Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boston Secession calls a time out

Jane Ring Frank in action: we won't be seeing this next season.

The grim news keeps rolling in. Last night I learned that Boston Secession, our most adventurous (and perhaps my favorite) local chorus, is taking a hiatus due to funding issues. Only a year ago, they seemed to be riding high: a new CD got raves, their audience was building, and they had plans to premiere an ambitious oratorio about the Holocaust, Testimony of Witnesses. But ah, what a difference a housing bubble makes! So we won't be seeing the smart, talented, funny Jane Ring Frank (above) directing her wonderful singers next fall; truly our loss, my friends. But something about this lady strikes me as indomitable, and so I have hope that a mere recession won't keep the Secession down for long.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Misreading Emily

A friend has pointed me to yet another misreading of Emily Glassberg Sands's paper, here in the Guardian. Again - as in the New York magazine article and the "Economix" blog at the New York Times - the writer repeats the inaccuracy that Ms. Sands measured the profitability of female-written shows on Broadway. And again, she did not measure this. More to follow.

Fisking Emily Glassberg Sands

I finished reading the much-discussed Emily Glassberg Sands study on sexism in the theatre this weekend (and even had a phone conversation with Sands afterward). I must report, however, that the conversation grew "contentious" (as Sands herself put it) as I pressed her on issues regarding the final section of her paper - the part devoted to Broadway productions.

In a nutshell, as I read her paper, I began to have doubts about her data - both her sample of "female-written shows" (which seemed to include musicals which had a female book writer, but a male composer and lyricist), and her "proxy" for the profitability of the shows she was considering. It hadn't really come clear to me when I viewed the PowerPoint presentation that Sands gave in New York that she didn't actually have any hard data about the profitability of these shows (although on a second look, you could probably construe this from the fine print of her tables, and she may have mentioned it during the actual proceedings).

But this issue struck me as key to her argument that producers had ended the runs of female-written shows "earlier" than those of male-written shows. After all, a simple explanation for this might be that producers ended the female-written shows because they weren't as profitable as the male-written shows - perhaps they had higher production costs, for example, which cut into their weekly revenues (or a major star left the production, etc.).

But Sands didn't have this data (which in the text of her study she admits openly - it's hard to come by). Instead, she estimated the variable of production cost by a "proxy" of show type (musical, straight play, one-person show, and "exception"). I couldn't make out from her study, however, how accurate these proxies might be - and I wondered, frankly, if the method she was using was truly valid given that she lacked this hard data.

I therefore felt I was looking at a study in which the final section relied on a possibly questionable sample and a problematic proxy for a central variable. My conversation with Sands, however, yielded little real insight into these issues - perhaps, as she often reminded me, because I'm not as trained in statistical analysis as she is (my "training" goes no further than the standard introductory college course, taken some twenty years ago).

So I'm throwing open an invitation to any reader with a sophisticated statistics background - would you care to more thoroughly fisk Ms. Sands's thesis? I can email you her study, which I've downloaded (contact me at hubreview@hotmail.com), or you can find it here. If my doubts about her methodology turn out to be ill-founded, of course, I'll happily publish those findings. (It's entirely possible, too, that if hard data on profitability were available, it would back up Ms. Sands.) In the meantime, I've emailed Ms. Sands my questions in the hopes that the explanation which eluded us in conversation can be found via printed text.

I'll be following up later this week, so stay tuned . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

The dick variations

The "sitting ducks" of "The Duck Variations" at the ART.

I caught up with the finale of the ART's "Mamet Celebration" last night - after seeing Romance toward the end of its run - and began to wonder if the whole effort hadn't begun to turn into a "condemnation" rather than a "celebration." It's true that half of the program - "The Duck Variations" - was generally charming (if slightly over-rated by the local critics), but the other half, a new version of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" starring and directed by ART Institute students, proved so bizarre that it was hard not to take it as some sort of ironic parody of the playwright, or at best the most back-handed compliment imaginable. And what kind of "celebration" doesn't include the centerpieces of a writer's achievement (which must count as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross)? Indeed, as I left the theatre I began to wonder if I was wrong in my esteem for even those plays - if staged afresh, would they look as sketchy and thin as much of the "Mamet Celebration" has? In other words, are we overdue for a Mamet "re-calibration"?

Well, perhaps; but first the good news. The ART has done well by "The Duck Variations," an early Mamet piece which showcases his budding talent, but never quite coalesces into the bittersweet gem we keep hoping it's going to prove to be. The one-act is a long consideration of two elderly gents kvetching on a park bench (clearly in Chicago, clearly on Lake Michigan) about whatever passes by: boats, the occasional blue heron, but mostly, yes, ducks. And as these two ramble on, via "variations" that are structured like vaudevilles, we sense their own fears and concerns, often expressed through subtle ellipses (any direct mention of avian death, for instance, draws anguished protest from one of these "sitting ducks"). At the same time, we can perceive an unusually benign, even rueful variant of Mamet's trademark lean staccato taking shape; the script is a lovely exercise in masculine elocution, but it remains, I'm afraid, an exercise - and a somewhat overlong one at that (although its length is partly redeemed by a haunting final scene).

And the ART production, while certainly strong, isn't quite perfect. Director Marcus Stern has conducted the all-important rhythm of the dialogue superbly, and Thomas Derrah and Will Lebow play against each other with precision and generosity - as a tennis match, this production could never be excelled. But it must be pointed out that Derrah depends on technical contrivance much of the time - he connects with the emotional core of the character only intermittently - and some of his technical tricks (lolling tongue, bulging eyes) seem to have been borrowed from Carol Burnett. Meanwhile Lebow works his customary double magic, maintaining a pristine technique while never losing touch with the inner life of the role. So in the end, this tennis match has a clear winner.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Although perhaps there is something wrong with the ART's set - they've once again re-purposed chunks of the Onion Cellar's cabaret décor, which feels, well, cheap, and completely inappropriate to the play at hand. (Ditto the clink of beer bottles and the whispering waitress.) The design works better, however, for the second "vaudeville" on the program, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," perhaps because many of its black-outs and sketches actually occur in a bar. Too bad nothing else works well, however. Indeed, this must count as the biggest belly-flop at a local professional house in years - the show isn't just miscast, it's also mis-directed (and mis-costumed). The production's embarrassing enough, in fact, that you kind of feel these kids should all get their very-advanced tuition back.

"Sexual Perversity," to be fair to the students attempting to resuscitate it, feels very much of its era (the mid-70s), and thence further away from us than, say, Chekhov or Shakespeare. Which isn't to say that in it Mamet doesn't flex his chops - many of the lines are still funny, there are one or two muscular flights of monologue, and there's clearly a sharp intelligence shaping its many Pinteresque lacunae. But the play's formal interest is undercut by the fact that in it, Mamet had his finger on the pulse of a now-vanished cultural moment - i.e., the sexual revolution in mid-thrash. And no doubt in 1974, the play's frankness, as well as the misogyny and anger that came with it (the "c-word" figures prominently) counted as shocking, and its whole sense of masculinity-at-sea seemed urgently Important. Today, however, it feels passé, and thanks to the Internet sex itself has lost much of its mystery and power; therefore sexual anxiety seems faintly ridiculous, too. Just chill, dudes, we keep wanting to tell the on-edge protagonists of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" - and somehow you get the impression that's what the actors and director want to tell them, too.

But stripped of its animating spirit, the play's thin construction suddenly collapses, and we feel intensely the lack of dramatic back-up for its two female contrivances (you can't call them characters), man-hating cynic Joan (Laura Parker) and intentionally-blank sexual slate, Deborah (Susannah Hoffman; both above left). Even within what Mamet gives them, however, neither actress makes much of an impression; Parker seems unwilling to bestow on Joan her bitter due of misogynist cliché, and Hoffman holds back from even the playful sensuality that Mamet affords Deborah. The men fare a little better - partly because they simply get more stage time - but really, not all that much. Tim Eliot is so strangely miscast as the lying lothario Bernie that we spend much of his many monologues simply scratching our heads; we should be watching a highbrow version of one of those National Lampoon louts from Animal House, not an ironically self-aware wit from Metropolitan (costumed in a bizarre pink-and-gray-plaid ensemble, no less). Somewhat stronger is Scott Lyman, who's roughly right for the seemingly-innocent Dan, but even Lyman basically misses the giddy arc of sexual connection (followed by emotional frustration) that's one of the few structural elements in the script.

Even in its current flattened state, however, that arc lands him in something like a younger version of the duo from "The Duck Variations" - alone with his fucked-up buddy, ogling babes (rather than ducks) at the lake. In this version, we get to ogle them, too - they're in their best Fire-Island speedos, in an apparent gesture toward the incipient sexuality of their emotional arrangement (not coincidentally, both have had homosexual encounters in the past). I'm not sure, however, that actual homosexuality is quite what Mamet had in mind (although I'm sure he was conscious of this possible interpretation); I think that, as usual, he is instead hinting at a kind of virtual homosexuality, in which hetero-sex is experienced as an aspect of male camaraderie, as the natural state of his not-so-noble savages. That camaraderie, of course, is also reminiscent of the slur-fest that climaxed Romance; it's kind of the flip-side of the absurdist desert that Mamet sees as the battleground of the sexes.

Indeed, what the ART's "Mamet celebration" has at least made clear is that Mamet is rather like an insecure, putatively straight Edward Albee, only with mating rituals in his absurdist sights instead of the bourgeoisie. And it's interesting to note that one of his great themes has always been ignorance; his characters don't really know or understand the world, or each other, or even themselves. And they're inarticulate to boot. Thus the famously sculpted staccato dialogue is an attempt to create a kind of meaning out of scraps, to will into being a livable environment from nothing. The pathetic humor of this gambit certainly retains its appeal, but it's already been imitated throughout the general culture, which may be why much of even Romance felt oddly dated (while parts of "Sexual Perversity" now play like bad Seinfeld). And beyond that, the plays generally don't have all that much richness, or texture, or even plot, to offer - and thus it's hard to see what "new angle" can be found on them. Maybe that's what the Institute kids eventually discovered about "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hoedown from Rodeo

Hoedown from Rodeo from Eleanor Stewart on Vimeo.

A wonderful stop-motion by Eleanor Stewart to Copland's classic Rodeo Suite. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Impossible dreams

This weekend marks the last performances of Dream of Life: The Impossible Theatre of Frederico García Lorca from Imaginary Beasts, which is probably the most daringly literate theatrical outfit in town. Lead Beast Matthew Woods's last effort was a staging of late Gertrude Stein; earlier, he mounted a personal fantasia on Lewis Carroll. Dream of Life marks a return to obscure Lorca (above left) for the troupe, as Woods produced an adaptation of the playwright's farces in 2007. Which only points up the gently obsessional quality evinced by this local impresario - he's a theatrical outlier (based in Lynn) who has been pursuing an eccentric, personal vision for the last few years largely beneath the mainstream press's radar.

During that process, he's built a cult, but not really an audience - and that's likely to remain the situation as long as Woods stays faithful to the kind of text that leaves the average Globe (much less Herald!) reader scratching his or her head. But what can one say before the face of honest obsession, especially an obsession as charming and intelligent as this? Like earlier Beastiaries, Dream of Life offers high-quality design (on a shoestring) and inventive movement, and ponders the intersection of life and art with a seriousness that's all the more effective for being lightly rendered. But again as usual, it somewhat subsumes the distinctive atmosphere of its putative author in a generic whimsicality that has become the Beasts' trademark.

In a way, this is integral to Woods's technique, which is one of pastiche. It almost doesn't matter which author he chooses (Carroll, Stein and Lorca are hardly comrades-in-arms), the collage he comes up always seems to play at about the same level, and to the same end. This is partly because, no doubt due to local casting exigencies, he's generally working with a new ensemble of actors with each production (and he gets them to nearly the same place each time, but no further). And in Lorca's case this effect is more pronounced than it was with Stein and Carroll, because the Spanish author doesn't entirely share their affinity with the innocent children's theatre in which Woods sources most of his work. Lorca is simply more sexually lyrical (at left, with Salvador Dalí during their affair), with more of a sense of death's impending presence, than Woods or the Beasts seem to realize.

What's more, the evening feels particularly bumpy because the source material is fragmented even by the Beasts' usual standard. The central text, Play Without a Title, is also a play without a second or third act, and the performance's "coda" is a brief scene pulled from the likewise-incomplete The Public. Written near the end of Lorca's tragically short life, these are at least aligned in their concerns: both are surreal, meta-theatrical debates about the meaning and responsibilities of theatre. In between these two conceptual puzzle pieces, however, are a series of poems, dialogues, and scraps of text, and the relationship of these experiments to the larger questions posed by Play and Public remains, I'm afraid, pretty murky. Still, they often charm, and Woods as usual conjures evocative images throughout. And there are at least two strong performances here, from Mauro Canepa and Tyler Peck, although generally the acting is less accomplished than in previous Beast productions. I must report, however, that the audience didn't seem to mind all this - indeed, they were clearly engaged by the Beasts and by Lorca, and almost everyone hung around after the show for one of the most thoughtful talkbacks I've ever experienced. Perhaps there is an audience for the Beasts' brand of theatre after all - and maybe they're finding it, show by show.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Update on Emily Sands's presentation

The full PowerPoint deck from Emily Glassberg Sands's New York presentation (see post below) is available here, thanks to Jodi Schoenbrun Carter.

Elsewhere in her blog is an interesting link to a Princeton study regarding "blind" orchestral auditions (i.e., auditions in which the player is hidden from the judges). Once implemented, such auditions have led to the number of women in major symphonies increasing "several fold." Perhaps a similar policy of "blind submission" (with names removed from texts) should be required at literary departments in theatres?

[Update update: The NY Times weighs in here. And here's the presentation itself:


Women beware women

The meme that sexism is holding back female playwrights refuses to go away; now a Princeton graduate named Emily Glassberg Sands says her senior thesis "shows that female playwrights are, in fact, discriminated against, which may be one reason why fewer women are writing plays," and she's presenting her findings in New York this week.

Well, I'll be interested to peruse those findings. As readers of this blog know, I'm somewhat hostile to this thesis, not because I hate women (although yes, I know I do, unconsciously, along with African-Americans and Latinos and "the Other" in general), but because I often see inferior plays produced by women (Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Lydia R. Diamond) who seem to be favored by either the academy or the arbiters of political correctness. (Meanwhile female playwrights like Caryl Churchill, who are gutsy enough to take on real political issues, get little support from this crew.)

Sands's new salvo, however, comes with the implicit imprimatur of the Freakonomics crowd (one of her "mentors" is Steven Levitt), so it represents a powerful cross-synergy between current memes. But I'm rather curious just how much Freakonomics-style analysis Sands can really apply to the case of female playwrights if they're indeed so under-represented on the stage. Where has she found a large enough sample to back up such claims as her assertion that "plays written by women sold almost one quarter more tickets per week than those by men, earning 18 percent higher grosses weekly"? Particularly given that she claims these numbers are based on Broadway plays, where Theresa Rebeck claims women are barely represented? (She claims her numbers came from a website called dollee.com, but I found little box office information there.)

But I promise to keep an open mind. Who knows, perhaps with Ruined, Lynn Nottage has actually written a good play this time (although its winning the Pulitzer hardly impresses) - and if it were produced on Broadway, perhaps it would turn a profit. In the meantime, however, there is one shocking bit of information buried in the referenced post:

Sands also sent out four previously unseen scripts by prominent female playwrights — Lynn Nottage, Julia Jordan, Tanya Barfield, and Deb Laufer — to artistic directors and literary managers nationwide. Each script was assigned two pen names, like Mary Walker and Michael Walker. The results were surprising: Female readers rated scripts with female pen names 15 percent lower than those with male pen names, while male readers rated the scripts equally. Sands attributes this to women thinking that women's plays "will be less well received."

Ah, women - beware women! But beyond the gender irony evidenced here (and the shocker that male readers actually showed no sexist bias), there's a larger question looming that reflects on all producers - if, indeed, there is bias against plays written by women, is that due to simple sexism, or to a latent feeling among producers that audiences aren't interested in these playwrights' concerns and material? If Lynn Nottage is produced on Broadway and fails, does that mean producers aren't sexist after all, but simply attuned to the market?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Boards behaving badly

How Boards once appeared. Today the picture would be different.

While reading the Globe's recap of the collapse of the North Shore Music Theatre yesterday, I was struck by the seeming-blindness of the article's author to the spine of his own story: the theatre's Board. The North Shore, it's true, had some bad luck - a fire ravaged its stage a few years back, which led to both a costly renovation and lost income from cancelled shows. There was also tumult among the staff recently - some six (!) defections during the artistic leadership of Barry Ivans. And there was a hit taken from a misguided programming decision, among other misfortunes.

But none of this can obscure the fact that a serious financial problem was building at the theatre for years. And I mean years. The fire can only account for approximately $3 million of the theatre's $10 million debt load - a shockingly high number given that even in bad years the theatre's deficit was at most a few hundred thousand dollars.

Only if that kind of deficit lasts a decade or more, you're talking real money! Yet nowhere in the article is there a mention of an empowered business manager, or of the Board instigating a major fundraising campaign (not even after the fire!). Instead there is only a series of apologies among mentions of shockingly-high management salaries, along with finger-pointing at the artistic, rather than the business, leadership.

Now I don't intend to let either Barry Ivans or Jon Kimbell off the hook for whatever poor judgment calls they may have made; still, in the end, the Board is responsible for the theatre's financial health. If the AD is making unpopular programming decisions, they have to somehow account for that on the ledgers. Perhaps the North Shore Board didn't have deep enough pockets of its own; perhaps it, too, was split by in-fighting, as the staff seems to have been under Ivan; or perhaps it was simply asleep at the wheel (before essentially deceiving subscribers and donors into thinking there was a chance the theatre could come back from its crisis).

But whatever the reasons for this specific failure, what we're looking at, of course, is simply a reflection of our larger corporate culture. Boards everywhere have been behaving irresponsibly and betraying the public trust - this is How We Live Now. It's rather clear that the boomer corporate types who have been wrecking the economy have brought something like the same responsible attitudes and expertise to our cultural sphere. Just in the last few months, we've seen the Gardner Museum Board vote to tear down Mrs. Gardner's carriage house, despite protests from the museum's own staff, and just about anyone with a pair of eyes; the Wang Foundation a week or two ago handed a check for $1 million to the Board of CitiCenter - a crew which was recently nearly indicted for financial irregularities, and which is known for over-lining the pockets of its insider-stuffed staff; and the mess at Brandeis has been simply pathetic.

This isn't, of course, the whole story. There are also Boards that have bucked this trend, and successfully steered their organizations through very challenging times (the Ballet, the Merrimack Rep) - but then again, there are have been others that made iffy financial decisions (the MFA, the BSO) that could only be balanced on the backs of the organization's staff.

Could all this change? Could our Boards stop behaving badly? Well, perhaps - but I think they won't change their ways without a change in what we expect of them. The blindspot in the Globe's reporting on the North Shore is only too characteristic of that paper's general mindset, methinks: a general tolerance - indeed, a kind of silent cooperation with - cultural decision-making as a prerogative, rather than a responsibility, of the wealthy. Containing the power of the well-to-do is, of course, always a challenge - but we can't even begin to make them toe the line if we don't pointedly call them on the carpet when they misbehave.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Daisey Chain, Part the Second

The non-actor dares another audience member to spill his water.

Well, when last we left the ongoing debate about actors' salaries initiated by the erstwhile Mike Daisey, Mr. Daisey (btw, I came across the photos below on his blog, and felt they might make a refreshing change for those tired of Michael Phelps) was letting it be known in no uncertain terms that HE WAS NOT AN ACTOR (no argument here!) and also that I had admitted that HE WAS RIGHT.

Hmmmm. But did I really do that? I wonder if the ladies pictured below would agree! Let's take a closer look!

What I said in my earlier post was: (warning - images NSFW)

The fact that [Mr. Daisey's] 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.

Now I think most people would read the phrase "not that he's wrong" as a kind of rhetorical device. (I know that sounds awfully sophisticated, but work with me here!) Now, certainly I agree with Mr. Daisey's premise - actors aren't paid enough - but then, who doesn't? Has anyone been arguing that actors are paid enough (much less too much)? If that had been the essence of Daisey's argument, there would have been no reaction to it in the first place.

So can we be honest, and admit that this was not, truly, the thrust of his various diatribes? Which means that, yes, Mr. Daisey could still be wrong? Or at least only partly right, hard as that may be to believe?

Yes, I think we can. So let's continue our consideration of his position. Although any summary does some violence to a thesis, I still think we can roughly-yet-validly summarize Mr. Daisey's true arguments as something like:

1. Actors's salaries are low because of the decisions of theatre administrators.

2. These administrators have chosen to invest in facilities, marketing, and their own salaries rather than in actors.

3. The solution to this problem is to place actors in administrative roles, from which they will be able to remunerate themselves appropriately.

That seems to me to be the gist of his contentions (and trust me, if I've left anything out, I'm sure Daisey will let us know). Of these, #1 is at least partly true, but only in a superficial way, and I've answered part of #2 in a previous post (investing in facilities, particularly in a low-interest-rate environment, was probably a good idea, and perhaps better for the long-term health of an organization than investing in salaries).

But it's the villainy Daisey seems to attribute to theatre administrators regarding their own salaries that has raised the most ire, particularly from Todd Olson, a small theatre director with whom Daisey has tangled in a number of posts. Olson's general point seems to have been that while there was some truth to Daisey's critique of the largest LORT theatres, his arguments fell apart further down the scale. And Olson had some telling points to make against Daisey's claims regarding administrators and their cushy finances - indeed, at his small company, many administrators actually envied the benefits that Equity actors commanded. And he almost amusingly deconstructed the contradictions in Daisey's la-la-land economic pronouncements (Daisey demands on the one hand that salaries be raised, and on the other that ticket prices be cut).

Most daringly, he challenged Daisey to help him more equitably balance his theatre's budget - and even forwarded the previous year's balance sheets. Daisey backed away from that offer, of course (because after all, engaging with Olson would dilute the product he's selling - i.e., disenfranchised outrage), but he did make a new suggestion - that Olson and his ilk should create "lockbox endowments" to fund actors' salaries.

Now on the surface this sounds better than his earlier solution - placing actors in administrative roles - because that idea is probably about as viable as placing administrators in acting roles! In short, "collective" solutions inevitably sacrifice the great productive advantage of specialization - indeed, Daisey seems to implicitly imagine that marketing, fundraising, etc., are not talents in their own right. (He is, in his own way, a hopeless snob.) Now before you say it, I'm sure there are some actors that would be great marketers (and of course there are some great marketers who can also act!) But lived experience whispers to us that these examples of overlap are the exception, not the rule - and the "successful" collectives Daisey tends to cite - garage theatres in which everybody walks home from a performance with $50, for example - do not seem to match his ideal of "stability, salaries and health insurance."

So there remains the tricky problem of raising actors' salaries in something like the current model, which is only fair, but which economic logic seems to preclude. As I've pointed out previously, the union is ham-strung by "wage-price disease" and declining demand. Begging for higher wages from administrators who themselves feel under-compensated (Todd Olson's point) can likewise only go so far. The only remaining option, therefore, is shaping a viable format for donations to an actors' endowment - those "locked boxes" Daisey made reference to. (Wait a minute - isn't that Sean Lamont at left? He wasn't on Mike Daisey's blog! What's going on?)

But how to go about making a case for an, um, actors' endowment in these economic times? Well, how do other performing arts organizations square this circle? Symphonies, of course, tend to endow chairs, once they have the donor base, and this could be a transferable model at some well-established theatres. But the devil, of course, may be in the details. When an orchestra donor pays for a "chair," he or she is generally paying for a chunk of cultural quality and predictability. It's implicitly understood that a good deal of the money is going to go to perpetuating Beethoven or Mozart rather than funding new work - and that's merely human nature. You see, regardless of how often artists (and brokers!) chant about the joys of risk-taking, nobody much likes risk. Especially not donors. (And not theatre-goers either; note subscription rates are down.)

And let's be honest - isn't there something a bit intellectually disreputable about demanding bohemian freedoms while clamoring for bourgeois comforts? For some reason free love and a 401(k), much less "stability, salaries and health insurance," have never gone together - and that's because they contradict each other in social terms. Daisey's comparison between actors and migrant workers is even more irritating - is he really so fatuous that he imagines a migrant farm worker and an actor in an urban setting are facing anything like the same economic predicament? (Shades of Pete Hoekstra! And oh for heaven's sake - is that Frédéric Cermeno on the right? Goodness, what's he doing here?)

In short, it's hard to imagine donors contributing to acting "chairs" without a theatre first committing to a stable acting company, and style, and repertory, and succeeding at that remarkable challenge. The trouble is that not only are these expensive propositions to begin with, they're not artistically fashionable (in the New England area, only Trinity Rep approximates this repertory model) - and what's more, they're probably not the kind of theatre Mike Daisey would prefer to see take over the landscape. One can perhaps imagine endowed chairs in Shakespeare or Shaw, I suppose - but can one expect a wealthy donor to endow a confrontational, bohemian vision like the one most contemporary actors affect? Somehow this seems a stretch; indeed, even Harvard, which seems most committed to the academic variant of this vision, seems leery of actually funding a company to support it.

So perhaps the actor's salary problem is actually tied to the deeper cultural problem of both society's perception of theatre and theatre's perception of itself. Maybe Boards and administrators treat actors like chattel because that is unconsciously the role that actors and society have together conspired to create for them: they are dangerous gypsies, harbingers of revolution, etc., etc. - only now do they tell us they'd also like health insurance! Now don't get me wrong, I want actors to have health insurance (and I'm sure Geoffroy Messina, at left, does too!). But I think it's going to take a rather large cultural transformation to make that happen. A transformation which will require a return to the abandoned standards of repertory, a greater emphasis on arts education in the public schools, and even a shift in actors' own attitudes toward theatrical tradition. If administrators work toward all those goals, livable wages for stage actors may become a reality. But they probably cannot be willed into being any other way.

(Note: This may not be the last link in "The Daisy Chain.")

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Hubbies from the spring season, the Caucasian edition

No, I haven't forgotten the promised round of spring acting Hubbies (the virtual award modeled after Michael Phelps, at left). And there are plenty to distribute, ironically enough from many shows I didn't particularly like. We may be moving into that state in which the movies have long languished, in which the acting is the most reliable artistic element on view (this was particularly true in the various hootenannies at the Huntington). There were perhaps fewer flawless ensembles in the second half of the season (although the casts of Humble Boy and Moon for the Misbegotten came pretty close) but does that count as a trend? We'll leave that to fortune tellers and mountebanks. One thing I did notice, however, looking over my list, was its nearly blinding whiteness. We still don't see enough actors of color on our stages, and by that I mean every color - there are a few African-Americans who have found a place at the local theatrical table, but still fewer Latinos, and really no Asians or Indians or - well, you get the idea. Sigh. We'll have to ponder that one in a later post. But in the meantime, the Late Spring Hubbies for Acting by a Caucasian go to:

David DaCosta, Rebecca Shor, Joshua Smith - Working, Metro Stage Company;

Will Lebow, Thomas Derrah, Remo Airaldi - Romance, American Repertory Theatre;

Barlow Adamson, Alicia Kahn - On the Verge, Nora Theatre Company;

Ed Dixon, Anderson Davis, and ensemble - Pirates!, Huntington Theatre;

Sarah deLima, Leigh Barrett - Grey Gardens (at left), Lyric Stage;

Timothy John Smith, Amelia Broome - Jerry Springer: The Opera, SpeakEasy Stage;

Kate Udall, Gordon Joseph Weiss - A Moon for the Misbegotten, Merrimack Rep;

Marianna Bassham, Scott Severance - Picasso at the Lapin Agile, New Rep;

Gregory Wooddell, Alma Cuervo, Dick Latessa, and ensemble - The Miracle at Naples, Huntington Theatre;

Amanda Hennessey - The Superheroine Monologues, Phoenix Theatre Artists;

Sarah Newhouse, Craig Mathers - Picnic (at right), Stoneham Theatre;

Haviland Morris - Bad Dates, Merrimack Rep;

Vincent Earnest Siders - Galileo, Underground Railway Theater (oops, he's not Caucasian!);

Nigel Gore, Nancy Carroll, Tom O'Keefe and ensemble - Humble Boy, Publick Theater.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Kathy St. George

What can you say about Kathy St. George and Judy Garland, except "it's almost like being in love"? And doesn't love, like hope, spring eternal? Thus Miss St. George (at left, photo by Neil Reynolds) has again returned to her idol's altar, for a second shot at capturing the magic that was missing from "Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland," her one-woman show devoted to the show-biz legend two seasons ago. And this year's model, "Dear Miss Garland," re-tooled with the help of fellow friend-of-Dorothy Scott Edmiston (and his design team), is a marked improvement over the earlier version, although like its predecessor, its "concert" half is still stronger than its "dramatic" half.

But first, for the record, this is not exactly an impersonation; it's more an evocation. St. George is just Garland's height, and bears a passing resemblance to the late star, and her voice - a light, flexible contralto - has a touch of Garland's brass. But St. George can't really summon the anguished wail that Judy had at her beck and call; the deep, unstable fire that made Garland Garland only flickers in St. George's stylings (although she closely matches her idol's phrasing). What St. George has, however, is something like Garland's joyous release in the throes of performance; the strange yin/yang of the singer's oddly blank, hopeful approach to the audience, and then the confident, almost manic high that followed once she'd seduced it, is the thrilling core of "Dear Miss Garland."

Of course it's hard not to succumb to a manic high given the songs that, as Garland, St. George gets to sing. Few chanteuses could claim such a catalogue: "The Man That Got Away," (below) "The Trolley Song," "Get Happy," "Almost Like Being in Love," "A Couple of Swells," "Chicago," and of course that ultimate piece of yearning pop catnip, "Over the Rainbow" - they're all here, in a second act that pretends to re-produce Judy's legendary Carnegie Hall comeback in 1961. It doesn't, not really (leave that to Rufus Wainwright, guys), but this hardly matters, because the band (led by the unflappably talented pianist Jim Rice) is so smoothly capable, the set, props and costumes so appropriate, and the atmosphere so wittily, romantically adult. St. George kicks up her heels - and captures Judy's comic manner and movement even better than she does her voice - and the audience is happy to follow her into orbit (even singing along heartily to "For Me and My Gal"). There probably isn't a more satisfying musical evening for grown-ups to be had this summer in the Hub.

Judy in all her mannered greatness: "The Man That Got Away," shot in one long, glorious take by George Cukor, in A Star is Born.

And the evening's first half is always amusing, although it doesn't quite crack the conceptual nut that the show's moniker, "a theatrical concert," poses. This hints at a glimpse into what made the great Garland tick - and thus the last version of the show tried to give us the star at both top and the bottom her form, with a scene based on croaking, bombed-out confessions made near the end of her career. Well, that didn't work - neither St. George, nor, really, her audience, had the stomach for just how far down Garland could really go. New director Edmiston's solid, show-biz instincts have led to a a complete revamp of that sequence into an endearing, though nudging, trip down memory lane, complete with a whirlwind five-minute tour of The Wizard of Oz in which St. George gives the movie's central tornado a run for its money. Still, so much is left out - the gay husbands, the abortions, the suicidal gestures, the many lies (only the drugs are given any rueful stage time) - that this time around the material winds up feeling charmingly thin, in Edmiston's usual, gently-censored mode. The sequence only reaches one other peak after The Wizard of Oz, with a haunting little dance to "Me and My Shadow."

Oh well, perhaps in its inevitable third iteration just the right balance will be struck in the show's first half. And in the end, "what made Judy tick" is right on stage anyhow, when St. George tears into "Almost Like Being in Love" or any of a half-dozen other standards. But just btw (not that anybody asked), next time around can we please retire "Swanee" (the Al Jolson number that Judy hung onto long after it had begun to feel a little creepy)? And I'm not sure the extended "Somewhere There's a Someone" sequence from A Star is Born works without the movie's staging. And in the first half, how about working in Gershwin's "But Not for Me," or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"? Sigh. In case you can't tell, I'm something of a Garland fanatic myself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stoneham Theatre responds to North Shore closing

The Stoneham Theatre has announced a "Free First Friday" ticket exchange for North Shore Music Theatre subscribers for the coming season. More information is available here.

North Shore officially goes bust, amid new questions

Good-bye to all that: the North Shore's award-winning Showboat.

The North Shore Music Theatre has officially closed its doors, according to a statement on its website. The theatre had been struggling for several months to raise up to $2 million to fund a shortened season - but the real zinger, mentioned for the first time today as far as I know, is the theatre's debt load of $10 million. Given that number, the efforts of the last few months look like folly, and the excuse that the company's dire straits were caused by recent programming decisions looks like delusion (if not deception). And questions such as "How did the situation grow so dire?" immediately arise; you don't wind up with that kind of balance sheet after a single bad season. My guess is that the North Shore has been adrift for some time, perhaps since the fire that swept through its stage two years ago, and has been operating without a viable financial plan in place to eventually pay off the debts that renovation incurred. Elsewhere on the Internet, rumors are swirling, mostly about (now former) Artistic Director Barry Ivans jumping ship and heading for Pittsburgh (and apparently leaving a lot of bad blood behind). It may take a long time before we really know what went down at the North Shore - if we ever know. In the meantime, we're left without a venue in the Boston area devoted to fully professional musical theatre, one of the great, original American art forms. Perhaps such a venue will eventually appear. In the meantime I will miss the North Shore greatly.

The plagiarist generation

Kelly Sherman plays Sleeping Beauty at Crate and Barrel.

The hot trend in the art market these days seems to be plagiarism. Which is great news for people like me who don't necessarily have the originality to be real artists (yay!). Of course to jump-start my career, I still will somehow have to get friendly with folks like local art doyenne Barbara Krakow, whose gallery is showing the latest from artist Kelly Sherman, who won the $25,000 ICA Foster Prize two years ago for some nice diagrams of wedding arrangements and a few neatly-typed lists. Sherman's new work (above) consists of photographs of her taking a schvitz on some Crate and Barrel sofas. The photos feel somehow recycled - we're sure we've seen something like them somewhere before - but they're not actually bad, and they do sort of morph together Tilda Swinton's 1995 nap in London with the vibe of the current (holy curatorial coincidence, Artman!) Pictures Generation show at the Met.

Only wow, the more you look at that show, the more you notice that Sherman's other works - a series of bridal advertisements with the brides whited out - look a lot, a lot like a lot of the work in it - such as the altered photographs of Richard Prince (below right) and Sherrie Levine. Now I admit I kind of admire Sherman's conceptual chutzpah here - Prince and Levine appropriated other people's imagery, so why not just appropriate them? There's a neat little thrill to be had in that (along with extra points for ripping off those rip-off artists during their big Met show). Of course you have to be careful, and vary things just enough to avoid legal action, like the kind Shepard Fairey visited on those with the temerity to appropriate his own, plagiarized works. I admire this line of endeavor so much, in fact that I am willing to download any of Sherman's works from the Internet for you, and print it out with my signature for $1 less than she's going for at Barbara Krakow. Such a deal! The latest iteration of the plagiarist meme, for a dollar less than going prices! Email me at hubreview@hotmail.com now, this offer won't last long! That is, unless I really get my ass in gear and open a website in which you can both download an essay for your college modern art course and an artwork for the Barbara Krakow Gallery.

Seriously, though, the question that often pops up in my mind when I look at this kind of stuff is, "Why hasn't this happened in the other fine arts?" Of course "appropriation" is essentially what is keeping pop music going, but I've never seen a choreographer replicate someone else's ballet step by step, then stick their name on it. Nor have I heard a composer paste his moniker on a commercial jingle, or a playwright insist that no, he wrote Angels in America.

So why are artists so prone to this particular behavior? Did the invention and propagation of photography make them especially susceptible to it? Or are they simply so much closer to the dying, in-grown world of pop? Or were they actually the harbinger of a deadly virus that spread first to recorded music but will eventually riddle the rest of the fine arts world?

But in the meantime, another question is worth pondering. While I took in the Kelly Sherman show, I couldn't help notice that Andrew Witkin was working behind the desk - yes, that Andrew Witkin, the winner of last year's Foster Prize. (He won the $25,000 for straightening up his room.) What a coincidence, huh! Two Foster Prize winners, from two years in a row, at the same gallery. It's almost like there's some kind of pneumatic tube or something between the Krakow Gallery at the ICA! Gosh, I wonder if there is . . .

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time out for the big picture . . .

Above is the current scene in Tehran, where hundreds of thousands have defied riot police to protest the coup being staged by Ahmadinejad. (Would we'd seen these kinds of crowds in D.C. when the Republicans pulled off basically the same move in 2001! I guess we're just not as freedom-loving as Iranians.) To call the past week's events a game-changer in the Mideast is a wild understatement. The regional power in the area - the one we have been essentially fighting by proxy in Iraq for the past few years - is on the verge of becoming a functioning democracy. How do we encourage that to happen? How do we react if the popular uprising fails? It seems likely that Obama's election, and his outreach to Islam, had a hand in engendering all this, but how the President can help bring this transformation to pass remains murky. But whatever happens, it will be impossible for the neocon alignment against Iran in this country to maintain its aura of legitimacy. (And as a result, many conservatives seem actually to be sending out feelers of support for Ahmadinejad - they know the Israel lobby needs him.) It's hard to believe that just a year or two ago we were seriously considering bombing these people. Now we have to admit that Iran wants to become democracy - and engage with the world.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Working it

This review is of necessity short but sweet, because Working, presented by Metro Stage Company at the YMCA Theatre in Central Square, has only one performance to go (tonight). But if you can catch it you really should. And don't bother wondering how Stud Terkel's famous series of interviews could ever have been transformed into a musical - it's really more of a revue than a musical, but the material fits comfortably within the form's current parameters, and the music, from a wide range of contributors led by Stephen Schwartz, may not give Sondheim any competition but can easily hold its own against the likes of Cats or The Producers (the catchiest ditty is probably James Taylor's "Traffic Jam").

So just go, because Working turns out to be genuinely smart and affecting, and though this version is a bit low-tech, and is flecked, it's true, with a few acting and vocal gaps, it's nevertheless startling in the generally high standard held by a huge ensemble (some two dozen featured performers), who have been directed with subtlety and insight by James Tallach (the bouncy musical direction is by Adam MacDonald). And this consistent level of craft, like a quiet tide, somehow lifts the piece to real heights of emotional power.

Terkel, of course, is in many ways a sentimentalist - nobody in Working is lazy or backstabbing or conniving, and the intersections of class and race are only treated lightly (but more honestly than you'd find on most local stages). Still, his sentiments are universal ones, and may have never been treated in a musical before. There's no romance, for example, in Working - although plenty of comedy - unless you count the love of work for its own sake (which many of Terkel's interviewee's genuinely share).

And yes, the exploitive, even inhuman conditions of many workplaces make their inevitable appearance ("Millwork"), but generally Working is hearty and optimistic about endeavor, and about the meaning it gives life - as well as the sadness that sets in when that meaning is gone ("Retired"). There are songs about first jobs ("Neat to Be a Newsboy"), menial jobs ("He Builds a House") and even hand jobs ("What I Could Have Been"). And there's actually a song about the joys of bad waitressing ("It's an Art"), hilariously put over by Meredith Stypinski. Plus there are stand-out acting cameos from David DaCosta, Rebecca Shor, Ann Carpenter, Kendra Alati, Rachael Fisher-Parkman, Dinah Steward, Cliff Blake, Joshua Smith and Lucas Lloyd (as well as strong support from the entire ensemble). Where have all these people been all my life? Banging around either the community theatre scene, or the edge of the professional one, it turns out - two worlds which Metro Stage seems to seamlessly bridge.

But the show is at its deepest in its honest exposure of what it means to work when that work has been shorn of glamour, or social esteem, or even the satisfaction that comes from "making a difference" - when it's just work, done to get by, or, most poignantly, to provide for the next generation (I defy you to remain dry-eyed during "Cleaning Women" or "Fathers and Sons"). It's at moments like these that Working suddenly seems better than any musical I've seen this season - certainly better than Pirates!, but also better than Jerry Springer or Grey Gardens or Cabaret, all done at bigger and better-funded companies. In the end, the big news about Working is that with it, Metro Stage Company makes its claim to joining the local mid-sized theatrical tier, alongside the likes of SpeakEasy, the New Rep and the Lyric Stage. There's some new competition in town, boys (and girls)! Next up for this crew is Sweeney Todd (!) - which would sound like folly if you hadn't seen how they worked Working.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Off-topic, but when has that stopped me before?

And besides, you have to admit that Tom Tomorrow often just nails it. One does wonder, of course, when the ever-more-deranged Bill O'Reilly and his fellow hacks at Fox will call for the killers of Dr. Tiller and Stephen Tyrone Johns to disappear into a black site (as they are obviously linked to terror networks), and scheduled for "enhanced interrogation." (Just kidding, guys - I know torture is for Muslims, not Christians!)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Wang Foundation gave CitiCenter what?

One million dollars. Yes, you read that right. Enough money to put the North Shore Music Theatre and the Foothills back in business. With enough left over to fund most of Boston Secession's next project, and the Nora's challenge campaign, and perhaps some new work by Boston Ballet, or Handel and Haydn, or the Merrimack Rep - with a little spare change to keep Imaginary Beasts and Mill 6 in business, too. But instead all that money is going down the drain at CitiCenter, home of Josiah Spaulding, Jr., and Steely Dan, and The Color Purple. Really, the mind boggles; can't even Steely Dan and Oprah Winfrey pay Spaulding's bills these days? This is precisely why money should be taken away from our local Boards and given to intelligent people who know the arts scene and how the money should be spent.

Isn't it "romantic" . . ?

Will Lebow holds court in Romance.

I checked out the ART production of David Mamet's Romance last weekend because there was IRNE buzz around Will Lebow's performance, so I felt I had to see it. But I have to confess the play was somewhat more interesting than it's been given credit for being (somewhat more interesting, that is). And the production, directed by Scott Zigler, was very slick, with a nifty set by Michael Griggs and a generally crack ensemble.

It's true that the play isn't quite as interesting as the cleverly engineered November was at the Lyric last fall (nor was the ensemble actually any stronger - the Lyric cast was brilliant). But then Romance is more a sketch than a play - it's really just funny fragments glued together in a thematic mosaic, whereas November is a rather well-structured farce. Although even November wasn't quite what the playwright wanted to pretend it was (he blew all kinds of smoke about it being a battle between the "tragic" and "optimistic" views of life); the sad fact is that Mamet hasn't produced an important play since Speed-the-Plow (if even that one is truly important), and it does seem that things have really been thinning out recently. Perhaps sensing the flyweight nature of this latest, the ART floated the idea to a few naïve reviewers that there was some kind of cultural throughline to this year's season, apparently leading from Chekhov (The Seagull) through Beckett (Endgame) to - wait for it - Mamet. Right. ROFLMAO.

Elsewhere the ART took the more sophisticated tack that Romance was somehow bracing and subversive because of its barrage of ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual slurs, but so many comics, radio hosts and cable shows have mined the same territory that none of this plays out as particularly transgressive. Not that Mamet's inventive insults are quite "archaic," as the youngest critic in town put it, because occasionally the bickering does tap into current political live wires (as when the playwright takes aim at our hands-off attitude toward Muslims, or pedophile priests). But generally all the bigotry plays more as coda than salvo, like the crude "Americana" of Mel Brooks's The Producers, which after 9/11 somehow transmuted ironic bigotry into patriotic gesture.

The disjuncture between this supposedly "offensive" banter and the play's oh-so-innocent title mystified several local critics, but the text is, indeed, obviously a romance, or rather a "bromance" - because, for one thing, there are no heterosexual women in it, which means Mamet is able to lower his defenses and conjure something like an atmosphere of fraternal affection out of all his bigoted, but at least honest, bathos. To Mamet, heterosexual women are a deep existential threat, and if they're present in one of his plays, it often devolves into some kind of trap for its hero. Homosexual women are a different story, however - Mamet kind of digs them, and he's not particularly homophobic toward gay men, either - we're allowed in the testosterone treehouse (although there's an intriguing meta-insult toward my tribe embedded in the play; more on that later).

But what is it about Mamet and heterosexual women? It is a puzzlement. Heterosexual women don't seem fully human to Mamet, and unsurprisingly, their opinion of him tends to mirror that assessment. Years ago, I went to the same gym that Mamet did in Harvard Square. And the few times I mentioned this to friends, the women present would always ask, "Have you ever seen him naked? How big is his penis?" Now don't worry, I'm not telling. I only mention this because I've never had women ask me that particular question about any other guy. Ever. So perhaps Mr. Mamet should be aware of what exactly his writing has suggested to approximately half of his audience.

Or maybe it's just that, as Harry told Sally, sex ruins everything for Mamet. Strange, then, that man-on-man love is what ties up all the loose narrative ends of Romance. The story, if you can call it that, revolves around the trial of a chiropractor for - well, we never know what, exactly, that's the play's MacGuffin. The script's genuine action begins when the defense lawyer, in private consult with the Jewish defendant, explodes that a particularly recondite rhetorical strategy is "talmudic . . . so Jewish . . ." He immediately apologizes profusely, and awkwardly, for this blast of seemingly honest ethnic contempt. As an excuse he claims he's exhausted, because he had to get up early to drive his kid to a hockey game at church. To which his client calmly responds, "So, do you think the priest will have his dick out of your kid's ass by the time you pick him up?"
Nice. And things move on, or perhaps down, from there; the scene devolves (or escalates!) into a wild orgy of slurs, some second-hand, but genuinely clever, others newly-formed things of beauty. Then comes the odd meta-insult of the play - a weird scene between the gay prosecuting attorney and his be-thonged lover, in a sex pad decorated in something like Caravaggio-meets-David-Hockney, in which it's revealed that this kike Mamet has no idea how actual faggots like me behave. (In case you can't tell, this review is taking the same stylistic turn as its subject.) Or maybe that is the idea (after all, later on a key character inquires of that gay attorney, "So what do you guys actually do?"). 

 Still, if the scene is unbelievable on its surface, it resonates slightly structurally, because Mamet intends us to understand that gay sex is the hil-arious mystery secret, the double-identity charm that will allow this farce to function. In ancient times, of course, this secret was usually identified with someone at the bottom of the social strata (a woman, or a slave) - and at the ART, that be-thonged lover isn't just gay, but also black, just to touch both bases, apparently. Most interestingly, he's also accorded a name (all the other characters are described by social role) - "Bunny." Thus, he's human, and not defined by his function - or is he? After all, "Bunny" is a kind of patronizing insult that references the ass - and yet is also weirdly close to "buddy," the ultimate man's-man term of affection. (See this is one of those moments that I think maybe Mamet should just suck some cock to get it over with.)

But I digress. All these scenes, it turns out, have been mere prep for the wackily operatic slur-fest that takes up the entire second act, in which the trial resumes, with a judge (Will Lebow, above) who has overdosed on his allergy medication and thus begun to experience "psycho-active side-effects." Here Mamet pretty much abandons all plot, and motivation, too, and just goes after thematic pastiche and silly effects: because he wants to show us that his 'characters' are getting emotionally naked, for instance, he has the judge tear off his clothes for no reason, and Bunny likewise makes a surprising, gay-us ex machina appearance because the playwright needs to wrap things up, etc. 

Thus Romance basically stops being a play, but it remains a pretty funny essay, at least as delivered by Lebow, who manages to constantly connect the very disparate dots of Mamet's dialogue. And Lebow somehow channels a Paddy-Chayefsky or Norman-Lear-like Jewish-liberal befuddlement (we half-expect Bea Arthur to rise from the grave and do a walk-on) that keeps the goings-on endearing, and dodges the WASP-wannabe chill that is the ART's dominant mode.

For this, I suppose, is Mamet's sentimental point; in his world, it's the cold manipulation of masculine language that keeps us apart; once we just begin to get sloppy and honest, it doesn't really matter that we're insulting each other, because everybody has a secret shame that we'd all just be better off exposing. (Ah, that locker room again.) Indeed, at the end of Romance, characters begin spontaneously confessing to everything under the sun, while across town, a Mideast peace conference falls apart because of a single insult. Just one insult. Wow. Isn't that ironic? I mean romantic?

Well, thank God we've had Will Lebow to sell us this weird, over-extended but under-developed piece of dramaturgy. Indeed, rarely has a "play" depended quite so much on its central performance. Watching him take his bow, it struck me just how versatile this mainstay of the ART and Huntington has proved over the years (to be fair, Thomas Derrah and Remo Airaldi both crackled here, too) - and how much less we may be seeing him under the disco-gospel directorship of incoming Artistic Director Diane Paulus. Or should we actually be glad that the ART is cutting its already-tiny acting company loose, because that way we'll get to see them in better, more serious productions elsewhere? Let's hope that's the silver lining glimmering from the clouds of this theatre's coming season.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bedtime for critical bozos?

What can you say when you've watched a critic doze off twice during a show, and then read his/her highly mixed review of said performance, when it actually was one of the highlights of the season (which said critic might have indeed appreciated if he/she had been awake)?

That's this week's Professional (or should I say Unprofessional?) Quandary! And don't think it only rarely happens. I've dozed off myself during a few shows - Carmel O'Reilly's productions in particular used to work on me like Sominex, and I recently nodded off (appropriately enough) during Tranced at the Merrimack Rep. But I made a reference to this in my review. Also, I've never caught some shut-eye during anything great, or even half-way decent. (I know, I know, Louise Kennedy and Ronan Noone think Carmel O'Reilly is a genius. Right.) To be blunt, I've always been aware well before the mental curtain descended that what I was watching was in-credibly boring . . . boring . . . bor . .zzzzzz. . . .

But when everybody else (including the other critics) is riveted by a performance, but one particular éminence grise is nevertheless in dreamland (i.e., head slumped over, emitting a light snore), what is one to do? Perhaps next time I should be a bit more proactive with the old collegial elbow-jab!

Extra! Globe bites off nose to spite face!

Well, I guess that'll show 'em! The Boston Newspaper Guild gave the Times the finger on Monday night, and so guaranteed its members a bigger pay cut than they would have gotten otherwise. And so (surprise, surprise) the Times has begun actively seeking buyers for the Globe.

Sounds like a win/win, doesn't it! Just to add a dash of unintentional humor to this stew, the Phoenix's Adam Reilly informs us that the union took aim at management, but shot itself in the foot, because the Times seemed "callous and aloof" during negotiations and "neither Arthur Sulzberger nor CEO Janet Robinson ever visited the Globe to express their regret" over the situation.

All together now: awwwwwwwww.

Well, the Newspaper Guild has certainly sent Schulzberger and Robinson a message, hasn't it, and that message is "Screw us faster and harder, please!" No doubt they'll be happy to oblige. The "poison pill" wage cut clause in those negotiations was obviously designed to signal something like "The Times will hang on to you guys for a 10% wage cut, but to sell your sorry ass, we'll have to cut your pay by 23%!" Whether or not the union membership was clever enough to decode that missive is an open question, I suppose. Or perhaps the Globe's writers decided they'd rather work for Rupert Murdoch, or some private equity firm, than the Times - and that they were willing to take a pay cut to make that happen. But I hope they don't imagine that new owners will re-institute that lost pay. Or that the federal courts will (in an industry that's bleeding red ink!).

But who knows? I guess we'll have to stay tuned - and I have to admit this particular show is getting funnier and funnier the longer it runs.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Crowning achievement

Every ill wind, as the saying goes, blows someone some good, and ironically enough our current economic downdraft has wafted an operatic masterpiece our way: the Boston Early Music Festival, which generally devotes itself to extravagant obscura (which once or twice has turned out to be deservedly obscure) was forced by financial concerns to cancel Christoph Graupner's Antiochus und Stratonica and substitute Monteverdi's smaller-scaled, better-known masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea (with Gillian Keith and Marcus Ullmann, above left).

And with all due respect to Christoph Graupner (who knows, perhaps Antiochus and Stratonica is brilliant!) I have to say: lucky us. For Poppea has remained in the repertory for nearly four hundred years for a very good reason: it is simultaneously ravishing, heart-breaking, and startlingly profound, an amalgam of the warmest romance and the coldest irony that keeps us constantly on our emotional and intellectual toes. And while it's hardly unknown to the opera buff, it's rarely been seen in these parts - and, I'd hazard, rarely seen anywhere to better advantage. For not just the economic stars have aligned for this production: its setting, the Wimberley Theatre at the BCA, turns out to be a superbly intimate venue for chamber opera, and BEMF has assembled one of the best casts - in dramatic as well as vocal terms - in its history. In short, L'incoronazione di Poppea is good enough to make you feel that the downturn in your 401(k) may just have been worth it.

Still, marvelous as it is, this Poppea's not perfect. Specialists could disagree with some of the instrumental and vocal decisions made here (any performance must be "reconstructed" from two varying versions), but I've got no dog in any of those possible fights. There's a slight, but understandable, fudge to the tone of Gilbert Blin's direction, however, and there are vocal and/or dramatic gaps in the two leads (it's the supporting cast that pushes the opera well over the top). In the case of the direction, it must be said that the tone of this libretto (by Giovanni Francesco Busenello) is among the subtlest challenges in opera, and one that puts to shame the seemingly tinny ironies of most modernist and postmodernist works. The piece centers on the Roman emperor Nero and his consort Poppea, whom he eventually crowns as empress, after disposing of his understandably-scheming queen Ottavia (banishment), the protesting philosopher Seneca (death), and Poppea's own husband Ottone (again banishment, but this time with the loyal Drusilla by his side, whom he slowly learns to deserve). But Poppea's day in the sun didn't last long: once pregnant, she was kicked to death by her unstable hubby. So "The Triumph of Love" this ain't.

Oh, but it is. Perhaps only Vladimir Nabokov has pulled off the kind of trick that Monteverdi and Busenello manage with L'incoronazione di Poppea: an ode to love which simultaneously seduces and sobers - even horrifies. The opera begins with a standard-issue quarrel among the gods (here Virtue, Fortune, and Love) over who has the most power over life on Earth. Love claims precedence, of course, and then sets about proving her dominion via the elevation of the lovely Poppea against all arguments of reason, political justice or morality. But hey, that's amore! That Poppea is wedding a budding sociopath, and that her ascension will wreak havoc on the state (Seneca prepares for his "suicide," at right), are but trifles before the power of sexual attraction.

What proves most haunting about Poppea, however, is that throughout this ongoing moral and political travesty Monteverdi manages to keep some level of sympathy with everyone (even Nero). Because all the characters are at some level a victim of emotional or political forces beyond their control. (Even Poppea is the plaything of her own beauty.) But this perspective requires, at bottom, a certain chill in a production's conception of Love - the godlet can't be merely some mischievous putti, but requires at least the alien distance of Shakespeare's Ariel, and perhaps even the terrifying calm of Apollo while flaying Marsyas. Director Blin, however, keeps soprano Nell Snaidas's Amore well within a certain winking cuteness, which is fine at first but begins to feel inadequate to the eventual size of the opera's moral debate. To be fair, the director does work Virtue and Fortune back into the action at appropriate moments, but then he seems to drop the ball again with Nero and Poppea, whose relationship isn't nearly glamorously twisted enough - although one could argue that the central gap here is simply Marcus Ullmann's Nero. Ullmann was re-purposed from the cast of Antiochus und Stratonica, and he's none too comfortable with the upper vocal reaches of his new role (which was originally written for a soprano), and perhaps that's hampering him dramatically. But at the same time he is simply neither a complex nor powerful enough presence to anchor the opera - which leads to an implicit presentation of Poppea (Gillian Keith) as a gold-digger, another slight error in interpretation. But if Keith doesn't quite limn the fearful uncertainty of her political position, she nonetheless sings the role ravishingly, with a honeyed soprano that is simultaneously light, rich, and luminously subtle.

And the vocal riches just keep on coming, generally combined with pitch-perfect dramatic characterizations. Stephanie Houtzeel all but steals the show as the spurned Ottavia, with a vocal power and a tragic hauteur that would have filled a much larger house. She was nearly matched in stature, however, by Christian Immler's Seneca - Immler deployed his deeply vibrant voice to poignant effect, while holding back dramatically from any overt melodrama; thus his preparation for his suicidal bath was probably the most heart-rending scene on a local stage in recent memory.

The list of wonderful performances in this production is long, however. Amanda Forsythe made an emotionally compelling and vocally radiant Drusilla, while as her eventual mate Ottone, Holger Falk negotiated many an emotional twist without missing a beat, all while sporting an agile and rich baritone (although he too was occasionally stretched in his upper register). Another scene-stealer was Laura Pudwell as Poppea's nurse (above) - an earthy busybody straight out of Shakespeare. I was also taken with Deborah Rentz-Moore's Virtue, Ross Hauck's Lucano, and Jesse Blumberg's Mercurio. And all received truly dazzling accompaniment from the period orchestra, which featured particularly sparkling work from Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs on Baroque guitar and theorbo (those giraffe-like period banjos), Luca Guglielmi and Jörg Jacobi on harpsichord, and Maxine Eilander on Baroque harp. It was hard not to feel as the curtain fell (to rapturous applause), that L'incoronazione di Poppea would prove the cultural event of the summer, and perhaps the Boston Early Music Festival's crowning achievement.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Shakespeare syndrome

The many Shakespeares?

A recent post on the Arts Fuse brings word that a "symposium" was held in Watertown last weekend for "Oxfordians" - that is, people obsessed with the idea that Shakespeare was not actually "the man from Stratford" (as they call the actor/manager whose contemporaries collected and edited most of the canon, and published it under his name), but was instead Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, whose portrait is appended to several supposed likenesses of Shakespeare, above.

There is, of course, no actual evidence linking Edward de Vere to Shakespeare's plays. Zip. Zero. And he died too early to have written several of the them (that is, unless we pretend along with the Oxfordians that Macbeth, The Tempest and others could actually have been written well before there's any mention of them in the historical record - the truly bizarre Oxfordian chronology is available here).

But the Oxfordians distract opponents from this lack of historical evidence with parallels between the texts of the canon and de Vere's biography - and these are, to be sure, plentiful and intriguing. De Vere traveled to Europe (while as far as we know Shakespeare didn't), and his travels map neatly to the locales of Shakespeare's plays; likewise, his personal life contains echoes of the plot of Hamlet, and offers a possible explanation to the mystifying "biography" seemingly evinced by the sonnets.

There are many more such correspondences - enough to make any reasonable person scratch his or her head and ponder whether there's any truth to this particular rumor. But Oxfordian textual claims are easily undermined by the possibility that Edward de Vere may indeed have been a model for Hamlet without having been the author of Hamlet. (As it's known that de Vere sponsored theatre companies and therefore probably mixed with actors privately, it's quite possible Shakespeare could have picked his brain for all manner of details for Hamlet, or other plays.) Indeed, after a little thought, one realizes that the central Oxfordian argument is a bit like insisting that F. Scott Fitzgerald was secretly a Long Island millionaire, or that J.R.R. Tolkien must have been a hobbit.

Indeed, the real mystery about the "man from Stratford" is why so many people have tried to usurp his authorship (almost always in the name of a nobleman, which is rather telling). The Oxfordians themselves point out that Shakespeare is unique in this regard; there are plenty of lacunae in the biographies of other major authors, and composers, and artists, but only Shakespeare has inspired a virtual cottage industry devoted to denying his authorship.

Why is this so? If societies are prone to collective neuroses, as Freud claimed, then what accounts for "the Shakespeare syndrome" (which the good doctor himself fell into)?

Well, one obvious cause is the genuinely strange disjuncture between an achievement that later ages deemed perhaps the greatest artistic legacy ever left by anyone, and the seeming indifference to that legacy exhibited by its author. In a word, when Shakespeare retired, he seemed to shrug off the fact that, as Harold Bloom would have it, he had just "invented the human." There are hints that he collaborated on a few more texts, but his affairs in retirement (and the handful of documents that survive from the period) are utterly quotidian. And he made no effort to gather up, edit, or publish his own work, as Ben Jonson did. What's more, upon his sudden death there seems to have been no outpouring of public mourning (although eventually a monument was raised in Stratford).

I agree that this makes Shakespeare an unusual case, although not quite as unusual in Elizabethan or Jacobean eyes as modern ones (the whole idea of editing and publishing "collected works" was in fact brand new at the time). But for the Oxfordian theory to pass muster, it must, of course, offer a more reasonable explanation for this strange, eventful history than the "Stratford theory" does.

But it doesn't. Indeed, if Edward de Vere actually wrote the canon, his behavior is even more bizarre than that of "the man from Stratford." It's possible, of course, that de Vere used Shakespeare as a front for his plays, as it was widely thought inappropriate for noblemen to write for the theatre (and we know other noblemen used pseudonyms and fronts for their efforts). But this explanation can't actually cover the sonnets, as other noblemen wrote sonnets - and de Vere himself even published a few. What's more, these are generally thought inferior to Shakespeare's, and a computer analysis found little stylistic similarity between his work and the Bard's. Now perhaps there was a bug in that software - but we're still being asked by the Oxfordians to believe that de Vere would publicly take credit for his lesser work while crediting his greater work to someone else. Likewise contemporary accounts actually mention de Vere's plays, and even cite their quality. So he was, in fact, known as a playwright among his set at the time. Oxfordians are therefore in a pretty tight logical knot - their argument is that de Vere was keeping his writing a secret even while his writing was being discussed in public. And that he was taking credit for his weak work, while granting credit for the greatest artistic achievement in history to a nobody from a hick town outside London. And that no one in de Vere's set wanted to rectify that miscarriage of literary justice after his death - while friends of the "man from Stratford" were eager to gather together and publish the same work under Shakespeare's name. Huh?

As I think is pretty clear, the Oxfordian "explanation" for the Shakespearean mystery is actually no explanation at all. Instead, it's a parallel, competing mystery. Of course someday some sort of factual evidence linking de Vere to the canon may emerge. But until then, I'm afraid I'll continue to think of the Oxfordian theory as the latest manifestation of "the Shakespeare syndrome."