barcarolle" could drift along a shade more slowly), and the chorus performed with power and panache. At the time of his death, Offenbach left much of Tales of Hoffmann as little more than a sketch - but it's easy to believe that wherever he is, he's smiling on this clever re-invention of his greatest work.

Getting with the program

I was so taken with the previous concert I heard from the Chameleon Arts Ensemble (at left) that I hurried back to hear their next offering, "A Hundred Onward Years," last weekend at the Goethe Institute. Alas, I came away slightly disappointed this time - although less with the playing than with the program.

Musical programming is always an art, and not a science, of course - and on paper I'm sure the Chameleons felt they'd met the loose standards of your average chamber music concert: Beethoven and Schumann rubbed elbows (or crossed bows) with three interesting but more obscure composers, Lou Harrison, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Aaron Jay Kernis (the one on this list I really didn't know), with a catch-all title making a vague nod to something like coherence. But the Harrison piece, "Songs from the Forest," turned out to be little more than a fragment, done in Harrison's familiar (if appealing) manner, while the Kernis piece was dropped due to illness among the players (and was replaced by the solid, but not overly interesting "Lament for cello and piano" by Ellen Taaffe Zwillich). This left an intriguing piece by Loeffler, a truly great piece by Schumann, and a rather quotidian one ("Serenade in D Major") from Beethoven.

The Chameleons themselves were in generally fine, but perhaps not always inspired, form. "Songs in the Forest," although marred by some rather flat poetry reading (of Harrison's rather flat poetry), still conjured the light perfume of gay exotica we expect from the composer, and was amusingly coy in its early-50s references ("Artemis" seemed to be the subject of the poetry, instead of the more honest "Asian boys in the trees"). With the Loeffler, things briefly got more ambitious, and more interesting; this composer deserves more of a place in Boston programming (given his long service in the BSO), and both "The Pool" and "The Bagpipe" were sophisticated little gems of mournful, slightly sinister mood, expertly played by Nancy Dimock (oboe), Scott Woolweaver (viola) and especially Vivian Chang-Freiheit on piano.

Next came the Beethoven, which, alas, proved to be just about the dullest thing that genius ever wrote. In "Serenade in D Major," the great Ludwig Van seems content for the most part to toss off light pastoral motifs pretty much until we beg for mercy (there are seven movements). The piece develops some complexity about halfway through, which the Chameleons elucidated with skill; still, for the most part their playing, while "light and airy" as you could want, felt pretty conventional (and flutist Deborah Boldin did tend to pound out those top notes).

The second half of the program proved a similarly mixed bag. It was good to hear something from the Pulitzer-winning Zwilich - only it would have been nicer to hear something more challenging than the straightforwardly poignant "Lament for cello and piano," which seemed to under-utilize Ms. Chang-Freiheit and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. But with Schumann's "Sonata No. 2 in D Minor," the Chameleons finally began to show what they could do. Written very near the end of this great chamber composer's life, the piece is a lyrical, yet tonally dense and subtly melancholic work that's always compelling yet somehow thematically elusive. Violinist Joanna Kurkowicz kept its many facets in superb balance in a very committed performance, ably supported by the exquisitely attentive playing of Gloria Chien on piano. It was nice to hear this well-intentioned if meandering evening at least go out with a satisfying musical bang.