Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More best of 2008

I try to cover as much of the arts scene in Boston as I possibly can on the Hub Review, although my focus was originally on theatre, and that's probably still my first love; hence the "Top 20" list of two days ago. Still, I've written about, and constantly attend, music and dance events, and have resolved to cover the visual arts scene in greater depth in 2009. So I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few of what were really my greatest non-theatrical artistic experiences of the past year. Indeed, perhaps only the best of the best of my theatrical Top 10 equalled the impact of the following events -

To my mind, Antonio López García's retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts was the show of the year, although the "buzz" was about the Kapoor and Donovan shows at the ICA, because they were cool and kid-friendly, and dealt in the amplification of simple ideas that appeal to a lot of folks who think the pop and high-culture worlds should merge (with, they unconsciously assume, pop taking the upper hand). López García is the antithesis of all that: his work is in a time-honored mode - "realism," for lack of a better word - and the virtuosity of his craft (yes, he actually makes his art himself!) cannot be fully appreciated in any mediated form (the image at left, of one of his views of Madrid, is nothing next to the original). López García is somewhat like a Spanish Vermeer - he's a gnostic realist: there's a secret spiritual reality illuminating his paintings and drawings from within. Standing in front of a Kapoor or a Donovan, you giggle at how cool it is to see one million straws in one place, or to hear your voice echo from behind your head. Looking at a López García, you remember the mystery of your own existence.

The Boston Ballet had an exceptionally strong season last spring - they mounted a gorgeous production of John Cranko's version of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in February, then just a month later presented four premieres by young choreographers, perhaps the strongest of which was Helen Pickett's Eventide (with John Lam, above). But the Ballet's most electrifying achievement came in May, with Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room; reviews were weak, due to a few (pretty serious) problems on opening night, but by the time I saw it the piece had largely cohered, and was almost overwhelming. I've rarely seen an audience as cranked as the one at the ballet that night; by the climax of the dance, you felt ready to jump out of your seat with crazy joy. Truly a night to remember.

Another under-sung local event was Boston Lyric Opera's striking production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann (at left) last November. A co-production with companies in St. Louis and Colorado, Tales was directed and designed by a world-class team, Renaud Doucet and André Barbe, who brought an astonishingly level of wit and inventive insight to their conception. With its living statues and gondolas, and contraptions seemingly borrowed from Jules Verne, this was easily the most fantastic - in both senses of the word - production design seen in Boston for years. And the singing, particularly from Georgia Jarman and Michèle Losier, was just as memorable. Boston Lyric recently completed an administrative transition, and its new artistic director, Esther Nelson, has big dreams. Let's hope Hoffmann is a harbinger of more greatness to come.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A poem for the holidays

Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Top 10 - or 20! - of 2008


It would be nice to look back on it and say something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," only this time that old saw hits close to home, if you give it one small tweak: this year in the Boston theatre world, the best of times artistically were also the worst of times financially; three of the 10 producers in this list have either disappeared or are on the verge of bankruptcy. And in general, the performing arts struggled under the general economic downturn, just like everybody else - but the local scene was also bedeviled by major turnovers at the ART and the Huntington, both of which seem to falter during the transition, and the announced departure of Rick Lombardo from the New Rep. Perhaps partly due to this artistic vacuum, most of the best news in town was technically out of town: the "Top 10" includes two national tours, two productions from Lowell's Merrimack Rep (which got another honorable mention), and one from the North Shore (which got three more honorable mentions). And what was probably the most accomplished show of the year (She Loves Me) was a co-production with the Williamstown Theatre Festival; indeed, barely half of the best shows in Boston were actually home-grown. What can I say? Thank God for the suburbs!

Only thanking God may not be enough. One of the producers in the Top 10 - Boston Theatre Works - went out of business immediately after producing what would be seen as its best show ever, and two more companies are in serious trouble. At the performance of Skylight I attended, Merrimack artistic director Charles Towers came out before the curtain to detail the theatre's desperate straits. And a press release came over the wire today revealing that the North Shore Music Theatre is on the verge of bankruptcy (lay-offs have been announced). It doesn't seem likely they'll get much help from Boston's foundations, either - not with Boston Foundation head Paul Grogan (at left) taking home over $500,000 of his foundation's cash last year, all while advising nonprofits to close because the foundation had so little money! (Although Grogan's no slouch next to - wait for it - Josiah Spaulding, who bagged $1.7 million this year, apparently for - well, I don't know, maybe keeping the D.A. at bay?)

And there you have it - a year in which the best theatre companies folded or nearly folded and the philanthropists lined their own pockets with cash, while the print media girls kept quiet about the whole thing (or, to be honest, couldn't tell, or didn't care, that it was happening!). Probably the only good thing we can really say about 2008 is that 2009 is going to be even worse.

And on that happy note -

The Top 10

1. She Loves Me (Huntington Theatre) - Nicholas Martin's swan song, and his valentine to the city, this production (at left) was practically perfect in every way: performances, music direction, design - everything cohered beautifully. Indeed, perhaps it wasn't merely the best production of the year, but also of the decade; my friends and I spent one evening trying to think of something better, and found ourselves reaching back well into the 90's, or earlier! I still get emails from people thanking me for directing them to it. Mr. Martin went on to a brilliant premiere season in Williamstown, but then suffered a minor stroke in the fall; word is he's on the road to recovery and will be returning to Boston for the re-mounting of his Williamstown production of The Corn is Green.

2. My Fair Lady (National Theatre of Great Britain US Tour) - Director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Matthew Bourne tinkered a bit with this classic, but seemed to understand the real reason for its revival was the central performance of Lisa O'Hare (at right), who combined Julie Andrews's voice with Audrey Hepburn's looks. The results were loverly.

3. The Drowsy Chaperone (Broadway Over Boston) - Nostalgia distilled to its charming essence. Trapped in his apartment on a rainy day, a flighty theatre queen conjures for us his favorite 20's musical, the mythical Drowsy Chaperone, and soon tap-dancing chorines and even entire airplanes (below) are coming out of his closet, too.

4. A Delicate Balance - Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Albee done better than Broadway did Woolf a few years back, thanks to a sterling cast and beautifully modulated direction from artistic director Charles Towers.

5. Skylight (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) - Another challenging play (by David Hare), another sterling cast, and another confident turn by director Towers. By year's end, the Merrimack had begun to look like the kind of theatre the Huntington and the ART should be: the place to go for the work of our best playwrights.

6. In the Continuum (Up You Mighty Race) - Easily the most powerful production of the year. Sensitively directed by Akiba Abaka, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter's script was nevertheless essentially a showcase for its two stars, Lindsey McWhorter and Ramona Lisa Alexander, who provided the most emotionally committed acting on any Boston stage this year.

7. Angels in America (Boston Theatre Works) - Not so much a revival as a reprise of the original, Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis's production was nevertheless quick on its feet and thoughtfully directed, and featured breakout performances from Bree Elrod, Tyler Reilly and Maurice Parent.

8. Some Men (SpeakEasy Stage) - The print girls didn't "get" it, but Paul Daigneault's perceptive and visually stylish production of Terrence McNally's underrated play (above) was probably the best of the season from SpeakEasy, which was its usual reliable self this year (I gave it two more honorable mentions). After She Loves Me, Some Men probably featured the best local acting ensemble, too.

9. November (Lyric Stage) - Again, the dim politics of certain fatuous liberal writers (who shall go unnamed!) resulted in less than sparkling reviews for this brilliant production of David Mamet's hilarious (if hardly politically incorrect) farce. The tightest direction of the season (from Daniel Gidron) and a crack comic cast made this a bitterly witty delight.

10. Bye Bye Birdie (North Shore Music Theatre) - Today's shocking news is that the North Shore is on the verge of closing, despite a year that included Michael Lichtefeld's brilliantly conceived Bye Bye Birdie (above) along with 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Show Boat, and 42nd Street (all of which made the Top 20 below). In short, with four solid hits, the North Shore's record was stronger than that of any other company in town - and yet it's on the verge of disappearing (much as Boston Theatre Works did after Angels in America). Apparently ticket sales for High School Musical 2 didn't match expectations - and it should be noted that Louise Kennedy's dopey "I just don't like it" pan probably finished off any hopes the theatre had of ending the year in the black. Lovers of musical theatre are advised to take their medicine forthwith and go see High School Musical 2. And then give to the theatre here.

Honorable Mentions (or the next Top 10):

11. Travesties (Publick Theatre) - Director Diego Arciniegas did better by Tom Stoppard than the Huntington ever did in this knockabout takedown of modernism by way of Oscar Wilde. Slightly ragged around the edges, but always energetic, the production was one of the most successful pieces of intellectual theatre in town all year.

12. The Light in the Piazza, 13. The History Boys (SpeakEasy Stage) - Director Scott Edmiston worked his crowd-pleasing magic twice at SpeakEasy, both times by sanding down the difficult edges on two pieces with pretensions to being more than just fluff. Of course their success I suppose only argues that Edmiston was right: they were just fluff, albeit fluff for middlebrow college graduates. Piazza was all the more memorable for a truly stunning array of costume designs from Charles Schoonmaker.

14. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, 15. Show Boat, 16. 42nd Street (North Shore Music Theatre) - After two or three disasters last spring, the North Shore suddenly began pulling hits out of its hat like so many rabbits; Putnam was a tongue-in-cheek hoot, Show Boat (left) was the most beautifully sung show in town, and 42nd Street was the best danced (choreographed, btw, by Michael Lichtefeld, who also directed Birdie). I'll say it again: with these productions, the North Shore had the best record in 2008 of any local theatre.

17. Let Me Down Easy (American Repertory Theatre) - Anna Deavere Smith's latest should really have been subtitled, "A Decade's Worth of Grant Proposals Loosely Tied Together," but individual pieces of this performance patchwork proved quite moving, so people expecting the power and cogency of, say, Fires in the Mirror were, yes, let down easy.

18. The Tempest (Actors' Shakespeare Project) - Despite its stated emphasis on the actor, this troupe's best productions always derive from their designs, and The Tempest was no exception. The play's paradoxes regarding freedom and forgiveness seemed to go missing, and star Alvin Epstein meandered as Prospero. But the design work and the magic tricks were often genuinely magical.

19. The Four of Us (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) - If you, like me, have a certain disdain for the success of Jonathan Safran Foer, then this scénario à clef probably tasted a good deal sweeter than it really had a right to. Still, the Merrimack served up the coldly calculated dish with understated skill.

20. Blithe Spirit (Trinity Rep) - Curt Columbus's elegant production of Noel Coward's classic featured solid, but not perhaps sparkling, performances; what made this show a must-see was its set - realized with delightful exactitude by James Schuette, and cleverly engineered to manifest all manner of ghostly goings-on. Yet another local show made most memorable by its design.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Ah, if only all of us felt the way dogs do about snow! (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Generation Why

Even for seasoned ART-goers, who are used to putting a brave face on disappointment, the past year has been tough going. Louise Kennedy seemed slightly stunned by Julius Caesar; Caroline Clay for once was nearly pun-less when confronted by Cardenio. Then came the elaborately discombobulated Communist Dracula Pageant; by the end of the year I realized I'd only had the heart to write about a single ART production - by and large the shows had just been too depressing even to ridicule.

Of course this was the last season patched together by Gideon Lester, once part of the artistic triumvirate guiding the theatre, and his strategy, which clearly was to hang onto whatever momentum he could by touching base with as many past successes as possible, partly delivered the goods only when he could actually bring back earlier imports, like Anna Deavere Smith, and now Aurélia Chaplin (above left), daughter of the creators of Le Cirque Imaginaire, an ART hit from the 90s. Smith's performance, Let Me Down Easy, proved shapeless but often affecting; alas, Chaplin's reprise of her parents' signature style is probably even less successful, due to the simple fact that so much of it feels second-hand. Still, Aurélia's Oratorio has its moments, and makes for a mildly diverting evening out - if you haven't seen Cirque Imaginaire, or Bill Irwin or even Cirque du Soleil, it's certainly worth considering at the half-price booth at Faneuil Hall.

The original Cirque Imaginaire, of course, more than deserved its wide reputation for surreal charm, which derived not only from the skill of its performers but also from its clever concept. Two people - Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin (daughter, yes, of the great Charlie) and husband Jean Baptiste Thiérrée, essentially conjured an entire circus before our eyes: Thiérrée handled the clowns and puppets, while Victoria impersonated the animal acts and performed mesmerizing feats of derring-do on the high wire and trapeze. A surreal, precise dreaminess ruled the show: Chaplin's walk on the wire, for instance, took place upside down - and there was also a sense of the danger floating under the actual big-top operating more freely in this new, imaginary space: puppets would sometimes pull knives on each other - or even on their handlers. The results were eerily sweet, slightly menacing, and strangely contained, as if the whole production were happening inside a snow globe.

Now Aurélia Chaplin - who as a child helped out on her parents' show - certainly has inherited their sense of showmanship; indeed, her Oratorio reprises almost all their tricks, but to slightly diminished effect. Part of the problem is that Chaplin has not also inherited their physical precision, but more importantly, she hasn't formulated a coherent new format for their sensibility. She has at least updated the viewpoint of the show from that of an introspective child to that of a twenty-something single girl with, apparently, boyfriend issues. But that's about all she's thought through, and without the assumed boundary of an imaginary circus ring, the show tends to grow amorphous and lose focus; it's just one bit of forced whimsy after another. To be fair, many of its images are striking - some are even poetic - but many tend to boil down to simple reversed or ironic juxtapositions (a kite "flies" a person; a mouse kills a cat, etc.) This "wit" begins to feel a bit mechanical, the menacing puppets and mind-games feel somehow warmed-over, and the little shards of narrative that drift through the ongoing pageant (the ex-boyfriend every now and then runs through calling her name), tease rather than enlighten. Like so many Gen Y pop acts, Aurélia has appropriated a solid base track from a boomer hit, but hasn't really brought any new melodies of her own to the project - there's no "why" to this Gen-Y re-incarnation of Cirque Imaginaire. As a result, I found my mind wandering (and I loved the original); still, if you're a new-vaudeville neophyte, this Oratorio could prove a satisfying-enough introduction to its genre.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jingle-bell Bach

The chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society.

It's rare that a classical music concert manages to be cozy, and actually capture something of a "just us friends" holiday atmosphere; but that's what's most striking (for good and, perhaps, a little bad) about Handel and Haydn's "A Bach Christmas," which repeats this Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Conducted by H&H's longtime chorusmaster, John Finney, the program features two lesser-known Bach cantatas, No. 151 and 191 (yes, you read those numbers right, toward the end of his career the great J.S. was cranking out a cantata every week) as well as the famous Magnificat, and depends for its soloists on the singers of the H&H chorus itself (almost every singer, in fact, gets a solo).

This particular gambit provided the concert with much of its charm, but perhaps also set upon it certain limitations. For while there's no question that every singer in the H&H chorus has the vocal chops to take center stage, it's also clear that not all of them are actually happy there; sometimes it seemed one bashful wallflower after another was being dragged out onto the dance floor - where, whaddya know, it turned out they could cut a rug after all; after which they quickly fled back to the anonymous comfort of the chorus line. There were even a few goofy bows from folks for whom the spotlight was clearly an unusual event.

Still, some of these wallflowers did bloom before our eyes. Basses Nicholas Nackley and Donald Wilkinson, along with soprano Susan Consoli, clearly had the confident stage presence required for solo careers; more self-conscious, but still lovely, turns came from soprano Roberta Anderson (who seemed unaware her top notes were pure as pearl) and tenors Murray Kidd, Thomas Gregg, and Mark Sprinkle, as well as altos Susan Byers Paxson and Katharine Emory.

The orchestral soloists were likewise sparkling, including, as always, Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti on natural trumpet (here almost comically long, like trumpets from Whoville, as J.S. tends to write for the top of that instrument's range), but in particular Stephen Hammer on "oboe d'amore" (I'm not kidding, that's what it's called) and flutists Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, who played gracefully together in one exquisitely fluid duet. Somehow the warm, humble sound of the flute seemed almost a signature of this concert, as conductor Finney (above left) steered clear of the magnificence that sometimes accrues, ironically enough, to the Magnificat - originally a kind of ode to the humility of Mary - and emphasized instead the rustic humility of the source story of Christmas.

That this gentle warmth is sometimes lost in both the secular and sacred expressions of the holiday only made Finney's approach more welcome. To be honest, I wasn't wild about his integration of orchestra and chorus (which seemed even smaller than it did in Messiah); perhaps due to its small size, the multifaceted vocal line seemed at times to blur into the instrumental playing, when my sense is both should be crisply defined components of the overall sound. After all, Bach (so unlike Handel!) essentially wrote for the human voice as if it were just another keyboard instrument - with somebody else handling the bellows offstage - and even when his mood is humble, his mode is always precise. Still, in the smaller ensembles the interweave of voice and instrument was impeccable and gently lively, and Finney is to be thanked for bringing a note of humble, but genuine, joy to the holiday season.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Skimming Milk

Sean Penn wants to recruit us in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

It's hard for a gay man like me to criticize Milk, because in so many ways it's precisely the movie gay folks have always wanted Hollywood to produce: a major release, with a major star, about a gay hero who is celebrated (if not actually hagio-grified). Gay life is portrayed with basic honesty - genital warts and all - and what's more, all this has been done in the middle of a political controversy (around Prop. 8) that actually mirrors one of the central controversies of the film (around Prop. 6). There's even a straight hunk (James Franco) wandering around wearing a porn-star moustache and sometimes not much more.

But I'm afraid I'm going to try to criticize Milk anyway. After all, isn't that the final step forward, when we can treat pro-gay material just as we treat everything else (and no, I don't mean "critique" in the transparently homophobic manner of say, Gene Siskel)? And the truth is that Milk is - well - sometimes rather thin milk, especially given the evident richness, both emotional and dramatic, of the life it sets before us.

In purely political terms, however, Milk could hardly be more fortified - tellingly, it even toes a line between drama and documentary. Director Gus Van Sant opens his movie with grainy film from the 60's of gay men being rounded up and arrested for the simple crime of being who they were - a mute testament to the progress gay people have already seen in this country. And the director, who often tends to noodle around like an art school grad student, continues to play with film stocks and archival footage to keep that conceptual boundary blurry. He even closes the film with a scene from the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (and, if memory serves, borrows its framing device, too).

Likewise the most interesting aspect of the film's narrative is its "yes-we-can!" political documentation - how transplanted New Yawker Harvey Milk gained a foothold in the San Francisco power structure by striking a deal with the Teamsters, how a re-definition of local election rules worked in his favor, and, most surprisingly, how many times he was met with political defeat before he was finally elected a City Supervisor. That's not even mentioning, however, the film's most powerful political content - the nearly-eerie parallel between Anita Bryant's Prop. 6 (which would have banned gay men and women from teaching school) and the Mormon-Catholic Prop. 8 (which unlike Prop. 6, squeaked by with the voters); over and over again, it seems, crypto-religious nutjobs have come out of the woodwork to insist on bigotry as their mission from God. What this behavior "means" I leave to psychologists; but something tells me it will be supplying the backbone of plenty of movies for years to come.

And - dare I say it? - somewhere in the deep background of the movie's climax (Milk's assassination by fellow supervisor Dan White) there's even the shadow of progressive America's greatest nightmare: that out there on the fringe of the grid somewhere, Obama's own Dan White is waiting. Assassination in America, after all, is merely politics (usually conservative politics) by other means!

Or maybe I ought to say that shadow should be moving in the movie's deep background; actually, it's not. Indeed, there's not much in the way of America's angrier passions shadowing this movie at all - or, to be honest (and here's the rub) much real passion of any sort. It's hard to sense from Milk the crazy, scary elation that the sexual liberation of San Francisco (and to a lesser extent the rest of the country) meant at the time (simply compare Milk to, say, Dirty Harry or even What's Up Doc? and you'll see what I mean). Even though director Van Sant is old enough to have lived through the period (his screenwriter isn't), he misses its zeitgeist entirely, but instead conjures the far less-threatening millennial atmosphere of fetish operating under market controls, and progressivism as a mode of careerism. In Milk, the characters' political actions grow directly out of their sexual actions - which seems really cool until you begin to ponder what such an equivalence might iron out of everyone's lives. And at any rate, this isn't how politics or sex felt in the 70s at all - not at all, not at all; indeed, Milk does for seventies sex what Almost Famous did for seventies rock - it meticulously builds a physical recreation of its subject, then overlays it with a comforting contemporary mindset that smothers the meaning of that re-creation.

Perhaps, of course, that's what every movie about the past has always done, but somehow I'm not so sure. Perhaps The Godfather misrepresented the late 40's, and maybe American Graffiti distorted the late 50's - only I recall clearly that at the time, older folks didn't seem to feel that way. But more and more I hear moviegoers of a certain age protesting that the newer period films (or series like Mad Men) don't get the "vibe" of their supposed mise-en-scène at all - and tellingly, these pieces' greatest fans tend to be twenty-somethings, who really couldn't know any better.

But back to Milk, in which this passion gap clearly undercuts the power of the climax. For without the dark side of the zeitgeist, Milk's assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin), is merely a cipher, and his suicidal lover, merely an anomaly. The movie makes gestures toward these figures - I sensed half-hearted hints of "repressed homosexuality" in Brolin's performance - but can't really engage with them, because these strange dudes just don't "get" it in millennial terms. And yet to understand the 70s - or even the real America of today - I'd argue you have to "get" them.

Still, it would be unfair to pretend that Milk isn't worth seeing despite these caveats. Even with its zen conceptualism, and the gaps in the script by Dustin Lance Black (who pops up in the movie), Milk is always thoughtful and often absorbing, thanks largely to the nearly flawless acting of its committed ensemble. Top acting honors, of course, should go to Sean Penn, who once again grandstands in a beautifully naturalistic manner; he's unafraid to milk Milk's essential showman- and sales-manship (his signature line, which is essentially that of all salesmen, was "I want to recruit you!"), nor his seductively mixed persona of sweet, bashful hustler; you can actually believe this plain Jane could talk James Franco (above left) into bed with him. By now, of course, Penn is the pre-eminent film actor of his generation - with more great performances (almost in a row) than virtually any other working actor can claim; and Milk is yet another feather in an already-studded artistic cap. Meanwhile James Franco is sweetly affecting as the boyfriend who finally has enough of the political rat race, and there are distinctive, assured turns in sometimes tricky roles from Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and Diego Luna. I'm often struck by the way film actors so often come through - they're really the last bastion of artistic quality in Hollywood (where I can't think, off-hand, of a successful director with the mojo of Penn, for instance). And many of our most "interesting" mainstream films are made not because of the patronage of Harvey Weinstein or some other producer, but because a name actor is intrigued by the project and attaches his or her name to it. So here's to the artists whom we're all still milking for whatever quality this benighted industry can still supply.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Web art of the day

Jason de Caires Taylor’s sculptures are often sited underwater, where they "become artificial reefs, attracting marine life, while offering the viewer privileged temporal encounters, as . . . the works change from moment to moment." Rather than operating within art's traditional denial of the passage of time, Taylor's works are intended to incorporate into their meaning their change and decay. Above is part of the "TamCC Project" off Grenada. Below, film of an underwater approach to his works, including the large piece "Vicissitudes." More underwater art from Mr. Taylor is here. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wow. And thank you.

I just wanted to issue a heart-felt "thank you" to everyone who has written in over the past few days (I hope to reply to each of you individually by tomorrow). Trust me, you have made a big difference in my frame of mind. And don't worry, I'm not going to stop blogging - oh hell, how could I? I'm an institution by now, apparently! And btw, the play Orfeo Group presented last night proved lively and interesting, and there was a very free and open discussion afterward. You are hereby advised to attend their next reading, whenever that may be! Take care, my friends - and remember (dare I say it?) that the Gold Dust Orphans are performing in All About Christmas Eve through January 3 at Machine!

Casting doubt on Doubt

Wait - what accent am I doing today? Meryl prepares in Doubt.

I decided to detox from the local theatre scene this weekend by checking out the moviehouses. As everyone knows by now, there are only two times a year one needs to go to a movie theatre: in June or early July, when the summer Pixar comes out, and in December, when the Oscar chum gets tossed into the market. This year's bait, it turns out, is only fairly tasty: the punchiest piece is probably the fun-but-manipulative Slumdog Millionaire, which I'll write about in a later post.

Meanwhile the most intriguing Miramax-style movie (this one's actually from Miramax), at least from the perspective of this blog, is John Patrick Shanley's film of Doubt, his own Broadway hit from a few years back. As just about everyone knows, the stage version was a pitch-perfect piece of Broadway craft that went on to a nearly-as-impeccable national tour (I saw both shows). You'd think, therefore, that it would eventually be developed into a sterling movie version. But the just-released film has been met widely with - well - doubt, even though it was directed by the author himself, and stars the acknowledged Great Actress of Our Day, Meryl Streep.

And I'd have to agree with the general consensus - Doubt the movie is not nearly as successful as Doubt the play. But what does this (relative) failure suggest? That the author was actually not the best interpreter of his own work? Or that he lacked experience as a movie director (his only previous film was the odd-but-amusing Joe vs. the Volcano)? Or does it mean that Streep is not, in fact, the cinematic chameleon the film critics insist she is? Or that movie acting in general is not up to the different demands of stage acting? Or some combination of those, or other, factors?

It's true that much of the specific pleasure of the stage play came from the perfect exploitation of its theatrical means: enclosed spaces, thoughtfully detailed naturalism, and many scenes that uncoiled the same way great rhetoric does: with an unexpected climax secreted like a sting in its tail. The play - essentially a cat-and-mouse game between a pedophile priest and the crusty old nun determined to bring him down - also depended on the universally-lauded performance of Cherry Jones as its lead, Sister Aloysius (above left, contemplating her competition for the movie role). Even now, it's hard to forget Jones: she gave Sister Aloysius a complete and cannily unglamorous physicalization (something that, oddly, it's often hard for movie stars to do), including a gimpy walk and something close to a speech impediment. And Jones knew in her bones (the way many stage veterans do) how to cut against her character's surface with not only the usual shots of audience-pleasing humor but also contradictory undercurrents of self-awareness. A great performance on stage is often like a tennis match, in which the actor repeatedly jumps the net to play both sides of the game - and Jones proved expert at this (and to be fair, she was ably abetted by her Broadway antagonist, Brìan F. O'Byrne).

But of course neither Jones nor O'Byrne had the Entertainment-Tonight profile to be cast in the Hollywood version, even though both have done film work; long gone are the days when someone like Peter O'Toole or Vivian Leigh could be plucked from the stage and cast in an epic based solely on their rightness for the role (this alone is as clear an indication as any of the decline of film as an art form). No, today roles must be cut to conform to the film personalities already extant - so it was perhaps inevitable that the leads of Doubt should be given - and adapted - to arthouse favorites Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Even a little art film can't be appropriately cast anymore - forget about Lawrence of Arabia!) So Doubt became an interesting test case - an experiment in which an inexperienced director was teamed with two Hollywood powerhouses, but on a project it was assumed he understood completely, as it was his own script.

But was that last assumption valid? It's interesting to contrast Shanley's direction against that of Doug Hughes, who brought quiet snap to the Broadway version. By comparison, Shanley's take is surprisingly diffuse - he doesn't seem to realize where the beats are in his own writing, and tends to underplay his climaxes, perhaps fearing they might seem too "stagey" (he worried in vain - plenty of movie critics have lowered the boom anyway). Most problematically, Shanley doesn't get Streep and Hoffman to engage with each other in their scenes - they're often talking past each other, and almost disregarding the give-and-take of the script; their scenes should be about combat, but they make them about character. This may be because both have either been slightly misdirected, or have insisted, with a typical Hollywood star's arrogance, on not taking notes, or have not been able to transcend conceptions of their characters which undermine their effectiveness - or perhaps something of all three. Streep has made Sister Aloysius a kind of gargoyle from the get-go, and not a particularly interesting or funny one, but basically a simplistically bitter bitch (few note that many of Streep's best performances have been as bitches, but still). It would be easy to blame her for this obvious mistake - except that Shanley has, in fact, "opened out" his play with sequences (in which his star slaps the heads of Catholic schoolkids, or stalks the nunnery while lightning flickers) that all but back her into this particular acting corner. Perhaps Shanley felt that draining the character of audience sympathy was a brave choice; I'd argue it was a foolhardy one.

As for Hoffman (left), he lacks O'Byrne's seemingly "normal" masculine presence and wiles; he makes no sense as a predator, and he's not given the actual scenes to succeed as a victim (although you get the feeling this supposedly daring idea is what's animating the performance). As the sweet, sentimental young nun caught between these two gladiators, Amy Archer was a closer match to the requirements of her character - but even she refused to limn the downside of the needy innocence of "Sister James" (as her stage predecessors had done).

Still, all doubts aside, Doubt has its moments. Streep has a very effective scene opposite the powerful Viola Davis, as the mother of the poor (and black) boy at the center of the controversy who suspects that her son may himself be gay, and that any revelations of his sexual actions could lead to reprisals from his father. And Streep brings at least one stroke of startling depth to her character: when the cornered priest desperatedly asked if she herself had ever been guilty of a mortal sin, Streep's anguished response suddenly conjured a despairing back story of terrible depth. But isolated moments, however brilliant, can't make a whole movie - and once again, in the story's famously ironic coda, Streep and Shanley seemed to be on slightly the wrong track, with a reading that was too understated.

At least, however, the film doesn't make the mistake that some willful reviewers have made about its story - Shanley, in the end, doesn't pander to the foolish idea that his play functions as a kind of Rashomon-like parable in which the truth is unknowable. He hasn't penned a cosmic question mark, he's laid out a tight little battle over good and evil, and he knows it - or at least once he knew it; now I'm not so sure.

Or should we blame neither the stars nor their director for the flaws in Doubt, but simply consider it as a kind of harbinger of the end of stage writing as an influence on cinema? (I know that sounds grandiose, but work with me here.) After all, many of the classics of yesteryear depended on some form of stage writing for their impact - The Wizard of Oz depended on vaudeville and Casablanca is a barely-opened-out stage play; David Lean's hits all include long, single-set dramatic scenes - much like the opening of (yes) The Godfather, now the acknowledged "classic" movie ur-text of our youth (because none of them have seen any movies older). It used to be that the movie screen was seen as a kind of stage without limit, much like the ballet in Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, which rockets off from a stagebound opening into cinematic phantasmagoria. Still, all the "extensions" of cinema - chases and special effects and battles, etc. - rarely severed their connection to a dramatic structure not so different from that of the stage, and often sustained by its conventions.

Something tells me all that has changed. Even on Broadway, Doubt felt like something of a throwback - a sudden re-blooming of the "well-made play" - so perhaps it's not so surprising that its small-scaled virtues should have failed on screen. Movies today - along with our sense of movies today - are now sourced in the sensibility of "graphic" novels, which aren't really a literary form at all, and which depend on sensationalism, rather than development or revelation, as their narrative engine. Hence "stories" on screen reflect comic-book conventions; they're assumed to be failures unless they either a) announce themselves as cosmic and archetypal or b) deconstruct their means into a kind of puzzle for the audience. Doubt does neither.

Nevertheless this little "parable" has a strange resonance for me, even on screen - and not just because I was raised a Catholic (although I avoided being groped by any priests). I often feel a bit like Sister Aloysius myself; there's long been a rumored pedophile on the local arts scene, and this has always troubled me, even though of course there are pedophiles everywhere. And I, alas, have no way of ascertaining the truth of this matter, and much less any method of manipulating the party concerned into any implicit admission of guilt. I don't even have the sustaining sense of Sister Aloysius's certainty! And yet the troubling rumors remain, sometimes even repeated with a laugh by this figure's friends and advocates (yes, in his own organization, so they are well aware - sometimes that's what bothers me the most about the whole situation). Ah, if only God had the same dramaturgical skills as John Patrick Stanley! I suppose that would be the only way to quell all my doubts.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When queens collide: Ryan's last missive - and should this be mine?

This was the last email I got from Ryan Landry of the Gold Dust Orphans:


I felt somehow that it was important to keep the capitalization intact, if only to give a sense of Ryan's passion on this issue. And of course it's a passion driven by truth; he's right about me - I am a creepy, psycho little asshole, and I am a fat loser; in fact, I'm thirty pounds overweight. And I'm sure it's true that everyone in this town hates me with a passion - how could they not? (Just btw, Ryan sent this note not just to me but to a distribution list, so I'm not really making anything public that he hasn't made public already himself.) I've been pointing out the flaws of artists and critics in this town for over two years, and sometimes ridiculing their bad behavior, on what is, indeed, a shitty little BLOG (that capitalization really intrigued me), so I'm well aware of the resentment boiling behind the facade of politeness all the svelte, successful people in town maintain toward me.

So should I give up? I probably should - Ryan's rants could be the last straw that finally breaks this camel's back. In truth, it's tiring doing this blog - in a way I even look forward to Monday and Tuesday, when there's nothing to go to. I have to think about it, though. I still love the performing arts - they're probably one of the few reasons I have to stay alive - but I confess as I perceive the true nature of the people who produce that art, they're becoming more and more of a - well - drag on the whole experience.

Of course all artists hate critics, I know that. I really shouldn't dump on the silly Globe critics anymore, but I always get a chuckle out of how I overheard one arts figure around here call one of them "the dumbest cunt at the Globe, and that's saying something" - and this person is actually a darling of the Globe arts page! Yet still there was a seething hatred - no different from Ryan's rant; but fear of her connections kept the bile out of sight. Only I don't have any such connections, so Ryan feels free to abuse me - on and on - and of course he doesn't have to worry about losing donors or grants or his job or what have you (in fact he'll probably get contributions out of this).

That, of course, doesn't mean what he says isn't true. I am, I think, a horrible person. In general, I don't really see how that's relevant - plenty of the best critics have been horrible people; and it's worth noting while many outraged artists and fans have written in to insult me, few have had any cogent replies to my comments; they're not up to the demands of actual intellectual rebuttal (and those that are, always treat me rather well). Still, my horrible personality is a little relevant in Ryan's case, because I was snarky towards the mistakes of his PR person - who, with a little training, would quickly learn how better to deflect requests for press tickets. Still, I wasn't all that snarky, and the point about the web vs. "standard" theatre reviewers was a good one - so beyond the horror of my own nasty personality lurks the deeper problem of the nasty, horrible personalities of the people I have to deal with.

And how long can one nasty, horrible personality deal with hundreds of others? Over the long haul, with no institutional fear keeping them in check? It's an interesting question. How long before that great debit overwhelms the great credit of the actual experience of the art? These days it feels the scales are about to turn.

But how can this be my last post? I'm actually already booked tonight - I'm supposed to see a new play reading by the Orfeo Group. I confess I don't really want to go - it's freezing out, and who knows if the play will be any good? Still, can I really call them and say, "Sorry, Ryan Landry's got me down, I'm canceling"? Somehow I think I'm going to haul my weary, fat-loser ass out there. Because if I don't, who will? (Okay, maybe Larry and Barry will be there [later note: they were there] - somehow I don't think Louise Kennedy will!) As with Whistler in the Dark, and Imaginary Beasts, I was the first local critic to pay serious attention to the Orfeo Group; now, of course, they're on the map - but there will soon be another new group out there, and if I quit, there's just one less person paying attention. And there are hardly any of us left as it is. I had a similar epiphany at the ICA's Foster Prize this year. In past years, many of the artists and winners were people I'd raved about in their first local shows; but I slowly gave up reviewing the visual arts over the past two years (the galleries still email me begging me to return) - and this year, for the first time, all the Foster nominees seemed terrible, and I suddenly felt as if Clarence the Angel were whispering in my ear "See, Tom, this all happened because you weren't around!" So I know it's not just my enjoyment of the art that's at stake - in some ways it's the quality of the art, too. Oh, Jesus H. Christ. Not that anyone else cares about that, either.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Fall Season Hubbies

Right now is one of those moments when I wonder why I bother writing this silly blog at all. I mean, I just finished reading a threatening e-mail from a drag queen. Sigh. I'm being threatened by a drag queen. And yes, somehow this does seem like a step down from the pissy insults I used to have to endure from the likes of Ronan Noone. In a word, my life couldn't get more ridiculous. I remember a few months ago I had a kind of e-mail epiphany with Brian Jewell, then arts editor of Bay Windows, and a smart and funny guy, who basically told me that yeah, my writing was great - but that didn't matter. People just didn't care whether or not the criticism they read was good or bad. I protested at the time, but even then somewhere in my heart I knew he was right - how could he be wrong, given what we read every day? So here's to not mattering, and drag queens who write e-mails that read like out-takes from The Sopranos. And to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

And to the best performances of the fall season. Of course Brian's right, and it doesn't matter that they be singled out for praise - these people only "matter" to me - so please stop reading right now! This list is meant for my eyes only - it's just a little reminder to myself of why I do all this depressing blogging part, and why I put up with all the ugliness: so I can see actors like this doing things like this on stage.

So without further ado:

The last round of Hubbies (a virtual award you should imagine in roughly the form of Michael Phelps, sculpted in lucite) was bestowed in August. Since then I've savored the following performances:

Carson Elrod, David Pittu, A Flea in Her Ear, Williamstown Theatre Festival;

Maria Dizzia, Sarah Steele, Not Waving, Williamstown Theatre Festival;

Michael Mastro, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, North Shore Music Theatre;

Scott H. Severance, We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!; Nora Theatre;

Peter A. Carey, Follies, Lyric Stage;

Amelia Broome (left), Carolynne Warren, The Light in the Piazza, SpeakEasy Stage;

Lindsey McWhorter, Ramona Lisa Alexander, In the Continuum, Up You Mighty Race;

Monica Raymund, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Huntington Theatre;

Brendan McNab, Gutenberg! The Musical!; New Repertory Theatre;

Lauren Lukacek, Hannah Jane McMurray, Follies, Boston Conservatory;

Karl Baker Olson, Lynn R. Guerra, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, New Repertory Theatre;

Richard Snee, Adrianne Krstansky, Will McGarrahan, Neil A. Casey, November, Lyric Stage;

Kelby T. Akin, Take Me Out, Worcester Foothills Theatre;

Melissa Lone, 42nd Street, North Shore Music Theatre;

Kortney Adams, Voyeurs de Venus, Company One;

Luis Negron, Saint Joan, Wheelock Family Theatre;

René Augesen, Rock 'n' Roll, Huntington Theatre;

Robert Najarian (right), Einstein's Dreams, Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT;
Amanda Fulks, Skylight, Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

No comments, please . . .

Ah, the anonymity of the Internet - like so many other things about the web, it seems to draw out the worst in people. The last blast of anonymous nastiness I got over the e-transom came after my experience directing Blowing Whistles at Zeitgeist Stage. When I called the Globe's Terry Byrne on her revenge review, I got a barrage of nasty comments. Typical is the one below:

What’s depressing is your fixation on other theatre critics. Is your ego so small that you can’t be a critic without tearing down the “competition”? Then you expect them to be supportive when you switch hats to be a director again? How bizarrely unprofessional and conflicted can one person be?

Grow up, Garvey. Nobody cares what you say about the other critics. Not many people care about you at all any more. For the 16 people who are still tuned into your rantings, 12 are laughing at you and the the other 4 are embarrassed for you.

Hmmm . . . I wonder which of my 16 readers wrote that one? I probably saved it because somehow it sounded like it might have come from Terry herself (although I have no proof). Or did it come from some other bitter critic (I've pinged quite a few of them)? Or perhaps, unlikely as it may seem, from Zeitgeist's David Miller, with whom I cut off all communication after a series of unpleasant encounters (he carried on via email until I blocked that, too)? Or just some other party too cowardly to own up to his or her own statements?

Well, after that unpleasant experience, I shut down anonymous commenting on the blog - clearly it was too much of a temptation for some of my readers! Still, I left the opportunity to comment open to those who had blogs themselves, or were registered on Blogger. Recently, however, after my jab at the Gold Dust Orphans, the e-transom has once again filled up with discombulated vitriol - all coming from "bloggers" who have blocked their own profiles and don't seem to actually have blogs! Sigh. If a theatre can be judged by its audience, then . . . well, never mind. The bottom line is the comments option is shut down for everyone, for the time being. I'm not going to publish this junk, so why should even I have to read it? Maybe I'll re-open the comments shop in 2009. We'll have to see if the Orphans have calmed down by then!

The Pulitzers leap into the millennium!

News reaches us that the Pulitzer Prize Board for the first time will consider online writing. An interesting shift - can the Gold Dust Orphans (see below) be far behind?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Somebody didn't get the memo . . .

I'd like to tell you all about the Gold Dust Orphans' latest, All About Christmas Eve, only I can't because, according to their publicist, "We unfortunately do not offer press tickets for blogs, only standard theater reviewers." Hmmmmm. "Standard theatre reviewers" - did she really say that? I mean, I promise I won't use the 'whites only' drinking fountain! Oh well - I guess everybody should go see Irma Vep instead!

Video art of the day

"Souvenir de Chine” by Larytta, directed by Körner Union. From one of my favorite cool sites, today and tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Don't ask Alice

In Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," the hunt itself turns out to be utterly pointless, because "the Snark was a Boojum, you see." The hunters were searching for something that, paradoxically, was actually something else (and which, via its dangerous non-existence, made its hunters non-existent too!).

And while I hate to be snarky about this (har de har), I'm afraid much the same thing could be said of Alice's Adventures Underground (above left), the new adaptation of the "Alice" books (plus bits of "Snark"), at the Central Square Theatre through Dec. 28; the whole show feels somehow misdirected, as if its seeming object didn't exist.

Perhaps this is because adaptress/actress Debra Wise has morphed "Alice" into a stressed-out mother who has lost her connection with her free-spirited daughter, "Carol" (what, no son named Lewis?), and tries to put "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" through roughly the same paces Steven Spielberg put "Peter Pan" through lo those many years ago. But this time the conceit just doesn't take (if it did then, either), for reasons that are hard to pin down in particular, but easy to sense generally.

The first is that the Alice books (the first manuscript of which was titled, yes, "Alice Underground") are about the the little conundrums that invade the bored young mind - they're hardly about wish fulfillment for the middle-aged. And then there's the problem that they're also obsessed with frustration (as their author was - an avid photographer of naked little girls, his photograph of his muse, Alice Liddell, is at right). Alice never gets what she wants, and she wanders through a world in which pleasure is always just ever so slightly out of reach. Language and what she thinks of as logic fail her, and she's not so much freed as repeatedly trapped; indeed, the things she most gets "in touch with" are chaos and violence. I don't mean to make the books sound grim - they're anything but; but they're hardly about finding peace with your inner child; indeed, their message is that even children can't get in touch with their inner child, that it's impossible.

So after she falls "through" her looking glass as if it were a rabbit hole (a nice little mash-up), there's really nowhere for Wise to go with her basic premise without doing real violence to the material, and so she's left simply following the familiar tropes of the beloved books, with their point always somehow beside the point. Occasionally "Alice" recognizes daughter "Carol" amid the denizens of Wonderland - but this seemingly subconscious search never really comes to much, and anyhow the spirit of Lewis Carroll is basically the antithesis of such a blatant cliché. Still, even if the show seems basically out of touch with its own themes, the Underground Railway Theater has brought a dazzling level of imagination to its production anyway - it's a cornucopia of gorgeous drops and magical puppets and masks, by talented designers David Fichter and Will Cabell. The little critic in my head told me that the designs, brilliant as they were, were rather more brightly generic than Alice-specific, but the rest of me didn't really care. From a giant Humpty-Dumpty (at left) to Alices of every shape and size, the designs delight throughout, and the various gambits by which the heroine is transformed or travels through time and space are ceaselessly inventive - and the actors tirelessly leap through one transformational hoop after another (sometimes literally). Of the adults in the piece, probably Steven Barkhimer came closest to the subversive spirit of Carroll, while Robert Najarian, although always amusing, was never quite incisive enough (and in his velveteen getup he looked more like Willy Wonka than Lewis Carroll, anyway). The young members of the cast - Katie Green, Kyla Frieden and Alenah Garcia on the matinee I attended - all brought off their parts with charming aplomb.

As for Wise - she never flagged in energy, but sometimes you caught a flash of desperation in her eyes - she knew this wasn't working. To be fair, it's easy to see what tempted her to do the piece: Carroll's themes of the suspension of time and his floating sense of erotic loss seem to map ever so tantalizingly to the underside of middle-age. And Wise has devised some amusing parallels to Wonderland in the older Alice's frazzled landscape: her husband, for instance, runs about in a tux rather like the White Rabbit, and even, tellingly, calls her "Boojums." But Wise has yet to discover how to actually enter Carroll's garden of whimsical paradox, much less find her way through it.

Eww, kissing boys, yucky!

Today was supposed to be "A Day Without Gay" - some activists pushed for gay people to stay home from work, and not buy anything for 24 hours. Alas, I'm not on board with that initiative - it seems ill-timed, and well, just a little odd as a response to Prop 8; I'd be much more up for "Paint a Swastika on a Mormon Temple" or "Break a Stained Glass Window at the Pedophile Club" day. But I will post a little snippet from the David Letterman Show that bugged me when I saw it. I don't think of Letterman as particularly homophobic, but really, what is with this long harangue about how icky it is to kiss a guy? James Franco (plugging his latest, Milk, which I'll write about soon) handles his host's stupidity well, and the exchange ends on a cute note, but the whole sequence reminded me yet again of what a friend of mine calls "post-homophobic homophobia," i.e., the restatement of bigotry in an ironic disguise. Why does this go on? Why is it just about every other skit on Saturday Night Live, for instance, features some weird gay character in leather, or guys kissing guys? Why must every TV show still bow before the anxieties of Midwest male twenty-somethings? (Somehow, for instance, I doubt Letterman was as horrified by Britney kissing Madonna.) Sigh. I'm just saying.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Broccoli We Have Heard on High

What can I say? An ocarina made of broccoli! Can a vegan Messiah be far behind?

Messiah complex

H&H Concertmaster Daniel Stepner.

There's at least one Christmas tradition that isn't really a tradition any more - in the last few years, Messiah has morphed from the equivalent of checking off a box on the Christmas list to something like an ongoing aesthetic argument. First came the early music revisionists (led by Boston's own Martin Pearlman), who pulled the work back from the nineteenth to the eighteenth century (where it basically belongs). Then last year Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn's new artistic director, offered a striking amalgam of the lighter "new" Messiah manner and its "older" Victorian proclamative power. And now this year's model from H&H, driven by yet another innovative British conductor, Paul Daniel, unveiled another vision altogether: Messiah as personal musical statement.

The results were by turns fascinating and moving, but also somewhat eccentric, and sometimes even slightly irritating. Daniel's reading was nothing if not fresh, and his players and singers responded to every surprising decision with excitement and passion - and this kind of intellectual commitment to musical exploration is, I admit, what impresses me most about this group; they'll follow their conductor anywhere, even when he decides to open the "Hallelujah Chorus" at something close to a whisper.

But I confess I wasn't ready to follow Mr. Daniel (at left) quite that far, and sometimes it struck me that he was looking at Messiah as a kind of academic experiment, or even personal musical toy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I'm just a cultural stick-in-the-mud - but it might also be due to the fact that I know when a piece has been almost over-considered. In a word, this was a Messiah that rarely let rip, and as a result some of its glories - in particular its joy and power - had gone missing. The conductor also willfully subsumed the dramatic text into the musical one - he was only too happy to push diction into a blur if he wanted to step on the musical gas, and even the final, gorgeous "Amen" was de-constructed into a set of disconnected notes; it was a lovely, intriguing musical phrase that recalled the moment's medieval sources, but it was not the word "Amen." I also noticed a certain repetition in Daniel's originality - he liked tender beginnings that rushed into slightly-melodramatic climaxes; certainly a time-honored technique, but by the third or fourth time around, one that had begun to sound a little corny. In the end, this conductor's Messiah was as much a tour of his own musical world as a thoughtful re-imagining of a tradition.

But hell, it's Christmas - and Daniel certainly bore many lovely musical gifts. The highlights of his Messiah were the gentle and melancholy moments that many other versions overlook: from the opening "Comfort ye" to "Behold the Lamb of God" to "I know that my Redeemer liveth," this was a Messiah of hope and solace rather than confident affirmation. Sometimes the piece was even heartbreaking - the "We shall be chang'd" segment was particularly piercing, via a beautifully dramatic reading by bass Brett Polegato. Handel and Haydn hasn't seen Mr. Polegato since 1999 - too long a break, if you ask me.

As for the rest of the soloists, however, I'd have to say "meh." No one else had Polegato's power (this was perhaps by design); at least mezzo Paula Murrihy projected a sense of profound personal feeling in "He was despised." But alas, soprano Kendra Colton and tenor Brian Stucki only managed the usual generic "heart." The chorus was nimble and attentive to Daniel's every whim - you could almost see them calculating exactly how loud he wanted them to be. But they sounded a little thin as both the jubilant congregation of "For unto us a Child is born" and the snarling mob of "Let Him deliver Him, if he delight in Him." The orchestra was the conductor's real musical focus, and I have to give Daniel props for the most cleanly delineated musical layering I've heard yet from H&H - in this department, he rivals James Levine. Daniel drew particularly fine work from the timpani, and of course the reliable Jesse Levine, H&H's secret weapon on natural horn.

And in the end, I have to admit it takes guts to simply ignore the presumptions of a tradition and follow your own road, which is precisely what Mr. Daniel has done. Oddly enough, despite the many caveats of this review, I'd be eager to hear him again, although maybe not in the saddle of this particular warhorse. I guess I just like my hallelujahs to sound like "Hallelujah!"

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against "cool"; or, the trouble with Tara

It's hard to argue with pleasure in the arts, particularly when so much contemporary art gives, well, so little of it. That's what makes the strange case of artist Tara Donovan so difficult to crack: it's almost impossible to persuade people that she's empty and superficial when she's just so much fun. People have been bringing their kids in droves to her retrospective at the ICA - which, after the Anish Kapoor show, has clearly found its niche as an adjunct of the Children's Museum - and you can hear little voices piping up with "Wow!" over and over again as tiny art-lovers encounter Donovan's clouds of styrofoam cups (above) and stalagmites of buttons and fog-banks of zillions of straws. And you can't blame them; Donovan's pieces are indeed "cool," and "cool," as they say, is king, as well as kid-friendly. I love cool stuff, you love cool stuff, we all love cool stuff. But can we stop pretending it's art?

Before you say it, I know the answer is "no." This would be asking a lot from the typical baby boomer (and actually even more from Gens X & Y). Just try explaining to one that the music and art they thought was cool when they were eleven or twelve was probably not, actually, all that deep or interesting (it was probably powerful, yes, but that's hardly the same thing). Most simply refuse to listen, even though their position is pretty ridiculous (imagine if literature were governed by the same model - we'd all still be talking about The Outsiders). Hey, if it rocks you, then it's deep - because otherwise, of course, you're not particularly deep, but are instead stuck in a very extended adolescence, and that obviously cannot be! It sometimes seems the idea that one should deepen as an adult - indeed, that it's your responsibility to deepen as an adult - has become about as attractive a position to my generation as racism. And why? Because if you've deepened as an adult, then you've become old. Hence the importance of having your taste ratified by your ten-year-old.

It's equally pointless to mention that most great art, in fact, is not particularly "cool." Indeed, great art is often impacted, thorny, strange, or opaque at first blush. It is usually difficult - only not merely difficult for its own sake, like so much second-rate modernism, but rather difficult because difficulty is often necessary to convey complex meaning. Which is practically the opposite of coolness. Cool things are sleek, controlled, and both self-sufficient and efficient; they offer instant gratification, instant elegance, and unexpected solutions; they must be immediately graspable, both in terms of their goals and their success. What's more, they are all about utility; they lift you up, give you wings, in general defy the gravity of the physical and emotional world. They don't leave you pondering your mortality, or perceiving your own limits; they don't make you humble or wise; instead, they "empower" you, which, of course leaves the "you" at the center of that new power basically unchanged.

Those are plastic cups! Can you believe it? It's like a digital network!

So I know it's pointless, really, shaking my graying locks over Tara Donovan; she's here to stay, and I'll be hearing about her at cocktail parties for a long time. Can you believe how many straws were stuck on that wall? How long did it take her to stack all those cups? And isn't it interesting that almost everything she's done is called "Untitled"? I really should just try to lie back and enjoy it, or think of England, or something.

Then again, I can almost already hear people asking me (or thinking to themselves), why can't you just sit back and enjoy all the pretty, mindless coolness, Mr. Snarky Artsy-Fartsy? And Tara Donovan's art is about something - it's like, about digital networks, and it's biological. Biomorphic, whatever. It is conceptual, that's the point - it's like there's this concept, or this process, or this concept process, or this process concept, of doing this small thing over and over - just like cells do, okay? - and then like stepping back and going "Wow. That is amazing." And Tara Donovan didn't have to have any particular ability, just tons of patience and, yes, hard work and determination, because anybody should be able to be a great artist, whether they have talent or not; that's what "contemporary art" means.

So let me tell you, gentle readers, I can enjoy mindless coolness as well as the next man. I, too, enjoy the strange ying-yang between size and scale that Donovan plays with; I totally dig models of Manhattan that fit on a tabletop, as well as twenty-foot pencils. I, too, went "Wow!" and ran around the perimeter of the cups/straws/tape and said "How did she do that?" I, too, understand that what she does is not at all like building an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks because the Eiffel Tower is not cool. I, too, walked up and down before the gazillion straws of "Haze," letting the piece play hackey-sack with my depth perception. I, too, gazed through the one that's like a window stuffed with curls of polyester film, and thought about how beautiful it was, and how it reminded me of stained glass. And the way the sounds from the hall came through it, that was totally cool, too.

The trouble comes later, when I'm sitting here, before the keyboard, trying to think of something to say about Tara Donovan but not being able to come up with a single thing. Except that I suppose she's given Minimalism some fresh life. But did anyone really want to give Minimalism fresh life? Well, maybe a few curators did! Oh wait - speaking of curators - you know what? I can say something nice about Ms. Donovan after all: she was a lot more fun than those nominees for the Foster Prize! Because they weren't even cool. And man, if you don't have anything to say, then it's not cool to not be cool.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The "two cultures" meet again!

In the spirit of encouraging the "two cultures" of art and science to better understand one another, I thought I'd post the above video, "The Role of Vitamin D in Beta-Cell Function," the top prize-winner of the "Dance Your Ph.D." 2008 AAAS/Science Dance Contest. Below is an even more intriguing number called "Hydrodynamic Trail Detection in Marine Organisms." The idea was to challenge recent Ph.D.'s to communicate their dissertations via interpretive dance. You can read more about the contest and see more videos here. Or learn how you can submit an entry to next year's contest here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A crackling Nutcracker

A bevy of snowflakes do their thing in The Nutcracker.

If you've been waiting for a special reason to see - or return to - Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker, then this may be your year to take the plunge. For this old chestnut is crackling this year as it never has before. Indeed, the annual extravaganza had begun to seem a bit gimmicky and bloated of late; every season marked the introduction of some new special effect or cute bit of business, to the point at which the ballet seemed to be bulging at the seams, and you could almost count on some technical snafu or other (I remember on last year's opening night, the Christmas tree only "grew" to half its full height).

But in this year's model, the spectacle that had accumulated over recent years finally cohered - all the special effects came off, the constant stage traffic never got snarled, and the acting reached the same high level the dancing had long since attained. In short, The Nutcracker actually flowed as a story ballet, as it should.

Much of the credit for this happy development should, of course, go to Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, who has been tooling and retooling the piece under pressure, as it's wandered from the Wang to the Colonial and then to the Opera House. But I think at least a few laurels should be thrown at the feet of dancer Boyko Dossev, who made the best Drosselmeier I've ever seen. The role includes little challenging dancing - in the first act, that went to the virtuosic John Lam and Misa Kuranaga, as the mechanical, yet utterly flexible, Harlequin and Columbine - but it's still the essentially the acting fulcrum of the piece, and Dossev effortlessly pulled together the opening Christmas party (which with its simple dances for kids can get a little wearying for grown-ups) with a smart, slightly fey, but also faintly menacing sense of masculine whimsy. In short, Dossev made Drosselmeier spooky and fun - and as a result, so was the whole show.

Actually, the production did wobble slightly during the battle between the Nutcracker/Cavalier and the Mouse King (above) - which of its many set-pieces probably includes the most gags per minute, all of them good, but perhaps taken together almost too much of a good thing. Once Clara (a charming, light-on-her-feet Elizabeth Wisdom) and her Cavalier were making nice with the Snow King and Queen (Roman Rykine and Larissa Ponomarenko), however, the stage business settled down, and the Ballet's leading dancers - a very strong field these days - took over, and all was once again well.

As usual, Ponomarenko and Rykine were pretty much peerless - this team brings the art of partnering to the highest level of any couple in the Ballet, and their pas de deux was, as it should be, a dazzling display of noble romantic glamour. The various divertissements in the Land of Sweets remained at close to the same ravishing level; Sabi Varga and (especially) Lia Cirio brought a dark hauteur to the Arabian pas de deux ("Coffee"), while Misa Kuranaga (again) and Altankhuya Dugaraa charmed in the Chinese ("Tea"), and Jared Redick wowed the crowd with his stratospheric leaps in the rousing Russian dance. Likewise Melissa Hough impressed with her sunny confidence as the Dewdrop Fairy, and Lorna Feijóo brought her usual disciplined sex appeal to her exquisite turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Alas, her Cavalier for the evening, the talented Yury Yanowsky (replacing Nelson Madrigal, and not listed in the role for that weekend) seemed to be having an off night; he looked tired, and seemed unsteady on one or two of his solo landings - still, he partnered Feijóo well (if somewhat intently - you could almost see him counting pirouettes). And his handful of missteps did little to dull what proved to be a truly dazzling evening.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Illumination night

Amanda Fulks ponders the cost/benefit ratio of her life with Joe Lanza in Skylight.

People often ask me, "What's the must-see show in town?" and sometimes we're lucky enough that it's hard to answer. But right now there's no competition: Skylight, by David Hare, at the Merrimack Rep, is the must-see show in town, no question.

Only it's not quite "in town;" seeing it means schlepping up to Lowell. And, I admit, the production's not perfect. Still, it's worth the trip, if only as a reminder of the kind of intellectual stimulus we almost never get from our university theatres, or really any of our theatres here in the "Athens of America;" indeed, my last local theatrical brain-rush I think came from the Merrimack, too, with A Delicate Balance last spring. How is it this little house in the boondocks manages to do what Harvard and BU can't? I really don't know, but maybe Diane Paulus and Peter DuBois could make the trek up to Lowell to find out.

And maybe you should, too (while you're up there, eat at La Boniche, that should take the edge off). But be prepared to have your cultural assumptions challenged rather than massaged, even if (admit it) current events are making our cultural assumptions ring a little hollow these days - indeed, it's a shock to realize that Skylight, which directly engages our once-happy-go-lucky free-market mindset, actually dates from 1996. That's twelve years ago. And American playwrights still haven't caught up to it, probably because "political" American authors are generally in knots over formal experimentation, while I find over and over again that very traditional forms - like Hare's classic, naturalistic two-hander - are much better at holding the mirror up to our changing natures with a minimum of fuss. And then British authors in general, from the Victorians on down, have always been better than Americans at showing how money shapes character (which in America is something of a taboo - unless things end tragically, as in Fitzgerald and Dreiser).

Indeed, Hare is very much in the tradition of Balzac (ok, he's French) and Trollope - he's fascinated with how the idealist in each of us finds his or her way in an all-too-material world. In Skylight, as in Plenty and The Secret Rapture, said idealism is personified in a woman, and its opposing animus in a man - in particular, in the person of defiant schoolteacher Kyra (Amanda Fulks), who years ago walked out of a cozy affair - and business relationship - with successful restaurateur Tom (Christopher McHale) when their extra-curricular activities were discovered by his wife (who, intriguingly, was also Kyra's best friend). Since then, Kyra has devoted herself to teaching the urban poor (rather than handling Tom's dough as well as his you-know-what), while the ever-richer restaurateur watched his long-suffering wife die of cancer (she spent her last days gazing up at the eponymous skylight, which he had built for her). Now Tom's back - he's preceded by a pleading visit from his son - to half-beg, and half-demand, Kyra's return to his side, and they spend a long night of the soul, like so many symbolic theatrical couples before them, pondering whether that rapprochement is, indeed, possible.

It's a neat set-up, and most of the local reviews have concentrated on its melodramatic, guilty-passion dynamic - will Kyra return to the arms of her lost love (at left)? Or will she kick him out on his selfish capitalist ass? This is a solid hook for a review - and to be fair, it's a clear component of, and limit on, Hare's form - but alas, it's precisely at the level of soap opera that the Merrimack production wobbles; there's simply not enough sexual chemistry between this happy uncouple to convince us of their sudden, impulsive tryst, largely because actor McHale doesn't exude the sexy-ugly vibe that the original Tom, Michael Gambon, all but personified (McHale's no matinee idol, but he's still too good-looking!).

It's rather at the level of philosophical inquiry that the Merrimack team takes flight; director Towers has beautifully articulated the play's arguments, and actors Fulks and McHale give both sides of the debate their passionate commitment. The resulting rhetorical attacks leave the theatre deep in that silence that only comes from collective thought - my idea of theatrical heaven, by the way. We begin to wonder, in a sense, what have we been thinking all these years? Why, indeed, do capitalists see human beings as commodities, and why have we colluded with them in their delusion that "greed is good" and that they're engaged in "the creation of wealth"? On the other hand, why does anyone, anywhere, suffer the privations that come with charity, if success in our culture is indeed only judged materially? It's no secret which side of this debate the author favors (he even gives Kyra a charming valedictory at the finish) - still, Hare gives the blandishments of libertarian capitalism their due, and then some; indeed, he perhaps better limns the needy, almost infantile energy of the successful businessman than he does the tightly-wound determination of his heroine.

Although at the Merrimack, Amanda Fulks expertly disguised this slight internal fudge with a no-nonsense performance of damaged, but still defiant, moral authority (and she neatly incorporated between her emotional and intellectual cues the actual cooking of a real spaghetti supper). Meanwhile co-star Christopher McHale matched her emotional power beat for beat, with an often incendiary level of arrogant energy that was nevertheless clearly running on empty. I'm afraid I found Joe Lanza, in a framing device as Tom's son, a little too rat-a-tat in his delivery, but he still projected an appropriately confused emotional naïveté, and the physical production was likewise always apt. Scenic designer Bill Clarke brought a genuinely lived-in authenticity to Kyra's pathetic (and un-heated) flat, which lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz subtly warmed with a faint glow from above - perhaps from that metaphoric skylight, which Hare clearly intends as a metaphor for any goal beyond the self. I suppose, though, that those shafts of light should also count as a metaphor for the intelligent illumination that Charles Towers and the Merrimack Rep have brought to bear on this challenging play.