Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Daisey chain, Part I

You talkin' ta me? 'Cause I'm Mike Daisey, and I'm the only actor here!
[Correction! Let it be noted that Mike Daisey has made it clear that he IS NOT AN ACTOR. He just takes the place of one in regional theatres.]

A few weeks back the blogs were abuzz with the latest from performer/provocateur Mike Daisey (above, looking his usual meek self), who has been working up a bit of career synergy by arguing vociferously that "theatre has failed America" (which also happens, coincidentally enough, to be the title of his one of his one-man shows). Mr. Daisey even took it upon himself to thoroughly fisk some comments I made about his arguments on Art Hennessey's blog here - as is his wont, without notifying me or allowing the possibility of any response. [Correction! Let it be noted that Mike Daisey DID leave a comment on Art Hennessey's blog regarding his post, which should have been good enough for me, and if not, I should subscribe to Google alerts anyway, and btw, why the hell should Daisey allow comments on his blog, the way Art and everybody else does???]

So of course you know - to quote the great Bugs Bunny - this means war.

I've been dragging my feet on my reply, however, because I kept hoping I might be able to figure a way out of the economic problem Daisey has put his finger on. Because while my impression is that Daisey is an insecure lout, I agree with him that actors aren't paid enough, not nearly. (Although critics are paid even less - I do this for free, Mike.) And the fact that his cries for justice simultaneously operate as a means of self-promotion - for a show that, inevitably, takes paying jobs away from other actors - only means that he's a hypocrite, not that he's wrong.

But I didn't really think of a brilliant new solution to this dilemma - which is an old injustice in free enterprise, by the way, and one that so far has only been ameliorated by collective action. In a word, free markets don't reward the "value" of work, they reward leverage - the highest pay goes to the person with the most power over the product at hand. That power might result from one's position in the supply chain (at the top, or near the end of, the product's distribution is the place to be), or it might result from some special knowledge, or ability, or patent, that only a single person can bring to the table. But when it comes to the work that must be done, but that anyone can do - well, that work is not rewarded, however necessary and valuable it may be. It was only by banding together into unions that rank-and-file workers managed to gain some leverage over their employers. Individually, they were all replaceable - but as a block they were not replaceable. So that was one (partial) way around the leverage-vs.-value problem.

But you can see immediately the problem for actors. They're hardly "rank and file" workers - but in most cases they are, in fact, replaceable. Each actor's particular interpretation of a role is of course unique - but so are those of all the other actors, and the quality of a performance is always open to debate. A solitary actor can gain leverage by becoming famous, and so guaranteeing an audience. But that's the only hope for the individual actor. Thus was Actors' Equity born - and operated generally along the established rules of collective action.

The problem here is that theatre isn't really an industry that can easily accommodate collective action. Indeed, in pure capitalistic terms, theatre isn't a going concern at all - long ago, rents and "wage-price sickness" rendered it an economic invalid.

Why is this so? Because of other economic "laws." Rents for space and equipment (i.e., for theatres) rise with the general tide of a society's productivity. Indeed, many early economists predicted that rents would choke off economic growth - but luckily, improving technology has generally kept us one step ahead of the landlord; that is, via electronics and communications and plain old mechanical tools, we can usually produce a bit more economic output than landlords can grab from us.

Or at least most of us can. Actors, however, can't, because they can only play "live" to roughly the same number of people they played to a hundred years ago. This is one example of what is generally known as "wage-price sickness." Most people (at least until recently, due to globalization) benefitted from their increased technological productivity by receiving higher wages. But again, in the case of theatre, little added productivity can be gleaned from new technology, so the cost of theatre to the consumer must rise proportionately with the actors' paychecks. And because the price of theatre was already skyrocketing because of rising rents, this was very problematic - which meant the actor got squeezed.

Thus outside of major tourist destinations (which can rely on an influx of disposable cash from elsewhere), theatre became a charity case, dependent on donations, and wealthy Boards and their largesse. And clearly this undercuts the power of collective action. Because in a word, it's hard to call a strike against people you're begging for cash from. It is, instead, far easier to seduce them into coughing up bucks for assets they can see and touch, and which will reflect back upon their own glory (like theatres, which, btw, also ameliorate that problem of rising rent). The rich have always been this way, and always will be - they're always parting with ridiculous sums to enhance their own material profile, even while they nickel and dime the help.

So how to get around this roadblock on the path to true equity for actors? I'll ponder that problem (among others) in a follow-up post.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Things that make you go "Aargh"

The cast of Pirates! kicks back at the Huntington.

Pirates!, the new "plundering" of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, at the Huntington through June 14,will probably be remembered not for anything that occurred during the actual show, but rather something that went down after the curtain fell on opening night. Seemingly infuriated by Louise Kennedy's pan in the Globe, Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso called on the theatre's blog for patrons who enjoyed the production to vent their anger via her review's comments section at And many of them were happy to do so. Which may someday be seen as a watershed event in the slow destruction of the "authority" of the critic (it was certainly far more ground-breaking than anything seen onstage in Pirates!). For Maso's call-to-arms marks the first time a local theatre has publicly taken advantage of the Internet to "fight back" against a negative review in so direct (and insulting) a way. And somehow I doubt it will be the last. (I tangled with Maso on the Huntington's blog over the appropriateness of his actions here.)

Not that Maso actually disagreed with Kennedy on the specifics of her criticism. Indeed, his post seemed carefully phrased to avoid any actual rebuttal of her complaints. Which was probably wise, because Ms. Kennedy described the production quite accurately: this mash-up of pirates from both Penzance and the Caribbean does depend on "sitcom-level rewrites, broad yet toothless parody, and lots of tired pirate gags" as well as "gyrating pelvises, pounding drums, "political" jokes that don't actually have a political point, and onstage vomiting," just as she said. (You could add to that grim list puerile lyrics and interpolations of poorly-adapted music from the lesser G&S operetta Ruddigore.) In an apparent effort to sound fair-minded, Kennedy also faithfully reported that the opening night audience "hooted and hollered at every ribald joke and bawdy gesture," and even allowed that "This just isn't my idea of fun. Maybe it's yours."

But such feints weren't enough to hold back the Huntington's angry hordes - who have been calling for her head on a platter over at For these satisfied customers (who all claimed to have seen Pirates! with grandma, the kids and the family dog, who of course loved it) seemed to sense - at least after Maso insinuated as much - that criticism of Pirates! amounted to "breath-taking condescension." Kennedy had insisted that her dismay at the production's pseudo-raunchiness wasn't the result of her being a "prude" (when actually, I think she is, a bit), much less a "purist" - but the Huntington's audience took her as something else, and far worse in their minds: a snob.

Their indignation is a little hard to parse, however, because Pirates! is so clearly a vulgarization, albeit a harmless one, of its source. Its tween-movie vulgarity is central to its appeal, indeed is its appeal; there's really nothing else going on in the show in interpretive terms. Over and over again the Huntington (and director Gordon Greenberg) relentlessly pound a PG-13 sex-comedy template onto the material, the better to merge it with the Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean. Ruth in this version is no longer a dowager, for example (because that would be sexist!), but instead is a hot mama in high boots who's done the dirty deed with the whole crew. Frederick woos the Major-General's daughters by wagging his very-fine booty at them (they've already stripped to their bloomers, below), and soon after tosses his cookies, etc., etc. It's all stupid, but also stoo-pid, i.e., knowing and calculated and derivative.

Frederic (Anderson Davis) sees England, France, and these maidens' underpants.

And yes, the audience eats it up. But how is it possible to laugh at these gags recycled from the multiplex, and then evince outrage when someone points out that they are, in fact, recycled from the multiplex? In short, despite the Huntington's claims that it's looking to make Pirates of Penzance 'resonate' for a modern audience, Pirates! doesn't resonate with its audience so much as congratulate it. The production is about pulling Gilbert and Sullivan down to the level of the masses; and yet, somehow the masses get very upset if you point that out! This is almost a palimpsest of the American mode of class-consciousness. We're an openly class-driven society, and yet our political ideals demand we deny that - and the resulting collective neurosis plays out as hysterical outrage over even the most obvious divisions of taste.

But how, exactly, could this particular mash up "resonate," anyhow? Besides having pirates in them, the two pieces have almost nothing in common; in a search for resonance, you'd have as much luck crossing Pirates of Penzance with The Bourne Supremacy. The original operetta is a light, romantic satire of its own culture's mores. Its pattering lyrics are legendarily witty; its tunes kept an opera company (D'Oyly Carte) in business for over a hundred years. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, by way of contrast, are based on a ride in an amusement park - and indeed, a literal "wild ride" (on a spinning millwheel, or in a swinging cage) often figures prominently in them. As a result, the franchise is never actually satiric or romantic - its heroes and heroines are post-romantic figures designed to wander through a vast, virtual thrill-scape (which barely makes narrative sense) while playing to the audience's ironic sense of self-awareness. It's true that despite all this meta-cinematic distance the movies can still be fun - they have a frisky physical wit that G&S lacks - but they're so bloated that they're actually longer than most of the operettas. And they're more a guide to our consumer culture than a critique of it; indeed, the idea of satire, much less romance, is hopelessly passé to the creators and consumers of Pirates of the Caribbean; to its eternally-adolescent denizens, our pop culture (and its corporate underpinnings) is simply beyond critique; it even transcends critique.

So you can see that in the Huntington's Pirates of the Penzibbean, the fizzily engaged (and in its way, deeply conservative) spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan must inevitably vanish - at least until, upon occasion, a stretch of their own music and lyrics is allowed to pass across the proscenium unmolested by adapters John McDaniel and Nell Benjamin (both of whom, to my mind, should be made to walk a plank somewhere). And when this happens - as when the pirates suddenly tear into all five parts of "Hail, Poetry," for instance - it's like a rush of pure joy, as if some angel of musical comedy had descended from the flies and blown a happy blast on her trumpet. To be fair, there are a few more moments like this - and in its second half, the production generally sticks to a scrambled version of the original score, which helps things. Mabel and Frederic are left alone to sweetly warble "Stay, Frederic, Stay!," and as that very modern major-general, Ed Dixon (above left) has a lot of new lyrics to put over, but they're actually okay, and he's so hammily wonderful in the role that he seems to yank the whole production up a few notches in quality (when he reprises his big number and basically breaks the sound barrier with it, for a few moments you forgive Pirates! everything).

There are a few more real pleasures in the show. The leads all sport good pop voices, but some (like Frederic) are obviously stretched by the high end of Sullivan's music. The choruses, both male and female, sound terrific, however, and the men dance as well as they sing; indeed, the show's real bursts of exuberance come with their rowdy, athletic routines. As the Pirate King, the talented Steve Kazee channels Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, which works well enough as an elaborate in-joke, but eventually wears thin and doesn't quite supply the production enough energy. Kristen Sergeant makes a smart, sensible Mabel, which of course isn't how the role is written, but it works well enough against Frederic's daffiness (if he's sometimes strained vocally, hunky Anderson Davis is nevertheless charming in the role, even when he's puking), and she has a beautifully pure soprano, so it's too bad a lot of dumb stage business ruins "Poor wand'ring one."

So if you can't tell by now, this is a wonderful cast, and they sing and dance their hearts out over the course of the evening on one of the Huntington's customarily smashing sets. The trouble is that they're just too often trapped in crass new conceptions of their roles (as Tony-winner Cady Huffman is with Ruth). If, of course, Pirates! was simply a commercial entertainment, designed and promoted by commercial producers, this would be of no critical interest, and the production would merely take its place among the many adaptations of G&S (and Shakespeare!) which have popped up - and subsequently popped - like theatrical bubbles over the course of stage history.

What's troubling, however, is that it's being promoted by a major university as having some sort of larger interpretive value - that it "resonates" in some way, or "updates" G&S in a manner that's intellectually respectable. But to be blunt, this is simply a willful twisting of modish academic thinking to commercial ends (an inevitable trend, as I've written before). It's true, ironically enough, that Pirates! is never actually offensive, as the A.R.T. has often been. This is an elaborate goof masquerading as an interpretation, and thus it doesn't rewrite Gilbert and Sullivan as fraudulently as the A.R.T. rewrote The Seagull or Desire Under the Elms (productions which the Globe was far more sympathetic to). So if the Huntington has a case against Louise Kennedy, it might run something like this: why is vulgarity somehow more palatable when it derives from academic theory rather than simple commercial concerns? Louise could ponder that to her profit, it's true (before she's replaced on the Huntington beat by reviewer-cum-publicist Joel Brown, who's obviously warming up for the role in the wings). But she was quite right to perceive that despite its stunning production, Pirates! often mauls Gilbert and Sullivan. And if it truly updated this classic, it would be as exciting as it sometimes is entertaining.

A mixed Much Ado

As I wandered the streets of Roxbury last Saturday night, in search of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of Much Ado About Nothing, I was twice accosted by African-American gentlemen who asked me the following question:

"Are you lost, sir? Would you like a cab out of here?"

No, I replied, I'm not lost, I'm just white. And if I follow that little line of other white people over there, I think I'll find my way to Hibernian Hall, the seemingly Irish (?) redoubt where the gypsy-like A.S.P. has set up camp (guarded by a friendly police officer). This proved to be true, and I was soon sitting with probably the largest group of Caucasians for maybe a square mile (there wasn't a face "of color" in the entire audience), thinking in my silly cracker way how exciting it was to have successfully ventured to Roxbury, of all places, to see theatre. Who'da thunk!

Okay, okay, enough post-racist irony - the ASP is, indeed, to be congratulated for attempting to lure their bobo (i.e., "bohemian bourgeoisie") audience into the wilds southwest of Mass. Ave. Would there were a regular stream of visitors from Harvard to Dudley Square! And actually, Roxbury is looking a bit more spruce than it once did, although upon leaving the theatre I did have to dodge a drug arrest in progress. (Luckily, I wasn't carrying that night.)

But once the curtain went up on Much Ado, thoughts of Roxbury and racial identity were suddenly miles away, as I pondered the amazing fact that somehow Shakespeare had written a play about the marriage of Paula Plum and Richard Snee (both at left), nearly four centuries before either was born. Now that's foresight.

But then that Shakespeare was just amazing, wasn't he. I mean there's no chance that he didn't have the enduring bond between this lovable pair on his mind while scribbling Much Ado, is there? Certainly that's been the gist of the pre-show publicity, and the Globe, for instance, agreed that the play is all about "what mature, complicated love really looks like." Even the "set," such as it is, recalls a wedding reception gone on too long.

But will you hate me if I point out that all of this is bullshit? To be frank, I actually hate me too, because I admire Plum and Snee as much as anyone. But I often felt that, darling as they are, they were sometimes doing a rueful, affectionate fox-trot between me and Shakespeare's play.

For while it's now the vogue to emphasize the backstory of Much Ado's sparring lovers, and their wisdom about marital convention (a wisdom which somehow doesn't extend to their own egos), the truth is these are but grace notes on a theme the Bard sounds again and again in his comedies: the romantic education of the male. Sure, Beatrice is defensive and self-deluded in her emotional stance, but the scales fall from her eyes early on, and pretty much completely. It's Benedick for whom the rest of the plot is essentially constructed: he must learn to abandon not only his own conceit, but a masculine world-view - indeed a whole masculine, militaristic world - to really connect with his beloved. That journey is the spine of the play (particularly its second half), and it's all but missing from the ASP production.

Because, as usual, director Ben Evett has allowed this troupe to get over-involved in minute-by-minute meta-theatrical hijinx. We understand they're working on a shoestring, but I don't see why this means the actors have to keep hammering this home, while somehow congratulating themselves for coming up with some of the dumbest gambits you can imagine. (I can't tell you how many times - when male actors were pretending they had boobs, for example, or were binding their hands with party favors - that I wanted to shake them and say, "Would you just fucking cut it out?") Of course I can't deny the ASP audience eats this schtick up, and it may even be why they actually come to the productions (they don't come to see Shakespeare, they come to see their avatars doing Shakespeare, a different thing entirely). So you just have to wait through those parts, tapping your foot, and hope that the actors will grace us now and again with a little actual drama.

Which they do, intermittently. I felt that Plum was rooted too deeply in Beatrice's earlier disappointment with Benedick, and hence even though she landed all her jokes, she lost the sparkle that is actually the Bard's first sketch of a sensibility that would culminate in Ariel. (There are other such foreshadowings - of Iago, and the climax of The Winter's Tale - to be found in Much Ado.) She also didn't seem to connect much with her cousin Hero (a sweetly poised but slightly bland Kami Rushell Smith), despite becoming wildly protective of her later on. But at least Plum didn't try to dodge the seriousness of "Kill Claudio," and there was, indeed, an admirable depth to her work in the second half of the play. Snee was more problematic. The guy is certainly a comedian - he even pulled out a mike and worked the crowd for Benedick's big soliloquy. But his deadpan near-cynicism never gave a hint of his character as a popinjay, even though that's how he's often described, and he simply didn't tap into any of Benedick's archetypal fears regarding marriage - its sexual straitjacket, its humiliations, the possibility of becoming a cuckold, etc. To be honest, Shakespeare brutally, and bluntly, critiques marriage in Much Ado (and after all, he largely elided his own), but you'd never guess it from this production.

There were other gaps in what often played as a sweet but mixed bag of gags. I'd never cast John Kuntz, for instance, as the debonaire (but inwardly isolated) social broker Don Pedro, and Kuntz hardly convinced me in the part - but damnit, you can't deny the guy is funny. He basically stole scene after scene from Snee, and along with Bobbie Steinbach pretty much chewed the comic scenery while making mincemeat of Doug Lockwood's Dogberry. Alas, Lockwood didn't do any better by the villainous Don John - but then this was another bizarre bit of casting (particularly given that Michael Forden Walker, a natural Don John, was wandering around pretending he had tits). In other supporting roles, Johnny Lee Davenport too often went over the top as Leonato, but Sheldon Best, if he sometimes seemed a little blank in his prose, offered some surprisingly touching readings of his verse. The whole thing at least ended on a shaggy, self-aware, but still amusing high note, with a final slow dance from Snee and Plum. Which led me to internally admit that this is the best production of the ASP season; it's certainly a marked improvement over Coriolanus. And so perhaps it's worth a trip to Roxbury, if not the ends of the earth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Waiting for rewrite

Bunbury (with Mikkel Raahede and Nathaniel Gundy, at left) came and went from the Factory Theatre with no attention from the mainstream press, which was too bad, because like most of the output of Mill 6 Collaborative, it was witty and generally well-acted, and certainly more sophisticated than much of what's up on our larger stages. It's true that Tom Jacobson's play proved a little too clever - or perhaps too self-referential - for its own good, and director Barlow Adamson and John Edward O'Brien didn't quite pull off the arc I think the script requires. Still, few recent local productions have been this literate, or offered quite so much blithe meta-theatrical sweep.

The hook of Jacobson's script is the status of such characters as the eponymous Bunbury (Algernon's excuse for extracurricular activities in The Importance of Being Earnest) and Rosaline, Romeo's romantic obsession before Juliet - neither of whom actually appears in their respective plays (as such, they're even a step down from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Tom Stoppard fashioned into the springboard for one of his first mainstream successes). The first act begins with Bunbury, seemingly a flesh-and-blood gentleman, sniffing contemptuously at poor Rosaline, whom he deems "sub-fictional"; but before you can say "postmodernism!" she's at his front door in high dudgeon. The two then trot off to the final scene of Romeo and Juliet to stage an intervention - which ends not to Rosaline's liking (Romeo chooses Juliet, not her). Soon Bunbury faces romantic disappointment as well: he discovers Algernon, who's oft been, well, buried in his buns, is secretly romancing Cecily, and plans to marry her.

Reeling from their mutual rejection, this unlikely pair decides to rewrite literary history - only they discover said history is spontaneously rewriting itself. Like some impossible quantum event rippling through the space-time continuum, their intervention in R & J seems to have caused all the angst to drain out of Western literature: Madame Bovary lives happily ever after, Chekhov's three sisters hop the first train to Moscow, and Didi and Gogo finally catch up with Godot. But even as happy faces pop up all over the canon, Rosaline begins to worry that something deep and important seems to have gone missing from literary life, and Bunbury realizes he's still carrying the torch (well, actually a lily) for the perfidious Algernon.

All this is good fun, of course, only it does seem to violate its own rules of engagement early, and often: we never understand, for instance, exactly how Bunbury can leap like some metafictional Scott Bakula between various books and plays while remaining blissfully unaware that he's fictional, too. Nor does the moebius-strippy, reality-swallows-its-own-fictional-tail dénouement make much logical sense (sweet as it may be). This probably keeps Jacobson just outside the pantheon constructed around Tom Stoppard. But at the same time, you don't really care about logic when Jacobson's conceit delivers such funny skits as his rewrites of Three Sisters and Waiting for Godot. And there is an interesting subtext to be found in Bunbury's silenced gayness at last leaping out of the closet and sending ripples of fabulousness throughout western literature. A deeper problem, however, is that clever as his concept often is, the playwright's not quite as witty line-by-line as we want him to be - although perhaps that's how any author might look who dared to pen epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde.

And even if they're not Wilde-worthy, the Mill 6 leads pitched most of the bon mots with consummate aim. Mikkel Raahede brought a relaxed, sophisticated polish to Bunbury, and Becca A. Lewis, though a bit strident at first as Rosaline, brought an energy to the proceedings that was more and more welcome as the evening wore on. Indeed, directors Adamson and O'Brien seemed to miss the basic arc of the piece: that Bunbury finds unforeseen direction with these newly-unleashed textual energies even as Rosaline begins to have her doubts. The supporting cast was more uneven, but there were still appealing turns from the reliable Shelly Brown and Sasha Castroverde (whose liberated Blanche Dubois was a highlight of the production). During moments like these, I found myself wishing that Mill 6 could find a way into spaces that weren't quite so far off the beaten path as the Factory Theatre. Isn't it time that a Fringe Alliance - consisting, perhaps, of Mill 6, Imaginary Beasts, Whistler in the Dark, and Rough and Tumble - attempted to coordinate a season at the BCA? I'm sure there's a larger audience out there that would be delighted to discover them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fire dance

The female tribe of Rite of Spring. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

It's been a stunning season for Boston Ballet, with a growing sense that the company has pulled off what amounts to a stylistic trifecta. First came the flashy postmodernism of Black and White, then the sparkling modernism of Balanchine's Jewels, and then the sumptuous nineteenth-century Sleeping Beauty. And for last weekend's season finale, the company planned yet another artistic coup: a recreation of the signature pieces of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, followed by a leap-frog beyond post-modernism and into whatever comes next with a brand-new Rite of Spring.

Five years ago, this kind of season was only a dream; now, it's a reality. Nearly. But so nearly that there's cause for celebration anyway. For the first half of the Ballets Russes program was generally smashing - only one piece, "Le Spectre de la Rose," wobbled on its stem - and if the new finale, from Jorma Elo, was slightly frustrating in its narrative control, it was still dazzling in its showmanship and formal attack. And the dancers (some of whom had already performed punishing roles earlier in the evening) picked up this choreographer's gauntlet of intense micro-movement and ran with it all the way to a standing ovation.

But first, the living-diorama first half, devoted to the seminal works of the Ballets Russes, which up-ended ballet and jump-started modernism a century ago with pieces like Balanchine's Prodigal Son and Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. Here the Ballet opted for as close to a literal transcription of the original performances as they could manage - we got Bakst's original costumes and backdrop for Faun, for instance - and the results were generally splendid.

Indeed, it was absolutely wonderful to see Balanchine's inventive Prodigal Son again (the company did it maybe six years ago), because this strange but potent ballet never seems to grow old, and it once again held the audience spellbound. I saw both Yury Yanowsky and Jared Redick (who is retiring to run one of the Ballet's academies) essay the title role. Yanowsky, who also played the part six years ago, was the eager libertine, Redick more the naïve idealist. Both delivered complex portrayals, however - indeed, I'm not sure either have ever danced better; although perhaps Yanowsky had the edge in the pathos of the Son's desperate return, literally on bended knee (his slow crawl up his father's totem-like torso was unforgettable).

There was the lingering sense that the piece wasn't quite as powerful as it could have been, however, due to the casting of the Siren who brings the Son down (and then shakes him down). Melanie Atkins (who is also retiring from the company) is a wonderful Balanchine dancer in either his classic or music-hall modes, but the rigid savagery of Prodigal Son isn't really in her comfort zone, and she doesn't have too much sexual chemistry with Yanowsky (both above left). Hers was an intriguingly self-aware Siren, but not a galvanic one. Kathleen Breen Combes, who danced against Redick, had more of the right kind of calculating force, and was coldly compelling, though her pairing with Redick again didn't send off precisely the right sparks - Combes against Yanowsky would have been the ideal, but I'm not sure they ever got to dance with each other.

Next up was "Le Spectre de la Rose," Fokine's distillation of romantic yearning: a young girl falls asleep while contemplating the eponymous blossom, which then takes masculine form in her dreams. Unusually for the Ballets Russes, it's a charmer, and it charmed here, although Nelson Madrigal, who certainly has the sensual presence to play the ghostly posy, was a little blurry technically on opening night (he had been stronger when I saw him rehearsal). Madrigal sharpened up, however, once he was partnering the exquisite Cornejo, who was pretty much perfect for (if under-utilized in) this classic role.

Then came another tour de force - Nijinsky's ode to the sexual animal, Afternoon of a Faun, in which Roman Rykine took the role made famous by the great danseur, with Lorna Feijóo as his nervous temptress (both above, photo by Eric Antoniou). The "diorama" aspect of the evening came into clearest focus here, because the piece itself is designed as a kind of pagan frieze, with classical figures marching on and off in languid profile, and the Faun (tail, horns, and all) descending from a block of phallic rock. The effect was of living, breathing panels sliding back and forth before us, and the stiff stylization resonated nicely with the Faun's darting and, well, fawn-like movements. The self-serious scandalousness of the piece could collapse into camp with a single wrong move, but Rykine was mesmerizingly intense in his preternatural alertness (even his slow sniff of his prey came off as somehow sexy), and Lorna Feijóo was so committed to her own frightened temptation that the whole decadent daydream came off beautifully.

At last came the greatest challenge of the evening: to top, or at least equal, these classics with a new Rite of Spring - and maybe even spark a kind of riot in the theatre as the original did (reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet, below).

I know, I know - hard to believe the odd hopping seen above could have kicked off such a fuss, let alone the modern era. I guess you had to be there (and it's no wonder the Ballet commissioned a new version!). At any rate, Jorma Elo brought to the famously savage score something far more sophisticated than Nijinsky did, and hardly so easily interpreted. He traded the primitive costumes for shiny red slacks and what looked like bathing suits, and cast the dance against fire, not earth (tiny jets of actual flame flickered continuously throughout). The resulting imagery seemed to flout the intents of the original in a key respect - it had left Flora and Pomona and the gods of the harvest far behind, and was playing itself out in some glamorous virtual space; yet it was still lit by the old fires, with a kind of "community" operating within its dark parameters. There were also still tribes in evidence - two of them in fact, men and women, with a subtle power struggle going on between them - but no sages or elders were demanding a sacrifice, as in the original; the community itself simply seemed to be hoping for one, perhaps even desperate for one to give it some sense of meaning, some connection to the old narratives. Thus despite the transfiguration of the work's "program," its goal seemed roughly the same.

Only it was in the communication of that program that Elo came up short - as he often does. Because intriguingly, rather than simplify Nijinsky's original script, the choreographer seemed to have complicated it. The sacrificial lamb, or "Chosen One" of the original (Larissa Ponomarenko) had a girlfriend this time around (Melissa Hough) - as well as what seemed to be a true love (Sabi Varga). And her girlfriend seemed to have a boyfriend, too. And while there were no sages or patriarchs running the show, there seemed to be a kind of tempter (Yury Yanowsky), who often threatened, abused, or perhaps even drugged Ponomarenko, with the strangely distant assistance of his own gal pal (Lorna Feijóo).

Got all that? Well, I think the audience had a little trouble with it (certainly the Globe and Herald critics did!), as these relationships and intrigues were layered into a constantly morphing set of variations, as well as sudden, swooping choral movements (above, photo by Eric Antoniou). And Elo did us few favors with the choreographic syntax he had devised minute-by-minute. By now, local audiences are used to his vocabulary: the "breaks" and swivels and pops, the windmilling arms, the ingenious lifts and leaps and combinations that seem to go on forever. His choreographic language is dazzling on its own terms; the trouble is that it's too self-involved formally. It hints at symbol and pantomime, but always seems to draw back into some level of "difficulty," some vague inscrutability, some slight post-modern distance from both obvious meaning and its own musical accompaniment (Elo likes to run on just past the end of the score, and often self-consciously dodges its climaxes). Like his Rite of Spring, Elo seems to have lifted off from the choreographic earth, and is sending semaphore back from some private cybernetic sphere.

But Balanchine's Prodigal Son, seen earlier in the evening, made a punishing contrast to all this. Balanchine's choreography was endlessly inventive, and incorporated everything from slapstick to gymnastics, and yet its meaning was always transparently clear; perhaps even more strikingly, Balanchine was able to thread symbol, narrative and formal experimentation together in a stunning synthesis. But to Elo, this easy flexibility between multiple valences and modes seems impossible; because his busy formal concerns are so determinant, he has to drop them entirely for a few moments to give us a little bit of drama or clear-cut symbol. Thus Rite of Spring sometimes felt like a road-map spiked by sudden sign-posts stuck in swaths of impenetrable territory.

Okay, so Elo isn't Balanchine; who is? And if the design of Rite of Spring wasn't always interpretible, it was nevertheless often beautiful: Elo has designed a mysteriously balanced trio for Feijóo, Yanowsky and Ponomarenko, for example, that's as good as anything he's done, and the choral work was consistently breath-taking. Plus he has hidden a surprise in his finale, which I suppose it's ruining no secrets at this point to give away - and which teases us with a new perspective on everything that has come before. In the last moments, the "Chosen One" fights back, and kills her tempter; he becomes the sacrifice. Or was he always intended to be the sacrifice? Has the entire dance been one of Ponomarenko's hesitation before her big assignment? Or has it been a bit more like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," in which hard-to-interpret intrigues have slowly determined who, exactly, is going to get the axe? It would have been wonderful to have been able to look back over the choreography and discover hints and clues to support the dance's final twist. And maybe someday, Jorma Elo will be able to pull off that kind of programmatic structure. But not yet.

No, this is the greatest "keyboard cat" video!

Ah, if only there were "Waterboard him, keyboard cat!" videos . . .

Gardner board screws Mrs. Jack

Not that we're surprised. The sad, shameless details are here. I guess we're going to have throw ourselves bodily in front of the bulldozers or something.

Monday, May 18, 2009

It's over, Ed

Seen at the Elliot Norton Awards.

Over at the Globe (yes, it still exists), Ed Siegel is waxing sentimental about - wait for it - the good old days of the 60's and 70's, under the headline, "Does theater need to play it safe?" (answer: no).

Ed begins with a touching personal note:

When Al Pacino came to town Monday to pick up an Elliot Norton Award for the late Paul Benedict, his friend and former colleague at TCB, it proved that all the talk about the company was more than empty nostalgia. Amazing things happened on Theatre Company stages that provided a lifetime of memories for audiences and actors alike. It was a treat being a fly on the wall Monday night as Pacino and Wheeler reminisced with other Theatre Company alumni, including Paul Guilfoyle and Jan Egleson, about working on plays with Benedict.

Of course it's always nice to remember when - but sorry, Ed, that's still just empty nostalgia; the Theatre Company of Boston closed over thirty years ago, and however amazing it may have been, it had far more lasting impact, it seems, on our critics than on our actual theatre scene. And even its artistic quality I'm a little suspicious of (although I'm sure seeing Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman up close and personal was exciting), largely because of Siegel's own testimony. (A year or two ago he made this claim about Benedict in the ART's No Man's Land - "[David] Wheeler and Benedict excel in the same way that they did 40 years ago" - and even compared watching Benedict to viewing Michelangelo's "David" - when to be blunt, Benedict was slightly wrong for the part and wasn't all that interesting.)

But Ed's trip down memory lane does add a certain explanatory penumbra to the recent Elliot Norton Awards, which seemed centered on dead actors (Benedict) and former television reviewers (Joyce Kulhawik). I've been ridiculing the Nortoners recently, because the list of awards they give out keeps shrinking, their emphasis on celebrity grows more and more obvious, and of course many of them have lost or are losing the very jobs that supposedly give the awards their prestige. (Yes, before you say it, I know the IRNEs have their issues, too!) But suddenly I see them in a more touching light - they are, indeed, the last of the dinosaurs, gazing back fondly on a Jurassic park of "edgy," somehow "subversive" "masterpieces" that they've been longing to see replicated for most of their careers. Indeed, sometimes I feel that much of the city's critical community - and thus in some ways the city itself - has never really graduated from the BU School of Communications; we seem stuck either there or in the BU Theatre Dept., circa, oh, 1972. (You can feel much the same atmosphere in the critical outrage over the closing of the Rose - "But this is radical art from the 60's!" you can almost hear the aging reviewers wailing.)

Ed himself makes no bones about his radical nostalgia - indeed he singles out the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater for special mention, for an obvious reason:

In many ways, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has been the closest thing we've had to Theatre Company of Boston. Wheeler and Benedict even staged "The Unexpected Man" there. But Jeff Zinn has had his own aesthetic, one that centered on edgy, contemporary work by the likes of Martin McDonagh and Tracy Letts.

Need I even mention that Jeff Zinn is the son of BU radical avatar Howard Zinn? No, I don't think so. Which isn't to say that I'd rather have one of Mitt Romney's kids running a local theatre! But isn't there something tired and a bit silly about this whole "BU '72" worldview, especially given that the technological and personal revolutions it has promoted are making it economically obsolete? (Indeed, Siegel's theatrical vision couldn't even work in the 70's - the Theatre Company of Boston went under.) You can feel that Siegel and his ilk were never really able to grasp, much less grapple with, the fact that America turned away from their vision and elected Ronald Reagan not once, but twice - and that there have been epoch-making transformations in the ongoing co-optation of the right and left ever since. Strangely, this political history seems to have no place in their discourse; they simply keep burrowing into some sort of Brookline-Newton niche of pseudo-enlightened liberalism. This is the deep nostalgia lurking behind the superficial schmaltz of hob-nobbing with Wheeler and Pacino.

And can we talk about "risk" for just a moment, Mr. Siegel? By which I mean critical risk? I'm curious as to whether you consider yourself an example of a reviewer known for throwing caution to the winds, damning the torpedoes, and publishing truly daring critical thinking. Because I don't think anyone else thinks of you that way - and if that is your self-image, I'd like to hear exactly what risks you've taken. I'm also curious as to why you feel Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh are so edgy - McDonagh's derivative, and Letts is skilled but slightly incoherent. I mean, I don't recall you promoting Howard Barker or Sarah Kane or anyone really "dangerous" during your career. So do you yearn for risk, but only on the part of playwrights and producers and actors, rather than critics? Is that your true vision? Because if so, at least you can rest assured you've achieved it.

A Beckett portrait

At left is one of the most affecting and appropriate portraits of Samuel Beckett, one of my favorite playwrights, that I've ever seen. It's by Simon Schubert, who "draws" by making creases on paper. More of his work - including another Beckett portrait - can be seen here. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New crime at the Gardner Museum

When I first heard about the demolition of the Gardner Museum's carriage house (at left, photo by David L. Ryan), I assumed it was of no particular interest. Then, when I saw photos of it a few months later, I was immediately struck by its charm, and I began to understand why so many local groups had been fighting the museum's plans. And at last, I've suddenly realized today that I've been paying almost no attention at all to an unfolding local scandal.

In a word, the destruction of the Gardner carriage house to make way for the intended Renzo Piano addition is nothing less than a crime - against the city and Mrs. Gardner. New details revealed in today's Globe provide documentary support for what is clear to the average eye - the building is eccentric and personal, and very much in "Mrs. Jack's" style (the elaborate façade makes no architectural sense except as a private statement). Quibbles over whether or not the structure was explicitly included in her will are immaterial; these can only prove the museum is merely trampling on her legacy in spirit, not in legal name. Likewise claims that an expansion could not accommodate the existing building strike me as ridiculous - such challenges are supposed to be Renzo Piano's specialty. No doubt something in the program would have to go, or more money would have to be spent (and that may be what's behind the museum's determination not to yield). Then again, this wouldn't be the first time a Board has allowed its own drive to undermine the spirit of its founding charter - nor is this the first time the Gardner has betrayed Mrs. Jack. It's not even the second time. The theft of some of the Gardner's greatest treasures, of course, remains the largest blow to the city's culture in memory - and the safety of the collection was, in the end, the Board's responsibility. And recently we've learned, again in the Globe, that in the 70's the museum simply sold off most of Gardner's Asian art collection, to make way for a gift shop and café.

Frankly, this sad, eventful history, considered in its entirety, dwarfs the impact of the dissolution of the Rose Art Museum; indeed, it's among the most brazen sagas of negligence I've ever come across in the cultural world. The Gardner secretly sold off part of its founder's collection, then lost her Vermeer and two Rembrandts, and now has set about tearing down the most intriguing external feature of her house. And yet we've heard comparatively little about this last affront from the press until now. Thank God we finally are, of course - the Globe is to be commended for this spate of publicity, even if it's last minute. Indeed, it may be too late. The Board is meeting to vote on the plan tomorrow (Monday). I'm not sure what avenues are left to protest or influence their actions. But at least the situation has finally come clear - along with the rather despicable machinations of museum director Anne Hawley, who it seems has threatened the jobs of concerned staffers (the staff seems to be in mutiny anyway - most of the details of the story have come from anonymous leaks). In a sane world, of course, Hawley would get the boot, and the carriage house would be saved. But we're not living in a sane world, so I guess we'll have to stay tuned.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How their grey garden grew

Leigh Barrett and Sarah deLima ponder their ingrown lives in Grey Gardens.

The musical Grey Gardens, now at the Lyric Stage through June 6, essentially posits a central question of dramatic adaptation - what should a stage version of material from another medium bring to that material? At one level the musical's creators seem to answer, "A lot!" Indeed, they've supplied an entire first act to comment on, provide a backstory for, and otherwise reflect on what they've drawn (almost verbatim) from their source, the Maysles Brothers' notorious documentary about the eccentric life shared by "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale (aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy) along with dozens of cats in their dirty, decaying Hamptons mansion. But at another level their answer, I'm afraid to say, is "Nothing at all!" For the first half of Grey Gardens, mildly diverting as it often is, gives us almost no real insight into these two "cat ladies" and their strange, pathetic fate.

The show still has its appeal, however, because that second act has a weird vibe of genuine mental instability that one rarely senses in a musical (or on Broadway in general). "Little Edie" Beale, wearing her skirt upside-down and rambling on in a flat, little-girl drawl about revolution and her mother and whatnot, has been transported intact from the film, and given compelling stage life by local star Leigh Barrett. And she's nearly matched by Sarah deLima's impersonation of "Big Edie" Beale - an eccentric but seemingly saner presence who snipes and snaps at her daughter from a permanent state of bed-ridden, almost bare-breasted dishabille.

Of course the impact of these scenes (somewhat muted on stage due to a lack of actual cats, or their feces) is wrapped up in the inevitable question, "How did these two get this way?" Answering that question would seem to be one duty that distinguishes art from documentary. But alas, neither author Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, nor lyricist Michael Korie has any real idea how the Beales got that way. Their overlong first act does supply a smooth, smart evocation of their lost world of privilege and racist ease (Little Edie in the early 40's, above left), and it's constructed to provide appearances for a young Jacqueline Bouvier (and her little sister Lee). Add to this rather obvious gay-bait a kept piano player who's light in the loafers (Will McGarrahan) a hunky Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (R. Patrick Ryan) sniffing around Little Edie ("Somewhere a pedestal is missing its statue!" McGarrahan purrs), and a pastiche of "period" tunes copied from the Great American Songbook, and you have a clever show-queen contraption that's always threatening to tip over into camp - but never quite does.

The trouble is it never quite tips over into drama, either. Its central conflict - Little Edie's struggle to be free while her bohemian past catches up with her - is too generic and pre-packaged to explain the bizarre behavior to come, and playwright Wright never gives any sense of the budding, in-grown co-dependency between the "Edies" that would later flower so fully. You can tell that Lyric director Spiro Veloudos is well aware of this problem - but he hasn't really found a solution to it (I'm not sure one is possible). Instead he has directed the always appealing Aimee Dogherty, who plays the younger "Little Edie" in Act 1, to ape the mannerisms Barrett displays in Act 2 (Barrett, meanwhile, plays "Big Edie," her mother, in the first act. Got that?) But this feels like mere technical contrivance, as Doherty and Barrett aren't doing similar internal work - and at any rate the older Edie's most prominent mannerism, her constant patting of her head, was probably due to an understandable self-consciousness about her eventual alopecia rather than some mental tic.

So the musical never really delivers on its supposed reason for being. Still, the songs are clever, and the score eventually grows richer and more haunting in the more compelling second half, where Barrett and deLima give memorable performances. There's also solid work from the reliable McGarrahan and newcomer Ryan, as well as the remarkably poised Miranda Gelch, who actually looks quite a bit like the young Jackie. Set designer Cristina Todesco successfully conjures the eponymous house on the Lyric's tight stage, and Charles Schoonmaker's costumes, while not quite reaching the heights of his work on Light in the Piazza, are nevertheless subtle, lovely and accurate. In the end, I think Grey Gardens is only an interesting failure. But it is interesting.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Concord of sweet sounds

The economic crisis has blown some ill wind in the direction of my favorite local chorale, Boston Secession - they've had to postpone their recording of Ruth Lomon's new oratorio Testimony of Witnesses, a project that has been years in the making. But the good news is that they still have one more concert planned for this season - a benefit called Dolci Momenti, to take place this Sunday at 3 PM at Old South Church in Copley Square. Featuring works by Handel, Mozart, Purcell, Bizet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms performed at previous Secession concerts, and featuring several distinguished musicians as accompanists, the concert promises to be sweet indeed. More information and tickets available here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Back to The Bacchae

"Euripides, I'll rippa dose!" Local girls get ready to tear some human flesh in The Bacchae.

To me, Greek tragedy always feels a bit like semaphore, transmitted across an ocean of time and space. We get the harrowing gist of the communication, but the fullness of the original experience - even its true form - remains elusive; we have to construct much of its theatrical context from scraps and hints and academic guesswork. Even the names of the characters remain open to debate.

But even if we were to identify its format precisely, Greek drama would still present a unique problem in terms of accessibility. Indeed, even to call it "drama" is something of a misnomer, because we've come to realize it's an elaborate synthesis of drama with something like opera and something like dance - all crossed with a Mass. We don't have a form like that. So any attempt to replicate it accurately would underline its strangeness to our sensibility, when it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to the Greeks.

Still, even as semaphore, these plays have enormous power, not because they limn "tragic flaws" but because they evoke so brutally the contradictions of human experience. Oedipus, for instance, tells us bluntly that we are unknowing conspirators in our own downfalls - and that the highest among us are actually guilty of the greatest sins. Euripides's The Bacchae has a similarly paradoxical edge: it both warns the ego against suppression of the id, while revealing just how horrifyingly far the id can go if it isn't contained.

To get at these ancient truths in the absence of the form that embodied them, most modern interpreters have settled on a set of conventions which the Whistler in the Dark production at the BCA largely follows, even if the group is presenting a new translation, by Francis Blessington. The design is simple but evocative; the movement modern-dance-y, accompanied by percussion (here inspired by Steve Reich's "Drumming," from Boston Ballet's recent "Black and White;" amusingly enough, my review is what drew director Meg Taintor to that ballet). The god Dionysos is played by each of the actors in turn, who make the transition by donning a golden mask - a nice genuflection to the idea that, like some pagan antecedent of the Holy Spirit, the god of orgiastic abandon can "descend" upon any one of his followers and possess them.

Unfortunately, the production falls, then rises in pretty much the same reverse arc that every production I've ever seen has: the opening evocations of the feminine bacchanals plaguing Thebes are blurry and loud, without being particularly unsettling (an understandable feminist bias often leads productions, I think, to sympathize too far with the madness of the bacchantes). But once the inexperienced Pentheus makes his fateful decision to join the crazed celebrants in female disguise, the proceedings are suddenly gripping, and often intensely so. This despite the fact that as Pentheus, young actor Phil Crumrine lacks the technique to suggest the internal conflict driving his repression of the irrational (and the feminine).

But here Euripides comes to Whistler's rescue: shifting from that problematic nexus of dance and song, the playwright delivers pithy scenes of almost unbelievable horror - including a mother who rends her own son limb from limb - which the new translation gives fresh life (it was hard for me to judge its earlier scenes due to all the drumming and shouting). And actors Curt Klump and Jennifer O'Connor (both at left) do justice to this intense material - particularly moving was O'Connor's sudden realization that she was toying with her own son's severed head (here that golden mask again, only this time drenched in blood). In O'Connor's quiet pathos, suddenly the deep meaning of this ancient semaphore came all too clear.

Pirates of the corporation

After the surprising success of Dark Play, I was eager to check out the Apollinaire Theatre's current offering, Men of Tortuga, a new drama by Jason Wells which was developed at Steppenwolf. But alas, I'm duty-bound to report that neither the script nor the cast (above left) of Tortuga has the confident sheen of the earlier piece. Still, the show has its moments, and fans of legal thrillers may find it a satisfying-enough evening out.

To me, however, just about everything about Tortuga is a little too familiar, even though it's been capably constructed by Wells, who manages several deft twists in his last act. The trouble with this kind of writing, however, is that by now we expect several twists in the last act, even if we can't predict precisely what they're going to be; unexpected variations on the formula can't transcend its inherent lack of surprise. And the playwright's take on capitalism - that corporate raiders, like pirates (which I assume is the reference intended by the title; perhaps "Men of Grand Cayman" sounded too much like a calendar) aren't above simply murdering their opponents to get what they want - hardly counts as a new angle, either.

Wells clearly is attempting a minor variation on, say, Glengarry Glen Ross, only this time in the inner sanctum of some nameless corporation or law office. The suits the author assembles in this marble interior (which looks a bit more like a lobby than a boardroom, although its trompe-l'oeil effect is convincing) never give away exactly what threat they're trying to eliminate (or why), but it's clear that murder is what they have in mind; there's even a hot-headed weapons expert on hand to goose them along toward the best, and most cold-blooded, options available.

The first half or so of the play is intended, I suppose, as coldly "outrageous" black comedy, but we feel throughout that we're well ahead of the playwright's tactics. Wells gets a bit more traction from the inevitable introduction of a possible traitor into this corporate clique, and swings a compelling little debate over the Biblical account of Judas. But even here the playwright doesn't quite have the Mamet- or Pinter-like chops to limn anything new in the way of moral or metaphysical speculation from these developments. Still, the "surprises" keep coming from then on, and we watch with interest till the finish, just to see how it all turns out. So Wells may have promise, although I worry that he looks rather like the male answer to Theresa Rebeck, i.e. a craftsman who can smoothly re-purpose film and TV material for the stage.

At the Apollinaire, the actors are all the right ages, and have some skill, but generally can't project the sense of deep disguise that might give the goings-on a little more sense of mystery. Alain Groene Pieters as the weapons specialist has the most presence, but eventually begins to chew the scenery; meanwhile castmate Tom Giordano seems at first on the right track as the innocent in this crowd, but needs to grow up quite a bit faster once he understands exactly what's at stake. Danielle Fauteux Jacques directs crisply, but perhaps a bit naïvely. But then these days it's tough to be more jaded than your audience.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crocodiles on Brookline Street

One of the "tailors" from Street of Crocodiles.

Few would argue that Street of Crocodiles, by the Brothers Quay (a.k.a. identical twins Stephen and Timothy) is one of the greatest stop-motion films of all time; some argue that it's one of the greatest films of all time, period. I'd certainly rate it among the most haunting, and one of the few that seems to somehow emanate from its physical design - that eerie street of decrepit arcades and cabinets through which its puppet-hero wanders in search of meaning and connection. And even though the Coolidge Corner's celebration of the talented pair concluded last week, you can still see the actual décors from Crocodiles and their other films at the Fourth Wall Project, 132 Brookline St. (near Fenway Park) through May 21. The sets prove even more magical "in person" than you might imagine - lovely and strange and heartbreaking in their detail. Highly recommended.

Class act

The KKK get their kicks in Jerry Springer: The Opera.

I have a friend with an interesting theory about the dreadful tradition of "blackface" - he feels the form, or at least its basic impulses, didn't actually disappear once racism was forced from the cultural stage; it simply re-surfaced as "whiteface," a new cultural mode in which classism replaced racism, and white trash and the trailer park became the newly-legitimized objects of happy, patronizing ridicule. It's an interesting idea, and one that came to mind repeatedly as I watched Jerry Springer: The Opera, the notorious high-low cultural mashup now in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage.

For if anyone brought "whiteface" to full flower, it was Jerry Springer, the liberal Jew (his parents survived the Holocaust) whose "talk show" somehow morphed into an elaborate take-down of the dregs of white Christian conservatism. Indeed, over the course of the 90's and on into the millennium (it's actually still on in many markets), The Jerry Springer Show delivered image after image of an on-going cultural crack-up. Day after day, pathetic denizens of the Rust or Corn Belt would reveal that they were infected with precisely the same moral relativism that their own milieu loathed in the liberal elites: they were gay, or "cheaters," or were transvestites or had sex fetishes; or, even worse, they harbored the historic, but now-unmentionable, hatreds of their class, anti-Semitism and racism. Their families or relationships then seemed to fall apart as we watched; fights routinely broke out on stage, egged on by a crowd that all but seethed with angry condemnation. For this was the beauty of Springer's formula: it fed the righteous anger of conservative white trash while simultaneously revealing that said white trash was guilty of the very sins they were condemning. In a word, it was like watching the thrashing death throes of a whole subculture.

The mystery, of course, was why, exactly, so many troubled people came on to Jerry Springer to face the abuse. At first the conventional wisdom was that they were pathetic pop-cultural moths, lured by the klieg lights of celebrity, however brief or degraded; but gradually word leaked out that much of the show, like "pro" wrestling and other lower-class entertainments, was staged. Several guests have come forward over the years to describe partying weekends funded by the show in exchange for a half-hour of coached fights on-set. So just as Amos'n'Andy were played by whites, the promiscuous crackers on Jerry Springer were enacted by bemused parties performing semi-scripted roles. There were certainly cases in which the "reality" of the show was indeed all too grimly real (a murder closely followed one taping), but it gradually came clear that Jerry Springer was, indeed, the ringmaster of a circus of his own carefully orchestrated design.

But all this seems lost on the creators of Jerry Springer: The Opera, who ironically enough take the show's blasphemies on faith. Lyricist Stewart Lee and composer Richard Thomas keep the focus on Jerry's guests, whom they portray as crass but guileless, and driven to somehow validate themselves via humiliation on national TV. In a word, these strippers and she-males just wanna be loved, and is that so wrong? Well, no, I don't think so; if folks want to pole-dance or wear diapers, or pole-dance while wearing diapers, that's ok by me. But it's not very interesting.

What's more interesting is Jerry himself, and how he limned the cultural and economic fissures creeping under the working class, and then managed to tease it into melting down on live television - all while idolizing him, and making him a multi-millionaire. For while the guests may have been more faux than real, the audience was always definitely fo' real, and Jerry's relationship with them was the true subject of his show. But Lee and Thomas have almost nothing to say about our erstwhile host, or his strange symbiosis with the crowd; despite travails that include taking a bullet and a sojourn in Hell (below), he remains a cipher to the very end. We don't even get to see much of his sexual entanglements with porn stars, or his checkered business relationships (we do hear about the time he actually paid a working girl with a check). Indeed, we feel we know precisely as much about Jerry when the curtain falls as we did when it first rose.

Timothy John Smith heats up Jerry Springer. Photo(s) by Stratton McCrady.

And as a result, the show's a little dull. Oh, it's "shocking" all right - if you're the type that might have actually been in the audience of Jerry Springer: there are dancing Klansmen and double-timing transsexuals and a guy who gets off on poop. But these sad cases are all caricatures, not characters; they're not so much poster children for dysfunction as actual posters. And I'm afraid I didn't care how often they sang out for my sympathy, nor did I care that "everything that lives is holy," as Blake once said, and the musical reminds us (although is even the KKK holy?). Because while everything that lives may be holy, much of what lives is just plain silly, and that's basically what Jerry Springer: The Opera is. For it secretly wants to emulate the technique of the show itself, then chastise us for our reactions to its machinations; only didn't the real Jerry do that already, just much more effectively? In a word,The Opera is a pretty pale replacement for The Show.

Things might be a different if its vaunted mash-up of pop and opera worked the way we sort of imagine it should - that is, by giving these silly poseurs some sort of tragic stature. But alas, the music itself can't carry this much artistic weight: the pop writing is serviceable, and sometimes punchy, but the operatic writing is pretty lame - there are echoes of Bach and Handel in this stuff, but beyond said echoes the "arias" are often little better than recitative pushed up an octave (and the joke of having sopranos warble "What the fuck???" gets a little old). SpeakEasy has found voices that can hit the high notes, although sometimes they get a little shrieky or strained; probably the best singing comes from tenor Luke Grooms. Meanwhile Michael Fennimore makes a physically convincing but disappointingly blank Jerry - even within the limited confines of the script - but SpeakEasy stalwarts Timothy John Smith, Kerry A. Dowling, and Amelia Broome all do entertaining double or triple duty in various roles (Broome in particular covers an astounding amount of caricatured ground), and there are solid turns from John Porell and Joelle Lurie. Director Paul Daigneault keeps things moving, although somehow hasn't managed to conjure much real transgressive electricity from the material, and the dangerous anger of that all-important crowd is missing from his staging (he mixes actual audience members in with the cast, which sounds like a good idea, but probably helps dissipates that energy). Still, at least the design is top-notch (as usual for SpeakEasy): Julian Crouch's set and animations precisely conjure both Jerry's mid-90's look and its tacky equivalent in Hell.

And of course some sort of bouquet should be thrown to those innocent Bostonians who appeared outside the theater to protest the production (below). Where would we be without these folks to simulate a sense of controversy? They were enraged by some silly stuff in the second act (Jesus in a diaper, etc.) that wants a bit desperately to shock, but instead comes off as satirically toothless filler. You sort of wonder if these types realize that they are themselves merely playing an assigned role in a kind of larger, meta-version of Jerry's show - proof positive that Jerry's vision is still relevant; if only Jerry Springer: The Opera had the insight or chops to do it justice.

Jerry goes meta: the protestors at SpeakEasy seemed to be direct from central casting. Photo by Mark L. Saperstein.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What happens when a faux street artist meets a real one?

I have to hand it to Shepard Fairey - the content of his work may be banal, but the marketing of that work, and the imposition of it on the city by the ICA and its comrades-in-arms, has proved to be the cultural gift that keeps on giving. Indeed, I think as unconscious self-critique it's almost unparalleled; few cultural events have revealed the hypocrisy of the presumptively hip in such a harsh, unsparing light. Above is what happened to one of Fairey's murals installed in Providence (hat tip to Greg Cook). Could the unknown street artist in question have made a more succinct comment? What's most wonderful about the added graffiti is that it doesn't really spoil the design of the (plagiarized) original, but instead frames it in a richer, more truthful cultural context. I'd say we have an early front runner for next year's Foster Prize. That is if the ICA has any sense of humor.

Wilde card

This is just a quick post-mortem on a truly bizarre Importance of Being Earnest down at Trinity Rep (which I caught with a group of mortified IRNE critics last week). The general response to the show among our merry band was, "What were they thinking?," although to my mind it was rather obvious what they were thinking: make 'em laugh! Which isn't a bad policy in general, of course, and the audience did laugh, although this was mostly due to the fact that everything was played as broadly as possible. Of course to keep up some sense of their own sophistication, the actors played the broadness in self-aware "air quotes." There were also, for reasons unknown, interpolated bits from the music hall (and I think G&S), a strange movement solo that looked like something from Cats, and various little parodies of leaps of joy, etc. But wait, there's more: the set, by Michael McGarty, for other reasons unknown, leaned toward the post-modern autumnal (complete with a self-conscious proscenium), while William Lane's costumes ran toward pant suits and turbans. The whole thing played as a weird, contradictory pastiche of current suburban and theatre-school notions about the Victorians; but about Wilde or his aesthetic it had nothing to do at all. So I guess mission accomplished; at least at a meta level the production played as paradox, although, alas, a slightly crass one.

To be fair, director Beth Milles was not working with an ideal cast; indeed, the show reminded one of the limits of the repertory system (i.e., having to squeeze actors into roles that aren't quite right for them). The usually reliable Mauro Hantmann seemed quite wrong for Jack Worthing, and Angela Brazil chewed the scenery with gusto as Gwendolyn; meanwhile Janice Duclos made a fairly mediocre Lady Bracknell (even flubbing a few of the most famous lines in the play). There was better, or at any rate fresher, work from newcomers Karl Gregory (Algernon) and Rebecca Gibel (Cecily, with Gregory above left), but they could hardly triumph over the director's heavy, indicative hand. Well, at least it's over, I suppose.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Still cookin' at 81

This is just a quick note to say that, incredibly, Barbara Cook (left) is still casting her magical vocal spells at age 81, as evidenced by last week's stint with the Boston Pops. Like musical theatre queens of a certain age everywhere, the partner unit was in line for tickets the minute he heard she'd be in town - and to speak true, I'm always happy to worship at Barbara's altar with him. By now, of course, it can't be denied that the top of her register has thinned, and sounded a bit weak against the backing of the full Pops (she sounded fine, however, against her own combo, who were also on hand). But her middle range is as honeyed as ever. And though I suppose I should say that her marvelous phrasing remains intact, does the term "phrasing" really go far enough? What Cook does is what Sinatra did - somehow project personality as musical atmosphere. The romantic aura this 81-year-old emanates absolutely defies explanation, and yet I've seen her do it over and over again; she always does it, and it doesn't matter if the room is as small as the Cafe Carlyle, or as big as Symphony Hall; she could probably pull off the same trick in Fenway Park. Needless to say, the Pops audience sat rapt throughout the performance, and while most of the material was familiar to her die-hard fans, she did pull one surprise out of her trademark black caftan: Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Incredibly, this was the first Porter cover Cook had ever done, and she turned it into one of her exquisite cameos of wistful rue. After just a few bars, Barbara Cook was once more under our skin.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dancing feat

The Youtube promo for Urbanity Dance.

I'm late with a few words - which happily can be kind ones - about Urbanity Dance, a new dance group founded and directed by Betsi Graves Akerstein, which gave its first performance ever, "Cage Free," at the BU Dance Studio last weekend. (Full disclosure: I was invited by a friend, Kate Patten Cook, who dances with them.) The troupe is loosely centered in alumni of Boston College, all of whom have a surprisingly high level of talent and training, and who under Ms. Akerstein's direction managed to sustain that high level minute-to-minute in a two-hour-plus program of their own choreography (which is no small feat).

What was even more surprising, however, was the professional sheen of the whole production. There was a panoply of smart and sexy costumes, and two very-cool set-pieces (such as the giant bird-cage below) to ooh and ah over, while the lighting (by Matt Breton) morphed constantly in close coordination with the dance, much in the mode of Nederlands Dans Theater. One left the performance in a certain awe of both Ms. Akerstein's logistical skills and the determination and dedication of her young troupe.

And the dances themselves were always energetic, resourceful and charming, even if they tended to bump repeatedly against a certain artistic ceiling. The program had a "theme" - freedom - which everyone can believe in without getting into pesky specifics, and Ms. Akerstein had decided to let many of the dancers have their own choreographic say on the subject: she developed a long initial piece, which was then followed by a series of shorter dances, each generally the length of an accompanying pop song. Given those parameters, you can probably guess at the pop-literalism that slightly limited the work; we knew we would eventually see an actual bird-cage (with an actual dancer trapped in it) and an actual bare-chested guy with a literal pair of wings, etc. (although the wings, which blinked, did look awesome). The musical selections were also what you might expect from a lot of choreographers fresh out of a liberal arts college: Sigur Rós and Sufjan Stevens figured prominently, as did Dario Marianelli (composer of such high-end chick-lit-flicks as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice).

Urbanity Dance in action. Photos by Eli Akerstein.

Still, I can't say I didn't enjoy the program (despite its over-amplification); I mean, what's not to like about large groups of pretty girls (and the occasional boy) struggling to be free of something or other? And I have to give a shout-out to my pal Katie, whose choreography for "La Belle et Le Bad Boy" and "Such Great Heights" struck me as particularly strong. Not that anyone in this line-up is a slouch. There were plenty of fine moments from Ms. Akerstein and others, as well as a striking solo from dancer Kara McCann; it's clear Urbanity Dance has in its first program already staked out a prominent piece of territory on the local dance map. Moving forward, however, I hope they can break out of a certain jazz-dance cage that "Cage Free" sometimes seemed stuck in (this is probably the artistic flip side of its laudable commitment to artistic inclusion). And more solos and duets would be nice - the choral sequences got a little repetitive, and floated along at about the same level of intensity; the sudden pairing of Jon Arpino and Michelle Costello, for instance, brought a welcome dose of conflict and something like real narrative to the goings-on. But I'm sure, given their obvious organization and vision (they even gave out a scholarship!), that artistic expansion is definitely among this troupe's plans.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A bright Moon at Merrimack

Kate Udall and Michael Canavan light up A Moon for the Misbegotten.

It's becoming something like a drumbeat here at the Hub Review, I know, but I'll say it again: to see truly great theatre, you have to go to Lowell, and buy a ticket to the Merrimack Rep. Because no one else in New England is doing what this theatre is doing. Certainly not the Huntington or the ART! And, I have to admit, not our slick mid-sized success stories like SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric and the New Rep, either (clever and worthy as many of their productions may be). Or the over-rated, under-achieving Trinity Rep down in Providence. There's really no one in their league in the region.

Not that I'm always in love with what I see at Merrimack; they've made their missteps and compromises, true, and next year's season looks like something of a retreat. But any theatre that can produce both Skylight and now A Moon for the Misbegotten in a single season (after last year's A Delicate Balance) deserves the undying allegiance of true theatre-goers everywhere. Would the ART or the Huntington even know how to aim this high anymore? I don't think so.

And what's the Merrimack's magic formula? Well, it goes something like this: select a challenging, classic text, and have some faith in it. Cast the best actors you can find. Direct them with respect, insight and care. Design an appropriate setting. And then sit back and watch as the audience is riveted by a confrontation with the terrible contradictions of the human condition.

That's basically it. I guess it's harder than it sounds, though. Or maybe director Edward Morgan - not to mention artistic director Charles Towers, who helmed the previous triumphs listed above - is simply a kind of dinosaur wandering through the theatrical landscape; no one ever seems to have explained to him that classic texts are dead, and must be goosed into life by the rules laid down by a few academics, schizophrenics and Marxists. Or maybe he just didn't listen - and thank God for that! For this Moon not only easily eclipses the ART's version of some twenty years ago (which featured Kate Nelligan); it also ranks among the best two or three productions of O'Neill I've ever seen.

And this despite a flaw at its very center: its James Tyrone, I'm afraid, is miscast. Michael Canavan (who's making his Merrimack debut) is a skilled and confident actor, it's true, but his salesman's good looks hint merely at unreliability rather than the weakness and shame that haunt almost all of O'Neill's heroes (a younger James Tyrone also figures in the O'Neill family portrait Long Day's Journey into Night). Canavan is surrounded and supported by two great performances, however - Kate Udall's, as Josie, the giant of a woman he turns to for solace, and Gordon Joseph Weiss's as her drunken, abusive da - and somehow in this company he finds his way. Indeed, through his own commitment to the core of the role Canavan waxes, rather than wanes, in emotional power as the play progresses. I still couldn't say that he outshines Udall, however, who, with her rough-hewn physical beauty - and precisely-rendered ambivalent moods - pretty much limns every corner of Josie's contradictory mix of vulnerability, longing, and crude bravado.

Udall and Gordon Joseph Weiss hatch a plot in A Moon for the Misbegotten.

This great actress knows, however, to let Josie's tragic stature creep up on us, and so she plays at first only the character's comedy - then again how could she not, given the performance of Weiss, which is perhaps the most perfect piece of acting craft I've seen all year? Weiss's "bad tempered old hornet" is a small comic masterpiece, so richly detailed physically and so exquisitely pitched emotionally that it literally had some people in the audience in tears of laughter. He's been Tony-nominated in the past, and if this performance were on a New York stage, he probably would be again. There's also some amusingly underplayed work from John Kooi (who likewise impressed in the Foothills Take Me Out) as the wealthy neighbor Josie and her da play some nasty tricks on, and a quick but effective cameo from IRNE winner Karl Baker Olson as the brother whom Josie helps escape from their hellish homestead. Altogether it's as fine an ensemble as you're likely to see in these parts for many a moon. Now how can we get some millionaire to sponsor a Merrimack tour to Cambridge or Boston? Because we could use some real culture out here in the sticks.