Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's happening to the Opera House?

It was not quite five years ago that the Opera House re-opened after a $38 million renovation. At the time, it glittered - and still does, for the most part (at left). But during a recent visit I noticed areas of plaster near the stage were deteriorating. Cracks and blisters had opened up around the bases of other columns, and chunks had simply fallen off in some spots, as if someone had taken a hammer to the detailing. When I asked an usher about the decay, she described it as "plaster blight." Which worried me a bit - I mean, the Opera House is all plaster. Could water have already leaked into the interior walls? Is management seeking to repair the situation? It would be a terrible shame if this glorious interior deteriorated. We're going to have to pursue this further.

The Re-creationist

There's been a growing chorus of criticism in the early music movement - and in the New Yorker and elsewhere - about the supposedly repressive, bourgeois conventions of concert-going that came into vogue in the nineteenth century. You know, all those pretentious habits like being on time, and not talking or eating during the concert, and waiting until the end of the work before applauding, and of course breaking wind as quietly as possible (which can be quite the regimen after dinner at Uno's). Banning such behaviors, the thinking goes, has banished all the fun from the concert hall. And why shouldn't we be utterly free, all the time? After all, we are stardust, we are golden, etc.

But sometimes you should be careful what you wish for. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington (above), who's something of a whimsical radical, attempted to re-create the conditions of the eighteenth, not the nineteenth, century at last Sunday's Handel and Haydn concert, "Haydn in London," and the whole thing slowly fell flat. It's true Sir Roger didn't go so far as to encourage the audience to talk or eat (much less break wind). Nor had he handed out periwigs or petticoats (although actually, that would have been a kick).

But he did emulate eighteenth-century conventions in his programming; he broke up the first Haydn symphony on offer into two parts (we were encouraged to clap between each movement), and scattered sea shanties and other songs in between the orchestral pieces. The idea was to create something like the long menu of different musical dishes that famously filled so many eighteenth-century musical evenings (which often ran to four or more hours).

The trouble is, we don't really know how well those musical marathons actually came off. True, there's much rapturous reviewing from the press at the time; but shouldn't the critics always be taken with a grain of salt? (I certainly think so!) And at H&H last weekend, the madness of Norrington's method was immediately clear: it's hard to maintain focus and energy when the format is always changing, the size of the ensemble is constantly morphing, and people are dragging chairs around the stage between every number. And I don't mean the audience's focus; we were puzzled, but fine. No, it was the performers who sometimes seemed to lose their sense of attack, and Norrington himself all but drifted off at times. If the concert was intended as a demonstration, I'm afraid it disproved its own thesis.

Which isn't to say the concert didn't have its moments; they just didn't build into anything memorable. At first the orchestra (and Norrington) was firing on all cylinders in the opening movements of Haydn's Symphony No. 99, and they fired said cylinders right back up when they returned after a vocal interlude. In said interlude, soprano Nathalie Paulin brought a glowing tone and a passionate commitment to the tragic and intense "Scena di Berenice," although it was hard to see how its interpolation enhanced the symphony.

The best music making of the evening came in the second half, when a smaller ensemble played exquisitely the slow movement from Haydn's Divertimento in F (while Norrington watched from nearby). This was surrounded, however, by a series of songs, ranging in source from Shakespeare to sea shanties, each of which Paulin approached in exactly the same over-considered way. And the opening march for the Prince of Wales probably contained the most ragged playing I've heard from the H&H horn section in ages; meanwhile tempos dragged, and Norrington seemed to be zoning out. The orchestra re-grouped for the final "Oxford" symphony, and Norrington pulled himself together for the sparkling final movement, but this all felt like a rear-guard attempt to recapture an energy which had long since drained away. Next time, let's not be afraid to be a little bourgeois, okay Sir Roger?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

But what about the actors and the plays?

So I'm looking over the glossy season brochure for the A.R.T. and trying to decide what it means. And one thing it seems to mean is: no plays. Well, one play, Paradise Lost, by Clifford Odets. And a new musical. And a novel read aloud by hip New Yorkers (The Great Gatsby). And another musical, featuring gospel choirs. What is described as "an immersive experience" that's also like a Hitchcock film inspired by Macbeth, set in "an extraordinary, unexpected location." Oh, and The Donkey Show, a.k.a "the ultimate disco experience."

And uh - how many actors? The Hitchcock Macbeth thing is an import, the gospel choir thing is - well, a gospel choir thing. Maybe they're going to make good old Karen MacDonald go out in a thong and pasties for The Donkey Show, but I hope not. Gatz is an import. Red Sox Nation is another musical. (And only Tommy Derrah really sings.)

Sigh. I can remember when the "R" in A.R.T. stood for "Repertory." Which meant a repertory company. Which meant paid actors, working together as an ensemble.

Now I know I'm just an old stick-in-the mud who doesn't appreciate how new and daring all this is. I like plays, not concepts, I know that. But I'm wondering if they're going to remove the "R" from their name? And just be the A.T.? Because it seems they really should do that. Just to be accurate.

Stepping out and stepping up

Jennifer Bricker in an earlier production of GIMP. Photo by Chris Ash.

It was interesting, I must admit, to see "The GIMP Project" directly after Boston Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty last weekend. The transition from a fantasy land of long legs and languid arms to a world in which arms sometimes end in single digits and legs may be missing completely was bracing, to say the least.

Yet at first, during the 'aerial' prologue to GIMP, out on the twilit patio of the ICA, the two worlds didn't seem so far apart. When Jennifer Bricker - who happens to have no legs - and aerialist Nate Crawford pulled themselves up into sashes of scarlet fabric dangling from an overhead frame, immediately something like the idealized atmosphere of ballet descended over the watching crowd. For a time, Crawford and Bricker floated together unseen, in a fabric chrysalis that conjured up thoughts of erotic reverie. (Yes, sex with the legless. Get over it.) When they emerged - to the soft breathing of composer Stan Strickland - they began a long, tenderly slow dance in space that was unlike anything I've ever seen, even though its pirouettes and lifts had direct analogues in the type of dance I see all the time. The performers exuded affectionate respect and some serious playfulness; the crowd was mesmerized. This is a word that's used too often, and often for the wrong reasons, but sometimes clichés must be forgiven: Bricker and Crawford were transcendent.

But they also set a standard that the rest of GIMP, which took place within the ICA's new theatre, couldn't quite meet. After the group's aerialists had conjured a brilliant equivalent of traditional dance (okay, they needed a bit more apparatus than a tutu and a dance belt, but what difference does that make?), we were primed for more discovery; what other, perhaps even stranger, forms of grace might these folks be able to illuminate? For after all, that's the challenge curled in the fascinating premise of "The GIMP Project:" how the physically challenged might trace their own "meaning in time and space" (a phrase from an artist acquaintance of mine that I think suits dance just fine).

Choreographer Heidi Latsky, however, only occasionally picked up that conceptual gauntlet. Instead she tended to focus on confrontation rather than exploration, with the usual rather-tired subtext of "objectification." And actually, this was fine at first; it was well understood that for once, the attitude of the dancers was a central concern of the audience. But the choreographer stuck to an angry stance long after it had become tedious, because after all, we were there, at the show, and not in a mood to objectify the dancers but to sympathize and explore with them.

Still, Latsky deserves endless praise for going where no choreographer I know of has gone before, and once or twice she did take the dare she'd set herself and began to really use the capabilities these dancers had. Lawrence Carter-Long, for instance, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has a stricken gait that's innately theatrical; it's like watching willpower incarnate, and Latsky used it to wicked effect in a go-for-it promenade to the strains of the Bodyrockers' "I Like the Way You Move." And dancer Leslie Frye had some intriguing moments in which she calmly pondered, or perhaps came to terms with, the arm that "wasn't there," and limned a new standard of body image. But there were many, many more moments of repetitive thrash - the equivalent of choreographic filler.

Still, GIMP is certainly, if you'll pardon the terrible pun, a very big step in the right direction. The group seems to have no plans (or funding) for a larger tour, but that's what it needs, along with more choreographers, and more dancers, both 'able-bodied' and 'challenged,' with the time to develop a sense of ensemble. More aerial work is crying out to be developed. As Shakespeare's Coriolanus once said, "There is a world elsewhere!" and the dancers of the GIMP Project could serve as exciting guides to it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This economic cloud has a cultural silver lining (at least so far)

I don't mean to minimize the effects of the ongoing economic crisis on the local arts scene. Arts venues are struggling, or closing; the precarious situation of the North Shore Music Theatre means that a whole swath of American theatrical culture may soon have no major local presenter; everywhere, it seems, folks have hat in hand, hoping that donations will help to make ends meet.

But at the same time, strangely enough, the quality of the fine and performing arts in Boston has rarely been higher. The Ballet is enjoying perhaps their best season in memory (with their current Sleeping Beauty following the brilliant Jewels and Black and White); the MFA is showing the greatest collection of Old Masters it has ever assembled, in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese; Boston Lyric Opera is likewise capping its best season in years with a gorgeously sung Don Giovanni. It's true both our academic theatres, the Huntington and the ART, have taken a tumble since the departures of their respective leaders, Nicholas Martin and Robert Woodruff (and from the looks of their prospective seasons, that's not going to change any time soon). But there have been very good productions on offer from our small and mid-size theatres (and two, Humble Boy and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, are still running). Handel and Haydn has been going strong, and Celebrity Series recently wrapped an exciting round of concerts from most of the world's best pianists.

Why this strange disconnect between money and quality? I'm not sure. Some of these shows, such as the Old Masters exhibit at the MFA, are due to once-in-a-lifetime coincidences (word has it we got many of those canvases thanks to good will resulting from our return of various antiquities to Italy). Others are the result of organizations reaching a new cruising altitude during the boom. And of course the explosion in new performance spaces - you know, the one that was decried by Geoff Edgers at the Globe - continues to pay off even in lean times; physical facilities don't "dry up" the way money does. All this has helped keep our cultural scene afloat - so far. How long that remains viable, of course, remains an open question.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bringing back Beauty

Watching Boston Ballet's revival of The Sleeping Beauty (at left) on the Wang Theatre stage, it's immediately evident why Mikko Nissinen wanted to do this grand, traditional version once more before bidding the company's longtime home good-bye: it's just so damn big as well as beautiful. You get the feeling the soaring architectures of late designer David Walker's 17th-century sets may look cramped under the Opera House proscenium, and its stage might seem crammed with the armies of dancers he has costumed so opulently (see video below). So this may be your last opportunity to see Beauty in its full scope, with all the pageantry the Ballet can throw at it.

And it's worth adding that Beauty plays beautifully to the Ballet's great strength these days: its women. The female corps has been getting stronger and stronger of late, and Nissinen has steadily built a deep bench of leading ballerinas. You know, of course, the fairy tale on which the ballet is based: a charming princess, her thoughtless mother, an evil fairy, a good fairy who saves the day - it's practically a chick flick. The guys are basically arm candy - in fact, most of them are nameless "cavaliers." And alas, the legendary Petipa, on whose choreography this version is based (by way of Frederick Ashton), doesn't really give all his leading ladies separate, discernible personalities; their dances are based on technical ideas rather than characterizations. These cameos still charm, however, and require the cleanest technique to come off; luckily the fairy line-up on opening night included Megan Gray, Heather Myers, Melissa Hough, Misa Kuranaga and Kathleen Breen Combes, all of whom enchanted in different modes. Meanwhile Erica Cornejo was her usual flawless self as the benevolent Lilac Fairy, who manages at the last minute to ward off the worst curses of Carabosse (a nearly-unrecognizable Melanie Atkins) the spurned fairy who dreams up the old poisoned-spindle schtick.

The target of her wrath, Princess Aurora, was essayed on opening night by the peerless Larissa Ponomarenko, who can still carry off convincingly the quicksilver charm of a breathless young girl. True, Ponomarenko only just hung onto the role's signature piece of choreographic torture - a long freeze en pointe, back leg extended, while suitors spin her like a top; still, she did hang onto it, and elsewhere her dancing was always shimmeringly alive, yet etched with her customary gossamer precision. She remains one of the city's treasures; living in Boston and not having seen her dance is a bit like never having been to a Red Sox game. Her prince was Carlos Molina (both are in the photo above), who at first seemed slightly unsteady, but began to come into his own as the choreography subtly shifted from Petipa toward Ashton, who's known for his high leaps, pillowy landings, and purified lyricism. The Ashton style was probably best showcased by the famed "Bluebird" duet in the final, celebratory act (after Aurora has awoken). Here, newly-promoted dancers James Whiteside and Kathleen Breen Combes got to strut their stuff, and strut it they did; the choreography favored Whiteside in particular, who responded with some dazzlingly high jumps. Perhaps a kind of subconscious gauntlet had been thrown - dancers are nothing if not competitive - because upon their return, Ponomarenko and Molina were likewise on fire; but then disaster struck.

In his last solo, Molina launched powerfully into a series of high leaps with double-beats in mid-air. The beats became single, however, and then stopped; and then Molina ceased dancing altogether. There was an awkward, uncertain pause as he stepped apologetically toward the wings, made an embarrassed half-bow, and suddenly disappeared.

It turned out he had torn the plantar fascia tissue in his foot. (Ouch.) The audience, of course, couldn't know that at the time; but after only a moment Ponomarenko re-appeared, to complete her last solo, and take the arm of a new cavalier - Pavel Gurevich, calmly stepping into Molina's shoes without a moment's notice, as it were, for their final pas de deux. This included some frightening swan-like dives and catches for Ponomarenko, which I've no idea if she'd ever done with Gurevich before. She braved them with aplomb, however, and they came off beautifully - a tribute to both dancers, and of course the training and cross-casting that has become de rigeur at the Ballet.

Molina is now recuperating - although his injury is a serious reminder of how dangerous the physical extremes of ballet can be (and it seems choreographic demands are getting more intense all the time). Other casts and other dancers will dazzle in the remaining performances. But whether future revivals will have quite the grandeur of these last appearances at Citicenter remains an open question.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A classic version of a timeless classic

Zerlina heads to the chapel in BLO's Don Giovanni.

The most beautiful sound in town right now is probably being heard at Boston Lyric Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, which boasts one of the most superbly balanced vocal ensembles I've ever heard in this town. (And of course in what may be the greatest of Mozart's operas, ensemble is everything.) Somehow BLO has pulled together the kind of cast one would be lucky to hear at the Met (and indeed, many have sung there): Christopher Schaldenbrand's Don Giovanni, Matthew Burns's Leporello, Matthew Plenk's Don Ottavio, Heather Johnson's Zerlina, Kimwana Doner's Donna Elvira, and especially Susanna Phillips's Donna Anna would all be noteworthy on any stage, but to be honest, in Boston the constellation of six powerhouses in a single cast is all but unknown. That the staging, though not flawless, is nevertheless mature and perfectly poised in tone is simply the icing on the cake. The production is destined to become a local legend, and if I weren't already completely booked for the rest of its run, I'd be paying full price to see it again.

And it caps what has been a remarkable year for Boston Lyric Opera (and its first under new artistic leadership). The company has already produced, in Rusalka and Les contes d’Hoffmann, the two most spectacular fantasies seen on a Boston stage in some time. These productions were undermined, however, by some vocal unevenness; Hoffmann had two luminous sopranos but only an adequate tenor; Rusalka had the opposite problem: a dazzling tenor but a stiff soprano. Don Giovanni, by way of contrast, is less splashy in its sets (they've actually been re-purposed from a Glimmerglass Death in Venice - although they're hardly Venetian; they may actually work better for Giovanni). So it's clear that this time BLO has instead invested in pulling together the best vocalists it could find.

Of course it had to. Don Giovanni is famous for its multiple vocal lines - the close of the first act, for example, develops into a stunning sextet - which are not only ravishing but serve a powerful intellectual purpose: that sextet, for example, not only displays six different characterizations, but simultaneously limns six different, and conflicting, moral philosophies. It's at moments like this that Mozart, perhaps alone among opera composers, reaches, and perhaps in a way surpasses, the complexity and depth of Shakespeare (and yes, that's counting the composers who actually adapted Shakespeare). When these ensembles are sung as beautifully as they are here, they cast a mysteriously sublime spell; time stands still, or perhaps we stand transfixed before them. At any rate you feel that you could go on listening to their brilliant braid of grace and sympathy forever.

And you could listen to each of these singers individually for almost as long. Star Christopher Schaldenbrand (at left, with Kimwana Doner) has made a small career of the title role, and it's obvious why; for once, Mozart's bad-boy hunk is actually a blonde, bona-fide hunk, and he sounds as good as he looks (with his shirt on or off): the baritone of this "barihunk" has a rich, redolent flexibility, and Schaldenbrand deploys it with a consummately knowing precision. But while his vocal performance was always commanding, his acting performance grew somewhat frustrating; perhaps he's performed this role too often, for various "Don Giovannis" seemed to inhabit him at different times: by turns we saw a vain party boy, a manic obsessive-compulsive, and a cool-headed cynic. These are all in the role, of course, but they must somehow be integrated into an overall arc, not played one at a time like so many cards. And indeed, when it came time for the Don to face his fate and defy it - the moment that has led many intellectuals to view him as a kind of tragic anti-hero - Schaldenbrand decided to crack up rather than pull himself together in a final act of amoral will.

Then again, perhaps these dramatic gaps were more glaring because the rest of the ensemble was so persuasive in its acting as well as its singing. Matthew Burns brought both a resonant bass-baritone and a skillfully low-key comic spin to the role of Leporello, the Don's unhappy major domo, and delivered a sympathetic mix of rue and wit in the famous catalogue of his master's conquests (here played out via dozens upon dozens of "little black books"). Soprano Heather Johnson likewise made a glowingly sensual Zerlina, who slowly learned how to handle the jealous trigger of her hot-headed husband, Masetto (the fresh-faced Joseph Valone; both at right). As the avenging Donna Elvira, Kimwana Doner perhaps didn't quite have as much outraged hauteur as I would have liked, but somehow her cleanly poignant soprano made her deeper love for the Don actually convincing. With Matthew Plenk's Don Ottavio, there was a closer match in presence than acting technique - but his vocal chops were astounding; his light, high tenor at first didn't even hint at the clarion power which Plenk unleashed to stunning effect in "Il mio tesoro." Last but not least - indeed, perhaps first among equals - was the Donna Anna of Susanna Phillips (below left). The soprano has sung this role before (indeed, against Schaldenbrand), and one hopes she makes it a staple of her career. In dramatic terms, Phillips has just the right emotional radiance for the wounded Donna Anna, but there is also a bloom to her voice that would be ravishingly expressive in any role. On a stage crammed with talent, she nevertheless stole the show, although she still blended beautifully into those exquisite ensembles, which were directed with superb control by conductor Anthony Barrese.

Given all these vocal and dramatic riches, the occasional flaws in the staging where easily forgivable - yet they were still there. The "updating" to 1950's Italy - or perhaps even Sicily - actually worked perfectly well, in that the piece's sexual politics still made sense; and the production opened with the kind of enchanting stage gambit that BLO is becoming known for (a shimmering snowfall, which returned to ironic effect in the final scene - in this Don Giovanni, Hell was a deep freeze). The set, though simple, had an austere grandeur about it, and was lit ingeniously by Robert Wierzel. And director Tazewell Thompson managed well the unique balance between the comic and the tragic that suffuses the opera, and has tripped up many a production. His technique for dealing with those long sextets and quartets, however, was a kind of abstracted movement style that was sometimes quite successful, but at other times stiffened into long tableaux. And alas, he opted to have the ghost of the murdered Commendatore appear to dine with Don Giovanni (then drag him to his doom), rather than his statue, as originally scripted. And perhaps more irritatingly, bass Ulysses Thomas was amplified in the role, when he didn't need to be. Still, while these missteps were sometimes distracting, the production was always able to overcome them.

But BLO still faces an obstacle it may never overcome: Globe critic Jeremy Eichler. Reading his condescending, good-but-not-great review, I'm in disbelief and somewhat irritated, both for the BLO and the potential patrons who might miss this production. It is, of course, simply assumed these days that Eichler's "in the tank," as they say, for the BSO and Opera Boston. But has Eichler by now actually drowned in said tank? Can't he ever come up for air? (Of course he knows well enough not to actually pan the competition; instead he damns it with faint praise. That doesn't make his M.O. any less dishonest.) Boston Lyric Opera, it's true, operates outside Boston's inner circles, and it's hardly hip; it's suburban, and markets its operas in an admittedly middle-brow manner. That doesn't mean its achievements aren't real, or should be given mere lip service. I often feel that I'm in the same position with BLO that I was five years ago, when I first began raving about Boston Ballet. It's different now, I kept saying, they're great. But the powers-that-be hadn't woken up yet, and my friends would simply nod their heads indulgently, with that look of "Oh, Tom, you always get so carried away!" Of course now everybody agrees with me about the Ballet; they seem to have forgotten it took years to convince them. And five years from now, everyone (except Eichler) will probably agree with me about BLO. Actually, once his overlords at the Globe are gone, he may agree with me, too.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stoppard goes pop!

The talented cast of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Tom Stoppard may be our most fawned-over playwright. Or at least it seems that way in Boston these days. For fast on the heels of Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy (still running, in a sharp production from the Publick Theater) comes Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, essentially a pop version of Stoppard's Travesties, at the New Rep through May 10. Travesties, as you may recall, punctured modernism by positing an imaginary encounter between Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara (the founder of Dada). Martin's Picasso, however, is hardly so pointed, nor so pointy-headed. The SNL star has dumbed down his cast list to the awareness level of his SNL fans: he slams together Picasso, Einstein, and (wait for it) Elvis in a tiny Paris bar in 1904. Because, as you must agree, all three of those dudes were totally awesome and like defined the twentieth century.

Luckily, Martin's not as dumb as he takes his audience to be - there are plenty of laughs in Picasso, some of them quite clever, and the whole effort has a goofy likeability about it, even if Martin demonstrates, in his big debut as a playwright, that he is, instead, a master of the sketch. (Only this time a very long, extended sketch.) Picasso keeps stopping and starting over, and finds time for lengthy gags and sequences that pay off in only a single punchline. But you don't much mind (at least until Elvis shows up) because Martin does toss off a good number of funny wisecracks, and every now and then the show stops dead for a stretch of top-drawer dramatic writing (as in the barista's deadpan put-down of Picasso, here just about perfectly put over by the reliable Marianna Bassham).

To be fair, there is an actual idea or two kicking around in this show. But then again, to be honest, Martin doesn't really honor them, and most of them are pretty silly anyway. His best gambit is the introduction of "Schmendiman" (Dennis Trainor), a blowhard who imagines he's changed history (but of course has done anything but, except in one hilarious, minor way). Ridiculous as he is, Schmendiman's self-confidence does tease us into wondering what precisely makes some ideas last, while others don't - and how, at the time, anyone can tell the difference between the two. But the reverse logic of Martin's answer to this question - that somehow the great ideas are being transmitted back from the future - is just dopey, and an obvious sop to the audience. And he plays fast and loose with much of his historical material - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, for example, shows up three years early (before eventually sinking on the Titanic, as I recall!) and Einstein often chats up the General Theory of Relativity, when he was working on the Special Theory at the time.

Neil A. Casey and Scott Sweatt go at it as Marianna Bassham looks on.

Okay, obviously Picasso at the Lapin Agile is designed for people who know a lot more about Elvis than they do about those wild and ka-razy guys, Picasso and Einstein. But I'll give Martin this much - there's a small dramatic spine to his long-form sketch that director Daniel Gidron doesn't quite do justice. Martin hints at the ghost of a dramatic arc in the light conflict between Einstein's quiet, eccentric confidence (he's as yet unknown) and Picasso's insecure, ego-centric celebrity (he's just becoming known) that the New Rep cast doesn't really pick up on. Instead, they concentrate on delivering the jokes - which they do, to near-perfection. Gidron demonstrated his skill at the mechanics of farce in last fall's November at the Lyric (which was mysteriously ignored come award-time), and Picasso proves that he hasn't lost his agile touch: each giggle, chuckle and laugh lands precisely where it's supposed to.

Of course no farce can crackle without the kind of crack cast found here. Besides Bassham (who's in fine form throughout), there are nicely-scaled supporting turns from Paul Farwell and Owen Doyle, as well as a hammily charismatic one from Scott Severance as Picasso's actual art dealer, Sagot (who has somehow gotten his hands on a tiny version of Matisse's Luxe, Calme e Volupté) and a wittily sultry one from Stacy Fisher as Picasso's latest conquest. Neil A. Casey brings his usual bright comic flair to Einstein (although as I said, I longed for a bit more quietly eccentric assurance). Meanwhile, as Picasso, Scott Sweatt doesn't have the technical maturity of many in the cast, but holds his own through high energy and constant comic attack. And as Elvis, Christopher James Webb is good enough to almost make you forgive Martin for this last, dumb gambit. Cristina Tedesco's set design is certainly functional, but could be a tad dingier, methinks, but I have to throw a bouquet to costume designer France Nelson McSherry, who in her dress designs for Fisher gives a witty nod to Picasso's rose period, even if Martin skips it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The torture memos in song

For more information on the effort to impeach federal judge Jay Bybee, author of the infamous torture memo which provided many of the lyrics above, go here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Debra Cash replies . . .

I received the following e-mail from Debra Cash (at left), in response to my "The future will not be monetized" posting of two days ago:

Hi Tom, Debra Cash here.

Although I appreciate the neologism “criticist” for a role that does, indeed, cross boundaries between traditional criticism and promotion, when I do program notes and preconcert talks for World Music/CRASHarts, Jacob's Pillow or, this coming summer, Bates College where I'll be a scholar in residence (teaching a class in addition to my presentation duties) I do not think I'm acting as a critic. And nor do my employers.

I am acting as a contextualizer (another neologism, perhaps). My work is akin to those one-phone-call previews I often wrote for the Boston Globe. My goal is to create comfort and awareness of aspects of the work that are especially worth paying attention to, and some sense of where the work came from, historically and aesthetically. This is no different than “wall labels” put up in museums. You can’t tell me that museum visitors believe those labels are completely dispassionate; they are clearly a product of the institution. But that doesn’t make them illegitimate. And of course, those who want their experience unfiltered by such scholarly or marketing "cues" can avoid them.

I love doing this kind of work. Audiences seem to relish the opportunity to hear this information and ask questions afterwards. Hey, I like to hear such lectures. I go to the BSO to hear scholarly lectures about artists like, say, Sibelius, who are hardly new to most concertgoers but about whom I can still pick up some illuminating information.

I still do write criticism per se, including for the Phoenix, Ballet Review and, a site in Jerusalem, (see where my own strong, and often oppositional, opinions are made clear.

It's all about wearing more than one hat, and when have most of the people committed to contributing their talents to the arts community been allowed to wear only one?

My reply to Ms. Cash is as follows:

First, Debra, let me say I've always been an admirer of your writing; I think you know that. After all, as I'm sure you recall, I once invited you to post on The Hub Review (an offer I can't recall making to anyone else, offhand). You declined, as I remember it, because I couldn't offer any pay.

And the problem I was discussing is right there. You were trying "very hard" to be paid for your work, you wrote - which I completely understand! - and that apparently meant becoming, if you'll pardon my neologism once again, a "criticist" (or, as you prefer, a "contextualizer"). I'm sure that role can be rewarding; I'm sure people learn a great deal about dance from you and enjoy hearing what you have to say. And I'm sorry if I gave the impression in my earlier post that I felt you were intentionally pretending to be something you're not on your blog. I can see how you could have read it that way, but that wasn't my intent.

My real point was the one you make yourself: your new role is not that of a critic. It's true you still write outside your World Music/Crash Arts blog, in the forums you cite - but I wonder, are you able there to discuss critically the dance work that you're also blogging about? Perhaps, but somehow I doubt it. And indeed, the greater success World Music/Crash Arts has, it seems the more acts it will be managing and promoting, and so the fewer dance groups you'll be able to write about with "strong, oppositional opinions." Isn't that correct? It seems to me it has to be. And of course criticism is bound up in comparison; it's not merely self-contained analysis.

So in the end I question whether you can be a "criticist" for certain dance troupes, and then truly assume the role of an unfettered critic somewhere else. You can write critically elsewhere within constraints, it's true, and that can be valuable. But it's important to remember those constraints are always there. And as your situation is replicated all over the Web, similar constraints will form their own web across and around the criticism available to the public. To me, that remains troubling, and slightly more troubling than the more common problem (which I've had to deal with myself) of being a sometime practitioner of an art as well as one of its critics. Because I worked at one time with a particular theatre company, for instance, which led to a very public falling-out with its artistic director, I feel I can't really review his work; negative reviews could always be construed as personally biased (and indeed they might be!). That puts a limit on my own criticism. Not a tight or important limit, I think. But still one that should be owned up to, and considered thoughtfully (and of course disclosed in any future reviews, if they should ever occur). The difference, of course, is that I wasn't paid by that group, nor am I involved in promoting a growing roster of theater companies.

And then there's the larger, admittedly "softer," question, of just how criticism begins to be seen in the public mind. I have to say I notice again and again a wide-spread acceptance of commercial speech as "free speech." Indeed, an insistence on a conceptual separation between the two is often met with an irritated response, as if such a confusion could only be made by the naïve (which of course begs the question, why not make it anyway?). And as publicity becomes more sophisticated, and becomes penned by critics as talented as you are, I worry about it slowly encroaching on whatever territory is left to actual "criticism." Indeed, the replacement of critics by "criticists" seems to me a possibility - at least when it comes to paying gigs. And the paying gigs, promoted by producers, and even perhaps by other bloggers hoping to land a paying gig themselves, could someday begin to crowd out the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lost in the stars

Richard McElvain and Robert Najarian in The Life of Galileo.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope at the heavens, and so jump-started the science of astronomy. As well as a series of discoveries which would set him on a collision course with the Catholic Church.

And to celebrate, we've been producing some really bad plays about him.

To be fair, we've also built some fabulous sets. The designer of the Huntington's recent Two Men of Florence (Francis O'Connor) actually managed to conjure both the spinning globe and a voyage through the stars. The Underground Railway Theater's new production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo can't top that, but offers up its own sense of spectacle via two stunning wall paintings designed by the talented David Fichter (the real 'street artist' who does all those vibrant Cambridge-block-party murals). These dazzlingly detailed images, which I imagine are the handiwork of many dedicated volunteers, depict chunks of Renaissance Italy - and MIT! - in orbit around Jupiter (see photo at end of post), and are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves.

But then again, it won't take you three full hours to appreciate them, which is how long it takes Brecht to work his way through his lumpy, meandering dialectic about the great "natural philosopher." And don't imagine I'm talking about a showdown between science and faith; no, Brecht's got a debate about science itself on his mind (he revised Galileo right after the explosion of the atom bomb to put a whole new perspective on everything).

Now if you think it's a dramatic mistake to foist a critique of the scientific method on the guy who fought the minions of the Church in its defense - well, you're absolutely right! The dramatic action of Galileo's life all works in one dialectical mode - the familiar fight between "faith" (but actually, religious hierarchy) and science; but Brecht simultaneously tries to lard in a second debate between science and, well, historical events that wouldn't happen for another three hundred years. And as a result, we don't find the playwright convincing for a minute, and indeed often find him slightly offensive. It's ridiculous to pretend, for instance, that Galileo was a "moral dwarf," (which is how Brecht would like to pretend he saw himself), because there's an obvious logical problem in the "hook" Brecht hangs his thesis on (Galileo's sad, but completely understandable, recantation when faced with torture - uh, this connects to J. Robert Oppenheimer in what way, exactly?). To be fair, Brecht has a character immediately console Galileo with something along the lines of, "I'm not so sure about that, big guy" (duh), but this only leaves us feeling that the playwright wants to have his dialectic and eat it, too.

Io, one of the moons observed by Galileo 400 years ago, crosses Jupiter in a recent photo from the Cassini spacecraft.

At any rate, even if The Life of Galileo offered some honest intellectual fireworks, these would hardly distract us from Brecht's customarily clumsy dramaturgy, which slows to a crawl whenever it senses a contradictory viewpoint within spitting distance. (Indeed, in retrospect, Richard Goodwin's Two Men of Florence, or at least its scenes of discovery, suddenly looks pretty good.) I've only seen this play once before, in a production almost as bad as this one, so my sympathies are with the actors at Underground Railway (and I have to say the new, somewhat-streamlined David Hare translation doesn't really do them any favors). Still, only a few of them manage to transcend the text - and a blandly bitter Richard McElvain, as the title figure, I'm afraid isn't one of them. There is stronger work on view from Lewis Wheeler, Steven Barkhimer, and particularly Vincent Earnest Siders, who bristles with malice as good old Pope Urban. But everyone is tripped up - sometimes literally - by their costumes, which generally mix Renaissance tops with modern bottoms; I suppose to underline that the conflicts in the play "still resonate today" with a very big conceptual marker. And alas, director David Wheeler likewise wields the same not-so-magic marker with a rather heavy hand in the final scenes.

The production only really comes to life in a funky papier-mâché puppet piece that seems to have wandered in from Glover, Vermont. Suddenly the performance ditches its chilly wanna-be dialectic and just wallows in Cambridge-style propaganda - which at least is warm and human and fun. And I'll take that over bad Brecht any day.

David Fichter and an assistant paint the gigantic murals for Galileo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The future will not be monetized

I had a little epiphany last week - when chatting with the staff of ArtsBoston about their new site - that I think is worth contemplating a bit further online.

The leader of the discussion, an ArtsBoston staffer, was talking up the new features of the site to a room full of bloggers. He was still in the early, butter-up-the-crowd phase of his presentation when he let drop, off-handedly, the comment that he knew everyone in the room was "looking for a way to monetize."

To which I responded, without really thinking, "I'm not."

Everyone stared at me in surprise, as I gazed back with something like the same look in my eyes.

The discussion leader chuckled slightly in disbelief. "You mean you're not looking to make money off your site?" he smiled with that ironic, you-must-be-joking edge beneath the smooth surface of his voice.

"No. I'm not," I replied. "That's not going to happen. There's no way to do it."

He laughed a bit more loudly this time. "Okay, Tom," he said in that we-know-you're-crazy tone that I've heard so often (usually before eventually being proven right). "Maybe you're not, but everybody else is."

And as I looked around at everyone else's faces, I realized he was right. And that's what is really crazy. Because, my friends, the future of local blogging will not be monetized. How could anyone think otherwise?

After all, we can see by now, with the Internet going full swing for over a decade, just exactly what it does to economic and social models. Back in its early days, when adolescent rhetoric was the lingua franca of the faithful, people simply assumed the Internet would be economically empowering, that it would somehow usher in an economic utopia. Several stock crashes and a zillion bankruptcies later, with libertarianism in ruins and capitalism on the brink - and with Web 2.0 enterprises like Facebook still unable to make a dime - we should know in our bones that's not the case.

In fact, people are finally beginning to come to terms with the way in which the Internet actually destroys value rather than creates it. Indeed, the web may be the most efficient wealth-destruction machine ever devised. This was always the flip side of its immense efficiencies; the Internet made economic processes far less expensive, true, and cut out middlemen hither, thither and yon; but it also undercut the physical framework that made "value" possible. Indeed, the value of just about anything that wasn't actually nailed down, like real estate, was quickly affected by the web. Locale, connections, knowledge - much of what made wealth possible at the individual level was attacked or simply replaced by the ever-rising tide of digital connectivity.

Ironically enough, as the web grew, popular culture responded to it by declaring it a democratizing, even diversifying, influence - when obviously it was instead an agent of intense centralization. In fact entire industries quickly collapsed into a handful of Internet companies like Amazon or Expedia. And while a bazillion blogs have been launched over the past few years, everybody only actually reads about six. And even those we won't pay for.

Indeed, perhaps the web was most insidious in its effect on what used to be called "culture," but which is more and more referred to as "content" (as in, the product that is both delivered and determined by its technology). For content is entirely portable, and easily copied, or re-copied, and distributed; the idea that it has economic value beyond its mode of delivery is in fact highly debatable. Hence industries dependent on content soon were de-stabilized by the web - first the popular music industry, and now the newspaper and publishing industries (and soon the film industry).

So I ask myself, in this environment, how could the content of my blog have economic value? How could it be sold? It's true a handful of bloggers, like Perez Hilton or DailyKos, have rocketed to some level of economic success. But they have done so by generating national audiences, and, perhaps more importantly, by intertwining themselves with existing real-world power structures or publicity machines. To be blunt, their value is not created by the Internet, but by their connections to the Beltway, or MoveOn, or Entertainment Tonight.

There's not really much hope of that happening with a local blog, because there's no such large-scale audience available. There simply is no business model that can conjure fifty million people interested in Boston culture. And the smaller publicity machines that could help sustain a blog with a local audience are themselves under assault from the web (which will eventually de-stabilize "Entertainment Tonight," too).

Indeed, the problem is so acute in the pop music industry that many musicians - even successful ones - are now seeking donations simply to record albums and generate new material. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, but it's clearly a logical development - and indeed, it's merely a reworking of the model by which theatre has learned to survive. In a word, when its economic model is broken, an art form must depend on patronage. And it seems to me this is just one more harbinger of what's to come for the culture in general. In a word, in the not-too-distant future, all content will become more and more a function of patronage. Donations will be required to write songs, make movies, write books, and, of course, write criticism. Because all the economic structures that supported the "price" of content will have been kicked away.

So how could I expect criticism to operate in any other way? A few critics, such as Debra Cash, have begun to create niches for themselves as "criticists" - a kind of amalgam of publicist and critic - by running critical blogs and discussion programs for particular producers. (And the full reviews that appear on the Arts Boston site, btw, will be posted by producing members. More on that later.) This is obviously a form of patronage (it's basically patronage-by-producer), but to my mind, it's potentially dangerous. I can imagine that art could still be produced free of constraint from its donors (to some extent). But can criticism exist that way? I'm not sure. Or at least I've never heard of an example of a donor/producer who simply wrote a critic a blank check and let him write whatever he wanted to. Of course I'm always open to such an arrangement from someone who's not a producer! But I don't expect it to ever come to pass. No, in the meantime I expect to carry on as my own patron. And I certainly never expect The Hub Review to make me any money.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Forced perspective

The cast of Miracle at Naples cavorts on another wonderful set from Alexander Dodge.

You can all stop calling and e-mailing; I'm well aware that Hell has frozen over.

Yes, Louise Kennedy has written a brilliant review of The Miracle at Naples (at the Huntington through May 9). (And for once Jenna Scherer has completely blown it.) In fact, Louise is worth quoting at length:

["The Miracle at Naples"] is intended not to delight but to instruct, not to embrace its audience but to stand apart from it - and just a little above. Its spirit, for all the four-letter words and sex talk, is fundamentally didactic, not comedic. "Look how funny this all is - and think how silly the world is not to be this free-spirited, this frank, this fresh." It is, above all, highly self-conscious from start to finish, and that more than anything distances it from the essential spirit of the form it pretends to adapt to modern mores.

Wow. I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I've just deleted the opening paragraph of my first draft. But I'll dare to carry on where Louise left off, with the lines:

It's odd to sit through two hours of profanity-larded, crotch-grabbing, bosom-heaving comedy and come away feeling as if you've been read a sermon. But it's even odder not to know just what the preacher meant to say.

Oh, but it's only too obvious what the preacher meant to say. Yes, playwright David Grimm and director Peter DuBois are dictating directly from (wait for it): THE HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA.

And personally, I blame Obama.

Okay, just kidding. But somebody is to blame, that's for sure. How have we come to this strange pass, when rather than producing the actual great work of our day, university theatres are "developing" second-rate stage fodder that openly promulgates campus politics and "critical thinking"? Actually, scratch that - I know how we've come to this strange pass. It's obvious in retrospect that academic theatre would, inevitably, serve the academy itself rather than the culture at large (note that the author of The Miracle at Naples is a lecturer at Columbia and Yale). And just as the academy has begun to sell itself by turning its attention to pop, so have the Huntington and the ART. Of course it's pop "with a difference" - i.e., a knowing, postmodern condescension that approximates the tone of The Simpsons. And, needless to say, a lefty political bent.

Of course I know I'll face howls of execration from my gay brothers and sisters for turning up my nose at the empowering faggotry of The Miracle at Naples (the show's big "twist" is its interpolation of gay love into the usual antics of commedia). And certainly its fine bromance between two hot Renaissance dudes is sweetly intended and has its genuinely funny moments (and I've already got kind of a thing for hunky Gregory Wooddell, above; woof!) But honestly, if you need support for your sexual identity from the Huntington Theatre, then it's time for some therapy. And to get even a little honester, if The Miracle at Naples were a true piece of commedia dell'arte (as advertised), and if it truly empowered gays, then boy-love would take the same knocks onstage that everything and everybody else does.

But it doesn't. Instead, it gets special P.C. treatment; only its denial is considered worthy of satire. Indeed, all things anal are put forth as just ducky; a virgin even happily takes two dudes up her bum with no problem (and people think Shakespeare is improbable??). Meanwhile, heterosexual love is painted as sadly self-deluding, and ultimately dangerous. (Not that that isn't true; it's more the lack of balance that bothers me.)

And even if we ignore the show's dumbed-down politics, on purely textual terms it's kind of disappointing. After a few workshops and "intense work" with Peter DuBois, playwright David Grimm has managed a smoothly paced (if slightly predictable) plot, with a cute punchline - but he's only come up with enough actual wit for about half a play. The show has a couple of great lines - my favorite was "Who do I have to fuck in this town to fall in love?" (A paraphrase, but a close one.) But there's a whole lot more Z-grade Mel-Brooks-style filler, like "Is that your face or your asshole?" (Again, a paraphrase, but a close one.) Frankly, next to this, even the weakest scene in The Superheroine Monologues plays like Oscar Wilde.

Yet incredibly, the audience generally laughs along - or at least chuckles - thanks to the efforts of a top-notch New York cast, who could probably sell ice cubes to Eskimos. This troupe doesn't really have a weak link, but when I could tear my eyes off of Wooddell's bright-eyed goofball, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Alma Cuervo and Dick Latessa, two old pros who made beautifully nuanced music together, and Alfredo Narciso, who poured out far more passion here than he managed in the ART's Britannicus two years ago. Barely a step behind this talented trio, however, were the ripely gorgeous Christina Pumariega, the spunky Lucy DeVito, and the mournfully wily Pedro Pascal (with Pumariega and Wooddell, at left). And the Huntington did the show up right, as always: Anita Yavich's costumes were gorgeously appropriate, and Alexander Dodge contributed a fantastic forced-perspective set (see top). If only the political and artistic perspectives of the play hadn't been equally forced.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dancing in the dark

Excerpt from "Shutters Shut" by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León.

Reviewers have been tough on the current tour of Nederlands Dans Theater II, but you should ignore them, and try to scarf tickets to the remaining Celebrity Series performance tonight at BU - if you can, that is; they're probably sold out (they were last night).

It's true, however, that the crowd had clearly come to see the dancers rather than the dances. Nederlands Dans Theater II is essentially the "feeder" company for its namesake global powerhouse (which tours far less often); and its dancers, aged only 17(!)-22, are as fresh-faced as they are elastically talented.

There's also some truth in the charge that their choreographers - particularly Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (a.k.a. "Lightfoot León") - tend to exploit that youthful prowess rather than allow it to develop. The house style of Nederlands Dans Theater is an exciting amalgam of classical strictness, modern freedom, and street-wise moves - call it "break ballet," if you will - and these youngsters perform it better than anyone I've ever seen (the Kylián touch has crept into the repertory of just about every ballet company in the world, including Boston's). But said signature easily devolves into micro-management of the dancer, and sometimes a series of ever-tinier swivels and pops and breaks turned these performers into puppets. In the works of "Lightfoot León" in particular, they never got a break from the breaks - there were no long phrases, and thus little for them to interpret, and very few opportunities to connect with each other.

To be fair to "Lightfoot León," however, they exploited their control fetish expertly in one piece, "Shutters Shut," (above) set to Gertrude Stein's ""If I told him: A completed portrait of Picasso." The choreographers' micro-beats mimicked perfectly Stein's iterative vocal rhythms (the nearly-nonsense verse was wryly read by the poet herself), while their usual atmosphere of alienated posture wittily matched something in the writer's po-faced deflation of grandeur. And dancers Jin Young Won and Anton Valdbauer performed the piece with a charming combination of grotesque grace and deadpan precision. Rarely has Stein seemed so transparent, or so amusing.

Alas, the two longer pieces by Lightfoot and León, "Said and Done" and "Sad Case," weren't as compelling. "Said and Done" proved pretentious and overblown, with its lone dancer standing in pain in a shower of black feathers, and "Sad Case," though almost bursting with energy, began to feel a bit reductive. "Case" at least had a poignantly perverse vibe - set to a bouncing Latin score, it seemed to be seeking the pain hidden within its own rambunctiousness; but alas, sometimes its contorted dancers seemed almost simian, and its many variations never built into anything cohesive.

Excerpts from Jiří Kylián's "Sleepless."

Jiří Kylián, the guiding light of this whole enterprise, had only one dance on the program, "Sleepless" (see above), but it was by far the most ambitious of the evening. It opened with a single female dancer (the fascinating Carolina Mancuso) creeping toward a pale, undulating wall, then, like Alice, vanishing into it. Other dancers soon popped out of it, however, and the piece (set to a percussive re-imagining of Mozart's Adagio in C-minor, for glass harmonica) quickly developed into a strange rumination on movement as a kind of perceptual dream, which was always bounded by that weirdly resonant wall. (It was interesting to compare "Sleepless" to "Walking Mad," by Johan Inger, which Hubbard Street Dance brought to town this season, and which depended on a very similar type of prop.) Kylián also afforded his dancers a bit of space in which to shine, via a suite of duets at the work's center. Here Mancuso shone again, sensitively partnered by Anton Valdbauer, although there was also clean, crisp work from Maud de la Purification and Roger Van der Poel. I hope we see this troupe again soon, but perhaps more in the hands of Kylián than "Lightfoot León."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

To bee or not to bee

Tom O'Keefe and Nancy Carroll in Humble Boy.

It's surprising how quickly artistic winds can change direction. A few weeks ago, I was wondering when, if ever, I was going to see my first hit of the theatrical season. And now I've just seen three in a row - Superheroine Monologues, Picnic, and now Humble Boy at the BCA (presented by the Publick Theater through May 2). None of these productions is perfect, mind you, but all match worthy plays with worthy performances, and each could serve as a fresh and stimulating evening out.

Of the three, Humble Boy is probably the subtlest and most complex in both text and production. Its author, Charlotte Jones, still counts as a newcomer on these shores, and so the show also has an atmosphere of discovery about it. Or maybe re-discovery is the word, since Jones clearly channels Tom Stoppard, and after the woozy metaphysics of Rock'n'Roll, it's good to see that somebody, at least, can do the old boy better than he can do himself these days.

Although it must be noted that Jones doesn't quite make the final leap into her own individual voice that's ultimately required of any playwright. She instead evinces a thorough command of Stoppard's method: a pastiche of classic literary source (in this case Hamlet) with unrelated academic discipline (in this case string theory) in an agreeably witty post-modern setting (in this case, a dysfunctional family coming to terms with the death of its bee-keeping patriarch). Jones's cleverness is reason enough to settle back with pleasure into the dialogue, but for a while she hints, via hairpin turns in perspective and tone, that she has some genuinely original synthesis of this material buzzing under her bonnet. This, alas, proves not to be the case; the author may seem for a time to be cross-pollinating Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn, but eventually her play does at least one too many about-faces before reaching a slightly unconvincing conclusion. Still, by then we've been tickled by so much literate wit and invention that we're in a pretty forgiving mood.

Of course said mood is largely due to the fact that director Diego Arciniegas neatly negotiates every twist and turn of this strange comi-tragedy (or tragicomedy). And has an ensemble that can keep pace with the playwright. Which takes a fair amount of skill, given that Jones is trying to cram Hamlet into something like a British sex-farce corset. Bumbling astrophysicist Felix (Tom O'Keefe) having returned home for his father's funeral, discovers that his fashion-plate mum, Flora (Stephanie Clayman) has set all of dad's bees loose, and what's more, has been carrying on with the boor next door (Nigel Gore), whom she plans to marry. Shades of Gertrude and Claudius! There's even an Ophelia wandering in this unweeded garden (designed in impressive detail by Dahlia Al-Habieli) in the person of Felix's ex, Rosie (Claire Warden) - although Laertes, Polonius, and the rest of the gang have been replaced by a single, sadly dithering neighbor, Mercy (Nancy Carroll).

Note those names - Flora, Felix (i.e., "Happy"), Mercy; you can tell right away you're in a Play of Ideas. Said ideas include the potential of bee-society as a model of utopia (a British variant of "bumblebee" is "humblebee;" hence Humble Boy); the potential of string theory to reveal a "unified theory of everything"; and, of course, the potential meaning of said "everything." Oh, and sex. Did I mention sex?

Because there's quite a bit of suburban, Ayckbourn-ian ribaldry in Humble Boy, along with some semi-shocking gags around poor Dad's ashes, all of which merely goose along a slow stream of revelations about our hero and his past life. I can't really pretend that everyone's behavior makes sense once all has been revealed, but minute-to-minute the cast generally keeps the characters' actions, however outlandish, believable. O'Keefe brings a befuddled pathos to Felix, who's so stressed his childhood stutter has returned, while Claire Warden brings a knockabout strength to Rosie that helps distract us from questions about her emotional history and choices (she's the least coherent of the lot). Better still are Nigel Gore and Nancy Carroll, who both have field days in their respective roles. Indeed, they're almost too likeable as a result; we feel for them more at the play's conclusion (which does them both a dirty trick) than we think the playwright intends. There's also some gently detailed work from Dafydd Rees as the gardener who's hiding his own secret (which turns out to be yet another parallel to Hamlet). The one slight gap in the cast I think is Stephanie Clayman, who makes a fiercely bumptious egotist of Flora, but somehow never does more than hint at the inner life, beneath her seemingly crass exterior, which could support the play's last reversal. But even without a perfect queen bee, or a perfect ending, Humble Boy still delivers many delicious tastes of intellectual honey.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A satisfying dramatic spread at Stoneham

Delilah Kistler and Aidan Kane decide to make their own Picnic.

Reputations, Edward Albee once opined, are curious things; and he should know, as his own nose-dived for something like two decades. But at least Albee saw a reversal in his critical fortunes; his great gay compatriot, Tennesse Williams, was not so lucky. Likewise the prestige of the closeted William Inge, a leading playwright when Albee first came to prominence, slipped during his later career and then posthumously slid into a seemingly permanent decline. But a few more productions like the Stoneham Theatre's revival of Picnic, which wraps its run this weekend, could begin to change that. It's true this rendering is far from perfect, but it's done well enough for us to perceive just how thoughtful and well-crafted this Pulitzer prize-winner actually is. And these days this feels like a small miracle - imagine, melodrama done with neither condescension nor camp!

Not that Inge doesn't sometimes invite both. Set in a dusty hamlet in Kansas, this anti-pastorale centers on that staple of the post-war stage: a handsome drifter who wanders into a gaggle of lonely, frustrated women. Paul Newman was its original shirtless hunk, and he faced a bevy of familiar female types: the spinster teacher, the prettiest girl in town, her tomboy kid sister, the tough broad who runs a boarding house, etc., etc. But the playwright has far more up his dramatic sleeve than a catfight between stereotypes. That hunky drifter is only one of a trio of not-so-eligible bachelors around whom Inge's women orbit like lonely moons, and from them he conjures a bittersweet roundelay of dreams, hopes and frustrations (he even closes his first act with a group dance), all grounded in a very grim economic reality.

It's that grimness that the Stoneham doesn't quite capture; the clapboard houses of its set are too Our-Town-wholesome, its costumes a little too clean and well-pressed. The yard should be slightly dustier, the very air a bit grittier; we're slightly shocked to realize that train tracks run right behind these facades, but we should have understood that all along: these women are almost on the wrong side of the tracks, hanging onto the bottom rung of gentility - and the men who drift by them are their only ticket up the socio-economic ladder.

In these days of female empowerment, of course, this all seems a bit dated; that doesn't make it any less real - or any less relevant to the exigencies of today. Women are still at an economic disadvantage, and many still make do with men they'd prefer to do without. Romantic risk and compromise, I'm afraid, are timeless topics. And it's that edge of realism that Inge evokes so subtly, and that in the end makes Picnic so haunting.

And some of this does come over at Stoneham, even if director Caitlin Lowans seems at times undecided whether to honor the play's melancholic edge or simply do it up as a period piece. She's also hamstrung by some of her male casting. For that pivotal Paul Newman role she's found a definite hottie in Aidan Kane, who sports dark good looks and a body to die for. But Kane is too sweet and playful to make much sense of his character's unstable past or rough ways; he's obviously all puppy and no predator, which drains the play of its edge and makes his antagonists look too paranoid. And then there's Ben Sloane as Kane's supposed opposite, the big man on campus who's maybe just a cad; Sloane is simply blank when he should seem calculating (although to be fair, he's convincingly shell-shocked at the finale).

These two therefore leave the lovely Delilah Kistler, in the leading role of Madge (who must decide between them), sometimes acting against thin air. Still, she manages to hit the right notes, if in a slightly subdued way. She gets solid back-up from Emily Graham-Handley as that tomboyish kid sister, although Graham-Handley could layer her coltish body language with a touch more unhappy adolescent pout (and she's not nearly working that dance scene for the first notes of innocent, embarrassed desire that should sound there).

Fortunately, the production finds its feet in the performances of Sarah Newhouse and Craig Mathers in the roles of the spinster schoolteacher and her milquetoast beau. I longed for a slightly stronger twist of bitters from Newhouse in her early scenes, but she and Mathers played their second-act duet of manipulation, uncertainty and longing just beautifully (above left); when they were on stage, Picnic felt like a theatrical feast. There were also tasty supporting performances from Lisa Foley and Dee Nelson as Madge's mom, although Nelson, like the rest of the show, should seem a bit more hardscrabble. (After all, she can see the cold choices facing her daughter far more clearly than the girl can herself.) Even as is, however, the production came together with satisfying emotional power in its climax, and its final surprise registered with just the right sense of rue. Here's hoping Picnic won't be the last we see in these parts of William Inge.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Flying high in spandex and heels

The "fierce" YouTube ad for Superheroine Monologues.

Sometimes it's nice not having to play the supervillain.

And I was nervous that might be the role I'd be forced into at the opening of The Superheroine Monologues (at Boston Playwrights' Theatre through April 26). My blogging buddy Art Hennessey and his wife Amanda were in it, and I'd worked at various times with one of its writers, Rick Park, and its director, Greg Maraio. I really wanted to like this show - but after its opening scene, when it seemed stuck at roughly the cruising altitude of the average Hasty Pudding theatrical, I was suddenly nervous that I was going to have to piss off a lot of people on Facebook.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Superheroines suddenly soars in its first proper monologue (thank God, it's even the one with Amanda, as Lois Lane) and stays giddily aloft, powered by both camp and genuine wit, pretty much till its conclusion. To be cruelly honest, the show does have issues: it's about fifteen minutes too long, and it needs more of an arc. But it also has a charming grrl-power vibe, a few clever edges, some of the grooviest costumes ever seen in the Hub, and a purrrr-fectly fetching and talented cast. The crowd left in a bemused buzz, and there was definitely a note of discovery in the air: a potential franchise had just been born,and we were there at the beginning. Wow, as my friend said, this must have been what it was like the night they rioted in Paris after "Shear Madness!"

Well, maybe - only I think The Superheroine Monologues is a little hipper, and definitely more fun, at least once it gets past its somewhat-klutzy introduction on Paradise Island, the girls-only crib of Wonder Woman (Shawna O’Brien), who's the first superheroine to deploy her powers beyond its estrogen-soaked shores (since the world needs saving from the Nazis, dontchaknow). And after all, she reasons, how bad can men be? Well, the poor thing finds out, and the sisters who follow in her footsteps continue to struggle with many of her dilemmas. The show trots briskly through the decades, showcasing a spandex-clad heroine in each, before returning to Wonder Woman in a bittersweet conclusion, in which she has turned into her mother (literally) and wonders whether or not it was all worth it.

Now don't worry, it was. But I do wish co-writers Park and John Kuntz had managed somehow to actually develop this question through their eight-odd monologues. I have the inside scoop that the scenes were divvied up between the two, and thus, perhaps inevitably, thematic threads and throughlines sometimes are lost or broken over the course of the evening (but no, I'm not going to speculate on who did what). To be fair, this dynamic writing duo has managed to keep a surprising number of, um, dramatic balls in the air: they stoke the comic nerds with enough trivia to stock Newbury Comix, flatter the gays with what amounts to an ongoing drag show (only with real women, and without the bitter edge of Ryan Landry), and still keep the Comedy Central crowd's ribs thoroughly tickled. Perhaps it's too much to also ask that the script actually build on its themes; but hopefully, as the show is tweaked and polished, a bit more structure will find its way under all that spandex.

It shouldn't be that hard to do; there's already a rough (but unfocused) history of the post-war feminine self-image lurking among all the pop artifacts and in-jokes. Batgirl's self-control (from the 70's) seems almost a corrective to Catwoman's hallucinogenic abandon (from the 60's, natch), for instance - only not quite. As it is, we're still treated to four tight little vignettes, and four mildly amusing ones. Lois Lane's is by far the best (and Amanda Hennessy, at left with real-life husband Art, turns it into a tartly no-nonsense tour de force), but Catwoman, Supergirl and Phoenix all have their moments, and are alluringly impersonated by Elizabeth Brunette, Jackie McCoy and Christine Power. Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Storm are stuck with more meandering material, but Shawna O'Brien, Melissa Baroni and Cheryl D. Singleton generally make the most of it. And a special shout-out has to go to the three guys - Art Hennessey, Jordan Harrison, and Terrence P. Haddad - who serve these women in a mind-blowing variety of roles and (hilarious) costumes. They always have the good-natured charm of straight guys at a gay tea party, but sometimes unleash an energy of their own that's super-wacky - Harrison's turn as the Invisible Girl and Hennessey's impersonation of She-Hulk immediately come to mind. And in the end, kudos must go to Greg Maraio, director, costume designer, and perhaps the production's true begetter. He's obviously lavished his love on the project, and it shines through every super-tacky drop and over-the-top prop. If the show does make the jump to multi-city franchise, he and his writers (and cast) will have richly deserved whatever rewards come their way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

H&H "at fever pitch"

We'll have to file this under "better late than never." It's been a full week since I heard Handel and Haydn's "Music at Fever Pitch," but much of the concert still lingers in my memory. It marked the Boston debut of Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni (at left), who exuded a hearty presence and drew a vibrant, driving sound from the orchestra.

The program was book-ended by the familiar - Handel's Concerto Grosso in G Minor (Op.6, No. 6) - and the utterly unknown (to me): Jean-Féry Rebel's Les Elémens; sandwiched between these was Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite and C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A, featuring cellist Phoebe Carrai. Zeitouni's program notes described his selections as based on "innovation," but as said innovations were of differing size and scope (Handel opens his concerto with a slow movement; meanwhile, Telemann experiments with early program music), it was fairly obvious that this was just a thin excuse to perform several interesting, but unrelated, pieces in a single concert.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The orchestra brought a gentle sweetness to the slow sections of the Handel, but didn't cut any particularly original profile with the piece. Things picked up, however, with Telemann's Don Quixote, a suite of musical evocations of famous moments from the Cervantes classic ("His Attack on the Windmills," etc.). These seemed to be played out of the order listed on the program, but consistently surprised with their imagery and lyrical energy. In particular the "awakening" of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance was appropriately ethereal, and the "gallopings" of both Rocinante and Sancho's mule were hilariously rhythmic.

Alas, a certain amount of air leaked out of the program with C.P.E. Bach's Cello Concerto, the frenzied first movement of which seemed a bit much for cellist Phoebe Carrai; she brought a touching mournfulness to the slow, singing central movement, however. The orchestra then regrouped for a truly thrilling performance of the Rebel, which opens like some kind of early-music Rite of Spring before settling into a series of dances; the piece feels like a baroque proto-ballet, with sets of instruments, like dancers, "representing" the various elements (meaning air, water, earth, and fire). The piece featured sparkling passagework from percussionist John Grimes on a full kitchen's worth of cymbals, tambourines, and chimes, and held the audience captivated throughout; it neatly wrapped the disparate program with a charming flourish.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Stepping into the many shoes of Bad Dates

Just a week or two into its run, the Merrimack Rep's production of Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates had its own date with bad luck: its star, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, was forced to withdraw following an injury, and suddenly this one-woman show didn't have its one woman. Fortunately for the Merrimack, however, actress Haviland Morris, who had recently done the show at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre (below, Morris in that production) agreed to step into at least one pair of the central character's 600 shoes, and will finish out the Lowell theatre's run (which wraps this weekend).

Not having seen Ms. Aspenlieder's performance, I can't make comparison between the two actresses, although it's hard to imagine a savvier or more stylish account of Bad Dates than the one delivered by Ms. Morris. The whirlwind at the center of Rebeck's popular comedy is one Haley Walker, self-made restaurateur and lonely divorced mom, the sort of woman who seems to have it all together on the surface, but behind closed doors turns out to be an ongoing car crash of conflicting emotions and impulses. We can tell as much from the clashing outfits she tries on as the evening progresses (the show's conceit is pressing the audience into the role of collective girlfriend listening to her chatter before a succession of, yes, disastrously bad dates). One moment Haley's elegant in Chanel; the next she looks like a hooker from the seventies. Clearly the woman has issues; her ongoing wardrobe crisis isn't so much a comment on her uncertainty about how to impress a guy as on her uncertainty about herself. The key to the show, of course, is to keep those issues bouncing along like a string of balloons on a breeze of engaging charm.

And charm us the beautifully breezy Ms. Morris certainly does. She expertly nails the lingering twang of Haley's Austin accent (I'm from Texas, I should know), and simply never misses a theatrical beat, even when shifting emotional gears while unzipping one skimpy frock and slipping on a new pair of pumps at the same time. More importantly, she gives the self-centered Haley a good-hearted sense of humor, and even chances a glance or two into the fearful, confused depths of her essentially lonely soul.

The only problem is that in the end said depths aren't all that deep, and neither is the play that frames them. Rebeck leans heavily on our sympathy with Haley's travails - the guy who complains about his colon, the guy who turns out to be gay - but goes light on the self-knowledge that we kind of expect from this type of picaresque journey. Particularly when said journey involves a brush with the law (Haley's done a little creative accounting at that restaurant of hers, even though it's owned by the Romanian mob!). Things turn out happily enough for our heroine - after all, this is a comedy - but we have to wonder if Haley deserves the twist of romantic zen that brings her good fortune, and whether she realizes just how lucky she's really been. And little of Rebeck's writing here qualifies as truly witty; indeed, many of her gambits - the 600 shoes, the gay date - are premises lifted from Sex and the City and its ilk. To be blunt, this vehicle is mostly a used set of wheels. Luckily for us and the Merrimack, the skillful Ms. Morris still takes it for quite a spin.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Discuss among yourselves

It's hard not to like Speech and Debate (at left), the new "gay play" at the Lyric, even though it's pitched by director Jeremy Johnson at something close to a scream. (Other critics have found the shouting match "irresistibly energizing." Whatever.) Stephen Karam's script doesn't exactly sparkle with originality, either; it's essentially a long-form gay episode of Freaks and Geeks.

Still, the show grows on you, largely because the performers, though vocally over the top, still connect at a gut level with their characters, and one another. And playwright Karam does have an insider's sense of how much a safe haven can mean to a gay teen, and conjures just such an emotional harbor in the Speech and Debate Club at the center of his script.

The comedy gets most of its kick, however, from the fact that each of the three misfits in this forensic clubhouse is there for a different reason. Passionate, talent-free Diwata (Rachael Hunt) is trying to turn it into a showcase for her Wicked-like, but not wicked-good, musical (based on The Crucible, no less); tightly-wound Solomon (Alex Wyse) hopes to use it as a platform to blow open a possible sex-abuse scandal; meanwhile lonely Howie (Chris Conner), the one with the dirt on the school's drama teacher, is always on the verge of just wanting out. It's a nice set-up, but I'm afraid at first the antics feel slightly forced, and hilarity refuses to ensue; still, eventually it shows its face here and there - particularly in Diwata's wacky showpiece with a too-gay Abe Lincoln. And at the same time, a back story unfolds behind Solomon (the poor kid is in between stints at an "ex-gay" camp) that gives a poignant pull to his desperate self-denial. By the time all hell breaks loose in the Big Competition, the actors have somehow found a touching camaraderie beneath the production's slightly strained surface.

Probably the standout of the able cast is Rachael Hunt, who throws herself with utter abandon into the role of Diwata, but lands every broad stroke with surprising emotional precision. Chris Conner likewise nails out-but-not-quite-proud Howie, particularly in his self-consciously coiled body language. Alex Wyse is perhaps the shrillest of the three, but still manages to touch us once Solomon's tortured home life is revealed. And the reliable Maureen Keiller may not find much that's individual in her first role as an exasperated teacher, but evinces an amusingly breezy poise in her second appearance as a local reporter. Like most everyone else in the adult world, she has no idea what's been going on behind the closed doors of Speech and Debate.