Saturday, February 28, 2009

The brilliance of Jewels

Melissa Hough and James Whiteside dazzle in Rubies. Photo by Eric Antoniou.

There's probably no better introduction to George Balanchine than Jewels, his first, and only, evening-length "abstract" ballet, which stands poised exactly where Mr. B. stood himself: at the juncture of ballet and modern dance, toeing the line between narrative and abstraction, romance and disillusion. See, I'm already loading up on the SAT-words, because frankly Jewels is so multi-faceted: Janus-like, it looks backward and forward, inward and outward. Balanchine himself claimed its three acts, each named for a different gem, were simply inspired by a visit to Van Cleef and Arpels; but critics and audiences alike immediately read into its glitter a coded tribute to the three phases of Mr. B.'s artistic life: the romance of French belle-époque style (Emeralds); the jazzy drive of 40's Americana (Rubies), and the imperial grandeur of the Russian tradition (Diamonds).

It's hard to think they were wrong. Jewels all but shimmers with a sense of nostalgia and reverie - despite the clean discipline of its structure - and it constantly quotes, or comments on, older choreographers and modes, and even the earlier work of Balanchine himself. At the same time it operates as a kind of haunting musical prism; the corps is always being deployed as a device to close down on the dance itself, and then re-open it in some new formulation, and we feel the piece seems to be ramifying outward, into a larger and larger cultural sphere.

The one jewel that seemed a little rough on opening night was Emeralds, which may actually have the "deepest" cut of the three. Here the accompaniment is Fauré's suite from Maeterlinck's dreamy, doomy Pelléas et Mélisande (which became a kind of fin-de-siècle musical fetish), mixed with faster passages from the same composer's Shylock. Despite claims of "abstraction," Balanchine toys with narrative here (and elsewhere in Jewels), referencing symbols and incidents from Maeterlinck and hinting at a double love story, as well as such common tropes as the pastorale and the hunt. And something about the ballet's atmosphere seems mysteriously reflexive; its narrative source is suffused with a yearning for doomed love (the essence of so much late-nineteenth-century ballet!), and Balanchine closes Emeralds with a mournful coda, in which the ballerinas flee the stage, leaving the men alone, on one knee, their arms extended toward - what? The future? You can feel in that moment a shiver of Balanchine's own late-career melancholy doubling back into the content of the piece itself.

And the Ballet brought this complex tone off, although it took them awhile to get into the mood. The central problem was that the piece's leads, the generally dazzling Lorna Feijóo and Yury Yanowsky, seemed at first to be on autopilot (there was even a small collision with an uncertain corps). They began to relate to each other as the evening progressed, but in the meantime the show had been stolen by Erica Cornejo, whose yielding persona is well-matched to the plush yearning of the French style, and who got to glide through both the best of Fauré's melodies and the best of Balanchine's steps. Better still, she conjured a potently pensive atmosphere, seemingly out of thin air, with Carlos Molina, who has suddenly woken up this season (at left, in photo by John Bohn). And the charming pas de trois from Jared Redick, Misa Kuranaga and Dalay Parrondo was a light rush of clean Balanchinean perfection - Mr. B.'s technical demands no longer seem as challenging as they once did (at least not next to, say, those of William Forsythe), and his steps can sometimes seem simplistic and naked if not done with the coordinated precision of this trio.

Rubies, the second rock in the line-up, is the work's big crowd-pleaser: set to Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, its slinky angularity conjures New York and jazz and Broadway and sex. This time there's a scampering, happy American boy and girl prancing across the landscape - instead of sighing and dropping dead in each other's arms - but there's also a vamp cracking the whip over a male posse (who sometimes seem about to turn on her), and there are fleeting currents of cold menace blowing through the generally steamy proceedings. Here Balanchine mix-and-matches a bemused take on adolescent, all-American erotics (the boy and girl jump rope, run in place and all but high-five each other) with an undertone of sexual horror; the whole thing plays like a cross between Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Oklahoma! The ensemble seemed to understand this, and gave it their all, and there were three brilliant individual turns to savor as well. At the piece's center, Kathleen Breen Combes brought a galvanizing attack to the ring-mistress who clearly ruled her own hot little roost. But she had to fight hard to keep up with Melissa Hough and James Whiteside, who literally ran off with their extended pas de deux; it's a star-making romp, and Hough and Whiteside came out shining.

With Diamonds (above, photo by Gene Schiavone), Balanchine actually turns back the clock, to St. Petersburg in the 1890's, and leans most heavily on direct quotation; indeed, to my eyes the long pas de deux, though charmingly rendered by Russian specialists Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine (who set the standard for partnering at the Ballet), felt like a direct lift from Petipa, sans the subtle commentary of Emeralds. Some have read into Diamonds a variation on Swan Lake, but to me it looks more like a simple tribute to the grandeur of the golden age of Russian ballet: it reflects courtliness and grace rather than genuine romance, and it's set to a somewhat generic chunk of Tchaikovsky (most of the Third Symphony). And Balanchine's choreography is never more architectonic than it is here; the corps is constantly moving in diamond-shaped patterns, and the piece closes with a gigantic procession for sixteen couples that develops into a glorious set of coordinated variations. I was holding my breath during this sequence, because even at a rehearsal last weekend it sometimes turned into a traffic jam; but a miracle had been wrought over the past few days, and the dancers carried off the complex interweavings with unruffled accuracy, and it was hard not to feel that the final facets of Jewels had been set in dazzling place.

A quick time out for the Conchords

We'll get back to drama and high art in a few minutes. Hat tip to Art Hennessey.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Foothills Theatre is in crisis

This sad news just over the e-transom from Worcester:

Foothills Theatre, which has been in operation for over 34 years, is facing a financial crisis. Ticket sales are lagging, Foundation support is not available because of the stock market decline, and corporate sponsorships have been reduced. We have now reached the point where we have exhausted all other appeals with the exception of approaching the public directly to keep our theatre alive. Unless we are able to raise a significant amount of money within the next few days, we have no other option but to cease our operation...a prospect that no one relishes . . .

We need to raise approximately $100,000 between now and the beginning of next week in order to continue producing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In order to successfully finish out through Doubt and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, we will need to raise another $100,000. To make next season a reality, we will need to raise an additional $200,000.

We believe that with public support we can save the theatre and continue our tradition of producing quality live theatre!

Donations can be sent to:

Foothills Theatre Company
100 Front Street Suite 137
Worcester, MA 01608

or by contacting the box office at 508-754-4018. More information available here.

Enter stage left?

It's hard to make a serious case for Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances, now at the New Rep through March 15.

It's also hard not to enjoy it.

The piece is certainly not a serious addition to the Fugard canon; in fact, it's clearly derivative of other, better plays such as The Dresser and A Life in the Theatre, which together have formed something of their own genre: the sweetly elegiac two-hander in which a theatrical innocent, usually hetero, shares a dressing room with some aging, homo hambone devoted to the classics. Bitchy revelations of ruthless vanity inevitably ensue, followed by a sentimental glow of respect for a vanishing breed.

This time the ingénue is obviously Fugard himself, and the hambone André Huguenet, "the Olivier of South Africa" (Will Lyman and Ross MacDonald, at left). The two crossed paths when Fugard was just a lad, back in the day when Huguenet was touring the classics in Afrikaans (the classic language of apartheid). Given that set-up, immediately one can sense the new, political variable Fugard has brought to this venerable theatrical equation: the question of the ethics of performing even beautifully-mounted classics in an officially racist - and homophobic - society (the play actually straddles the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, a turning point for the country).

Alas, the playwright only half-brings this up, and director Chris Jorie gently pats the issue down whenever it threatens to raise its troubling head. It's easy to guess why: pressing our faces to the unpleasant vision of Olivier playing Hamlet for the Ku Klux Klan would kind of ruin that whole sentimental afterglow thang, wouldn't it.

Or would it? If Fugard had pushed this question a bit more - and even, perhaps, allowed his hero a few racist cracks, or forced him to face his own gay-second-class-citizen status - the piece might have been challenging in a deep, serious way. For doesn't this very question, of the artist's ethical responsibilities in society, still haunt America? (Gone with the Wind, anyone? How about 24?) Still, to be fair to the playwright, I don't think the New Rep does even Fugard's half-baked vision full justice. After all, the playwright has his South African Olivier quote from Oedipus Rex for a reason: like the Greek hero, he, too, is blind to his true political and moral situation - and he, too, comes to ruin in the play's poignant second act. But somehow at the New Rep this whole thematic undercurrent seems to be happening offstage; indeed, this production, which chooses comfort over confrontation, unconsciously offers a sad parallel to the characters' own dilemma.

Still, the piece does have its comforts (and compensations). Chief among these is the performance of local star Will Lyman, who lacks the larger-than-life, leonine presence Huguenet should ideally project (Albert Finney provided the basic template for the role in The Dresser), but supplies a small-scaled elegance - and eloquence - which proves quite seductive in its own right. His rippling readings from Oedipus Rex, tossed off, appropriately enough, as he applies his make-up, are little acting lessons in the art of the miniature, and his final rendition of "To be or not to be" was, indeed, desolate and devastating. In the part of the Fugard factotum, Ross MacDonald proved less satisfactory, despite this young actor's self-evident presence and skill. Whether due to Jorie's direction or his own lack of insight, MacDonald offers a sweet but ultimately superficial take on his character (called simply "The Playwright") that may be sufficient for the first act, but definitely not the second. During that "interval," of course, the country began its final descent into repression, and "the playwright" realized he could no longer ignore the resulting moral call to arms; in short, Athol Fugard became Athol Fugard. But Ross MacDonald doesn't attempt the same transformation. Lyman gives the Huguenet a grand exit stage-right; but the playwright never makes his entrance on the opposite side.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Trancing queen

Lowell's Merrimack Rep has the best local rep for challenging new theatre; in the last year alone, they've brought us The Four of Us, Skylight, and A View of the Harbor. And that's precisely what makes their latest, Bob Clyman's Tranced (Zainab Jah and Mark Zeisler, at left) so disappointing. No doubt they selected this clunker based on the success of Clyman's Secret Order a year or two ago. But alas, lightning has not struck twice, and it's all too clear the Merrimack is well aware of that - indeed, this production spends a good deal of time, via sound and lighting cues, trying to fool us into thinking Tranced is some kind of meta-theatrical mystery tour. But instead, it's all too obviously a Hollywood thriller stripped down to four actors and a single set. Add George Clooney, some chases through Paris, and a briefcase wired to explode, and you'd be in business. As it is, you're oh, so not.

The plot, which feels slightly familiar from the start, has to do with a young African who comes to a psychiatrist because she can't concentrate. The shrink's specialty is repressed memory, so before you can say "Try Prozac!" she's in (yes) a trance, and recalling the trauma of witnessing a massacre in her homeland. The shrink (improbably) leaks a tape of this session to a journalist, who (even more improbably) starts chatting it up with some sort of Undersecretary of Global Corruption. But uh-oh, watch out everybody, there's a big plot twist coming! And if you can't figure out exactly what it is, then here's my AMC gift card: get thee to the movies.

I will say that Tranced was hypnotic in at least one way: watching it, I felt I was getting sleepy, very sleepy. The actors seemed to be losing focus too; I've never heard an entire cast go up on lines in a professional show, but that's what happened here, perhaps because director Kyle Fabel seems to have instructed everyone to stand four feet apart and declaim for a few moments, then re-arrange themselves on Campbell Baird's elegant, evocative set and declaim some more. The Merrimack's house style is always, frankly, somewhat rhetorical - which works beautifully when the playwright in question is Edward Albee or David Hare. With Bob Clyman, however, the style quickly congeals into flat-out oration, and without much in the way of physicalization or interaction, the actors are clearly having trouble simply remembering their lines. Still, Mark Zeisler brought some sophistication to his globalized psychiatric entrepreneur (who was even born at sea), and Zainab Jah deployed a striking hauteur as his patient. Even David Atkins had a few moments as a good old boy trying not to go wrong at the State Department (or wherever he was), but then there was the utterly blank and unconvincing Kimber Riddle as that journalist - surely the weakest performance I've seen on a local stage since some ART production that's now a repressed memory. Okay, enough; every theatre makes mistakes. Let's just snap out of Tranced and pretend it never happened.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do MFA programs actually hurt the theatre?

Provocateur Mike Daisey thinks so, and has set off a small Internet rumpus with his initial post on the subject here. A theatre professor (Tom Loughlin of "A Poor Player") responded here and here. The Guardian weighed in here. Daisey snapped back here, where he likens MFA training to "a Ponzi scheme." Okay, actually, it's not really at all like a Ponzi scheme, but I think what Daisey means is that MFA training essentially lures a large number of students into making an investment which will never pay off, but will instead support the salaries of a smaller number of academics. As Daisey puts it:

“If a teacher is teaching in an MFA program that charges a tuition its students can never pay through the craft, the onus is on the teacher to justify for his or herself how this can be ethical.”

And he's quite right that the Poor Player posts didn't actually respond to his arguments at all.

There is, however, at least one response possible, although it's cold comfort to the students involved: MFA programs keep theatre and theatrical traditions alive past the validity of their economic model. In short, students' tuition is sacrificed not merely to the bank accounts of their professors, but to the preservation of the art form. Now there are those who feel art forms simply should not outlive their economic models - it's an interesting moral quandary, though, for those who feel otherwise, whether or not to exploit the finances of students in order to perpetuate, say, large-scale productions of the classics.

But then there's Daisey's other point - that MFA programs actually harm rather than preserve theatre, by forcing those deep in MFA debt from the very profession they trained for! This argument is less easily disposed of, even though it's worth pointing out that the bills for MFAs don't actually affect the theatre audience, which would have to be the prime mover in any theatrical renaissance.

This all reminds me that I never actually finished my series on "What should an academic theatre be?," perhaps because my ideas on the topic keep shifting under different circumstances! But I have to get back to it, and ponder a response (if there is one) to Daisey in the meantime . . .

Dance to the music of time

Angela Hewitt (at left) made her Celebrity Series debut in Jordan Hall last Sunday riding a wave of interest in her highly personal interpretations of Bach (she's recorded just about all the keyboard music). So I was slightly surprised to find only one suite by the great master on what seemed a wildly varied program. And when I heard that opening performance (of the so-called "English" Suite No. 6), I was struck immediately by the sense that I was at times listening to Beethoven, and at other times to Fauré or Ravel - the composers filling out the rest of the program.

Clearly this was music-making of a highly personal nature indeed; one might, in fact, have to think a bit to come up with composers more seemingly opposed. The thread pulling the four together, however, proved to be Hewitt's deep interest in dance as a musical mode. Her Beethoven choice was the early Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, which still sparkles with some of Haydn's whimsy, and which she gave a distinctive lilt; and her choices from Fauré were the glittering Valse-caprices, and from Ravel the famous "Le tombeau de Couperin," which is itself a tribute to the baroque keyboard suite (only French, not German).

So there was a formal architecture to the program - and of course one often hears a performer "discovering" earlier influences in later works of the same form; one can well imagine hearing echoes of Bach in the Ravel, for instance. But can one really reverse time's arrow, and conjure echoes of Ravel and Beethoven in Bach? This might be an amiable enough academic exercise, but it jarred in actual performance; we were all too aware of sudden, willful shifts between German sternness and plush French romanticism in the early portions of the English Suite. Once Hewitt moved on to the more "dancing" gavottes and closing gigue, however, she was suddenly on surer, and more charming, footing. We've become used to the Glenn-Gould vision of Bach as baroque mystic, and Hewitt's emphasis on dance rhythms brings him lightly down to the earth (where it turns out he can actually cut a rug).

Intriguingly, Hewitt made her claims for dance at the keyboard most compelling in her take on Beethoven; true, the sonata chosen is something of a syncopated special case, but she hardly stinted on the piece's complexity, and her unusually singing lilt was convincing (particularly in the opening Allegro): beneath the oft-appreciated dialogue between Beethoven and Haydn, one could also hear a second conversation going on with Bach.

I'm not familiar with the Fauré Valse-caprices, but in Hewitt's hands they sounded appropriately dazzling - and one did sense that in a disciplined French romanticism lay, perhaps, her actual spiritual home (she's also recorded all the Ravel keyboard music). The "Tombeau de Couperin" (famous as both a keyboard and orchestral suite) proved, as one might expect, less wistful than some interpretations (each "dance" is dedicated not only to Couperin but to a lost comrade in World War I), but this is actually in alignment with Ravel's own wishes, who once commented that "the dead are sad enough in their eternal silence." Most sparkling of the set were the graceful "Forlane" and "Menuet," and Hewitt brought things to a brilliant close with a truly tripping "Tocatta." For her encores she turned to Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" - reminding us that even this delicately poignant elegy is actually a dance - and a swift, gently meditative take on Bach's famous "Prelude in C Major" from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which proved a deft way of bringing the concert full circle.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is it time to "Take Back the Rose"?

You may not have noticed, but something interesting happened in New York over the weekend - a group of NYU students stole a rebellious page from the 60's, barricaded themselves in a university cafeteria, and issued demands for financial transparency and a tuition freeze - along with, oddly, scholarships for students from Gaza. It didn't end well - after a long stand-off, force was applied, and several students were suspended. Still, it's an interesting tremor in the zeitgeist. You can read more about the students' demands and their next move at their website, Take Back NYU.

One wonders, in the wake of the announced closing of the Rose Art Museum, if students at Brandeis are as upset about their university's recent actions as the NYU students were about theirs. No doubt when squeezed by both the deteriorating economy and rising tuition, students could become more restive generally. Could we be on the brink of a new era of campus activism? Or will the NYU incident be seen by students at other schools as a cautionary tale?

Polishing "Jewels"

I spent last Saturday at one of the final rehearsals of George Balanchine's classic Jewels at the Boston Ballet (at left, Yuri Yanowsky and Romi Beppu in an earlier Boston production of part of the ballet, "Rubies"). Jewels - the first, and probably still the biggest, full-length "abstract" ballet - covers not only three different historical periods but three different styles of dance (French, American and Russian, or, in the ballet's code, "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds"). To mount what most companies would consider a major challenge just two weeks after tearing through the stunning Black and White counts as something of a hat trick. And you could feel the resulting pressure in the studio; the rehearsal I caught of Black and White two weeks ago was essentially a run-through; this was a full-on working rehearsal (I had to leave before it was over). And no wonder; any Balanchine fan knows that perhaps the greatest thrill Mr. B. provides is the ever-moving architecture of his corps - Balanchine works his supporting players almost as hard as he does his leads, and always brings their patterned movement to a grandly multivalent climax to match that of his musical accompaniment. I left just as the Ballet was cutting the facets on this glittering culmination of "Diamonds" (which requires forces that literally filled the room). But already there had been dazzlingly delicate work from Erica Cornejo in "Emeralds," and a mischievous romp from James Whiteside and Melissa Hough in the frisky "Rubies." Once "Diamonds" is appropriately set, it should prove the perfect pendant to this trio.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slumdog Dickens

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar in Slumdog Millionaire and John Howard Davies in David Lean's Oliver Twist.

Tonight everyone expects Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire to win the Oscar. And it will [Update: it did.], although I'd certainly vote for Gus van Sant's Milk instead (despite my caveats, listed here). As Oscar winners go, Slumdog strikes me as a somewhat dishonest choice, but no more dishonest than usual; last year, when No Country for Old Men somehow beat out There Will Be Blood, one sensed a rare coincidence between award and quality; the ridiculous triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain a few years ago was much closer to the norm.

Still, if and when Slumdog wins, it probably means we'll all have to get used to people saying that it's "Dickensian." (Ed Siegel was the latest to jump on that meme bandwagon, here.) They have to say something, after all, to justify giving it the Oscar; they can't simply say "it was really great poverty porn shot in India!" Of course to Siegel, Slumdog's success has something to do with (wait for it) Barack Obama: "Barack Obama's 'Who Wants to Be a US President' story also has its Dickensian elements . . . " Ed points out. "Dickens and director Danny Boyle give us hope that personal and political change are possible. You might even call it the audacity of hope."

Right. Or you might call it the audacity of strained metaphor.

It's hard, actually, to think of any rise more un-Dickensian in its micro-management and meticulous master planning than that of Barack Obama. But what the hell, why not let Slumdog (and Dickens) ride his coattails along with Shepard Fairey? Anybody else want to sign up as another member of the Boston Globe's "Yes We Can" Band? I mean it's all good.

Or is it? Don't we kill just a few more brain cells when we pretend along with Ed that Slumdog Millionaire is somehow the equivalent of Dickens? I suppose you can work up a case for the glossy, turbo-charged brutality (and soul and romance!) of Slumdog; during much of the movie you feel you're being pummeled, but you're definitely always feeling something. There's torture and kids, and kids being tortured! There's virgins and murder and dancing - and true love wins in the end; it's all such a great popcorn ride, or whatever the hell it is Ty Burr calls Hollywood movies today! (To be fair, there are one or two genuinely interesting scenes with Anil Kapoor as a complicated TV host/villain.) It's only later, after the buzz wears off, that an unconscious contempt begins to seep into you about the movie, and you realize it has exploited the crushing poverty and cruelty of India for the sake of globalized soap opera. The revelation that the film's producers basically left its child stars (who give the best performances in the film) where they left them in the slums only feels like a validation of what you can sense about the movie instinctively. (Yes, I know, the producers now claim there are secret trust funds for the kids, if they can just get through school while living next to that open sewer. Please! Where are Madonna and Brangelina when we need them?)

I wonder, Ed - would Dickens have done that to Oliver Twist? Somehow I don't think so. Because Dickens's novel is often something like a scream of rage - its satire of the Christian sanctimony of the workhouse still leaps off the page today, and there's a sustained moral critique in its ongoing comic grotesquerie (it was intended to reform society, and to some degree, it did). And I'm sorry, but that level of moral censure (and grandeur) simply isn't in Mr. Danny Boyle, Esquire, because he's a sensationalist, not a moralist. He seems to almost enjoy the police-torture routines (would Dickens?), and once in the slums, he's like a squalor tourist, tuned into his I-pod while dousing his child actors in excrement and tossing acid in their eyes simply because that's really intense - and hey, it happens to kids in the Third World, so what do we expect him to do, turn away? That would be like so dishonest!

Well, color me unconvinced. And still less convinced that Slumdog Millionaire is even a patch on Dickens.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Homosexual drama and its new guises

Years ago, Stanley Kauffmann penned a notorious New York Times piece called "Homosexual Drama and its Disguises," in which he bemoaned the fact that writers like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee had created a form of drama in which homosexual experience was marketed as heterosexual. Albee's famous George and Martha, the "straight" couple who are sterile and banter about Bette Davis movies, were a case in point - but Tennessee Williams was also in Kauffman's sights, for his predatory heroines who slowly circle slabs of beefcake in such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Now Kauffmann was at pains to make clear his desire was for a more honest form of "homosexual drama," that could drop such hetero pretense. And while I'm sure Kauffmann thought of gays in stereotypical terms (don't we all think in stereotypes about somebody?), he was never as openly contemptuous of us as, say, Robert Brustein, who tended to brush off the work of Albee with snorts like "his most homosexual work yet" (!) as if gossip counted as criticism. At any rate, Kauffmann eventually got his wish - and Brustein, of course, learned to keep his mouth shut.

But a funny thing happened on the way to tolerance - the "disguise" on homosexual drama began to be taken in earnest as its actual subject. At least that seems to be the critical response to the current Lyric Stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - which was directed by a gay man from a script by a gay man, and which obviously has the conflicts of gay identity as its theme. Yet because the "beard" on the play - the sexually hungry "Maggie the Cat" - is so powerfully written, critics sometimes imagine the play's story and theme actually belong to her. Or do only female critics think that way?

I've been pondering this because I was intrigued by the responses in the Boston print press - all our print critics are women - to the current production at the Lyric Stage. None of them, I think, are particularly homophobic, yet none are particularly sympathetic to homosexual expression, either, aside from the opposing poles of AIDS-patient victimology or drag-queen minstrel shows. And all seemed blind to the "gayness" of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - and all seemed to immediately accept Maggie the Cat as its central figure (in the old days, when closet queens like Kevin Kelly and Arthur Friedman roamed the critical earth, that would never have happened).

Louise Kennedy, for instance, in the Globe, felt that "Boston actors couldn't ask for a better coach [in the challenges of Tennessee Williams] than [director] Scott Edmiston . . . who consistently brings to his direction of Williams an essential blend of steel and silk . . . [he] finds the shifty terrain where Williams's characters live . . . [and] knows how to direct actors right to that spot." Okay - wham, bam! We're at Tennessee Central, ma'am! Or at least "there are moments when we're absolutely in that territory. Most of those moments occur when Georgia Lyman is onstage, bringing palpable heat and grit to the role of Maggie the Cat. But in the talky second act, for example, when Maggie leaves the room to her despairing husband, Brick, and his larger-than-life father, some vital energy leaves, too, and we're all a little lost without it."

I admit I had to smile at that: first the declaration that Scott Edmiston had brought us to the white-hot center of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, followed immediately by the unconscious admission that as the script actually moved toward its thematic core, in its "talky second act," something suddenly seemed to be missing, and "all of us" are "a little lost without it." But what? What could it be that we're missing?

Well, not all of us were so lost. Kennedy seems to completely miss the crux of the play (she never discusses it) which is Big Daddy's demand that son Brick 'fess up to his real feelings for best friend Skipper, who recently drank himself to death under mysterious circumstances - even though this confession is both the structural and emotional climax of the drama (there are even literal fireworks after it, just in case we miss its importance). And it's almost hard to overstate, I think, what this admission "means" for the playwright as well as his play. Brick is an alcoholic, like Tennessee Williams; like Williams, he has an overbearing, crude father. (Williams's father Cornelius was even the source of the phrase "cat on a hot tin roof.") And like Williams, Brick is gay, or at least was entwined in a sublimated gay relationship with his "best friend."

So the long second act of Cat is immediately recognizable, I think, to most gay men as a touching rapprochement between an estranged gay son and a forgiving straight father: Tennessee and Cornelius have it out as they never did in real life. It's both a deeply poignant piece of fantasy fulfillment, and a strange kind of quasi-vindictive trade-off: for just as Brick must admit that either he's gay or was willing to let his best friend die because he was gay, so Big Daddy is forced to face the facts about his own colon cancer. And surely the location of that cancer is of some thematic importance - as usual, sex is never far from death in Williams, and is tinged with humiliation. But however one feels about this strange, contradictory brew, it's impossible to deny that Maggie's machinations are pretty much contingent on it; she is not central, but a corollary, as it were - indeed almost a kind of side show if it weren't for the intriguing sense that fertility becomes an option for her, oddly, once Brick has admitted his sexual issues (an interesting parallel to Albee, there).

This improbability leads inevitably to the consideration of Maggie as something other than a "naturalistic character" - which is a good thing, because to be honest, she's not that appealing in those terms: she's a social-climber who's clinging to a probably-gay husband to keep her paws on an inheritance. But to Kennedy, she's got an "urgent fury" that's "mesmerizing to watch"; to the Herald (whose Jenna Scherer was far more perceptive about the production), she's likewise "determined to thrive." It's difficult not to wonder if these two aren't identifying with Maggie's sexual charisma in a way that clouds their judgment of her actions. Meanwhile, over at the Phoenix, things get even stranger: Carolyn Clay declares that the play "harbors an undercurrent of revulsion at female sexuality that borders on misogyny and has always given me the creeps." Her evidence for this is a) a bisexual husband's distant response to his wife, and b) an aging would-be letch's ridicule of his. Uh - does that really count as "misogyny"? I don't think so, although yes, Williams could be competitively bitchy, like most power bottoms, about women. Or is this just another consequence of homosexual drama's disguise - that its female critics should interpret its jealous gibes in terms of straight sexual politics? Indeed, what's funny about Cat is how strenuously it attempts to rehabilitate its unlikeable leading lady - who actually has the balls to babble on about "mendacity" whenever she gets the chance!

Or perhaps these interpretive knots exist because (as seems clear to me and I'd imagine many other gay men) Maggie is not so much a "woman" as yet another projection of Tennessee Williams's own psyche - a yowling gay cat on the prowl for beef. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But seen this way, Maggie's frustration suddenly becomes a reflection of Brick's refusal to act out on his own sexuality. Thus, once Brick's gayness is out in the open, he and Maggie can have sex (!) - exactly the opposite of what should happen in naturalistic terms, you'd think. I admit, of course, that most of the technical aspects of the dramatic "beard" of Cat don't make much sense if we admit Maggie as "male" - still, they don't make much sense as written either, do they; such are the contradictions of disguise!

Needless to say, none of this was adequately limned in Scott Edmiston's production - so in a way, Louise Kennedy's instincts were right: something was missing (in fact, everything was basically missing). But how might a production approach the play's obvious contradictions, one wonders? I do think there's a way to have some of Big Daddy's birthday cake, and eat it, too, but of course it would require much more sensitive connection (and "reflection") between the principals than was evident here. Perhaps Maggie must operate as a disguised gay male - and I'm afraid a stereotypical one, too - for the opposition of the play's materials to achieve if not harmony, then some level of consonance. One recalls the famous production of Genet's The Maids in which the women were performed by men - in kabuki drag no less - as a possible source of inspiration; but that's probably a bit much for the Lyric Stage's audience! Still, some sort of Janus-like double-imaging is clearly called for; Maggie should operate as both straight woman and gay man, or, if not, her conceptualization should answer the question "why not?"

But Scott Edmiston and the Lyric dodge all those challenges - indeed, it's dispiriting to think that Edmiston seems to have consciously modeled his production to put the play's "beard" in its best light. This may be because Georgia Lyman, the talented actress playing Maggie, is something of a local critical darling - not only is her father a major local actor, but Carolyn Clay, the Phoenix critic, admits in her review that they are friends (which, before you scream, actually counts as a step up in integrity and disclosure for the average Phoenix critic). Critical response may have also been skewed, one imagines, because the Norton Award types are not about to seriously question the chops of long-time favorite Edmiston.

Still, it's a little sad to ponder that forty years after Kauffmann, homosexual drama can't shake its disguise - even though its political purpose is now passé. Gay men don't need it anymore; but maybe straight women do.
(Note: the sketches accompanying this article are by the closeted John Singer Sargent.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza

Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her - from Seven Jewish Children

Caryl Churchill, one of my favorite playwrights, has dropped another bomb, this time into the Israeli-Gaza conflict. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza premiered at the Royal Court just over a week ago (and was written only last month), but has already ignited the predictable storm of controversy. (Which actually only makes me yearn for the kind of living political culture in the U.S. that the Brits have always enjoyed.) The piece, which is structured as a set of tense discussions about what, precisely, to tell a Jewish child about seven crises in Jewish history, from the Holocaust to the present day, is clearly a brisk piece of polemic rather than a fully realized drama. Yet it is also undeniably gripping and resonant (and the charge that it is anti-Semitic - a constant and unwelcome trope from certain quarters - is obviously absurd). The text is available for free download from the Royal Court, and so I've provided the full play below.

Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza

Seven Jewish Children is Caryl Churchill’s response to the situation in Gaza in January 2009, when the play was written.


Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her
Tell her it’s important to be quiet
Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good
Tell her to curl up as if she’s in bed
But not to sing.
Tell her not to come out
Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting
Don’t frighten her
Tell her not to come out even if she hears nothing for a long time
Tell her we’ll come and find her
Tell her we’ll be here all the time.
Tell her something about the men
Tell her they’re bad in the game
Tell her it’s a story
Tell her they’ll go away
Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still
By magic
But not to sing.


Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and
Tell her her uncles died
Don’t tell her they were killed
Tell her they were killed
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her her grandmother was clever
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her she was brave
Tell her she taught me how to make cakes
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her something
Tell her more when she’s older.
Tell her there were people who hated Jews
Don’t tell her
Tell her it’s over now
Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews
Tell her more when she’s older
Tell her how many when she’s older
Tell her it was before she was born and she’s not in danger
Don’t tell her there’s any question of danger.
Tell her we love her
Tell her dead or alive her family all love her
Tell her her grandmother would be proud of her.


Don’t tell her we’re going for ever
Tell her she can write to her friends, tell her her friends can maybe
come and visit
Tell her it’s sunny there
Tell her we’re going home
Tell her it’s the land God gave us
Don’t tell her religion
Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived
Don’t tell her he was driven out
Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and
the country is waiting for us to come home
Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here
Tell her of course she likes it here but she’ll like it there even
Tell her it’s an adventure
Tell her no one will tease her
Tell her she’ll have new friends
Tell her she can take her toys
Don’t tell her she can take all her toys
Tell her she’s a special girl
Tell her about Jerusalem.


Don’t tell her who they are
Tell her something
Tell her they’re Bedouin, they travel about
Tell her about camels in the desert and dates
Tell her they live in tents
Tell her this wasn’t their home
Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away
Don’t tell her they don’t like her
Tell her to be careful.
Don’t tell her who used to live in this house
No but don’t tell her her great great grandfather used to live in
this house
No but don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom.
Tell her not to be rude to them
Tell her not to be frightened
Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children
Don’t tell her she can have them in the house.
Tell her they have plenty of friends and family
Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own
Tell her again this is our promised land.
Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people
Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.
Tell her maybe we can share.
Don’t tell her that.


Tell her we won
Tell her her brother’s a hero
Tell her how big their armies are
Tell her we turned them back
Tell her we’re fighters
Tell her we’ve got new land.


Don’t tell her
Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool
Tell her it’s our water, we have the right
Tell her it’s not the water for their fields
Don’t tell her anything about water.
Don’t tell her about the bulldozer
Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer
Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down
Tell her it’s a building site
Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.
Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint
Tell her we’ll be there in no time
Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask
Don’t tell her the boy was shot
Don’t tell her anything.
Tell her we’re making new farms in the desert
Don’t tell her about the olive trees
Tell her we’re building new towns in the wilderness.
Don’t tell her they throw stones
Tell her they’re not much good against tanks
Don’t tell her that.
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her they don’t
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that
Tell her we’re stronger
Tell her we’re entitled
Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence
Tell her we want peace
Tell her we’re going swimming.


Tell her she can’t watch the news
Tell her she can watch cartoons
Tell her she can stay up late and watch Friends.
Tell her they’re attacking with rockets
Don’t frighten her
Tell her only a few of us have been killed
Tell her the army has come to our defence
Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.
Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed
Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they’re terrorists
Tell her they’re filth
Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistake
Don’t tell her anything about the army
Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why
not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? tell
her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got
nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell
her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them,
tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them,
tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk
suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog
of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I
laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals
living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out,
the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if
the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re
chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in
blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.

Author's Note:
Performing Rights
Seven Jewish Children was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 6 February 2009. The play can be read or performed anywhere, by any number of people. Anyone who wishes to do it should contact the author’s agent (details below), who will license performances free of charge provided that no admission fee is charged and that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), 33a Islington Park Street, London N1 1QB, tel +44 (0)20 7226 4114, e-mail, web Author’s agent: Casarotto Ramsay and Associates Ltd, Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ, fax +44 (0)20 7287 9128, e-mail

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

With a song in their broken hearts

The Boston Secession in full force.

The annual "(Un)Lucky in Love" concert from Boston Secession is always a sell-out, and no wonder; it's like a funny little valentine from the chorus to its audience. This year's model seemed stripped-down from past versions, and perhaps more weighted toward pop; but it was still lively fun. Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank had once again assembled a clever potpourri of works that either celebrated or skewered the promise of romance (or, preferably, both at once) - and the chorus once again sang the hell out of them.

Of course the hidden pitfall in this kind of thing is that the jokes can get a little smug. Generally, the Secessioners dodged this trap by occasionally cutting all the archness with genuine winsomeness, even in such middlebrow swoons as "Try to Remember." Alas, the higher level of romantic intensity promised by the inclusion of "Chi il bel sogno" from La Rondine didn't materialize, as Secession mainstay Kristi Vrooman had fallen ill. Instead the lovely Jennifer Ashe substituted a charming rendering of the lighter "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” from Le Nozze di Figaro, but the mood, of course, wasn't quite the same, and the evening could have used a little more emotional ballast - particularly after the other famous aria on the program, the seductive "Là ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni, proved solidly sung (byKyle Siddons and Mary Gerbi) but definitely tongue-in-cheek.

There were other touching moments in the program - Adriana Repetto brought a melting vulnerability to "I Have to Tell You" from Fanny, Alex Powell and Mary Gerbi made sweet music in the final duet from The Fantasticks, "They Were You," and the chorus lavished their patented transparent sound on the lyrical simplicity of Billy Joel's "And So It Goes." And Secession member and folk singer Carrie Cheron contributed her own original solo, the lovely, if somewhat meandering, "There Will Be Love."

But most of the remaining high points were comic. "Second Grade," a rollicking paean to the best time of a man's life, got a hilariously hearty rendition from the men of the chorus (with a little help from Anita Kupriss's trumpet). And a stretch of the operetta Rose-Marie proved deliriously, hilarious bad (although where was the iconic "Indian Love Call"?) The closing number was the popular P.D.Q. Bach madrigal "Two Hearts, Four Lips, Three Little Words," which began (and remained) exquisitely beautiful even as its text grew more and more bizarre. The company gave it both their comic and musical best, of course - and it seemed to somehow sum up the sweet, ridiculous spirit of this particular Secession tradition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What makes a critic's day?

Hearing from readers that they never would have gone to Boston Ballet's "Black and White" except for my exhortations. And that they loved it. And will go back (as soon as they can afford it!).

That, in the end, is all I'm trying to do around this joint.

Not quite the Cat's pajamas

Whose roof is hotter? Georgia Lyman and Kelby Akin face off in Cat.

I've been the lone hold-out on local star director Scott Edmiston, who's always seemed to me charmingly skilled, yet slightly superficial; but perhaps his new production of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Lyric Stage through March 14, may turn the local tide my way (on the other hand, maybe not - remember all the silly defenses of The Seafarer?). For here is a play which depends on the crackling, dueling subtexts between its actors - despite its floridly overwritten monologues, it's a classic Method script. But once again Edmiston has operated more as decorator than investigator: this Cat is beautifully and aptly appointed, and beat-by-beat operates smoothly, even entertainingly; but it never comes to grips with the broken, though beating, heart of the play.

To be fair to Edmiston, he's working with a talented cast that is, in most instances, ever so slightly miscast. Georgia Lyman, for instance, was electric as the brittle seductresses of The Scene and Look Back in Anger, but doesn't naturally project the vulnerability beneath the claws of "Maggie the Cat." And newcomer Kelby Akin, who was so moving in Take Me Out in Worcester, is a bit too young and fresh for her sexually ambivalent husband, Brick. Likewise Lyric director Spiro Veloudos, for whom this production marks a "return to the stage" (if you don't count all those welcome speeches), deploys a convincing authority and a broad, comic brutality as Big Daddy, but perhaps not enough silent understanding of his own son.

Indeed, judging from this out-of-touch triumvirate - with, alas, the delicious Akin at its center - you could make the case that connection is what's missing from this Cat. And without that, the play collapses, as it's a self-declared critique of human "mendacity;" what separates its heroes from its villains is their ability to communicate honestly, if sometimes indirectly, with each other and themselves. Indeed, the central arc of the play is Brick's eventual acquiescence to the truth about his sexuality - and his guilt over it.

That slow about-face serves as the basic motor of the plot, which, in case you're unfamiliar with Cat despite its many lives on stage, TV, and silver screen, centers on frustrated, childless Maggie and her remote, depressed husband, Brick, who have returned to the family plantation for a loveless celebration of the birthday of Big Daddy, who may be facing a diagnosis of colon cancer. Brick, a faded sports star, has taken to the bottle to nurse both his broken ankle and his broken heart over the loss of best friend Skipper, a fellow golden boy who killed himself, perhaps over an aborted affair with Maggie, or perhaps over his passion for Brick. Maggie, meanwhile, is desperate not only to regain her husband's love but also his sexual interest, as the couple needs an heir to cement their rightful place in Big Daddy's will - a spot which Brick's slimy brother Gooper and his crass brood are currently attempting to usurp. The script is short on action, but long on exposition; it's a play essentially of revelation and unspoken emotional adjustment, as the truth about Brick and Skipper (and Big Daddy) slowly emerges, and Brick just as slowly edges back toward Maggie's bed.

Right now this period of adjustment doesn't really occur at the Lyric, although after repeated performances the actors still might find its groove. Lyman needs to bring more weakness and heartbreak into Maggie's early solo flights; we should see her grow in strength over the course of the play, but right now from square one we can tell she could have her husband for lunch. Meanwhile the hunky Akins needs to learn how to subtly relate and respond to his wife, even as he does internal work on Brick's despair and disgust - right now he just seems pouty and blank, although he's good (as he was in Take Me Out) at blind, impulsive rages. Likewise Veloudos could tap more deeply into both Big Daddy's relief at his (seeming) release from his deadly diagnosis, and even more importantly, his unspoken rapport with his son as he tip-toes toward his anguished secret (a rapport which everybody comments on, but which so far doesn't actually exist).

More animal husbandry: Spiro Veloudos and Cheryl McMahon.

There's one sterling performance in the production - Cheryl McMahon's sympathetic yet commanding turn as Big Mama (above, with Veloudos), which comes right after her similar success in Cabaret at the New Rep; this always-reliable actress is clearly on a roll (even if her subtlety makes all the coarse wisecracks at her expense seem bizarrely rude). And there's some similar subtlety from Owen Doyle (a former classmate of mine) as Gooper - indeed, Elisa MacDonald might take a hint from him and tone down her broad turn as his scheming wife Mae (to be fair, MacDonald does lighten up as the show progresses).

And as usual for an Edmiston production, the technical side of things is satisfyingly luxe. The set, wrapped by Janie E. Howland in a gossamer sheath, generally outshines the performers (although the wall-to-wall carpeting puzzles, as does Karen Perlow's overly bright Act I lighting, which improves markedly as night descends). The subtle, appropriate costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley. It's certainly a lovely package, even if right now it's a little empty.

Dept. of D'oh!

Ah, that strange gap between what you think you've written and what you've actually written; how often have I stumbled over it? I just re-read my review of Anne Sophie von Otter from yesterday, and found myself slapping my forehead repeatedly. Did I really smash those two clauses together without a parallel subject? Did I really type the same adjective twice in the same paragraph? Why is the connection between the sign on the page and the sound in one's head such a loose one? Sigh. Must. Edit. Self. More CAREFULLY.

You can find the corrected version (if it's fully corrected, that is) below.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crossover dream

If you're like me, the thought of an opera diva attempting to "cross over" to pop always gives you pause. The ingrained discipline of classical singing - its control and clarity and formal attack - do not translate easily to the casual style of the pop idiom. So I entered with trepidation last Friday's Celebrity Series concert, which featured the luminous Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (at left) in a program split between art song, jazz commissions from Brad Mehldau, and popular standards.

But I shouldn't have worried. Von Otter turned out to be that rarity - the diva who can swing as well as sing. Perhaps she's able to leap the fence because even her classical phrasing is marked by a subtle intelligence that's slightly conversational, at least in comparison to other singers; indeed, her opening suite of songs from Sibelius, Hahn and Schumann was startlingly direct in its emotion and decidedly free in its nuance.

It was, in fact, one of the most unfailingly lovely sets of art song I've ever heard. The opening six selections, from Sibelius, were a real surprise - the great Finnish composer's songs are rarely performed today, but this half-dozen, all of them superlatively haunting, hint that a major re-evaluation is overdue. As one might expect from Sibelius, the imagery was mostly from nature, and was used as a mirror for inner mood - usually of romantic isolation, loss, or rue. The composer has a reputation for being somewhat antipathetic to the piano, but that was hard to credit here - perhaps due to the sensitivities of von Otter's long-time collaborator, the wonderful Bengt Forsberg (who, in a dark suit with blazingly red socks, played some intriguing tributes to Haydn by the likes of Ravel and Dukas between "numbers"). Von Otter's phrasing and intonation were simultaneously lush and specific (the original language of the songs, oddly, is Swedish [Note - a reader informs me that Sibelius lived in a part of Finland which was Swedish-speaking, so this isn't so odd!]); she carried on with an even more ravishing set from the French composer Reynaldo Hahn, some of which I'd heard before, but never performed with more quiet refinement. The first half wrapped with selections from Robert Schumann, some familiar, some less so, but again the performances were peerless and convincingly dramatic; von Otter was charmingly witty throughout "The Fortune Teller," then appropriately grim in "The Soldier," and once again full of those staples of art song, yearning and rue, in "The Cowherd's Farewell."

Then Forsberg disappeared, and with him, perhaps, a certain exquisitely eccentric musicality. For while Brad Mehldau (at right) is a superbly accomplished jazz pianist, he's not quite in Forsberg's class technically, and his songs, though complex and thoughtfully crafted, didn't betray a truly individual musical voice. And rather than loosened-up art song, they sometimes felt like buttoned-down jazz. Part of the problem was the lack of consonance between music and text (it was probably unfortunate that Mehldau chose poems from three poets, Philip Larkin, Sara Teasdale, and e e cummings, whose poetic "voices" are well-known). His opening song, although it featured an intriguingly abrupt change in mood halfway through, nevertheless felt nothing like Larkin's own word-music, which was somehow mildly irritating (perhaps if you didn't know Larkin this never would have occurred to you). His musical translations of Teasdale and cummings were closer to the mark, but still ever so slightly generic. As I mentioned above, von Otter "let go" only slightly, but to wonderful effect - still, it was hard not to recall the greater heights she'd reached not moments before.

The final portion of the program had been advertised as "American popular song," but wound up being largely devoted to Euro-pop. The first offering, Richard Rodgers's "Something Good," from The Sound of Music, proved the most convincing - I remember the song as being treacle from the movie, but von Otter and Mehldau made it a small miracle of wistfulness. Ms. von Otter eschewed a microphone, and seemed to actually grow softer for this portion of the program, drawing us into intimately-scaled, sophisticated readings of such melancholy pop baubles as "Walking My Baby Back Home," (in Swedish!) and Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" One couldn't argue with the craft or the charm of the performances - still, after two numbers from Michel Legrand, one sensed that musically the evening had grown a bit thin. The good news was that Mehldau seemed freed by the harmonic simplicities of these numbers, and had devised all sorts of little surprises in his accompaniment; he also began to open up rhythmically, which is what jazz pianists should always do. If he had brought the same liberty to his "art songs," he might have crossed the same bridge that Ms. von Otter navigated so artfully.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dept. of Inappropriate Appropriation?

I note with bemusement that my point about Shepard Fairey's supporters looking like the vapid liberals in Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic appeared just twenty-four hours later in a Boston Globe article decrying Fairey's hypocrisy. This must be a record for my material appearing under someone else's name in the print press (it's been appropriated on the Web, too). And yeah, yeah, I know it may just be a coincidence, but that isn't going to stop me from savoring the all-too-appropriate irony of it all . . .

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dirty dancing at the Ballet

A moment from "Falling Angels."

A triumph; a must-see; a dance that brings the audience to its feet, cheering. You could, I suppose, say that about, oh, Dirty Dancing, if you wanted to. But if you added the phrase, "And then sets the crowd to thinking," then you could only be talking about the far-sexier, far-dirtier "Black and White," the brilliant suite of dances by Jiří Kylián that Boston Ballet premiered at the Wang Center last night (and which only runs through Sunday; half-price offer here.) It was promoted as one of the major cultural events of the year, and it turned out to be just that.

All this even though the performance stumbled at its very first step (when I think the wrong piece of music, incredibly, began to play!). And the first offering, "No More Play," is a little diffuse and restrained to serve as an effective overture. But the program started to rock with "Petite Mort" (that's French slang for "orgasm," btw, all you Dirty Dancing fans) with its corsets and rapiers and dazzling duets, and from then on it never lapsed in energy or interest; and in retrospect, we could see how the moves and hesitations of "No More Play" served as an introduction to the language which Kylián later deployed through a dizzying range of settings and moods.

The five pieces (the remaining three are "Sarabande," "Falling Angels," and "Sechs Tänze") were actually choreographed over a span of five years, then arranged into a suite in the early 90's, and so serve as a guided tour through Kylián's thoughts and concerns during the period (roughly his middle years as Artistic Director of the influential Nederlands Dans Theater). And it's startling to ponder just how much cultural material he's layered into these moves, all while producing dances which are reliably gripping minute-to-minute. Central to the suite is an overarching meditation on the relation of classicism to modernism, and modernism to postmodernism (and then postmodernism to camp!) - an extreme thematic and historical latitude that would be all but impossible in theatre or the visual arts. But Kylián keeps his format so flexible that there's also room for intriguing detours into sexuality and its construction, role-playing and violence, and dance as a vehicle for both the individual and the group - as well as a determined exploration of the edge between narrative and "pure" movement (and even between dance and theatre). If that sounds like a lecture, fear not; the good news is that Kylián has the popular touch of a born entertainer, and "Black and White" is always sleek and even a little slick.

Binding the whole evening together is a set of dark ball gowns, rigid as rocks, and painted a deep black. Sometimes they hang overhead like funeral bells, or whiz by like bumper cars, or merely make ghostly, totemic appearances, but they're omnipresent, and seem to represent the cornerstone of the suite - the feminine with a capital F, rigid, ravishing, and imprisoning. In the suite's most iconic moment, from "Sarabande," they even seem to "birth" half-naked men from their skirts, who squirm and squeal - and sometimes scream - and struggle to breathe free. But do these men speak for the hidden male animus within the society "woman," or are they danseurs raging against the primacy of the ballerina - or are they simply modern men struggling with their "feminine sides" (the central solo, sensuously rendered here by Yury Yanowsky, suggests as much)? Kylián's genius is that he never insists on a single interpretation. Thus in "Petite Mort," when the men lay down their rapiers (with which they've made their slashing entrance) and greet their newly-arrived dancing partners, it's unclear whether they're actually laying their weapons aside, or merely picking up new ones. And when the tribe of women pounding through the many variations of "Falling Angels" change their formation, we can make out that dark ball gown standing silently behind them - hinting, perhaps, that the "new" woman isn't quite so new after all.

With or without all the structuralist symbology, however, Kylián always holds us with his formal command of the many dance modes he deploys. He opens with a stretch of bleak, questioning modernism ("No More Play"), then slips into an edgy, postmodern parody of classical duets ("Petite Mort," left) that slowly reveals its own rapturous, private beauty. The following "Sarabande" is more gestural theatre and striking lighting design than dance (I wish the final, mournful solo had been fuller), but is always fascinating, while "Falling Angels" - a percussive dance for eight women to Steve Reich's "Drumming, Part I" - proves a bracingly propulsive (yet oddly calm) piece of minimalist extrapolation (and perhaps the most impressive feat of physical memorization you'll ever see). The evening wraps, as postmodernism always seems to, with camp - "Sechs Tänze," a goofy romp to Mozart (below right), in which those ball gowns have morphed into giant drag queens, and everyone seems very, very confused in their powdered wigs until clouds of soap bubbles start floating in, and provide about as ditzily lovely a closing image as I can remember. If you're a long Ballet-watcher like me, you know that there's a whole circus troupe of hilarious clowns lurking within these dancers, and it's great fun to see them have a chance to cut loose.

So Kylián sends us out into the night in high spirits - and with perhaps more thematic material on our minds than it's possible to unpack. It's rare that a dance can be so smoothly accessible, and yet so rich (although by now, nearly twenty years after its first appearance, "Black and White" feels a bit more like recap than revelation). Of course it wouldn't seem so entertaining sans the skills of the Boston Ballet. As always, the company - or at least the men - had a little trouble with the synchronous precision that Kylián's choral movements demand (the eight women of "Falling Angels," perhaps due to past service in the corps, were by comparison a finely-tuned machine). But there were brilliant individual moments from almost everyone. Boyko Dossev and Larissa Ponomarenko brought exquisite grace to their swooping duet in "Petite Mort," as did Megan Gray and Lorin Mathis, while Yury Yanowsky and Sabi Varga found a sinuous tension in "Sarabande." The eight women of "Falling Angels" - Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Melissa Hough, Rie Ichikawa, Heather Myers, Larissa Ponomarenko, Luciana Voltolini and Heather Waymack - were disciplined perfection, and there was new fire in familiar faces like Carlos Molina and Roman Rykine. Meanwhile Lorna Feijóo, Pavel Gurevich, Altankhuyag Dugaraa and Jared Redick were all articulately witty in the final shenanigans, and James Whiteside made a very impressive 10-foot-tall belle of the ball. Something tells me "Black and White" will probably loom as large over the local dance season - although isn't it time, particularly in a program titled "Black and White," with the whole Euro-African axis operating as its subtext, that we began to see some black boys and girls in the Boston Ballet? I mean, what's up with that?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does Bob Brustein think Samuel Beckett was a racist?

Sigh. The A.R.T. is doing Endgame again, which means we have to revisit one of the most ridiculous episodes in its history, its botch of the play back in 1984. For those of you too young - or too wisely concerned with other things - to recall, Beckett (at left) tried to put the kibosh on a misconceived version of his script by JoAnne Akalaitis, avant artiste and former paramour of Philip Glass. Akalaitis pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto Endgame - she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station (she even wanted an "overture" by her ex), and she cast African-American actors in two of its four roles.

Once Beckett got word of this, he objected, and almost shut the show down (it's too bad he failed; it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid). But his reasoning allowed an opening for the A.R.T. to cast a kind of shadow on his reputation.

First, some background. Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that "mixed" the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays - or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like Waiting for Godot. I suppose it's easy for Cambridge types to pooh-pooh Beckett's worries on this score - like Stephen Colbert, they probably "can't tell" when someone's black. But since Beckett's death, mixed-race productions of his plays have appeared elsewhere - and unsurprisingly have been largely interpreted as meditations on race and colonialism. So it's hard not to feel that Beckett's critics weren't - and aren't - being a little naïve. True, Endgame doesn't lend itself to blunt parallels with the civil rights struggle. But then again, isn't the very air of downtown hipness that Akalaitis was reaching for in her production itself a distraction from Beckett's vision?

Of course all this was lost on the Boston Globe back then, and it hasn't learned much in the meantime, to judge from a recent article by one Megan Tench bemoaning the fact that this time around, the Beckett estate has wrangled a promise from the A.R.T. not to change a single word or stage direction in their new production of Endgame. (Egad - a production of the play as the author intended! Could this be a first at the A.R.T.?) In the article, Tench dwells on the earlier controversy at length, but without any real insight. And she quotes Robert Brustein, then Artistic Director of the A.R.T., in the following manner:

"I was really astonished," says former ART artistic director Robert Brustein in a recent phone interview. "Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that."

Now perhaps Brustein then continued: "Of course we knew that he was not a racist, and that his concern was essentially born of his passion for the formal means of his work, which he had devoted his life to paring to their essence." Perhaps he said that, and Megan Tench left it out.

Or perhaps he never said it.

But he should have said it. Because not saying it leaves hanging the sense that Beckett was somehow some sort of racist, consciously or unconsciously - a slur that the Globe article hardly avoids by one weak mention of "the issue of miscegenation."

And on top of all the things I've always found wrong with the A.R.T., I'd really rather not add the calumny, "And they dissed the greatest playwright of the twentieth century."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Now why, exactly, did the ICA invite a vandal to Massachusetts?

I admit I sometimes can't quite believe it. Did the ICA (tagged above) really just invite a vandal with outstanding warrants into the Commonwealth, and then look the other way while he further defaced other people's property? And did the local press really applaud? And did it also come out that not only was he a vandal, but he was also stealing other people's art? It's all like some Tom Wolfe satire from 1970. And to those who are still harumphing over the fact that Shepard Fairey was finally arrested, ponder that if he is a criminal (and he doesn't seem to deny it) then the curators and staff at the ICA are at best his indirect accomplices. They might at the very least offer to pay for any damages caused by his actions, and one wonders if the museum itself is open to any possible lawsuits over this whole affair. Because why, exactly, did the ICA invite Shepard Fairey to Massachusetts? Please, no b.s. about rebellion and art; we're grown-ups on this blog. They did it for buzz, pure and simple. Did they actually want him to vandalize the state, albeit in some small, not-too-threatening way? Probably. Or was the idea that this time, Shepard would be a good boy for the time being? Either way, surely this counts as the most bizarre violation of the public trust by a nonprofit arts organization since the Wang Center brouhaha (needless to say, nonprofit religious organizations are in another class entirely!). What makes it all the more incredible is that it was done completely out in the open; it was promoted by major news outlets, and the Mayor shook the perp's hand! Sheesh, where is Tom Wolfe when we need him?

Both sides now

Boston seems all but hypnotized by the antics of Shepard Fairey at the ICA these days, so it's good to remember that all around us, all the time, real artists are creating real art that does what art is always supposed to do - challenge, touch, and sustain us. A case in point was last Saturday's concert by the Sarasa Ensemble (above left), with guests Dominique Labelle and Michael Chance, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival (which took the program to New York on Monday). I'm familiar with Labelle and Chance, and thought them an intriguing pairing. The good news was that the Sarasa Ensemble proved equally impressive. The concert was one of the most subtly moving evenings of music I've heard in some time, and provided memories I'll treasure for a good while to come.

Not that there wasn't an interesting aural tension between the three points of this musical triumvirate. The Sarasans (yes, I know that makes them sound like characters from Star Trek) are all about sensitive, intelligent attack, and a daring comfort level with the dissonance that sometimes shadows early music (there were some suspensions between the two violins that I'm not sure ever quite resolved). The vocalists, meanwhile, were operating in two slightly different modes - Ms. Labelle, whose sparkling instrument is as light and radiant now as it was when she was starring in Peter Sellars's Mozart operas twenty years ago, is a kind of power soprano (at least in an intimate setting) who operates within the familiar framework of classical interpretation. Mr. Chance (below right), by way of contrast, is something of a postmodern vocal actor, a countertenor whose voice is less forceful than Ms. Labelle's, but hauntingly gorgeous, and whose real specialty is conjuring mood through intelligent phrasing and highly literate emotion.

So to put it bluntly, Ms. Labelle was sun, and Mr. Chance shade, in their first duets, which included exquisite performances of selections from Handel's Teseo and his cantata "Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi." Labelle delighted and impressed; Chance beguiled and convinced. But Mr. Chance really came into his own when he went solo, with songs from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, a masque drawn from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first thing that struck you about these pieces was that Purcell's librettist was, well, not Shakespeare. The second was that Chance managed to make the songs sound almost as if they were by the Bard, by capturing Purcell's langorous evocation of nightfall precisely, and with startling conviction. I can't think offhand of a more thoughtful vocal performance I've heard in years; it was spellbinding.

The instrumental portions of the first half of the program were no less exciting (harpsichordist Maggie Cole performed with particularly tripping brilliance a little-heard suite of dances from Handel). But these paled next to the intensity of the second half, which was given over to Pergolesi's famous Stabat Mater, his suite of songs that both depict and invoke the stricken Mary at the foot of the Cross. Here the purity of Labelle's tone was piercing - although we sensed her pushing her volume at times, just to show what she could do, as it were. Chance was more circumspect, but perhaps more actually devastating. The piece is itself simultaneously luminous and crushing, and somehow Labelle and Chance seemed to nearly embody this duality; it was hard to imagine a fuller evocation of its terrible vision.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Backstage at "Black and White"

I was lucky enough to be invited this weekend to one of the final rehearsals for Boston Ballet's American premiere of Jiří Kylián’s dance program "Black and White." (Opening at the Citi Performing Arts Center this Thursday.) The Ballet has already performed two of the dances ("Sarabande" and "Falling Angels"), but this is actually the first time Kylián has licensed all five ballets to an American company.

I won't discuss the dances themselves (you can get a sense of them from the original Nederlans Dans Theatre production, which Kylián directs, above), except to say that yes, they're theatrical and exciting and sexy and funny, and all the more so up close and personal, as it were (although with only a few key costumes and props, and none of the striking lighting). I really think the Ballet should invite the general public to their rehearsals (although I know that's impossible!) - if only because it's the best way to experience the thrilling physicality of dance. When you're just inches away from the performers, and able to see the flex of every muscle and twist of each ligament (as well as, yes, the beads of sweat and the bandages and bruises), it's impossible to hang onto silly resentments about the supposed snobbery of the form and not experience something like awe at these amazing artist-athletes.

And awe not merely at the fact that they're such physical thoroughbreds, but at the the sheer discipline and determination behind their achievement. In rehearsal, you can see when somebody's had a long Saturday night (this was Sunday morning!), or when someone is already winded even before their next entrance, or when somebody begins to hobble as soon as they're offstage. And then they turn right around and come back and begin doing moves that would put yours truly in the hospital. And then they do it again. It's the kind of discipline that may be matched only by Olympians. And by that I mean both the athletes and the gods.