Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The 2009 Hubbies, Round One

Well, we're a little more than halfway through the season - and the IRNE awards are next week - so I thought now might be a good time for a quick round of Hubbies, my own virtual awards for acting, design and direction on the local theatre scene (someday to be presented in the shape of Michael Phelps, at left, sculpted in lucite).

Alas, unlike another local critic (who shall remain anonymous, because that's how he signs his reviews!) I can't opine that the current season has been better than ever, despite the recession. Because actually it has seemed pretty weak to me (indeed, the most exciting intellectual material on local stages has been in our dance and musical performances, not our theatrical ones). The ART and the Huntington have continued to stumble, and there have been subtle misfires - along with some very fine individual acting turns - from SpeakEasy, the New Rep and the Lyric.

In fact, the best theatrical news so far this year has been on the fringe, and probably the strongest productions I've seen have been:

Dark Play, or Stories for Boys, at the Apollinaire Theatre: Hubbies for director Danielle Fauteux Jacques, and the entire ensemble of actors: Mark Vashro and Erez Rose (at left), Christine Busler, Brian Quint and Lorna Nogueira.

And another "Best Ensemble" Hubbie must go the cast of The Pain and the Itch, at Company One: Nancy Carroll, Aimee Doherty, Philana Mia, Joe Lanza, Dennis Trainor, Jr., Cedric Lilly, and Rebecca Skye Hamberg, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara.

A runner-up Hubbie should go to the performers of Howard Zinn's Daughter of Venus at the Suffolk University and Boston Playwrights' Theatres: Paul Langton, Ken Cheeseman, Angie Jepson, and Stephen Russell, with a special citation to Alex Pollock. Directed by Wesley Savick.

And the cast of A View of the Harbor at Merrimack Rep deserves recognition as well: Stephanie Fieger, Kyle Fabel and Andrea Cirie, with a special citation to Anderson Matthews, all under the direction of Charles Towers.

Individual performances that have given me particular pleasure over the last few months have included:

Paula Plum (right) and Robert Saoud, The New Century (SpeakEasy Stage);

Aimee Doherty, Cabaret (New Rep) (as well as The Pain and the Itch, Company One);

Stacy Fischer, Uncle Vanya (Boston Art Theatre) and Fool for Love (New Rep);

Will Lyman, Exits and Entrances (New Rep);

Nancy Carroll, The Year of Magical Thinking (Lyric Stage) as well as The Pain and the Itch, Company One;

Cheryl McMahon, Cabaret (New Rep) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (at left, with Spiro Veloudos, Lyric Stage);

Mark Peckham, The Cherry Orchard (Nora Theatre Co.);

Sirena Abalian, Seussical (Wheelock Family Theatre);

Michael Forden Walker, The Duchess of Malfi (Actors' Shakespeare Project);

Tracy Oliverio, The Random Caruso (CentaStage);

and Tim Ruddy, Swansong (Tir Na).

There have also already been enough outstanding designs on our stages to merit a round of Hubbies. Admittedly, in scope and depth, Francis O'Connor's work on Two Men of Florence stands alone - but companies with fewer resources than the Huntington have been working smaller-scaled miracles on their stages as well. So without further ado:

Francis O'Connor, Two Men of Florence, Huntington Theatre (set and costumes).

Campbell Baird, Tranced, Merrimack Rep;

Richard Wadsworth Chambers, A View of the Harbor, Merrimack Rep;

Cristina Todesco, The Pain and the Itch, Company One, and The New Century, SpeakEasy Stage; and

Gail Astrid Buckley, costumes, The New Century, SpeakEasy Stage;

Well, that's all for now; we'll have an update with more Hubbies - and hopefully another sexy shot of Michael - in June.

Off-topic, but funky

This is "Mother of All Funk Chords," the opening track of ThruYou, the album-length assemblage of YouTube videos by Ophir Kutiel, a.k.a. "Kutiman," which is now a wild hit on the Intertubes. Perhaps not the future of music, as some claim, but you can't deny it's fun, and definitely funky. More info on the project, as well as links to the original videos, here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Itchy and Scratchy

The talented cast of The Pain and the Itch.

God, I hate white people! Don't you? I mean they're such hypocritical, neurotic snobs, impotent yet promiscuous (not to mention porn-addicted, the slobs), it's really too bad they came up with all that science and culture, otherwise we would all be so much better off without them! And if you look beyond their so-called "accomplishments," really what is there to them? I mean they can't even dance!

Although I suppose there is one other mitigating factor in their favor:

Their guilt.

And oh, white guilt. There's nothing like it. You might think the genocide in Rwanda would give Africans some moral pause - or the rape of Nanking might make the Japanese feel a bit guilty, or the Chinese might be embarrassed about the Cultural Revolution. But are there any plays about black, brown, or yellow guilt? Obviously not. But white guilt - now you're talking! It's a whole genre, the cultural spring that never runs dry, the pseudo-moral courtesan that makes hungry where s/he most satisfies. White guilt! Just thinking about it makes me dizzy!

Hence my admiration for playwright Bruce Norris, whose play The Pain and the Itch (now at Company One through April 4) may give him a claim to the title of most sophisticated white-guilt whore on the planet. For you see, guilt-addicted as we are, us white folks are jaded; it takes a lot to get our conscience - um - up, if you know what I'm saying. The old "surprise visit" may in fact be the only way to the golden temple these days - that is, the long, distracting tease followed by the nasty pounce. It's a demanding strategy, but if said tease can bounce between primary and secondary forms of guilt - say, between our original racism as well as our hypocrisy over believing we can ever shed that racism - then you're well on your way to the white-guilt trifecta, which is to lead us into the very behaviors we originally felt guilty about! Then wham, bam, thank you, Aunt Jemima - you pull that ole white supremacist rabbit out of its, um, hat of color, and we all but dissolve into a shuddering jelly of sheer culpability! Not only were we guilty before, but we are doubly, triply guilty now!

And Bruce Norris just about pulls this trifecta off, despite an obvious contradiction in his central gambit - because when you think about it, there's something a little odd about a play that decries racial stereotyping while indulging utterly in white stereotypes. But at least the playwright is a skilled juggler of clichés, and knows how to tie them up in a neat (and somewhat new) conceptual bow. The meat of his play occurs at Thanksgiving, that whitest of holidays, amidst a privileged family of liberals all too happy to turn the carving knife on each other (of course). Those who have seen any Alan Ball cable show - or really any cable show - will be unsurprised to discover that the resident powermom is emasculating (and her baby just an accessory); the earnest house husband is a whiner and closet porn hound; grandma's a font of addled PBS platitudes, and on the edge of Alzheimer's; older brother is an alpha-male asshole - a plastic surgeon, even - with a politically-incorrect sexpot girlfriend, etc., etc., etc. Was there a single original idea or character in that list? No. But if the tropes are familiar, Norris nevertheless cross-cuts between them with assured technique, and the Company One cast gives them more than enough heat to make these left-overs taste fresh; as a result, the whole bitterly ironic soufflé rises nicely throughout most of the first act.

But in the second act, when Norris's conceptual ambitions come more into play, he falters, and his technique seems to desert him. This is probably because his somewhat intriguing-concept - that Thanksgiving dinner is actually being "re-told" to a black cab driver, Mr. Hadid, who's mysteriously on the scene - requires building up a central pyramid of circumstance and conflict that will cascade into an unforeseen disaster. Only the playwright is too interested in his many satiric side-shows (sibling rivalry, liberal Bush-bashing) to actually construct this structural pillar at all credibly. Thus it doesn't feel particularly compelling; instead it becomes an improbable sideshow of its own, and the dismay and abashed horror that I guess we're supposed to feel at the play's conclusion don't really take.

Company One's promo for The Pain and the Itch.

And everything is complicated by the presence of a very young actress playing the part of the central couple's eldest child, Kayla, who is suffering from the genital rash that gives the play its winsome title. Okay, you can immediately sense the needling edge of this meta-theatrical ploy: it's easy to be horrified and protective of this youngster in exactly the same way - Norris seems to want to say - that his privileged characters are about their child. After all, here we are, worrying about whether it's "appropriate" or not for an eight-year-old to deployed in this manner, when of course we should be worrying about Darfur instead! (See what I mean about white people? Ugh!) I was willing at first to go along with Norris for this particular ride - but began to blanche a bit as the play rolled on. At first the charming young thing playing the role at my performance was always off-stage when things got "inappropriate" - but then, in the second act, Norris and Company One toyed with that line. And I just began to wonder whether it was all that "white" of me to be concerned over an eight-year-old running around with a hypodermic, or gamboling near a widescreen TV that was playing a porn movie (albeit one obviously contrived for the production, with nobody's "uglies" actually showing). No, I'm not about to call the authorities or point a finger at anyone, but I am wondering what these moments were intended to prove thematically.

To be fair, you could argue Norris is merely cramming together a host of privileged paranoias (of sexual abuse, foreigners, terrorists) into one rickety plot, and maybe that's a valid approach. But note that adjective "rickety." By the time Norris gets to his dénouement, it's all too easy to argue that a) his characters aren't actually guilty of the social crime he's pinned on them, and b) the personal crimes he then must reveal (think Ibsen!) are so outré as to render his characters monstrous, and safely beyond the pale, as it were. And I found Norris's bait-and-switch choice of victim intriguing - he uses paranoia about terrorism and pedophilia not to conjure complicated feelings for Arabs, or, well, pedophiles, but for that old stand-by, the immigrant African. Which sounds to me an awful lot like (dare I say it?) PBS.

Believe it or not, this is actually the basement of the BCA.

As you can probably tell, I'm of several minds about this play - I actually agree with the playwright's seeming thesis, i.e. that privileged whites are horrifying in their self-absorbed "tolerance" and "cultural awareness," which only hide unconscious racist and classist assumptions. But I'm dismayed by his methods.

One thing I couldn't argue with, however, is the Company One production, under the smoothly confident direction of M. Bevin O'Gara, and on a set by Cristina Todesco that works a small, elegant miracle in the BCA Plaza space (above). Indeed, I'm pretty sure this large ensemble will prove one of the best of the year (its only competition so far has been from the actors of the Apollinaire Theatre's equally-edgy Dark Play). Local star Nancy Carroll is nearly perfect (of course) as the fog-bound matriarch, who's so tolerant she even finds her son's cache of porn adorable, but she's almost bested by two of her co-stars. Aimee Doherty, who did strong work in the New Rep's Cabaret just last month, here absolutely nails her gleaming, glaring powermom (who even has a designer outfit for nursing her baby). But the real find of the production is Philana Mia, who gives the seemingly airheaded, politically-incorrect girlfriend a convincingly frightening backstory and an admirable spine. The men are somewhat overshadowed by this talented sorority, but Dennis Trainor, Jr., brings a wearily cynical edge to his jaded lothario, Cedric Lilly negotiates the mystery of Mr. Hadid with understated skill, and Joe Lanza projects about the right amount of earnestness and wimpiness (although he hasn't quite figured out how to manage the slow, hysterical build required). And Rebecca Skye Hamberg, who played Kayla on the night I attended, was absolutely adorable. Just nobody tell her what this play is about.

This and that about ThiStHat

Caitlin Corbett's "Five or Six Things."

I spent Friday evening checking out "ThiStHat Show No. 2," a compendium of dance, poetry and music curated by local choreographic light Daniel McCusker at Green Street Studios. The evening was intended to operate as a kind of postmodern salon, and it had its charms, although these never cohered into any particular statement or stance. On the other hand, the program notes warned that the artists on tap focused "on process," which is almost always a bad sign; yet McCusker never allowed the proceedings to bog down into the self-indulgence that sometimes dogs that attitude. Things remained generally loose and light on their feet, and if you didn't like the current act, well, you soon realized that the next one was going to be quite different.

There was a sense that the evening was meant to frame its mix of emerging and established choreographic talent in what McCusker called "context" - which seemed to mean poems by local poet Edison Dupree, piano works by Tufts professor John McDonald, and projections by artist/designer John Kramer. But while McCusker's idea of embedding choreography in a suite of other art forms is probably a good one, this time around "this" didn't seem to have anything to do with "that." Still, Kramer's projections, particularly a po-faced contemplation of tombstones, were surprisingly affecting, and Dupree had at least one striking poem to offer, "To a Beetle on its Back." But McDonald's lightly challenging modernist pieces for piano all sounded remarkably similar, despite titles as widely ranging as "Emergency Street Sound" and "The Hedgehog;" they seemed divorced from the general mood yet not strong enough to establish their own profile.

Of the choreographers, the youngest, surprisingly enough, fared best. Phania Exavier's "Half Self" was a little rough in performance, but still evidenced the choreographer's clear talent for lyrical pattern and form, while Adriane Brayton's more accomplished duet, "And Then There Were Two," scampered energetically along the line between bemusement and melancholy (and was performed with sweet theatricality by Kiefer Roberts and Khadija Griffith). Meanwhile Megan Schenk's solo, "Arms and Sleepers," (this was its premiere) had a smart, quirky vibe but didn't seem to really get anywhere, and the excerpts from Nicole Pierce's "Requiem" simply felt strange; the movement seemed either literal or opaque by turns. The evening wrapped with "Five or Six Things," a touching take on romantic dysfunction from Caitlin Corbett, a veteran of the local choreographic scene (the piece itself was from 2004, the only dance on the program not new or in process). Ms. Corbett's ruefully understated skill shone through the connections - and separations - of the work's compressed emotional history, and the piece was performed with gentle sadness by Kaela Lee and Victor Tiernan. But you don't have to take my word for it; you can judge for yourself from the video above.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I resume my gallery rounds

I finally got out to some galleries in "SoWa" (that's "South of Washington St.," you great unwashed you), and found some beautiful new work that nobody's buying because of the economy. Which is a pity. At left is an image from a show called "Renaissance," by Bill Armstrong, currently occupying half of the Kayafas Gallery at 450 Harrison Ave. Armstrong has begun with figure drawings from the Renaissance, then cut them out into stencils, then photographed them with the focus set at infinity, or something like that - there's a whole metaphoric armature here, but does it matter? Simultaneously spiritualized yet sensualized, these big, luminous images are mysteriously gorgeous. The rest of the gallery is given over to BU's Daniel Ranalli, who has made some witty pastiches of local half-erased chalkboards, as well as a series of haunting photograms.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Today's quiz

Hey, optical illusion fans! Is Square A a darker shade of gray than Square B? Or could this be . . . only an illusion??

Okay, I know you already know the surprising answer, but it's still cool to check it out here. Illusion and explanation both courtesy of Professor Edward Adelson at my alma mater, MIT. Clever flash demos of other illusions available here. Hat tip to the MIT alumni blog at www.wordpress.com.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Morris dance

The company performs Mark Morris's "V".

I can't really let the Mark Morris visit to Celebrity Series last week pass by without any comment at all, as it was so splendid. There were no premieres on the program, just three of Morris's greatest hits, but it was nice to bask in the glory of these once again.

And returning to past work is always rewarding in Mark's case because his dances tend to grow as they age, and sink into the company's bones, and the dancers better understand their emotional cues and meaning. And - although I know this is treason to many long-term Mark fans - the company has been improving over the years (although perhaps, as loyalists sometimes moan, the new personalities are not quite as memorable as the old). It used to be that audience members would say they could almost imagine themselves dancing Mark's work; nowadays nobody says that - the dancers are just too impressive. But they're still in a pleasing assortment of colors, shapes and sizes, there's a normal amount of meat on their bones, and Mark treats them with utter equanimity, regardless of size or gender (which remains a kind of slap in the face to ballet, and even ballet-influenced modernists like Balanchine). So the group's ethos seems to have survived its professionalization.

But back to last weekend. Of the three dances on the program, All Fours, set to Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4, had deepened the most since we last saw it. Or at least its central passage - a Cheeveresque short story about two happy young men who may be more in love with each other than with their women - had become a wonderfully pointed and equivocal drama in the hands of Craig Biesecker, Bradon McDonald, Elisa Clark and Julie Worden. (And the musical performance, by Morris's own traveling ensemble, was superb.) Meanwhile Bedtime, the oldest piece on offer, revealed few new depths - it was wonderful the first time around - but was its usual evocative self, pulling together three Schubert lieder to trace the boundary between dream and death.

And then there's V, to my mind one of the greatest of Mark's works, and certainly one of the most emotionally overwhelming. Set to the wonderful Schumann Quintet in E-Flat - again performed brilliantly here - it's a piece poised between joyous welcome and something close to despair: for long periods the dancers literally crawl across the stage, only rising to their feet when they reach the other side. But rebirth is the piece's real theme, and that in Morris always means human contact, and here it takes the form of the hug, with the dancers spreading their arms wide in, yes, a "v," to each other and to us. The final moments are like an extrapolation and complication of the conclusion of L'Allegro, with dancers dashing across the stage and into each others' arms in a beautiful, living frieze of human connection. One of Mark's great gifts is his ability to treat joy seriously, as seriously as other artists treat anguish; and this is probably what makes him one of our era's great civilized, and civilizing, pleasures.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hmmm. Caryl Churchill: Gaza's Shakespeare, or Fetid Jew-Baiter? Jeffrey Goldberg wants to know!

One of the most embarrassing cultural posts I've ever read on a blog is up now on the Atlantic site. It's Jeffrey Goldberg's crazed pummeling of Ari Roth, the Artistic Director of Theatre J down in Washington D.C., who has had the balls to stage Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children. Reading it, you realize, if you hadn't already, how clueless Goldberg is, and how shocking it is that the Atlantic should have given him a platform at all. If these are the people arguing for Israel, no wonder they're losing the battle of public opinion! (Btw, if you're interested in actually reading this supposed piece of "blood-libel," I posted it in full here. I wonder when, if ever, we will see a Boston production?)

Lear revisited

It was interesting watching the Ian McKellen/Trevor Nunn King Lear on TV the other night (above, with pop-ups, alas), after having seen the stage production at BAM last year. Most of the performances, which had never been largely scaled, improved slightly in close-up (the piece was shot almost entirely at close range, on constricted sets at Pinewood Studios), and overall the production made a better impression than it had in New York. The improvement was probably also due to the fact that much of the weirdness Nunn had allowed to flower onstage had been subdued or eliminated; this was a far more conventional, PBS-style reading than the one I called a "pastiche of operetta, music hall, and drawing-room comedy." The decayed belle époque theatre set had been discarded, as had most of the Muscovite design notes. Kent didn't commit suicide onstage, and Monica Dolan's Regan was no longer a tippling lush out of Noel Coward (although she did like her wine) - and so she got back her direct participation in Gloucester's blinding (which, unbelievably, Nunn had trimmed). Likewise, her poisoning by her sister, the coiled Frances Barber, was broken up by camera angles and so seemed less funny - onstage it had been a scream. It's true that PBS thereby denuded Nunn's version of much of what it had made it unusual - including Ian McKellen's nudity (the storm scene was much better without it!) - but on the whole, this was a good thing.

And the show certainly still had its eccentricities - like so many directors these days, Nunn insisted on offing the Fool onstage, for example - but at just three hours, it moved at a much brisker clip (although some of its cuts seemed a bit odd). Still, you couldn't say it actually gathered momentum, and McKellen was still bluff and remote, when, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, Lear is the tragedy most concerned with the problem of love, which is what makes it so piercing. And the production suffered in one obvious way in its transfer to the tube: its best performance, Philip Winchester's wickedly charismatic Edmund, was here far more restrained (I recall onstage he actually snapped his teeth at the audience in his hungry ambition). This wasn't a deal-breaker - still, in a show called "Great Performances," it was disturbing to see this production's single great performance whittled down to the dimensions of its new frame.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Good-bye to all that

"The George Clooney of conductors" does his stuff.

When a love affair ends, well, at least it's nice if it ends with such sweet sorrow as was evident at Handel and Haydn's farewell to Grant Llewellyn last weekend. The society has announced that under new Artistic Director Harry Christophers, it won't be tiptoeing into the late nineteenth century as was its wont under Llewellyn (who served as the group's A.D., then Principal Guest Conductor, for the past eight years). But this concert only made you think, "More's the pity!" at least with this particular conductor at the helm.

There's of course an argument for limiting the period orchestra to the rough boundary of Beethoven - indeed, this concert actually made that argument on occasion. On the other hand, it's also clear the Romantic period is a special passion for Llewellyn, and his musical/rhetorical skills are uniquely suited to it. Hence the intriguing, exciting symphonic beast that was last weekend's concert, which began with a postmodern nod to Handel (from contemporary composer Tom Vignieri), then dove right into the Romantics, with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and then Brahms's First Symphony.

I felt the opening piece, Vignieri's Fanfare of Voices (the musical material of which was derived from Handel's initials) was sweet but unremarkable - although I'm never one for these ardently academic tributes to the great. Plus Vignieri made the mistake of pushing his natural horns up into high trills; historically accurate, I'm sure, but these always come off as muddy squawks to the modern ear (suddenly you remember why, in fact, valves and other technical improvements were invented).

But any mental grumbles vanished with the Mendelssohn, which was led by the rising virtuoso Ilya Gringolts (at left), an Itzhak Perlman protégé who held the crowd in his lightly-fingered grip from the piece's very first notes. The Globe's Jeremy Eichler sniffed at the performance, but given how deeply Eichler is in the tank for the BSO, this should be taken with a shaker-full of salt. It's true that Gringolts's vibrato was basically modern - seemingly Eichler's main point against him - but his playing was hardly vibrato-heavy; instead it was lightly pointed, with vibrato in key passages (that is, roughly the Baroque model, so in a way you could say Gringolts personified the crossover stance of the entire concert). At any rate, the performance was certainly thrilling; this virtuoso's control was impeccable - despite the fact that Mendelssohn keeps almost the entire piece near the top of the instrument's range - and was only matched by his speed and subtlety.

The Brahms was equally exciting, thanks to this conductor's always-dynamic phrasing. Llewellyn's passionate articulation often has a subtle consonance with human elocution: for him, orchestral playing is a kind of grand, extrapolated speech; he doesn't serve you the music, the way Levine does; instead (somewhat in the mode of Benjamin Zander) he acts as an orator-by-proxy for the absent composer. It's true that after a rousing first movement, the orchestra lost some focus in the second, and later on the natural horns tipped the balance a little too far in their direction. But the fourth movement was a model of steadily mounting intensity; you could almost feel Brahms's relief at meeting (or nearly meeting) Beethoven's standard, and his subsequent blast of triumph.

In a way, this was Llewellyn's triumph, too; the affection from the cheering hall at the performance's conclusion was palpable. Not only his musicianship but his charisma, it's true, was central to that feeling - not for nothing does a friend of mine sigh and call him "the George Clooney of conductors"! But then charisma certainly has its proper place in musical performance. During a break after the opening fanfare, when the entire stage had to be re-configured, Llewellyn came out alone, mike in hand, to entertain the crowd, and within minutes had all of Symphony Hall singing the "devil's interval" (F-G-B natural) along with him. It's hard to imagine any other local conductor pulling that off with quite the same level of aplomb, and it's that warm self-confidence that I think we'll miss the most.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A winning dark horse

Mark Vashro and Erez Rose hook up in Dark Play. Photo by Danielle Fauteux Jacques.

I caught up late to Dark Play, or Stories for Boys, at the Apollinaire Theatre in off-the-grid Chelsea, so this note is inevitably a post-mortem. Which I feel bad about, because Dark Play proved to be the best local production of the year so far, and deserved an even larger audience than it got. Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques may have been lucky in her cast - mostly talented Emerson types who were at ease with the script's Dawson's-Creek-gone-bad dialogue and aggressive semi-nudity (if Cam4-style antics disturb you, this is not your play). But her direction was also smoothly assured, and she managed something like the perfect pace as well as a cool, sympathetic-yet-distant tone. Fauteux Jacques couldn't quite disguise the growing gaps in Carlos Murillo's script, but the show's slick surface distracted us from that pretty much till the finish.

The play, in case you haven't heard, loosely follows the true story of a confused lad who posed as a lass on the Internet, seduced another lonely teen in a chat room, and then, rejected once his gender was revealed, attempted to engineer his own murder by his former "lover." It's quite a story, and I really wish Murillo had managed to do it justice. But he hasn't, I'm afraid, not by a long shot - Dark Play has a compelling set-up, but begins to coast on its knowingness just as a truly disturbing abyss begins to open up beneath its characters. When we first meet 14-year-old "Nick," (a scarily poised Erez Rose), it's enough to merely hear him say "I like to make shit up," to know we're about to go on a rollercoaster ride with "reality." But by the final, ironic coda, we feel we've a right to have seen behind the veil of Nick's self-deluding ego, but instead we're in precisely the same place regarding his character as we were at his opening line, with far too many questions about his true nature (and the fate of his "friend") left hanging; the ride has taken us right back to our starting point, despite some truly heinous "shit" going down.

So the talented Perez can't really take us to the dark places promised by the playwright; still, he's so on top of the hyper-articulate, totally-self-aware mode of teenage life today, that he's always superficially compelling (as well as utterly believable as a 14-year-old). And the supporting ensemble was just as skillful; Mark Vashro brought a sweet goofiness to Adam, Nick's target in chat, while Christine Busler managed just the right level of digitally-conjured "feeling" as Nick's chatroom persona (who describes herself as "a combination of Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne, with a little Natalie Portman"). Indeed, one of the production's gambits was watching the synthetic interactions of the Internet play out before us in flesh and blood, via supporting players Lorna Nogueira and Brian Quint (whom I once directed), who brought hilarious life to these wayward teens' digital avatars as well as the clueless parents and self-dramatizing teachers who crossed their paths. All in all this was a sterling production from Apollinaire, and one that is sure to be remembered come award time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The glorious Baaa-studs

This is I suppose just a promotional project for Samsung LEDs (and I think there's a little help from CGI when that "big sheep" starts walking). But who cares? It's still hilarious and amazing.

On golden pond

Marquita Lister sings the famous prayer to the moon. Production photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

No one knows that Antonín Dvořák wrote ten operas (perhaps for good reason); but everyone knows he wrote one, Rusalka, because it includes its heroine's "Song to the Moon," (or "Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém"), which ranks high on the world's Top 10 List of Most Beautiful Songs Evah. Poignant, haunting, and harmonically intriguing, "Moon" has become prime soprano catnip over the years, and when it comes to debate over its interpretation, opera queens gird for battle under the banners of their favorite divas. So any new production - particularly one with a new star - is expected to deliver something special when those familiar, mournful chords first rise from the orchestra.

But the new Boston Lyric Opera production doesn't quite deliver that special something. Soprano Marquita Lister has a lovely, but not discovery-level voice, and beyond that her performance is strangely remote and subdued; hers is a song to a slim new moon, perhaps, but not the radiant disk shining behind her.

But wait! This version has almost everything else: a truly ravishing visualization, a brilliant tenor debut, strong vocal support from a talented ensemble, and sensitive orchestral playing. Trust me, you want to see it.

Although I admit Ms. Lister's leading turn is something of a mystery. Her voice has a tinge of exotic allure in its middle register, and opens up with a silvery luster at its top; she has what it takes to pull off the role, if not outshine the moon in it. But alas, she's stiff and remote on stage, even though she's playing an infatuated water sprite - indeed, the Czech folktale variant of "The Little Mermaid." In this version, Rusalka has fallen in love with a handsome prince, and he with her (or at least with his own reflection in her pond), and the nymph makes a Faustian bargain for a chance to join him on dry land: during their wooing she will lose her voice, and her mortal soul will hang in the balance.

Bryan Hymel and and Marquita Lister face off at the climax of Rusalka.

This being not only a grand opera but based on a folktale - with all the Grimm-ness that implies - we know poor Rusalka is doomed. Unsurprisingly, the prince proves fickle, Rusalka retreats to her watery home but is scorned there, and when her faithless lover returns, feeling like pond scum (above), let's just say things don't turn out well.

Yet if the story sounds clichéd - and it is, frankly, pretty slim - the music is anything but. Dvořák conjures a consistently strange, suspended atmosphere via motifs that seem to wander, like his lonely heroine, through the late-romantic harmonic landscape. Rusalka's lunar lullaby is of course the opera's stand-out number, but the tenor gets a soaringly passionate aria of his own at the close of the first act, and there's a dance suite in the second that's memorably eerie (particularly as rendered here, to a convincing performance from Boston Ballet II).

In short, the tunes keep coming, and so do the vocal performances. Indeed, the real discovery of this production is tenor Bryan Hymel (left), a winner of several vocal competitions who's got the chops to back up his laurels. Mr. Hymel has effortless power, and a bright, brassy timbre that stretches all the way up, it seemed, to high C (which he cleanly nailed well into the third act). His was the most exciting tenor performance I've heard in Boston in years, and I don't have to look far into my crystal ball to predict a major career in his future.

Mr. Hymel was hardly working his magic alone, however. There were several memorable performances among the ensemble. Mezzo Nancy Maultsby brought real vocal fire to Ježibaba, the witch who casts the fateful spells, while John Cheek's stentorian bass rang with authority as the big fish in Rusalka's little pond. Neither, however, had developed full physicalizations for their roles (Maultsby is getting there). The combined vocal and acting honors had to go to Rochelle Bard, as Rusalka's saucy, scheming rival (although Bard sometimes vamped a bit too obviously in front of the prince; she should save it for the mute Rusalka), and especially Joanna Mongiardo, Sara Heaton, and Emily Marvosh, who brought a ripely light vocal line as well as appropriately playful characterizations to a trio of wood-sprites.

Everyone had to fight hard, however, to hold their own against the spectacular design of this production, which relies on gigantic projected images, courtesy of designer Wendall Harrington (in collaboration with lighting designer Robert Wierzel), to conjure Rusalka's underwater home. (Photos like the one above don't really do the show justice, as the images were often rippling; this video gives a more accurate impression.) The results were a stunning tour de force. Sometimes the images were a bit literal, but in general they were lyrical and enchanting, and often even transporting; faint gasps rose from the audience at key moments, such as when the white doe of the prince's hunt suddenly seemed to float before us like a ghost. New York has seen this kind of technical magic on its opera stages before (most notably in the recent Damnation of Faust at the Met, which, it's true, was more sophisticated in its sensibility), but this is a Boston first; that it's been pulled off with such bravura is quite a feather in BLO's cap.

There's also a deeper design concept here that works neatly with the metaphoric thrust of the music. When Rusalka reaches the prince's palace, she finds a desolate, strangely modern landscape, lit in gray and silver; it's a moonscape, actually - the ironic fulfillment, we realize, of her own wish, and a harbinger of her eventual alienation. Alas, the design sophistication doesn't spill over into the stage direction, by Eric Simonson. I've already noted the stiffness of the production's heroine, but several scenes felt shapeless here - I wondered, in fact, if Simonson wasn't going for some meta-theatrical correlate for Rusalka's eventual spiritual limbo. If so, the metaphor is misplaced, and unfortunately complicates a production which would otherwise be a local landmark.

[Update: After penning the above, I checked for any reviews of this production's earlier outing at Minnesota Opera. Reviews online echoed my complaints about the acting - only this time with an entirely different cast. The director remained the same; readers may draw their own conclusions.]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A broken Coriolanus

The shattered monument to Constantine in Rome.

With a text like Coriolanus, the Actors' Shakespeare Project is working at an interesting advantage to its critics: it's clear from the notices that none of its reviewers has ever seen a decent production before, or in some cases any production before (even I've only seen five versions). So the tendency is to give more credit to the production than is actually due - although to be fair, people can tell the play is rarely done for some very good reasons. It requires a large ensemble that can bring off convincing battle scenes, with all that means in terms of costume and set; what's more, its leads are very difficult to cast - and even when these obstacles are surmounted, unfortunately it's also true the play's central figures are just not that sympathetic.

I wouldn't say that the Actors' Shakespeare Project is well-positioned to deal with any of those challenges; the troupe doesn't have an obvious Coriolanus or Volumnia in its company, nor a large resident ensemble, and of course leads a gypsy existence from one improvised venue to another, so it's unable to bring a panoply of physical resources to the play's realization. But despite all that, the group has persevered, and thus the puzzled-but-positive response to the production; like Samuel Johnson's dog on its hind legs, this Coriolanus may be not be done well, but we're surprised to find it done at all. And a certain collegiate conceit seems to have attached itself to the group, and I think is indulged with pleasure on all sides: ASP tears through the canon at an astounding clip, whether or not they've got the actors or resources to match the play they're doing, and the press always applauds - in a way, the group apes "gonzo" modes of undergraduate thought and experience (unsurprisingly, many of its actors are teachers in the local academy). Indeed, their unconscious re-enactment of freshman-dorm drama may be the real source of their popularity: they take us all back, only this time with our professors onstage, and sure 'nuff they're better than we ever were.

If all this sounds cruel, let me say I'm really writing more in sorrow than in anger; I want ASP to get better, to develop, to build. I like them for some reason, even though they irritate me, as when I recall that this is actually their fifth season and yet they seem precisely where they were at their first opening: some good ideas, some thoughtful line readings, and some interesting DYI grappling with the space they've selected this time; and then all sorts of raggedy edges and let's-pretend-we-pulled-that-off moments. They still behave like a clique, but they're funded like a theatre company - and you can feel the rest of the theatre scene sort of ceding Shakespeare to them, which is perhaps what's most frustrating about the situation, as they don't nearly do him justice.

Of course the Boston audience is so ignorant of how great Shakespeare can be that it's not hard to understand the popularity of the troupe. And after all, they're not pretentiously antiseptic like the ART, to which they were at first seen as a shaggy, but still Harvard-branded, antidote. ASP is accessible, somewhat hip, slightly cool in a grungy way - and yes, in their productions something of the play, or at least its conceptual skeleton, always comes over. I also get the idea from some ASP fans that they imagine the troupe's postmodern-troubadour style roughly corresponds to how Shakespeare's plays were done originally, which is almost certainly a mistake in the case of Coriolanus; lefty academics routinely leave out the fact that Shakespeare was eventually part of the King's Men, with more resources (including, yes, an indoor theatre) than just about anyone; their analogue today would not be the Living Theatre but a White House-sponsored company performing on the mainstage of the Kennedy Center.

Which brings us back to politics - and Coriolanus, which is famously Shakespeare's most political play. It's unique in the canon in other ways, too; it's the bard's last tragedy (if you don't count the tortured fragment that is Timon), but it feels nothing like a culmination and something like a U-turn, as with it the Bard seems to abandon his own methods. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare strips out most of the paired narratives and cross-plots that give breadth and depth to Hamlet and Lear, and suppresses the imagery that flickers like lightning through Macbeth; he even forsakes the soliloquy, from which he conjured the depths of both Iago and Othello (Coriolanus gets one or two short solos, but all lack introspection, and nobody else looks inward, either).

To some, the play therefore lacks personality and poetry; what it has instead is a corruscating irony, and a muscular form. Like its hero, it's a kind of experiment in pure externality, an homage to the utterly public tragedies of the ancients, in which the essence of man was embedded in action, not thought. And perhaps as a result, Shakespeare hews (for once) to something like the Aristotelian model of tragedy: he posits, almost simplistically, a hero with a major flaw that brings him down: Coriolanus is Rome's greatest soldier (and savior), who simply cannot humble himself in order to gain his "rightful" political power - instead he insults those he would lead, and his arrogance brings ruin, and even death, down upon his head. But the simplicity of that arc belies the many ironies of both the play's plot and its central mystery, which turns out to be (in another nod to Aristotle) literally Oedipal: Coriolanus's tragic flaw and public downfall are the result of his private dependence on his mother.

And it's at this crux - the embodiment of private essence in public act - that ASP stumbles. The troupe doesn't seem to realize that to make any artistic sense, Coriolanus's personality must be framed in a palpable sense of glory; if he's not a dazzling rock star, he seems merely delusional, and there's no tragedy. Indeed, as he has no interiority, his tragic climax cannot be the transforming self-awareness that sears Othello and Lear and Hamlet; it can only be his apprehension of his own destruction, his Lucifer-like fall from the glitter of grace. But this is precisely the kind of theatrical effect which the troupe's rag-tag aesthetic perforce excludes. And compounding this problem of style is the simple fact that Benjamin Evett, talented actor that he is, lacks the physical glamour to pull off a golden boy like Caius Martius (Coriolanus's given name, which he rather pointedly shares with the god of war). Evett instead tries to limn the character's childishness and devotion to discipline, but none of this really works without that gilded outer shell.

Coriolanus (Evett) clashes with his arch enemy Aufidius (Ted Hewlett).

And much of the rest of the play doesn't work, either. Evett's Coriolanus simply isn't imposing enough to sew the seeds of envy in others, and if he doesn't seem invincible at some level, the play's other major role becomes suddenly complicated - in short, if Coriolanus is not a kind of god, then his mother comes off as psychotic.

Or she would come off as psychotic, if Bobbie Steinbach weren't playing her as yet another feisty, pint-sized spitfire. Evett may be somewhat disappointing, but Steinbach's actually irritating. Volumnia is Shakespeare's most intensive treatment of a mother, and boy, is she ever a mother. She longs for her boy to be wounded, or even killed (for the greater of glory of his - and not coincidentally her - name); in her very first line she unconsciously muses on what it would be like for her son to share her bed, and things only get more fucked-up from there: by withholding all affection except on terms of military success, she has simultaneously masculinized yet infantilized her son, and tellingly has an almost-erotic relationship to his wounds (hence he cannot bear to show them to the public). She's a nightmare version of the founding Roman she-wolf, hanging leech-like from her offspring, and her very name lets you know she's an enormous void, able to devour everything in her path, military heroes included. Indeed, Volumnia achieves her apotheosis only by bringing about her son's death (by which time she's already got her claws on her grandson). It's a wild characterization that's constantly skirting the edge of satire; still, you'd think Steinbach could come up with more than drawing herself up with dignity and begging the audience for laughs (which they're happy to give her). To be fair, she does get down to business in her climactic scene, which works, but only far more superficially than it could work if she'd built up a twisted foundation for this monstrous matriarch.

Not that any one else is doing much character work, either. Perhaps taking a tip from that previously mentioned lack of soliloquy, director Robert Walsh seems to have directed everything externally, as well - as if the play were actually about its battles, rather than their meaning. Thus the character of Aufidius (Ted Hewlett), the military nemesis of Coriolanus, is basically a blank, and the tribunes who bring their general down (Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Noah Tuleja) are jealous stick figures (when the key to their characters is their sense of pique and wounded pride- they're as outraged by Coriolanus as he is by them). There's some better work around the edges of the production; Robert Najarian sketches a little feeling into Cominius, and Susannah Melone and (particularly) Hannah Husband strike some sparks as Coriolanus's wife and friend. Perhaps the most accomplished performance comes from Ron Goldman as Menenius, basically because Goldman's vocal and rhetorical skills are simply stronger than anyone else's in the company.

Much of the local press comment has revolved around the production's solution, or near-solution, to the problem of the play's epic violence. Director Walsh is widely known as a fight director (as are several of the men in the cast), and he and "movement designer" Karen Krolak have devised interesting martial-arts-inspired dance forms - think mass capoeira (above) - to put over the many clashes of the play. I admired all the effort that went into this, and the actors' skillful commitment to it; and the battles did catch fire in one brilliant gambit, where Aufidius and Coriolanus slogged away at each other within a kind of cage (left). But clever as it was, the movement design blurred or ignored many essential elements of the various scenes of combat. Shakespeare clearly intends Rome's enemies, the Volscians, to be seen as an even more savage society than the nascent republic on the Tiber; yet this is lost in Krolak's designs, which feel more like cooperative dance than conflict (a similar distinction between plebe and patrician is likewise lost in Molly Trainer's costume design). Walsh seems to imagine that the play can be seen as a clash between Soviet-style communism and Italian -style fascism; to which again I can only say: not quite; the Roman mob had neither theory nor discpline, and the Fascists had a lot more style than seen here. There were many more such gaps and blind spots in the production; the homoerotics of the military (and of the eventual coupling of Coriolanus and Aufidius in particular) was mysteriously absent, when it isn't just indicated but directly stated by the text (coming right after Walsh's similarly strait-jacketed turn as Antonio in Merchant of Venice, we're beginning to wonder about this guy!). And in the end, the setting - the interior of the Somerville Armory - didn't really deliver much in the way of militaristic atmosphere, as it was basically indistinguishable from a high school gym. ASP sometimes imagines that the social meaning of a space trumps its actual physical aesthetic, which just isn't true; their most successful venues (The Tempest, Titus Andronicus) have succeeded because the existing space roughly approximated an appropriate "set," not because of any social or philosophical "overtones" of the venues. This is just one of the many illusions I wish this talented troupe could shake themselves free of.

The Few, the Proud, the Fabulous

One of the most charming dances I've ever seen. If Marines can get down, maybe there's hope for us all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Am I a bad person if I don't care about the Rose?

I confess the controversy about the closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis leaves me slightly cold. Even though I realize that the Brandeis actions form a terrible precedent for university behavior. Intellectually, I stand with those who oppose the closing, and I certainly agree that after his recent displays of incompetence and flat-out dishonesty, President Jehuda Reinharz has got to go (feel free to mentally add "hey hey, ho ho" to that sentiment).

Still, I find myself not really caring that much if the collection is broken up and disappears. This is probably because I've never seen much of it - and so far I have yet to meet anyone who has. The Rose art collection is made up largely of modern and postmodern works that don't lend themselves to popular sentimental attachment - and to be blunt, they've rarely been showcased in depth. Many of the journalists who have written in outrage about the ongoing imbroglio are taking on faith the actual quality and interest of the collection, and rarely ponder that Brandeis never seems to have been that committed to it, anyway. I keep wondering if it - or perhaps coherent chunks of it - might be better off someplace else, where more people could actually see the works themselves; this to me kind of trumps all the horror over donors' wishes being ignored or violated (although I understand that yes, that violation has indeed occurred). And I seem to be the only one who notices that the MFA is building a giant space for a modern collection that frankly is fairly mediocre, while Brandeis is looking to de-accession a modern collection that people insist is pretty good even though they haven't seen it. One wonders if there isn't some agreement possible between these two institutions. And as I've said before, I've yet to hear anyone suggest what the university should do without in order to hold onto its unseen collection. If the university cut its activities elsewhere, but returns to the old status quo regarding the Rose - that is, maintaining the collection in storage - well, let's just say I'm not sure that would be the optimal outcome.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lonesome west

Stacey Fischer and Timothy John Smith get foolhardy in Fool for Love.

Sam Shepard essentially stopped writing a few years after completing Fool for Love (currently being revived at the New Rep), and it's easy from the play to see why. There's a telling sense of repetition in its stew of familiar Shepard tropes: some scenes play like outtakes from Cowboy Mouth, while others are leftovers from Curse of the Starving Class; meanwhile the play's slowly-revealed "secrets" echo True West, with a buried hint of Buried Child. Not that there's anything wrong with that; all artists have their central concerns, not to mention obsessions. But in Fool for Love we can feel Shepard desperately shaking the same old dice in the hope of rolling a new score.

But he comes up snake-eyes, perhaps because his best plays conjured their sense of pop mystery from isolated, surreal juxtapositions. But as Shepard pours all his usual ingredients into a single crucible, his lonesome west begins to feel a bit crowded, and it's clearer that his various obsessions don't quite add up to a vision. This time we get the playwright's usual craving for pop authenticity, his familiar dead-end dream of the West, and of course another dysfunctional family with a poisoned - and poisonous - patriarch. But we also get the confused, "normal" intruder, the seedy motel room, the vengeful wife/mother, and Cain and Abel, and Patti Smith. It's entertaining enough; it plays like Sam Shepard's Greatest Hits - it just doesn't actually add up to a new song.

But the New Rep cast sings its heart out anyway. They have to - Shepard always go gonzo eventually, but Fool for Love starts that way and never lets up. The curtain rises on lovers May and Eddie squaring off against each other in that Seedy Hotel Room Somewhere Out West, locked in the throes of love-hate, unable to hold on to each other but unable to let go, etc. - and not much has changed in their relationship when the curtain falls roughly 80 minutes later. In the meantime, however, the play has morphed into some sort of surreal space-time continuum in which memories - and even themes - converse directly with characters and vice versa. Oddly, this never strikes us as particularly strange; it feels more like a formal inevitability in the umpteenth rewrite of a play we've seen almost as many times before (which is exactly what it is).

Or perhaps we don't have time to ponder such artistic quandaries because director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary keeps things moving so briskly over these conceptual speed bumps; and she's drawn strong, committed work from her ensemble - although perhaps she hasn't wired their performances with quite enough sense of danger. Timothy John Smith gives his all as Eddie, in a rough-and-tumble performance that's charming in its sexy physicality. But he's just a little too wholesome to convince us as a Shepard hero (who must always conceal a fatal flaw). Meanwhile Stacey Fischer is more in touch with her inner demons as May, and offers the production's most accomplished performance - still, she could tap into a growing sense of horror -and maybe even pity - as the play progresses, and reveals the depth of Eddie's fantasies. The central couple gets nicely believable back-up from Andrew Dufresne as the normal guy who wanders into their hellish sexual cul-de-sac; Dufresne even manages to look unfazed when the seemingly ectoplasmic "Old Man" takes center stage. But here the production stumbles anyway, for Joseph Finneral is simply far too likable as this accursed progenitor; he comes off as an eccentric old-timer rather than the poisoned spring from which all these twisted passions have sprung.

And then, alas, there's the set to contend with. Even given the limits of the New Rep's downstairs space, these fine actors deserve better than canvas flats that shake every time someone shuts the door. To be sure, said flimsiness gives some metaphoric dimension to the play's Twilight Zone vibe - that is, until part of the main door actually fell off after a spirited slam. Then, suddenly, we were in the Construction Zone instead.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Benjamin Britten and friends

Maggi Hambling's monument to Britten on Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk. The inscription reads: "I hear those voices that will not be drowned," a line from Peter Grimes.

I heard the Cantata Singers in an unusual program on Friday night - although I came out of a vague, but mistaken idea that I'd be hearing some Britten vocal work (note to self: read publicity more carefully!), instead I heard Beethoven's "other" mass, the Mass in C Major, a Britten orchestral suite (close enough) and a lovely choral ode from Gerald Finzi, a composer I knew next to nothing about. So I left pleased and educated, just not by the music I expected.

At any rate, the Cantata Singers are engaged in a season-long examination of Britten's legacy (the composer, at left), and they've produced a genuinely handsome companion to the concert series that's full of information and thoughtful analysis regarding Britten, who has slowly, along with Shostakovich, Sibelius and other figures, taken his rightful place in the pantheon of great, mostly-tonal twentieth-century composers. (There's another "revolutionary" pavilion, that nobody much visits, that James Levine is building nearby.) I wasn't quite sure what to make of the Beethoven/Britten/Finzi juxtaposition - the Beethoven and the Finzi are nominally church music, but the Britten is an operatic suite of exotic delicacy. There is, I suppose, an argument to be made that in this first Mass, Beethoven manages a mirroring between text and music that is faintly Brittenesque (although the chorus didn't sing it that way). But the Finzi was pretty much straightforward, compassionate British romanticism. Oh well. It's all good, as my nephews like to say.

And indeed, most of it was good. The Mass in C Major is a work of complexity and contrast, with something of Beethoven's usual sense of heroic struggle moving beneath its juxtapositions of color and structure. Hoose grouped his soloists with his chorus, behind the orchestra, which makes sense in that Beethoven never fashions them any star turns (there are no solo arias). But only his mezzo and baritone, Lynn Torgove and Dana Whiteside, really had the power to cut through the orchestral playing and create their own profiles. Still, soprano Karyl Ryczek's voice glowed with a ripe, delicate bloom, even if it trembled a bit on its stem, and tenor Stephen Williams offered a light, agile tone and thoughtful phrasing. Meanwhile the chorus sang with vigor; Hoose brought real feeling to the joyful outbursts of the Gloria, and kept an intelligent sense of command throughout the complicated and demanding Credo. But the chorus probably sounded best in the heartfelt, prayerful mode that both opened the Kyrie and closed the Agnus Dei.

Next was the orchestral suite drawn from Britten's last opera Death in Venice, which had no chorus, but a kind of substitute in the full kitchen of percussion lining the back of the orchestra. The piece is far more astringent than the lush Mahler passages Visconti chose for the movie (which Britten reportedly found sentimental and vulgar), and welds a mournful irony with a kind of sparkling erotic torment, lightly voiced by all that percussion. The orchestra was better at the work's glittering surface than it was at its convoluted, deeper mood, but conductor Hoose once again impressed with his command of the overall arc of the piece.

The concert shifted gears yet again with Gerald Finzi's "Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice," which is a somewhat purple title for a piece that is both an ode to the rite of Holy Communion, and a heartfelt lamentation for the great sacrifice which Finzi had just seen concluded (it was written in 1946 and orchestrated in 1947). How, precisely, does melody bear (much less convey) the weight of such experience? Pieces like Finzi's inevitably beg this question. "Sacrifice" is neither particularly complex nor intellectually challenging; it is simply gently heartbreaking, and the Cantata Singers did its deep feeling full justice.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The hottest show of the year . . .

. . . is not, rather obviously, the silly Shepard Fairey extravaganza at the ICA. It is, instead, "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice," which opens tomorrow at the MFA. And I mean this show is literally hot, with a central boudoir of paintings of Venus and Danaë (below right) that's so erotically charged you may go weak in the knees. The raves have begun pouring in, although oddly the local press has been somewhat less ecstatic than the Times, which gives more of a sense of the full import of the show. As for me, I'm still reeling, still poring over the catalogue, and still plotting my next approach. But in the meantime, I felt it was important to say, and say clearly, that this is the greatest local art show of the year. And certainly the last decade, and maybe the next. There are arguments to be made over its argument, and it's undeniable that the exhibit never gives a sense of the full scope of Tintoretto or Veronese (and only hints at Titian's). Still, when you're in its thrall, this hardly matters; its "Three-Tenors" pretext may be merely an excuse for assembling the greatest collection of Old Masters - from the Uffizi and the Prado and the Louvre - ever seen in Boston, but then what more excuse do you need? There are nineteen Titians in this show, including at least four masterpieces (Flora, above left) and a half-dozen variants still more radiantly seductive than any other painting in Boston. It's hard to believe, when one ponders the cost of insurance and transport, that such a group was ever made to cohere, and the odds are it will never happen again in your or my lifetime. But until August, we can boast one of the greatest collections of Italian Old Masters in the New World.

Everything old is new again

Tim Ruddy in Swansong.

The new Tír Na Theatre Company (which I think translates as "land-of," kind of) is wrapping a double bill this weekend at the BCA with up-and-coming Irish playwright Conor McDermottroe's Swansong and The Bottom of the Lake. Both productions are quite accomplished, although both scripts are somewhat derivative. McDermottroe channels that other Conor, Conor McPherson, in The Bottom of the Lake, which awkwardly welds supernaturalism to wry generational comedy - while the longer, more ambitious Swansong, a grimily picaresque tale of a local boy-gone-bad, owes rather too much to Roddy Doyle.

As you can probably tell, I don't feel McDermottroe actually adds that much to the genres in which he's working. Still, even if this young playwright is just spreading his wings rather than taking flight on his own, it's clear he can, indeed, get airborne; both plays held the audience with subtle skill, and both pieces received thoughtful, perceptive performances here. The man behind the double bill was actor Tim Ruddy (above), who performed Swansong and directed Lake (although it seems local actor Colin Hamell may be the driving force behind Tír Na). Both Ruddy's direction and his acting were remarkably assured, even if he didn't reach the redemptive depths that Swansong might, actually, be teased into conjuring. What was more interesting was that his performance felt so lived-in; my guess was that Ruddy had done the play before, perhaps many times, and sure enough, with a little searching on the Intertubes, I discovered it's kind of a signature touring piece for him.

Indeed, Tír Na seems to be modeled as a kind of touring company, with Boston merely one of its stops - it's linked to the Irish Theatre Group in Brussels, of all places, and has performed there and in New York. It almost tickled me to see the ancient paradigm of the itinerant theatrical troupe updated to the present day; in a way, this group's business model is more interesting than its material. The challenge for such a troupe, of course, is not becoming locked within the confines of audience-pleasing genre. Let's hope as Tír Na expands its performance horizons, it (and McDermottroe) will seek broader artistic horizons as well; both certainly have the talent to.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More on the new Shakespeare

A very thoughtful take from Britain's Channel 4 on the new Shakespeare portrait. The gist: the physiognomy of the "new" portrait lines up quite well with that of the First Folio engraving, and there's an inscription, “Principum amicitias!” (roughly "Beware the alliances of princes!") taken - perhaps tellingly - from one of Horace's odes to a playwright. Hmmmmm.

As the world turns

Galileo and Pope Urban XIII get lost in the stars at the Huntington.

I knew the reviewers weren't going to be kind to Two Men of Florence, Richard Goodwin's account of the silencing of Galileo by Pope Urban XIII, but I was still surprised by how negative they were, given first-time-playwright Goodwin's political pull around here (he was speechwriter to both JFK and LBJ, and is married to PBS darling Doris Kearns Goodwin). So good for Louise Kennedy and Jenna Scherer, who both basically tell it like it (obviously) is: the play is long and predictable, and crowded with too many stock characters, and is essentially a series of speeches rather than a drama (whaddya want, he's a speechwriter). It doesn't even give us the middle-brow pay-offs it promises (Galileo's legendary encounter with the instruments of torture, and his similarly undocumented, but-too-good-to-leave-out, whisper, "and yet it moves"). Goodwin clearly had his eye on creating a handsome, commercial "thinking-man's" play in the mode of, say, A Man for All Seasons, which certainly isn't a bad goal - and the material seems amenable to his intents. And his timing is impeccable (not only are we locked in a latter-day battle between faith and science, but 2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's invention of the telescope). Unfortunately Goodwin just doesn't have the chops to pull the play off.

But to be fair, there's the set to consider (above), and really, the Huntington has outdone itself this time (even besting its marvelous set for last fall's Rock'n'Roll). Indeed, the set is so wonderful you might almost decide to go to the play just to see it. Designer Francis O'Connor has embedded so much metaphor in the Huntington stage that I'm not even quite sure where to begin. But first some advice: if you do decide to see Two Men of Florence - and there are, frankly, worse ways to spend an evening - be sure to see it from the balcony (preferably the front). That's the only way to fully appreciate the gorgeous floor O'Connor has created: a gleaming globe - ironically modeled on the maps which hang in the Vatican - which sometimes spins at great speed (just like the real one). This pregnant image is then smartly shrouded in a circular veil (neatly conjuring the play's central scientific mystery), and ensconced in an enclosure of candles - which in turn flicker before a corresponding universe of stars. The candle/star opposition serves as a neat metaphor for the play's supposed opposition between faith and science - but O'Connor (with lighting designer Ben Ormerod) pushes this idea far beyond metaphor when fiber-optic stars drop directly into the action just as Galileo catches a glimpse of the moons of Jupiter through his telescope (above left). Suddenly, the actors - and we ourselves - are floating through the cosmos in a manner never quite matched by a planetarium (and certainly by no science fiction movie ever made); the sensation is exhilarating and poetic, and a stunning reminder of the palpable effects the stage can offer but television and movies cannot achieve. If there were a Nobel Prize for set design, O'Connor and Ormerod would deserve it.

But alas, yes, there's also the play. How, exactly, can the Huntington's team be so attuned to dramatic design and yet so tone-deaf to drama itself? This is the fourth new play in their season, and it's the fourth under-achiever (admittedly, Rock'n'Roll was well-disguised). It's not quite an irritating clunker like How Shakespeare Won the West, but it still only occasionally throws off sparks, and then only in its first act, and then largely due to that set and its fluid staging (by the National Theatre's Edward Hall). Goodwin does manage the neat trick of rendering Galileo's experiments theatrically effective, and his talent for aphorism has not deserted him (his description of his subject as "a philosopher with hands" perfectly sums up what made the great man great).

But the dramatic motor of this kind of vehicle is the embodiment of philosophical debate in the clash of two characters, and here Goodwin fumbles the opportunity history has given him. For Urban was a man of sophisticated intellect - who at least half-encouraged Galileo to publish the notorious defense of Copernicus that landed him in prison; and Galileo was, actually, a man of faith (at an early age he even considered joining the priesthood!). And, yes, they were even friends. But Goodwin, though he effectively conjures on stage the scientific problem of "proving" the earth moved around the sun, can't seem to limn the impact of Galileo's work on his relationship with Urban. And thus the philosophical ramifications of their debate lack force (and, actually, focus). There are isolated lines and shards of dialogue that show Goodwin is aware of his central theme, but the play's structure doesn't take him where he needs to go - to a smackdown between Urban and Galileo, and Urban's frustrated turn to the threat of torture.

Whether or not Galileo was actually shown the implements of torment, as legend would have it, isn't really dramatically material. There is written evidence that his judges considered torture one of their options, which is more than enough to justify its appearance onstage (oddly, Goodwin opens with the torment of Bruno, another heretic, but then drops the meme!). And the gap underlines a deeper flaw in Goodwin's scheme: in his effort to complicate (actually over-complicate) Urban, Goodwin goes easy on the Church itself - and the collateral damage it did itself. For ironically enough, few people have done as much to undermine "faith" as Urban did, by divorcing it from our logical observations of the world; Galileo's postulates may have contradicted the Bible (not a word of which, mind you, was written by Yahweh or Jesus); but they were completely consonant with faith in God. Indeed, as many scientists have attested, there is nothing quite so mystically moving as perceiving the mathematical principles behind the motion of the universe; this may be the closest thing we have to a proof of God's existence (note even today physicists are chasing what they call "the God particle"). After all, what Urban did was tantamount to Pope Benedict tossing Steven Hawking into a black site, wheelchair and all (and don't imagine that couldn't happen - as late as the 1990's, Benedict was voicing some very odd sentiments about Galileo!). His actions effectively undermined the Catholic Church intellectually for - well, for forever, frankly. And Goodwin somehow loses sight of that fact.

Perhaps because his vision has been blocked by the 19 scenes and 21 speaking roles he's tried to shoehorn into his play. It's nice to see a theatre attempt a new play with a giant cast and the flexible stage freedom of Shakespeare or Brecht - but Goodwin's control of this rich pageant is awkward and unsure, and many of the small roles are hackwork. The actors inhabiting them nevertheless often mine brief glints of dramatic gold - there are strong turns here from local heroes Diego Arciniegas and Jeremiah Kissel, as well as the skillful Dermot Crowley and Joel Rainwater. As Galileo, television star Jay O. Sanders demonstrates both prickly smarts and convincing theatrical chops, and always keeps the role lively and engaging, if inevitably somewhat clichéd. But he's hampered by the strangely blank Molly Schreiber as daughter Marie Celeste (who for some reason has left the convent where history placed her and has joined Dad in the lab), and by a surprisingly inadequate Edward Herrmann as Urban. Herrmann (above) goes up on his lines at almost every climax, and in general can't deliver more than his usual befuddled, intelligent likeability. But until he finds a darker, more dramatic path for his half of Two Men, this production will continue to run in circles.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Song and dance

Last weekend Boston Baroque brought a unique program to Jordan Hall: a combination of works by Lully and Charpentier along with Rameau's Pigmalion (Gérôme's treatment of the myth, at left) an intriguing one-act opera that's about evenly divided between song and dance. Admirably, Boston Baroque attempted to honor the work's structure by mounting a corresponding postmodern ballet right on the stage of Jordan Hall, with the help of the talented Marjorie Folkman, a former Mark Morris dancer. This was a good thing, although perhaps not quite enough of a good thing: Folkman offered variations on a charming solo, but the dance portions of Pigmalion are extensive, and by the end of the evening we felt the work demanded more than Folkman could deliver on her own. Nevertheless, the performance certainly suggested such productions can, and should, work in the modern dance idiom (indeed, in a way the evening was merely a variation of what Morris's group has been doing for years).

But back, briefly, to the Lully and Charpentier. The concert got off to a slow start with an assemblage of short Lully pieces from various operas and comédie-ballets. Selected by Music Director Martin Pearlman, the resulting 'suite' was cohesive enough, but Boston Baroque's orchestra was ever so slightly blurry in its attack (although its tone was subtle and lovely). I'm not sure if this is the result of Pearlman's mildly eccentric conducting style or if there is a certain soft, muted quality he intentionally seeks for reasons of his own (Pearlman, below right, is a man of larger intellectual scope than your average musician), but I worry the orchestra may have been superceded technically by some of the city's other early music avatars.

The chorus was an entirely different story. The concert snapped into luminous shape with Lully's Regina coeli, a soaring soprano trio here delineated with buoyant skill by Roberta Anderson, Gail Abbey and Sabrina Learman. The following Charpentier Mass proved just as compelling, though in a hauntingly introverted mode: this was an exquisitely melancholy contemplation of the central Christian mystery, and the chorus seemed up to both its precise technical demands and its plaintive coloring.

The shift in feeling to the Rameau was less jarring than one might imagine (perhaps due to Pearlman's sensing something of a similar mood in both). And the biggest news of the evening was that the vocal writing in Pigmalion is ravishing, and was here performed superbly. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford - apparently a last-minute replacement - brought a kind of contemporary intensity to the yearning Pygmalion, and displayed impressive power even in his higher register (although the score did at times scrape the very top of his range). More conventional, but no less impressive, was the sparkling Kristen Watson as both "L'Amour" and the mortal competition for "La Statue," while Meredith Hall brought an achingly pure tone to the awakening heart of the sculptor's creation.

The dance "half" of the opera perhaps wasn't quite as compelling, but then Folkman was working under tight constraints: Rameau's dances seem to have been constructed for a group, but Folkman worked largely solo (although against dancer Rob Besserer's Pygmalion factotum) - and there wasn't room for a group on the Jordan Hall anyhow. I felt Folkman's evocation of the Statue's growing awareness was delightful at first (Folkman is still the lively gamine she was in her Mark Morris days), but grew slightly repetitious, when it should both vary in structure and build in emotion. Such criticism is really only a call for the deployment of more resources, however; it would be wonderful to see Boston Baroque attempt such a project at a larger scale in the future.

Yet another Shakespeare

Yet another Shakespeare "portrait" emerged the other day in London - this one is the "Cobbes" portrait (detail above). It has a very good provenance - to Shakespeare's period, that is; but any actual connection to the Bard himself seems rather tenuous. But to me, this handsome, intelligent, elegant gentleman will do - at least for several of the plays. This is the Shakespeare who wrote the sonnets, Romeo and Juliet and Love's Labour's Lost, and of course the fairyland of Midsummer Night's Dream.

But it's hard for me to imagine the "Cobbes" Shakespeare writing the entire Folio.

That's why it's lucky there are other portraits. At left is the "Chandos" portrait, from the Folger Shakespeare Library. To me, this is the doomed Shakespeare of Hamlet and Othello and Twelfth Night, the poet of shipwreck and love lost or tempest-tost. Meanwhile, at right is the "Sanders" portrait, unearthed in Canada a few years back. This may actually be my favorite Shakespeare portrait. To me, this is the sly, jaunty Shakespeare who wrote Comedy of Errors and Merry Wives of Windsor, and maybe even Henry IV Part I, and who had a hand in many of the other plays. He takes over from the "Cobbes" portrait whenever the country does battle with the court, as in Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, for instance.
As for the poor old Martin Droeshout engraving from the First Folio (at left), I suppose we can leave to him the ironies of Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, and the ingrown intellectualism of Richard II. but it's hard to believe that he - or indeed any of these gentlemen - or anyone, period - could have written the whole canon. And therein lies the mystery that no portrait can ever limn.