Saturday, January 31, 2009

How long before the MSM does some actual reporting on Brandeis and the Rose?

Greg Cook seems to have had a brainstorm today - maybe Brandeis is in deep financial shit! Could the school be in such desperate straits that it's in danger of closing, or enduring a radical downsizing? This would seem to be the question of the hour - it is, I think, the only obvious reason for such a radical step as liquidating the Rose collection (as I said in my earlier post below). Figuring this out, or at least pondering it in print, would seem to be Job 1 over at the MSM, wouldn't you think? And yet there hasn't yet been any real reporting on the issue. Instead, today the Globe published an op-ed from a Brandeis student about how the university totally mismanaged the way they told the students about this. [Update: There's another one today, from an alumnus - all before we're really sure what's happening financially at the school!] Other papers have pointed a finger at the Chairman of the Board, Malcolm L. Sherman, and noted that he's part of a "restructuring and investment firm" without seeming to connect the dots about that. Sigh. As I've said before, between Brandeis and the Rose, I'll take Brandeis - and I don't see why some of the Rose's holdings can't wind up in the collections of other area institutions, where they'll actually be more accessible to the Boston public. At any rate, "outrage" over this shocking act of - what, philistinism? - seems a bit beside the point to me at the moment.

I'll take "N" for "Nelly," Pat . . .

Another milestone, I guess. So hooray for us! But why don't the guys kiss? And does Pat Sajak really say "I should leave"?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Is the choice between Brandeis and the Rose?

There's been a lot of huffing and puffing about the decision of the Brandeis Board to close the Rose Art Museum and sell off its collection - most of it from folks who don't seem too much on the ball about what such a step must mean about the university's finances. Why would they be selling the art, goes the story, when all they have is a $10 million operating deficit?

Well, Houston, maybe they have a much bigger problem. This article in the Daily Beast lays out the following scenario from Peter French, Brandeis COO: an endowment down by almost a third, and likely to fall lower; major donors tapped out by Bernie Madoff; and a projected operating deficit of $79 million over the next six years.

Money quote:

Brandeis has already cut expenses and staff this year and last, and raised tuition and fees. French said the alternative now was either a drastic shrinking of the university or selling the art. Faced with the prospect of closing 40 percent of the university’s buildings, reducing staff by an additional 30 percent, or firing 200 of its 360 faculty members—any of which, French said, would drastically change the university’s mission and essentially cripple it—“We’d rather use [the]Rose.”

I hate to say it, but if those really are the choices facing the university, I think they may be doing the right thing. I know, I know - shocking from an arts blogger! But I have to confess I've only been out to the Rose once in my life, and while I'm not saying their art is "hidden away" in storage (it's often loaned out to other shows), still, the vast majority of it is never on the walls - and aren't there major gaps in the modern collections of, say, the MFA, that could be bolstered by buying the Rose's holdings - which would, perforce, see more foot traffic? As I mentioned before, the Rose collection is simply the most liquid asset Brandeis has. If they're really facing a crisis that could cut the faculty in half (and I realize that may be an exaggeration), then I think maybe people should back off a bit and begin trying to think of ways to keep the best of the Rose collection in public hands, and in the New England area.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Make 'em laugh

Paula Plum makes a point in The New Century.

With apologies to the Duchess of Windsor, playwright Paul Rudnick's mantra must be "You can never be too funny, or too thin." One need only look to his latest play, The New Century (now at SpeakEasy Stage through Feb.14) for the proof: this set of sketches on gay themes is often very funny, but it's got so little dramatic meat on its bones it's practically anorexic. And somehow you get the idea that this is the point; West Village mission accomplished!

But frankly, while Rudnick's one-liners do indeed fly, do they really fly "like rockets," as Ben Brantley would have us believe? Rockets are supposed to hit their targets, it seems to me, and they're also supposed to be at least a little pointed. No, Rudnick's zingers are more like - badminton birdies: they're designed not to puncture anything, and they're oh-so-easily batted back. Of course if a long game of shuttlecock played by gay stereotypes is your cup of tea, by all means enjoy! Me, I just kept waiting for a different kind of birdie - the inevitable gratuitous full-frontal nudity!

And honestly, the play could have been so much more; indeed, Rudnick studiously avoids the obvious conflicts built into his characters. He offers three monologues, by three different stereotypes: the long-suffering, liberal Jewish mother from Lawn Guyland with gay kids (a persona Rudnick's been riffing on for years); the datedly flamboyant Mr. Charles (at left), late of Manhattan, and now of late-night TV; and Barbara Ellen Diggs, a Midwestern "craftsperson" whose son died of AIDS and who now pours her grief into toaster cozies. All, you'll note, are survivors of humiliation, rejection, or disease; in short, of gayness, and - yes - its obvious downsides; but to admit this directly would be to admit the existence of the pink elephant in the room - much better to pretend it's not there!

So once this trio crosses paths in a wobbly, wandering last act, the playwright directs all their life lessons and collective wisdom toward - wait for it - 9/11, an event which may at this point be the last thing on the mind of his collective audience. Ever ponder what you can learn about terrorism from a nice lady with a glue gun and a dead gay son? No, I haven't, either. But apparently it has something to do with shopping (isn't that what Dubya said, too?). Or maybe it's just about floating a feel-good gay-90's bubble over a rather large cultural hump.

But to me, that bubble burst long ago - like so many bubbles of late! Still, as my English teacher used to say, write what you know; and Rudnick certainly knows this schtick. He's in top form with Helene, the most loving mother in the universe (here sveltely impersonated by crack comedienne Paula Plum), who tells a sad tale of tolerance to the Massapequa Chapter of "P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C. & O." (that's "Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned, and Others"). Helene's three offspring have turned out to be 1) a lesbian (which was no surprise - "Helen Keller would have known you were a lesbian!" she tells her daughter); 2) a transsexual ("Who's the big girl who looks like Ronnie?" her husband asks), and 3) a scatologist (don't ask). Through these travails Helene loves and suffers and then loves some more, always with her hair extensions - and sense of humor - perfectly in place. It's a charming monologue, and Plum gives it impeccable attack and timing (and her white-on-white pantsuit is to die for).

Alas, funny as it is, the monologue doesn't actually go anywhere, and neither does the next, less funny one, about an aging queen booted out of Manhattan by the new gay assimilationists (who want to marry and serve in the army rather than do homage to Paul Lynde). Again, the skit could have possibilities, if Mr. Charles even for a moment took his eyes off the mirror and peered into his own soul; but fat fucking chance. Still, Robert Saoud nearly matches Plum in what quickly shapes up as a beat-for-beat comic-chops acting smackdown. Alas, the final talented contender for the title, Kerry A. Dowling, is saddled with the weakest comic material yet (although the back-story to her sketch leaves Mr. Charles's in the dust). Still, she does what she can with her allotted clichés, and at least lands some clever points about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Gates" project not being so far from what she does with felt (and she's got the orange oven mitt to prove it).

But when these three lovable loons finally collide (in a maternity ward), if you thought there'd be fireworks (particularly when Mr. Charles tries to "turn" Helene's granddaughter gay - hasn't the poor woman had enough?), you thought wrong; because conflict could lead to d-r-a-m-a, and Mr. Rudnick is having none of that - he'd much rather sweetly preach than playwrite. Which is too bad, if only because he and SpeakEasy are essentially wasting the time of several of Boston's best comic actors - and designers (Cristina Todesco's set and Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes are like buttah). And here's hoping this will be the shallowest play SpeakEasy does for a while; yes, I know, vehicles like The History Boys aren't quite the kiddie pool, but they're hardly an adult swim either, and it's time for this talented troupe to demonstrate that they can do more than superficial uplift. Luckily the gritty Blackbird is next, followed by the gonzo Jerry Springer. And not a moment too soon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Maybe there is a God . . .

. . . now that the Flying Spaghetti Monster has at last been spotted! Can a YouTube of the Virgin Mary's next solo appearance be far behind? (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A summer night's dream in Spain

When you hear the phrase "string quartet," you probably don't think of the guitar. Even though the Romero dynasty (at left) has spent most of the last forty years trying to change that - after all but inventing the format themselves. By all rights, by now they should have succeeded in their aim; certainly the enthusiastic crowd at their Celebrity Series appearance last Saturday night thought they had. And it was hard to disagree; the Romeros were virtuosic as ever, the program (derived almost entirely from the Spanish tradition) was exquisitely seductive, and the warm, familial atmosphere engendered by the group - now in its second and third generations - was palpable. Briefly, I believed the snows outside Jordan Hall must be melting, and I would emerge from the concert into the violet glow of a twilight in Spain.

Alas, I didn't; but that's not the Romeros' fault. It's also not their fault that, despite years of transcription and contributions from many of the past century's leading composers, there's still not an overabundance of seriously ambitious guitar music for them to play. The most structurally complex piece on the program, by Boccherini, was interesting (and actually drawn from a guitar quintet) but was hardly on the same plane as the best chamber music from Brahms or Beethoven; one longed for - but was disappointed by the lack of - some fascinating combination of the instrument's seemingly-opposed capabilities of contrapuntal detail and fluid rhythm. Indeed, the Romeros are that rare case in which you can sense a latent, untested ability in the performers; they're actually more virtuosic than their music demands.

Still, this matters little when the pieces themselves are so consistently charming or haunting, and actually often so fresh. Of course the Romeros played Albéniz's "Granada," (how could they not?) but among the usual dances and scenes of rustic life by the likes of Rodrigo and Tárrega there were scattered finds by lesser-known composers such as Torroba and Jiménez. The program was divided into solos and various groupings of the four Romero men - Celin and Pepe, sons of founder Celedonio, as well as Celin's son Celino, and nephew Lito (son of former quartet member Angel). Celino is something of the group's matinee idol (and seems to know it), but displayed exquisitely delicate playing in Sanz's Suite Española; his cousin Lito's solo was the more rhythmic "Farrucas de Sabicas" (composed by Pepe Romero himself), which he gave a nice, slowly-gathering drive. The showpiece of the evening, however, was probably Tárrega's Gran Jota, in which Pepe (still the central force in the group) drew a startling variety of sonic imagery - everything from chimes to stomping boots - from the body of his guitar. Although as always, Romero maintained a certain chivalric restraint from the passion of the music, even when banging on his guitar with light ribaldry - something very much in the Spanish character, and which only made the music's melancholic sensuality tremble all the more.

Yet charming as all this benign patriarchy is - and the Romeros are utterly charming - one does wonder where the Romero women are. Are their no mothers or daughters or wives with guitar talent in the family? No exemplary female students? The addition of a female voice to the "royal family of guitar" might bring a piquant and refreshingly modern note to their celebrated repertory.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Returned to life

When I mentioned to two friends that I was seeing Haydn's Orfeo last weekend, they both said the same thing:

"Haydn wrote operas?"

Yes, he did, fifteen of 'em, although they've fallen from the standard repertory - indeed, Orfeo only debuted in 1951 (you read that right; Haydn never saw it performed). So in a way the opera, like its heroine, has been brought back from the dead. Its long obscurity may be due to the fact that it's a kind of mermaid-like half-opera/half-oratorio: a lost form which I will immediately christen the "opatorio." Certainly the music in Orfeo (full title: L'Anima del Filosofo [The Soul of Philosophy], ossia Orfeo ed Euridice) should have ensured its survival: here the great composer relaxes into a longer, more lyrical line, the choral passages are remarkable, and the action is studded with at least three brilliant arias: a lush introduction to Orpheus, a truly heartbreaking lament from Eurydice, and a sparkling coloratura turn from the Sibyl who leads Orpheus down among the shades. Hadyn also gives Creon (in this permutation of the myth, Eurydice's father) a darkly subtle musical presence, and throughout deploys the same palette of evocative color - a long harp solo here, a plaintive cry from the woodwinds there - that made The Creation and The Seasons such classics. He even ends the opera with what must be the most dramatic piece of music he ever wrote: a tempest that washes the mad Bacchantes (who have killed Orpheus) out to sea.

That said, you couldn't really argue that Orfeo succeeds as drama; the libretto adds random episodes to the story, and insists on the hero as a rational, rather than romantic, figure. Meanwhile the chorus is integrated into the musical action in a way that makes the "drama" feel a bit like a frieze. What's more, Orpheus and Eurydice seem to exist as Enlightenment talking points rather than characters, and their final separation passes without musical climax (!). Still, these odd gaps only point up the wisdom of a concert staging of the piece, which is what Handel and Haydn offered.

And a rather wonderful concert staging it was. Perhaps because the opera counts as a re-discovery, conductor Roger Norrington (above left) eschewed the eccentric flourishes with which he sometimes saddles the warhorses, and offered a straightforward, sensitive rendition of the score that only reminded one why he is one of the foremost interpreters of Haydn in the world. The orchestra sounded superb - with particular praise going to the harp and timpani (those final washing waves were expertly conjured), and the chorus was only a small step behind the instrumental standard (the women seemed a bit diffuse and thin in spots). Various members of the chorus also leapt into action as needed to play minor roles, a device which played up the "oratorio" side of things, but which also displayed to advantage the individual talents up there in the stands.

The soloists were by and large even more thrilling. As Eurydice, the lovely Sarah Coburn (right) brilliantly deployed a ripe romantic presence and a luminous vocal instrument that ran effortlessly up into the stratosphere. In her second turn as the Sibyl, she hardly changed her timbre or phrasing, alas, but her coloratura work was so sparkling you didn't care. She met her match (perhaps even more than her match) in Christopher Maltman, a baritone with the vocal size (and something of the depth) of a bass, and a subtle, intelligent intensity to match his vocal prowess. We'll be hearing more from both these two - hopefully a lot more. As Orpheus, meanwhile, tenor Andrew Kennedy sang with passion and a gently complex tone, but didn't really have the power to match even Coburn, much less Maltman; what's more, he seemed to be performing in a kind of emotive bubble, rather than relating to his co-stars in that implied way that even concert stagings demand. Elsewhere, he might have been compelling - but he seemed merely adequate amid such stunning company.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Family plot

Father and son go mano-a-mano in A View of the Harbor.

I'm confused. Why are local critics hating on A View of the Harbor at the Merrimack? Louise Kennedy in the Globe writes that "A View of the Harbor has found a new formula for depression . . . it feels more like a sitcom than a play, and a third-rate sitcom at that." Okay - having all but killed off the North Shore Music Theatre, Kennedy seems to now have the Merrimack in her sights - all the better, apparently, to close as many theatres as she can before she loses her job, too. But from her review you'd never guess how engaging the production is, or how much the audience I attended it with seemed to enjoy it.

I'm not arguing, btw, that A View of the Harbor is flawless - indeed, far from it: it's flawed. Playwright Richard Dresser is confidently, but superficially, skilled, and as a result somewhat glib; he's in love with the tight, ironic reversals we expect from journalism, not drama, and he skates over transitions he should take time to develop. Still, his juxtapositions are amusing and suggestive, his skepticism toward everyone and everything provides for some genuine wit, as opposed to just "laughs," and the thrust-and-parry of his writing sometimes conjures a scary sense of moral dislocation. At its best, A View of the Harbor plays like a cross between Heartbreak House and Buried Child - not bad for a new play and a young playwright, I'd say.

Or, you could argue that it plays like a cross between Heartbreak House, Buried Child, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Certainly Dresser studs his play with one-liners that occasionally play like sitcom fodder. Still, his wisecracks send home pointed jokes about class in America, or how class feeling aligns with family feeling (taboo topics on sitcoms), so I was prone to forgive him this weakness. The trouble is, the background rhythm of sitcom "beats" forces his hand when it comes to the deeper issues he raises. He quickly shuffles his characters from one allegiance to another, and doesn't allow himself the freedom to really explore the darker shadows his writing casts. I have a feeling, though, that if he ever does dare to break this commercial template, he might just have a great play in him.

Certainly he's already written an amusing one. A View of the Harbor casts its jaundiced eye on the way the rich respond to the moral problem of being rich: privileged Paige has fallen hard for working class hero Nick, who slaves away in the local munitions factory she opposes; through him she gets the "authenticity" she craves, plus the cozy feeling she's rebelling against her own class. But when Paige follows Nick home after his father's medical collapse, she discovers that nothing about him is as it seems: not his class, not his money, not even his name. "Nick" is actually "Edward," and "a Townsend" - i.e., the scion of the family that once owned the munitions factory in which he toils, but now marinates in martinis, money, and emotional recrimination in its Addams-family-style redoubt on the shores of Maine. Most shocking of all, Nick is actually richer than Paige.

So what's an uppercrust liberal to do? The re-alignment of Paige's affections, and her return to the cold, but at least honestly self-interested, calculations of her class-bound core, become the spine of Presser's play - although he takes interesting little side-tours into the family's WASP-y dysfunction (of which their mean-spirited "poverty" is but one classic manifestation). Alas, these trips are generally too abbreviated - we want to learn more, for instance, about the actual Nick, Edward's dead brother, who fell (or jumped) off the cliff before the family home. Likewise Edward's emotionally paralyzed sister - who's so beaten-down Paige at first takes her for his mother - is intriguing but under-developed (her final illusions are a particular mystery, given her sharp perceptions early on). And how does Paige herself get around the supposed war-industry horrors behind the family fortune? Right now the play, like the Townsends, is held together by Dresser's conception of its central patriarch, on whose growling, cruelly capitalist stance the playwright has the best bead, perhaps because it doesn't change; it's the reconfiguration of the other characters around this central pillar that are currently giving him trouble.

Clearly delineating this, of course, would take time, which is what Dresser denies himself (the Merrimack does the play sans intermission). In a word, the playwright should revise and expand - and generally take a longer View of the Harbor. In the meantime, however, there are four strong performances to savor up at the Merrimack. Anderson Matthews makes a roaring caricature of his pickled patriarch - still, this is a caricature worthy of Daumier, and it's easy to see why Stephanie Fieger's self-serious Paige (at left) might find his flinty self-denial attractive (and after all, is his "poverty," with its hidden agenda of power, so very different from her own "self-denial"?). Meanwhile Kyle Fabel makes Nick both likable and slightly pathetic, and Andrea Cirie brings a waspish, sullen attack to the role of his downtrodden sister - although both, I'd argue, are left hanging in the final scene by the playwright. The gray ghost of a seaside Victorian which frames both their action and in-action is the work of the skillful Richard Wadsworth Chambers, while director Charles Towers, as is his wont, keeps things in crisp structural shape throughout. This director seems essentially drawn to rhetorical modes - his specialty is a kind of taut verbal thread strung over an abyss; in Albee, or even Hare, this approach works beautifully, because that deep darkness is central to the playwright's design. In Dresser, the abyss is there, too - only the playwright tries to distract us from it; hence the occasional sitcomminess of this production. But it occurs to me that Towers's skills might best be set off by Shaw, or even Ibsen - two playwrights rarely seen in Boston of late. Could they, perhaps, surface at the Merrimack sometime soon? If enough people ignore Louise Kennedy, maybe so.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Swingtime for Hitler

John Kuntz and cast welcome us to Cabaret.

"Musicals aren't written," Julie Andrews once quipped, "they're rewritten." But surely no musical has ever been rewritten quite so often as Cabaret (now at the New Rep through February 1). Indeed, it's had more stage lives than a cat, and each time has come back with slightly different spots. After its (extensive) adaptation from John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, the piece went through the usual set of revisions prior to its stage premiere in 1966; it was then completely re-conceived, with new tunes added for its star, for its celebrated bow on the big screen in 1972. Then in the 80's, Broadway revivals began interpolating the superior songs Kander and Ebb wrote for the movie back into the "original" stage version (plus some songs originally cut from that), and in the 90's, a major re-thinking imported from London (directed by Sam Mendes) re-styled the leading man's love life, pulled in the last remaining song from the movie, and played off-Broadway for years. And through all this, in the far aesthetic distance, you can still just make out a few glimpses of the original original source material, Christopher Isherwood's loosely structured novella, Goodbye to Berlin.

So what do you get at the New Rep? Well, basically the dramatic arc of the 1966 musical, with added emphasis on the hero's bisexuality, along with an interesting tune that didn't make the cut of the original show, plus one of the best songs from the film ("Maybe This Time," for my money the second-best number Kander and Ebb ever wrote). Got that? Good.

And the New Rep, and outgoing Artistic Director Rick Lombardo - along with much of the creative team from his Wild Party production a year or two ago - give this amalgam their best effort, and make it a bright, bouncy, and often diverting evening. They don't, it's true, make a new case for Cabaret - but how could they? Hasn't every single possible variation been rung on the material? Indeed, this musical is almost suspiciously malleable -"Christopher" was gay in the original book, but then "Cliff" was straight on Broadway, then bi in the movie, then gay off-Broadway, and now, apparently, bi again. Oh, and he and Sally Bowles were British in the original, then he was American and she was British in the musical, then he was British and she was American in the movie, and now he's American and she's British again. Perhaps most amusingly, the Emcee in the original musical was slowly decked with Nazi regalia, but then off-Broadway, he ended up - surprise! - a concentration camp prisoner. And at the New Rep, he's not only a concentration camp prisoner, but also shares Cliff's shiner from his encounter with the Nazis. (You see he is all of us, in the same way that life is a cabaret!) And this doesn't even begin to address the central problem of the show - the tone of its source is famously blank (beginning, as you might guess, with that telling, nonjudgemental phrase "I am a camera"), yet the show is after more melodramatic thrills: it essentially wants us to react to its subtext with a shuddering "Oh. My. God. Run! It's the Nazis!"

And at the New Rep, director Rick Lombardo wants us to do that over and over (only to diminishing returns). The original musical - and the superior movie - solved this problem through a strategy of gradual encroachment; the Nazi party slowly moved from the periphery of the Kit Kat Club to its center. At the New Rep, however, Hitler's beaming visage is projected onto the floor seemingly on the first notes of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and while this gambit is visually striking, it essentially undoes the structure of the play: Hitler isn't coming, he's already here. Lombardo also seems to imagine that Isherwood and Kander and Ebb are all celebrating the decadent atmosphere of Weimar, when instead, of course, they're implicating it in Hitler's rise instead. But any such criticism would be hard to square with the happy, hearty performances of Lombardo's leads, who are all wholesome sexual rebels, and the gleaming set and costume design (the set in particular looks like your average Marriott Hotel lobby - perhaps intentionally, I wondered?). Even John Kuntz, though made up to resemble Death himself as the Emcee, can't really conjure any sense of menace or alienated foreboding, and when he tries to be shocking - at one point he mimes cunnilingus with some willing kitty cat - he still comes off as cute and eager to please.

Sally Bowles (Aimee Doherty) gets her groove on in Cabaret.

Still, Lombardo knows how to give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, and much of Cabaret is lively fun. As Sally Bowles, local heroine Aimee Doherty works hard to seem pathetically narcissistic and damaged, and doesn't convince us for a minute, but her numbers are nevertheless all high-energy show-stoppers (even if they're set a bit low for her voice). Meanwhile Cheryl McMahon and Paul Farwell bring genuine depth to the show's sub-plot (here it almost feels like the main plot) about an elderly couple torn apart by anti-Semitism, and Paul Giragos plays Ernst, a Nazi courier, with an earnest energy that almost makes us forget he looks anything but Aryan. There's also a nice, believably sleazy turn from Shannon Lee Jones as the local working girl, while David Krinitt does what he can as the sexually indeterminate Cliff. The dancers look about as decadent as cheerleaders, but throw themselves into Kelli Edwards's clever routines, all of which come off as brassy, enjoyable blow-outs - even when they end in goose-steps. Meanwhile up in the overhead "pit," Todd C. Gordon leads the capable band (some of them in drag) with his usual élan. So what good is sitting alone in your room, when you can enjoy this broad and brassy, if not particularly disturbing, Cabaret?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Big Moment

Bad video from my digital camera that at least gives you some idea of what it was like down on the Mall at the Big Moment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hello and good-bye to all that

Can you see Obama? Yes, I was this far away, but it still felt worth it.

Well, I'm back from an exhausting, but generally exciting and exhilarating Inauguration Day. A day that started earlier than I expected - I awoke spontaneously this morning at 4 AM (coincidentally - perhaps - the time the Mall opened for visitors) and couldn't get back to sleep. My buddy Alton, with whom I'm staying, told me I was acting like a kid on Christmas morning, but I still prevailed on him to get a move on earlier than planned. By 7:30 AM we were down on the Mall, in 18-degree weather.

It was already crowded, but we managed to find a spot about halfway down its length before the crowd got so dense we began to feel claustrophobic. This left us in front of the Smithsonian's "castle" building, with a good view of a nearby jumbotron, and an unimpeded view of the Capitol (although the people on its stages were smaller than ants, see above). Then all we had to do was wait more than four hours in sub-freezing temperatures before, at last, our long national nightmare would come to an end.

The crowd was well-behaved and friendly, but I wonder if folks who watched the network coverage felt the actual vibe coming off the Mall during the ceremony. Bush and Cheney were loudly booed and hissed, as you'd expect, as were Joe Lieberman and Clarence Thomas. Big cheers, on the other hand, greeted Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, and the Clintons. John McCain got a frosty, but respectful, response. The crowd went nuts for the Obamas, of course, with particularly wild cheers for Michelle and the girls. The relief over Michelle's gorgeous but daring outfit was palpable, and noted audibly. Aretha sounded great. And the sun came out - and the temperature rose to near freezing. I could almost feel my toes. Best of all, I was still taller than anyone who had pushed their way in front of me; I could still see both the jumbotron and the tiny ants playing with the tiny Bible on the little white stage before the Capitol. Still, things were, by noon, fairly claustrophobic across the Mall, although standing cheek-by-jowl with over a million other human beings is, in its way, an experience worth having. You'll certainly never forget it.

The fluff around the swearing-in was odd, but funny, and of course Obama was unflappable as ever; a brief debate erupted in the crowd over who, exactly, had gone wrong first, but was quickly silenced. And all at once Obama was President, and suddenly, it seemed to me that everything had become slightly unreal - was this actually happening? Was I really there? But then The Speech began, in powerful sunshine, and was wonderful in that it hit all the right points, and was oh-so-pointed regarding the record of you-know-who, who was just a few feet away. Still, it wasn't all that eloquent, and certainly not even in the ballpark of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which everyone had been referring to constantly over the past few days. It was sober and thoughtful, but perhaps not inspiring. Oh, well! Even though my partner has begun referring to Obama as "the Messiah," I guess he's not yet the equal of Lincoln, at least not when it comes to rhetoric!

And then it was all over - and the huge downside of the event came into sharp focus: the city and the inaugural committee had really devised no exit strategy for the nearly two million visitors camping before the Capitol. All the streets around the parade route to the White House were blocked off - as was my way of entry, via the Washington Monument. It took me well over an hour just to get off the Mall - and this was only accomplished by enduring often-frightening onslaughts of confused, oncoming crowds, and hopping the odd blockade or two. Still, the delay allowed me to catch a glimpse of the helicopter that whisked W. off to Texas again. I doubt he noticed, but a group was serenading his departure from near the Monument, warbling that old kiss-off tune, "Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, hey he-ey, GOOD-BYE!" I may have never heard a sweeter sound. But what made it all the more wonderful was the sense that after some eight years of mistakes and malfeasance, we did good this time.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A brief pause while your correspondent joins ObamaNation!

Obama speaks at the climax of Sunday's concert.

Yes, Hub Review fans, yours truly succumbed to Obamamania and hopped a flight down to D.C. on Sunday. I was sure, actually, that due to what seemed like blizzard-like conditions, our plane would never take off - or at best would end up in the Hudson! But the spirit was with us, and after many delays we made it to Dulles, and then to D.C. (the shuttle drive into the city, with most of the bridges and half the streets closed, was almost more trying than the flight). And by late afternoon, my old friend Alton and I had actually made it to the concert on the Mall, just in time to hear Stevie and Bono and Arlo and Beyonce, and of course the Man himself (video captured from the camera of yours truly above), whose speech was short, sweet and genuinely moving. A few people around me were crying, and I was tempted to join in myself more than once - particularly at that tiny moment when Obama mentioned "gay and straight" from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (I'm very, very sorry that I missed Gene Robinson's convocation). I know, I'm as disappointed as you are that he's got that homophobic evangelist cracker blessing the inauguration - but has any President (or President Elect) dared to include people like me at the national table before, and so openly? I wonder what Mary Cheney is thinking right now . . .

I've never been in a crowd of over half a million people before - that was the local TV estimate, but due to the fact that the crowd actually spilled to the OTHER side of the Washington Monument due to the jumbotrons on that side of the hill (we got close to the reflecting pool, but then backed up for the epic shots), I'd say there were close to three quarters of a million people there. And if you're going to join a crowd that size, I'd advise you make it a crowd of liberal Democrats - the whole human tidal wave seemed remarkably orderly, and there was hardly any trash left behind (we hung around a bit, to check out some folks actually live-blogging from the grass of the Mall). Most incredibly, we kept overhearing chance encounters between people who had no idea they were both flying in for the event! What are the odds? Go figure. The whole wonderful afternoon really came off without a hitch - and to be honest, judging from the last hour, it was almost pitch-perfect in its themes and message.

Of course Tuesday will be even more of a challenge - at least twice the crowd, and maybe a little colder. We've scoped out our spot on the Mall on the Smithsonian side of the Monument, as we figure closer to the Capitol will just be too intense. Believe it or not, there were actually 250,000 tickets given out to the proceedings, so even those with tickets will essentially be watching Obama on a jumbotron (only once they're on the grounds, they won't be able to leave, or move around - yikes!). We've given up on the parade, as everyone says you can't do both (for reasons unknown, there are no jumbotrons on the parade route). So that's the plan - be down at the Mall by around 9, when the gates open, shiver and shake and eat our power bars till 12, then thrill that we're watching Obama on TV - but on TV in Washington D.C.! - then head home with 2 million other weary, frostbitten Americans (thank God my friend's digs are near DuPont Circle - we can just walk!).

It should be great. Our long national nightmare is almost over, my friends - of course cleaning up that nightmare is only just beginning. I'll blog again before I return to Boston - and I've got reviews of Cabaret and A View of the Harbor on the way.

Cheers! And remember - yes we can -


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Children of the Corn

The Welsh better themselves in The Corn is Green.

A cynic confronted by the Huntington's production of The Corn is Green might snicker that yes, corn is evergreen. Certainly Emlyn William's inspirational potboiler about the determined Miss Moffat, a spunky schoolmarm who single-handedly educates the coal-mining Welsh, is essentially a parade of stereotypes and contrivances: the comic eccentrics, the good girl gone bad, the great unwashed (literally) - all make their inevitable appearances. Still, this is largely because Corn is the template for just about every such vehicle, from To Sir with Love to Music of the Heart. (Interestingly, Williams flipped the formula to write another template - i.e., lower-class-psycho-stalks-upper-class-woman - in his other big success, Night Must Fall.)

And it's hard to be completely cynical about The Corn is Green once you're confronted by its craft and appealing self-awareness. The play preaches, yes, but does so entertainingly, and always stays grounded in at least a light dramatic conflict; and Williams knows how to set a scene and give a leading lady an entrance (here it's on a bike!) and also seems preternaturally aware of just when to be witty, when to be politically pointed, and when to turn sentimental. And of course in the hands of director Nicholas Martin, who with this production is taking a kind of valedictory lap at his former theatre, the play's many modes are each turned out just about perfectly. These are all commercial ploys, true, but they recall a time when the communal rituals of commercial art were a civilizing force, and so their value may well exceed that of the wallowing excesses of today's cutting-edge wannabes. True, The Corn is Green is somewhat mild and predictable; it's a warm slab of conventional humanism. On the other hand, it doesn't set out to flatter narcissistic teens, and no one pees onstage.

Still, it's worth noting that Williams actually hints at more disturbing themes - of rebellion, and liberal patronization, and the intimate distance between teacher and student - that this production doesn't really pick up on. This is partly because director Martin colorizes the darker edges of this picture (all those coalminers are haler than MGM would have made them), but it's also because its star, Kate Burton, the daughter of you-know-who Burton and currently a lead on TV's Grey's Anatomy, knows how to light up a stage but not really how to limn a character. And no matter how subtly Martin directs her beats and moves and readings (he and she have had a long professional relationship), he can't quite crack her sturdy, simple persona. This was a much larger problem in Martin's Cherry Orchard two years ago than it is here (Burton's Ranevskaya was smart and spunky, too), because Burton's stage type is so much closer to the profile of this character. Still, it would be nice if she treated the role as more than just a vehicle for her obvious stage savvy.

But then I'm forgetting that this particular bicycle has been built for two. For playing opposite Burton, in a role loosely modeled on the playwright himself, is the actress's son, Morgan Ritchie (also the son of director Michael Ritchie, late of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Martin now runs, and where this production premiered). If all this sounds a bit cozy, well, it is - maybe a little too cozy. Young Ritchie has something of you-know-who's look about him, and certainly some stage presence, and yes he and his mother are of Welsh descent; but perhaps he doesn't have quite enough of his grandfather's earthy fire to carry off the central conflict of the play - which is, in the end, a sublimated romance between teacher and student. Clearly things could get uncomfortably Oedipal if the twists in said relationship went too far - and nobody wants young Ritchie to end up in therapy! Still, the central dynamic is now flatly maternal, and there's clearly more to it than that; after all, the plot puts Miss Moffat in direct competition with sexual temptation, and even leaves her at curtain holding a baby, as well as the bag.

This gap is all the more frustrating because there's so much colorful character work around the central pair. Local hero Will Lebow does his usual magic with his sonorous voice and perfect sense of timing and proportion, while Bobbie Steinbach twinkles determinedly in a stock comic role. But perhaps the strongest turns of the night came from Kristine Nielsen and Mary Faber, as Miss Moffatt's housekeeper and her daughter (a.k.a. The Girl Gone Bad), who both skillfully avoided the pitfalls of their respective roles: Nielsen projected heartiness without getting hammy, while Faber leaped like a gazelle from one improbable plot point to the next. There was more charming character work from Roderick McLachlan and Kathy McCafferty, although McCafferty sounded slightly winded. The design was at the Huntington's usual handsome standard, although James Noone's set - through the rafters of which we could see the sky - seemed to be aiming at some metaphor (about the potential of education, I assumed) without quite nailing it. Which is unusual in a Martin production; still, generally the show evinced the imprint of a theatrical master (and Martin was probably the last of that breed in Boston). Here's hoping this isn't the last time we get to bask in that invigorating theatrical atmosphere only he seems to be able to conjure.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Devil and John Webster

Jennie Israel prepares to die in The Duchess of Malfi.

The Globe and the Herald have applauded the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (above), and it's easy to understand why: the production is smartly designed, it's an admirable - even risky - attempt to bring a neglected classic to the public, and (let's be honest) all the right people are associated with it. Still, it's hard for me to shake the feeling that these critics - both of whom clearly have never encountered the play before - are applauding the fact they've been offered a palatable simulacrum of Webster, rather than the thing itself. This production, like all the work of its director, David R. Gammons, is sleek and visually striking. It's just not John Webster.

To play devil's advocate with myself, however, I must admit the production also dilutes or dodges many of Webster's greatest flaws. Its publicity declares the playwright second only to Shakespeare among Jacobean dramatists. Okay, that's probably the current trend in the academy - still, Ben Jonson was rated higher by contemporaries (and of course Marlowe, admittedly an Elizabethan, was obviously greater). And there's still a chasm between Shakespeare and his rivals, and watching any other Jacobean can only underline this distance. Take, for instance, even an early Shakespeare play like Midsummer Night's Dream - the one even a middle school can plausibly pull off. It takes its theme - let's call it "the comic blindness of love" - and charmingly runs it through a symphonic set of variations via several casts of characters up and down the social scale; this alone would make it a farce for the ages. But it also includes several rhetorical set-pieces so beautiful they've been all but memorized by the culture, as well as some strikingly resonant metaphors (the fairyland, Bottom's transformation). Then, on top of that, there's a hilarious parody of the tragic problem of love in the last act (and even a burlesque of the Bard's own style), as well as a thoughtful analysis of love's relation to madness and our position as the 'audience' of our own lives, plus a hidden meditation on the theological problem of the love of God (surely the blindest love of all), via discombobulated quotations from St. Paul.

Through all of this, of course, the pace of the plot is expertly managed. And this is one of Shakespeare's less challenging plays. Compare and contrast to John Webster (or even Kit Marlowe) who can certainly pen gorgeous rhetorical set-pieces, but who gets awkward when managing even a single sub-plot.

Okay, Shakespeare rocks. But he's not just better technically than the other Jacobeans, he's different in his very nature. When Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare "invented" what it means to be human, he partly means that the Bard imbued his characters with a lyrical flexibility; what makes Shakespeare's tragedies so piercing is that his characters always have the potential to transcend their situations: Lear comes back from madness, and even Hamlet seems to reconcile with his mother.

The other Jacobeans, however, as a rule spurn such optimistic illusions - and they may be right; perhaps the spiritual beauty Shakespeare confers on us isn't really deserved. At any rate, they generally replace his lyrical meditations with grotesque sensation - and a high reliance on stage horror of every stripe: severed limbs rub shoulders constantly, as it were, with incest and rape. Intriguingly, the production that first brought David R. Gammons acclaim - his Titus Andronicus - was of Shakespeare's first, and most typically "Jacobean," tragedy (I know, I know, it's dated from Elizabeth's reign, but work with me).

In that case, Gammons's high sheen of abstraction beautifully subdued the piece's over-the-top horrors - its torn-out tongues and children baked in pies - and freed the Bard's contorted evocation of absurdist doom from its grindhouse trappings. It was an inspired strategy - for Shakespeare. But it actually works against John Webster, because in Webster, the severed limbs and incest are the main event. The endlessly vile episodes - capped, of course, with well-deserved deaths - are what Webster revels in, and without them, somehow his grim, skull-beneath-the-skin honesty loses its power.

Of course, his repetitions can also seem, well, just repetitious; and Gammons does dodge that particular pitfall - his production is leaner and cleaner than the previous ones I've seen, and puts the best possible spin on Webster's uneven dramaturgy. But rather obviously he manages this by cutting about 15-20% of the text (and several characters). Again, that's his prerogative, and plenty of older texts are highly cut (probably 20% of Hamlet is missing from most performances); still, something that is essential about Webster has been lost in the process. The very obssessiveness of the playwright's intense sexual disgust - indeed, his horror at the natural world in general - is part of what you could call his creepy grandeur. Take the following lines on an old woman's make-up:

One would suspect it for a shop of witchcraft,
To find in it the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jews' spittle,
And their young childrens' ordure; and all these for the face.
I would sooner eat a dead pigeon, taken from the soles of the feet
Of one sick of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting . . .
I do wonder you do not loathe yourselves.
Observe my meditation now:
What thing is in this outward form of man
To be belov'd? We account it ominous,
If nature do produce a colt, or lamb,
A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amaz'd to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.
But in our own flesh, though we bear diseases
Which have their true names only ta'en from beasts,
As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle;
Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear,
Nay all our terror, is, lest our physician
Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.

Whoa. That's quite a fantasia on face-powder, isn't it. Gammons cuts most of these lines (indeed, he's eliminated the character the speech is directed to), but to me they cut to the quick of Webster, and without them, or at least the sick force behind them, The Duchess feels hollowed out, like some Mannikin of Malfi. Indeed, the chilly fashion-show feel of Gammons' production (it takes place on a kind of catwalk) undercuts - actually, contradicts - Webster's basic atmosphere. This show always looks gorgeous, even glamorous; watching it, you think of Giorgio Armani, not about eating dead pigeons and feces. And it's hard to deny that a production of Webster should slowly suffocate us in a claustrophobic mingling of Eros and Thanatos - one that finds its end, as per the speech above, in feeling our own flesh eaten by worms in the confines of the grave. But Gammons keeps us diverted instead with an airy, if icy, decadence that's relentlessly cool, not stiflingly hot, and well - sometimes a bit silly.

Indeed, the production often edges toward burlesque, with all the big wigs and high heels, and Jennie Israel's stolid, almost-too-dignified Duchess. Sometimes, in fact, it goes right over the edge. The famous madhouse scene, in which the Duchess is all but buried alive with lunatics, is here enacted by two hot young things in their underwear, trying to terrify the Duchess with sock puppets (above left). Let's just say that's not quite as disturbing a vision as one has been led to expect by Webster's language; her death is likewise unimpressive (she's supposed to be strangled, but here is somehow metaphorically pulled apart - another thematically inaccurate image). And with its white-on-white, essentially French (rather than Italian) décor, and its perpetually slamming doors, the show sometimes feels like a nasty episode from Molière, or even Feydeau (occasionally I got the impression this was intentional, but any such parallel strikes me as specious). And the 2001-meets-Yves-St.-Laurent feel was only underlined by the talented David Adelberg's ongoing light show, which becomes almost distracting in its myriad effects. Was there a single dramatic moment without its own light cue? If so, I missed it. And sometimes less is more.

But if the actors often have to fight with the design for our attention (at left), a few nevertheless manage to make their mark. Jennie Israel I think is simply miscast as the Duchess; she's neither vulnerable enough, nor frankly young enough, to suggest, as Webster intends her to, that innocent sensuality is just another blandishment of corruption and Death. Jason Bowen does a little better by her noble beloved, Antonio, but the usually reliable Joel Colodner only strikes a few sparks as the evil Cardinal, and Bill Barclay is fun but inadequate as the scheming Bosola, who undoes, but then avenges, the Duchess. Bosola is in effect the moral center of the play, and Webster's factotum; his awakening to justice is also the "hinge" that gets us over the dramaturgical hump of the Duchess's fourth-act murder. And Barclay just doesn't bring the required depth to the role; he's a rascal with second thoughts, but little more.

Still, there are two performances to savor here. Marya Lowry brings some sense of real tragedy to the supporting role of Cariola (alas, in a second role she's forced to play at giving blow jobs!). And Michael Forden Walker, often the most interesting actor at Actors' Shakespeare, seems to have a touch of the real Webster in his soul, and brings a committed vitality to both the incestuous cruelty of the Duchess's brother, and his eventual breakdown and delusion that he's a werewolf. Praise should also go to Cameron Willard's eerie, if overloud, sound design - indeed, the soundscape often was the only thing cluing us in to the actual tenor of the play. I guess Mr. Willard was under the impression that if the Actors' Shakespeare Project was going to do John Webster, they were actually going to do John Webster.

Monday, January 12, 2009

More chronicle of a death foretold

A friend of mine has pointed out an interesting irony to the Globe's upcoming financial crisis - what could its sale, or radical reduction (or even disappearance) mean for the Herald? Could we be headed toward a situation in which the Herald is the remaining daily, and able to expand its ad revenues and readership? Could the Herald take the place of the Globe in the cultural/publicity hierarchy, at least temporarily? It's an interesting thought . . . or is it a scary thought. . .

How Not to Do Chekhov, Part II

Ah, hubris, c'est moi! Was it only on Saturday that I wrote of the Boston Art Theatre's Uncle Vanya, "Better you should try to convey Chekhov's century-old insights than re-enact the postmodern detritus of the 70's and 80's"? Yes, it was. But the Fates, I'm afraid, had a critical smackdown in store for me, via the Nora Theatre's traditional production of The Cherry Orchard (through February 1 at the Central Square Theatre), which, if anything, is even weaker than the Boston Art Theatre's pseudo-avant Vanya. Only the artistes at Boston Art at least have somewhere to hide - they can always pretend that only a stick-in-the-mud wouldn't like their disco ball, or their rock-and-roll interludes. The Nora, however, is stuck in a different way: when you attempt a masterpiece on terms that everybody understands, then everybody knows it when you . . . well, anyway. Sigh. Maybe I should have written, "If you don't have the resources to do Chekhov, better you should not do him at all!"

Although it would seem the Nora does have those resources - there are plenty of talented local actors in this cast (Annette Miller and Ken Baltin, with Michael Balcanoff and William Young, at left), and they're being directed by Daniel Gidron, who teaches at UMass. Perhaps the show's under-rehearsed, or maybe Gidron and his translator, George Malko, have some rather odd ideas about the play (more on that later), but whatever the reason, things don't gel until well into the third act, and until then most of the cast is either coasting on broad versions of personae from earlier shows (Miller, Baltin, Balcanoff, Young), half-heartedly going through the motions (Daniel Berger-Jones, Elise Audrey Manning), or just don't know what they're doing (Darcy Fowler). There are two surprisingly solid minor performances - Mark Peckham's Pishchik, and Fred Robbins's Drifter - which with their internal authority and technical control seem to have drifted in from some other production. Which simply goes to show you that some actors can always find their way home in the dark.

So what went wrong? My gut is the blame is mostly Gidron's, if only because he's at the intersection of weak acting, an eccentric translation, and poor design. There are also hints that he's trying to force the play toward farce, which is what many academics insist it is (drawing from Chekhov's own outraged response to the "tragic" stylizations of Stanislavski). Now I'm not going to argue the play should never be funny - there's even a whole character designed (largely) as comic relief; and certainly it should never be played as "high tragedy." But I also have to point out, based simply on the experience of a lifetime of play-going and maybe a dozen productions of The Cherry Orchard, that the farcical approach tends to fall flat - particularly in the devastating last act. And I'm getting a little tired of professors telling me, based on "close readings" of the text, that the universal audience response to this play is somehow wrong. If they got out of the classroom and into the theatre more often, they'd change their tune (then again, maybe not). People cry at the climax of great productions of The Cherry Orchard for good reason - even though, yes, they understand the absurdity of its flawed characters; indeed, perhaps that makes them cry all the more.

Worse still, consciously farcical mechanics tend to look crass in late Chekhov - indeed, almost anything too-directly stated looks crass in late Chekhov - and this production makes a few such blunders; at one point Yasha actually screws Dunyasha on stage (I suppose so we can say "Dunyasha has done Yasha") - a crude bit of business that the actors seem as dismayed by as the audience. (This brought back terrible memories of the moment Arkadina suddenly showed her tits in the ART Seagull from the early 90's.) Meanwhile other rather important bits of business have gone missing (what happened to Charlotta's rifle, which should mirror Yepihodov's pistol?). And then there's the weird fact that the translation and the physical production are at cross-purposes. The performance style intermittently suggests modernist farce (as does the truly ugly set design) but the new translation is nevertheless flowery and antique. Meanwhile the costumes and props just look under-developed, while the lighting is precisely the wrong tint (a warm amber, even when everyone's talking about how cold it is). And the sound effects - where to begin? The Cherry Orchard includes two of the most famous sound cues in all theatre: the strange "sound of a string breaking in the distance" that's supposed to "fade sadly away" (here it sounds like somebody banging a gong), and the horrifying echo of axes falling on the eponymous, symbolic orchard (which here sounds like steam rapping in a pipe; at first I thought someone in the wings was knocking on the stage door).

Okay, enough. To be fair, things do move uphill as the show goes on. The play's first two acts depend on atmosphere, and a careful mosaic of implied theme and critique; Gidron and company blow that completely. But in the third act, when the estate is finally sold, and the actors have some action to play, they do get some traction, and things look up. Baltin hits some interesting, almost infantile notes in his announcement that he's bought the estate, and Mara Sidmore's bitter intensity as Varya pays off in her final disappointments. As Ranevskaya, Annette Miller has some line trouble, and comes off as too broadly needy in the opening scenes - and she never suggests the haunted quality the character should have from her entrance (those interested in a short course in how to play this woman should check out Charlotte Rampling in the Kakogiannis film version, which is out on DVD); but her style better matches the larger-than-life blows she absorbs in the later acts, and she's affecting in the finale.

Nevertheless, this only amounts to a general improvement to "passable." Perhaps, of course, the production could still slowly come together; as my friend said as we left the theatre, "Not enough money, not enough time." That's clearly part of the equation. Still, with even less money the kids in Vanya actually pulled off some better - and certainly more internalized - acting. Of course, those with little or no experience of The Cherry Orchard may find, as is often the case with great plays by great playwrights, that enough of the content comes over to make the experience worthwhile; on the other hand, one wonders why the Nora would attempt this classic in the shadow of Nicholas Martin's recent, masterful version at the Huntington (which, true, also suffered from a weak lead performance). Certainly the production limns no new insights into the question of whether the play is a tragedy or a farce. Even though there were times when I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The once and future avant-garde

That other "art theatre" in the original production of Uncle Vanya.

Sometimes I feel that there is a specter haunting the Boston theatre - the specter of Bob-Brusteinism. How else to explain the wackily bad production of Uncle Vanya now being promulgated by the new Boston Art Theatre? You want desperately for these young actors to succeed, because they're talented, and in the time-honored way of actors everywhere, they're taking a risk with their parents' funds and their friends' furniture. And of course they're innocently pretentious (the "Boston Art Theatre"? Why not "Stanislavski Presents!"?). So you don't even care that they've sliced and diced the text so they can get through the play without the full cast it requires; you came prepared for such necessities. You only hope they connect.

But then you realize that two of them - the core of the company, it seems - went to the ART Institute for Very Advanced Theatre, and you perceive that they're stuck in an academic straitjacket, and you're in for an evening of avant-garde waxworks. And your heart slowly sinks, because nothing is deader than yesterday's radical gestures - particularly these radical gestures, which seem to totter in like some Frankenstein's monster stitched together by Andrei Serban and Peter Sellars.

Admittedly, today this stuff could work as camp - the disco ball, the cello solo, the blaring rock music, the Che Guevara beret - but you can't help but face the fact that these kids really mean it; they're simultaneously impersonating Julian Beck and Judith Malina and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. And you want to tell them, guys, guys - you're not at Harvard anymore. At the ART, the emperor may have no clothes, but he's got a $32 billion endowment - all the more obvious when he's nude - so everybody plays along. But out here in the real world, just getting in is no longer enough.

And another word of advice - if you want to do something radical, by all means do it (just remember that successful radicalism is quite a challenge). But if you don't actually have anything new to say, then don't recycle the past and still expect a gold star, because there's no professor out here to accept the flattery you intend. In short, better you should try to convey Chekhov's century-old insights than re-enact the postmodern detritus of the 70's and 80's. Because that stuff was never intended to be coherent; it was essentially a political, not an aesthetic, gesture, aimed at the bourgeoisie, or the people who hadn't contributed to MOMA, or whomever. Today the challenge of radicalism is not to tear things down - because it's all been torn down - but to create something that actually hangs together, and preferably as brilliantly as Uncle Vanya does, all by itself.

Indeed, I could point out that the play's themes have their own meta-resonance, because Chekhov's thoughts on man's destructive impulses extend directly to the history of his own work at the hands of his self-appointed saviors. But instead I'll simply note that even without all the expressionism interlarded with the surrealism layered on top of the naturalism, Uncle Vanya is in truncated shape here, because adapter - and director and star - Robert Kropf has eliminated all the minor roles (perhaps because he couldn't find folks to do them for free) and foisted their stage business onto the major players. Thus it is Sonya, and not Marina, who inexplicably ignores Astrov's return to alcoholism; and it's Astrov, not Telegin, who's prone to playing melancholic guitar. And at a volume, btw, which renders the closing gambit of the act (in which the controlling Professor insists no music be played) completely absurd - hence, perhaps, Kropf deletes the actual lines. Likewise, Astrov doesn't have feelings of love for his old nurse - because she isn't there - but instead insists on a fine bro-mance with Vanya, who therefore seems oddly tongue-tied when his soulmate tries to hide the salami with his own beloved.

So only about two-thirds of the play makes emotional sense in this free-form "adaptation." Even that would be enough, however, if fine performances distracted us from all the loose ends. And, to tell the truth, there IS one such performance - Stacey Fischer alone might entice a Chekhov aficionado to check out this show: she makes a striking, and often compelling, Yelena. Indeed, she brings almost too much languid eloquence and depth to the role, so that when Chekhov pulls us back to the character's superficiality, we feel slightly jarred. (And she only went to Emerson!) Of course perhaps glib contrarianism counts as the production's strategy - here, the ornery Professor is a soft-spoken pussycat, the motor-mouthed Astrov is a subdued slacker, and Sonya shrugs off her supposed heartbreak without missing a beat. As a result, the characters are often left describing emotional situations which the actors simply aren't enacting, so they sound almost delusional.

Still, the performers generally have talent and presence - most are Equity - and when Fischer's around, most of their performances improve, too (especially Kropf's own); that's just not enough to compensate for all this misguided direction. To be fair, I had a more mixed opinion of Justin Campbell's Vanya - strip out the cello and the funny hats, and insert some internal discipline, and the performance might have some possibilities.

Or then again maybe I'm just grasping at straws. True, the production is free - so you're not risking any dough by seeing it, and perhaps the actors need an audience beyond their own social circle to perceive that what they're doing isn't working. On the other hand, by the final curtain, you may feel they owe you some money. This production also marks the beginning of a kind of unofficial "Month-o-Chekhov" here in Boston, during which you can see three of the four major works in as many weeks: the Nora will essay The Cherry Orchard beginning Sunday, and of course the ART takes up The Seagull next week (it gave its audience the bird once before, in 1991). So I'm hoping this turkey won't prove an omen.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Saving the North Shore (cont.)

The North Shore Music Theatre has sent word that donations toward keeping their doors open have been rolling in - to the tune of $137,682; but their goal is $500,000. I've donated, and so can you, right here.

Or you can check out one of their upcoming benefit cabarets. The cast of Disney High School Musical 2 and the NSMT Orchestra will donate their time and talent to present cabaret-style performances featuring Broadway standards and pop songs on Thursday, January 8th at 9:45pm (that's tonight) and Saturday, January 10th at 10:15pm following the regular performances. The cabarets will take place in Overtures Restaurant at the theatre. More information on these performances here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chronicle of a death foretold (cont.)

A day of reckoning is fast approaching for the New York Times, owner of the Boston Globe (and other local properties). The Gray Lady is facing hundreds of millions of dollars of debt coming due in May, but has only about $50 million in cash on hand. It's already mortgaging its brand-new building in Manhattan, but most observers feel that will hardly generate enough money upfront, given the downward spiral of the paper's other revenues, to pull it all the way out of the hole. In the meantime, however, the paper has announced a new financial patch: ads will now be appearing on its front page, at a special premium price (the Globe will soon follow suit, reports the Herald - which itself has had front-page ads for some time).

There are other possible rescues for the Times: a white knight like Rupert Murdoch, for instance (!) could swoop down and purchase it (due to its low stock price, the whole company is technically available for not much more than $1 billion, but its non-voting stock might never be for sale, given who owns it). Still, even if that scenario came to pass, it's almost certain that sometime soon the Times will either sell the Globe and its other local properties at fire-sale prices, or will cut their operations back to the bone, or will attempt to transfer their operations entirely to a web-based platform (intriguingly, the Herald may prove viable in print for some time longer).

Meanwhile, in a very thoughtful and timely piece on the Atlantic website, Michael Hirschorn blogs about the once and future Times, and lays out a nice survey of "possible futures". Like me, he sees the Gray Lady surviving as a kind of Huffington Post-style website featuring star reporter-bloggers. The only problem with this model is that most folks-in-the-know estimate web revenues could only cover about 20% of the organization's current labor costs. Hirschorn argues this could merely mean the Times would be stripped back to its star reporters and columnists, which would not entirely be a bad thing (good-bye, style section!).

He doesn't, however, ponder the even more draconian reductions that would be required to make the Globe viable online. Simply put, the Globe has very few stars that a large readership would pay in advance to read. I can imagine a core of Bostonians would be willing to pay for an investigative reporting team, and perhaps a sports section, but it's hard to believe the web version of the Globe could afford many full-time cultural writers - and in a (fairly likely) model in which the Times retained the Globe as a "local" online version of itself, it's hard to understand why they wouldn't simply push their own movie and TV critics through the digital pipeline to Boston.

I think at a minimum this would mean the loss of many of the Globe's full-time, career critics - the ones who get a weekly pay check and benefits. There will still no doubt be reviews on the online version of the Globe, but they will largely come from fee-based contributors (as I imagine Jenna Scherer is at the Herald). This means, I think, that some sort of shake-out will soon take place - older writers with others skills or connections (and families to support) will seek work elsewhere. This doesn't mean, of course, that there will be a terrible decline in the writing at the Globe; Scherer does okay - at least as well as Kennedy or Byrne - and there are probably more smart kids like her willing to go to a show and cough up 400 words for $100.

But it does mean, I think, that there will be a major shake-up in the tiny world of publicity and reviewing in this town. The hierarchy will definitely be under stress; it may for a time even disappear. Hierarchies, of course, always re-appear - indeed, the web is in general an engine of centralization, not diversification, so expect an eventual web hierarchy with even sharper slopes than the old print one. But how will the hierarchy re-constitute itself? The lack of a daily print edition of the Globe - and the reduction of the print edition to Sunday is, I think, inevitable - will immediately undermine the paper's aura of educated-middlebrow hegemony; somehow the fact that its reviews will be buried in blogs like the Exhibitionist (and this one) will, I believe, be a great leveler in the popular mind. Perhaps some other media institution will move into that vacuum - WBUR may re-invigorate its arts web page (we've already begun hearing more from Ed Siegel), or WGBH may step up to the plate. Who knows? But soon theatres and performing arts organizations will have to negotiate a shifting media landscape along with the economic stresses of the recession.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Book of the dead

Nancy Carroll works her magic in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Beginning in 2003, the celebrated author Joan Didion lived through a year which was not merely tragic, but in its extremity put most tragedies to shame. While anxiously tending her only daughter Quintana, who was languishing in an induced coma, her husband (and writing partner) of some forty years, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed and died one night at the dinner table. Even as Didion absorbed that blow, Quintana recovered, only to be struck down by a seizure a few months later, and then again a few months after that - she would be dead, too, by the next spring. So Didion found herself not only in the throes of grief over the loss of a loved one, but simultaneously trying to save another loved one, in fact her only child - and slowly failing.

No wonder the author turned to what she would eventually call The Year of Magical Thinking, a period of emotional suspension during which she clung to an inner, superstitious world in which she felt if she could only master the hidden rules of destiny, she might reverse the horrors that had befallen her. Perhaps her husband might return to life if only she didn't throw out his shoes; perhaps her daughter might survive her latest seizure if only she didn't turn down the street where they used to live.

Her life became a secret amplification of the superstitious strategies we all use to allay anxiety, with our lucky hats and pennies, and our little rituals before big games and interviews. Only of course such strategies are foolish in the end, and utterly vain - which makes them, ironically enough, prime targets for a writer like Joan Didion.

For it was Didion (in a glossy magazine portrait, at left) who dismantled with devastating accuracy the neuroses beneath the American and (especially) Californian dreams in such classics as Play It As It Lays and The White Album; indeed, she made her name with a dry, disllusioned style (one wag dubbed it "Emily Dickinson by way of Ernest Hemingway") which deployed miniscule variations in rhythm to tease the reader from one cutting insight to the next. Her prose, savored in the drip-by-drip manner in which one often reads a novel - on the bus, or just before bed - lifted her memoir of that terrible year to the bestseller lists, and deservedly so; style brought to the level of regimen is a rare thing, and always to be celebrated.

But the incremental virtues of Didion's verbiage don't quite map to the requirements of theatre, I'm afraid, which generally involve the rapid evocation, and manipulation, of large emotional architectures; indeed, even Vanessa Redgrave had trouble floating the text (adapted by the author herself) on Broadway. Yes, of course the piece was praised - in London it was praised all over again; how could it not be? To rain on this funeral parade seems simply rude, and what's more, rude to a darling of the writing set - for Didion, who for years led a fashionably high life in a manner now impossible for journalists (which is essentially what she always was), has always held a special, sentimental place in her profession, as do all those whose commercial projects can plausibly be construed as art.

Nevertheless, the problems with The Year of Magical Thinking are quite obvious: the eloquently parched surface of the writing never reveals any new depths over its length, and not only do no real conflicts arise, but there is never any voice heard but the author's own, and even she herself doesn't really "develop." So there are no real characters, nor is there a real story. There is only a stance: the opening gambit - which is at first quite striking - is basically all you get till curtain: the strangely calm voice of a sojourner in Hell, who knows all too well the gap between her dry manner and the horrors she is describing is essentially all she's got to sell.

Which isn't to say that Nancy Carroll isn't utterly admirable in the role at the Lyric Stage (she could certainly give Vanessa Redgrave a run for her money); nor is it to say that she or her director, the thoughtful Eric C. Engel, have actually made a "mistake" per se in hewing so closely, like careful sailors, to the contours of this particular text. Carroll never attempts to "shape" Didion's writing, or push onto it any extraneous emotional climax. In fact, she almost never rises from her chair; her performance is essentially where naturalism shades into minimalism - she is utterly in service to Didion (she's even toting the book).

Still, that leaves her at the author's mercy, and Didion is simply not all that dramatic a writer (it's perhaps worth noting that of her many screenplays, only the first, The Panic in Needle Park, is in any way memorable). Indeed, as the piece progresses, it's hard not to think of Didion as a special case of what Simone de Beauvoir once called "the naïve vanity of suffering" - only in Didion's case, the vanity is hardly naïve, and is hidden within her own seeming attack on vanity (to be fair, somewhere Didion lets us know she knows that, too). If despite all this you still feel she is just incredibly valiant, I'm not going to argue with you - nor am I going to quibble with the opening twenty minutes of The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion describes the sudden death of her husband; having lived through a similar scene, I can attest that her reportage has never been sharper: this is exactly what it's like to have someone you love die before your eyes, and when she matter-of-factly tells the audience, "this will happen to you," she's absolutely right.

But as that year of tragedy, and subsequent magical thinking, goes on, less-magical thoughts begin to cross our minds which simply don't seem to cross Didion's. Such as: what, in the end, was actually the matter with poor Quintana? And why is the dying young woman's own grief given such short shrift (she's actually having an even worse year than her mother)? And what, precisely, is the point of the many long evocations of all this superstitious behavior? Like a stand-up who only knows one joke, Didion keeps delivering the same bad news over and over, to diminishing returns, while one can sense the real life of her drama is elsewhere.

Of course one can't criticize Didion personally for being locked in an emotional stasis for over a year; I'm sure her description of her state is entirely accurate. Still, perhaps this is one reason why the best plays are usually fictional. I will hazard, however, that I can't quite believe this is all of Didion's story. And how much more affecting The Year of Magical Thinking would be if it engaged with its own drama rather than merely commented on it - if Didion managed to conjure the luminous Quintana before us, or if she even, perhaps, perceived her own inability to grieve was actually sealing her off from whatever life she had left with her daughter? I read in another local review that "there wasn't a dry eye in the house" by the end of this piece - which, I hate to say, is categorically untrue. Indeed, no one anywhere near me seemed to shed a single tear. Of course Didion might disdain such display as cheap catharsis. But then again, catharsis is a genuine mode of theatre.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Curious Case of Brad Pitt

Brad and Cate ponder his physical perfection in Benjamin Button.

Perhaps the most disappointing piece of Oscar bait this year has been The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher's weirdly melancholic vehicle for Brad Pitt, who starred in both the director's best previous movies, Fight Club and Seven. In this case the third time has not been the charm, however: Button is a beautifully realized bummer, calmly magisterial yet strangely bland, a curiosity made all the more curious by the knowledge it's been a pet project of Fincher's for years.

So what went wrong?

Perhaps the mere fact of all that time in development: Button is by now so far removed from its source - a coarse little farce by F. Scott Fitzgerald - that almost everything about it feels synthetic, and assembled by a committee. The story's time frame has been pushed into the boomer era, and pointlessly studded with cultural touchstones like the Beatles' performance on Ed Sullivan, probably because its final screenwriter, Eric Roth, wrote Forrest Gump (a reader has alerted me that a précis of correspondences between the two movies can be found here). It's been re-set in New Orleans because of tax incentives (hence, I suppose, a very odd subplot involving Hurricane Katrina). And perhaps most importantly, the frustrated energies of its hero, who finds himself living his life backwards, have been sublimated away to suit the limits of its star, Brad Pitt.

Of course Pitt also provides the movie with its one resonance. His own beauty (as well as his alienation from that beauty) gives the film a steady, subdued emotional pull. Like Benjamin, Brad seems outside time - his golden looks have only been burnished by age - but unlike Benjamin, he seems at one remove from his situation. Whereas, one would imagine, the average Joe would be elated by the awareness that he's growing younger with each day, and then slowly realize, with dawning regret, that his physical youth will be dogged by the sadness of age, Pitt traces no such arc in his performance. Instead he simply allows himself to be revealed as the film goes on, and various levels of digital imagery are lifted like veils from a statue. At last he stands before us in his true, apollonian form, and we are duly impressed, even fascinated; or at least briefly, the film's devotion to its star seems justified - we, too, just want to look at him.

But then there's this half-baked plot that keeps getting in the way - actually, several plots. And Brad doesn't deeply connect with any of them, perhaps because their particulars feel somehow incidental to the elegant ongoing pity party, and the movie never picks up on any of their actual themes. Benjamin's first love affair, conducted "after hours" (tellingly enough) in a lonely hotel, never fully conveys the idea that we sense is its raison d'être - that love must exist somehow outside time. Likewise the hero's survival of a submarine attack after World War II doesn't actually seem to underline his solitude; with a little thought, we can figure out that's the scene's point, but it never seems to take dramatic form on screen. By the time the main plot gets started - his love affair with Cate Blanchett's bohemian ballet dancer, "Daisy" (wait, isnt' she in another Fitzgerald story?) - Benjamin should seem scarred by time, even though he's alarmingly fresh-faced. Isn't this strange dichotomy the movie's point? But instead Pitt seems merely friendly but distant, as he did in the very first scene.

Blanchett does her best against this ravishing disinterest - in one scene she literally throws herself at Pitt - but it's a losing game, and Fincher and Roth deprive her character of any real emotional journey, anyway. I suppose it's giving away no secrets to reveal that the budding dancer's career is ruined when her leg is crushed in a car wreck - and once again, as this plot point passes we do the thematic work in our heads for the movie: obviously, time has once again intervened against passion and made it absurd. Fincher even devises an elaborate reprise of Run Lola Run for the fatal scene, to seemingly emphasize the cruel randomness of time's dominion. Only Blanchett never gets to rage against her fate, or realize that she, like Benjamin, is being prevented from developing as she "should." Instead she fast-forwards to melancholic, beautifully posed acceptance, as she does later (even more incredibly) when Benjamin abandons her once she's given birth to their daughter. Again, we think through the ramifications of this dramatic event. We even see intellectually the larger themes at play; of how Cate and Brad's love is a beautiful intersection of streams moving in opposite directions, etc., etc. But the movie offers us nothing dramatically to back this up; Brad simply sheds a single tear and leaves the scene. For Tibet (of course).

If I wanted to, I suppose I could analyze all this lacquered melancholia as a different form of cultural manifestation. Perhaps Cate's passivity reflects the mindset of all the girls (of both genders) who worship at Brad's altar, but who know deep inside they have no chance of ever connecting with him. Perhaps at an even deeper level, Benjamin Button limns the curious case of the consumer public, which now lives and dreams at a digitized, virtual remove from actual society. Love is no longer a commitment but a cosmic hook-up, which we decouple from with a dutiful, sweet sadness; and conflict and compromise are just so, well, passé. Of course, if your cosmic hook-up is with Brad Pitt, maybe that's not so bad.