Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting Albee's Goat

This is the second time in three years that Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? has been trotted out to shock the locals; the play first kicked up its heels at the Lyric Stage, in a production that won actress Paula Plum an IRNE, and has just closed a run at Gloucester Stage, which has been enjoying a generally strong summer season. So why has Albee's ode to livestock now been re-purposed as summer stock? Perhaps because, to tell true, the envelope-pushing premise of Albee's nastily funny near-masterpiece still scandalizes: his hero, Pritzker prize-winning architect Martin, ensconced in a glorious haute-bourgeois lifestyle in a postmodernly be-columned home, with a beautiful, accomplished wife and a trendily gay son in tow, has fallen in love with Sylvia, the eponymous barnyard beauty, and has descended into besotted bestiality.

Which is, of course, both utterly funny and utterly disgusting - i.e., a classic Albee trope - and the author plays both sides of this tennis match of violated social norms expertly; thus the summer crowd up at Gloucester found itself laughing and gasping in about equal measure. And there's a weirdly disturbing political edge to the work as well: as this gay playwright needlingly reminds us, it wasn't so long ago that gay love was as beyond the pale as goat love, and he makes wicked hay out of the fact that Martin's wife could extravagantly embrace her ass-fucking son while extravagantly rejecting her goat-fucking hubby.

But then again, Albee's not really out to make a case for "zoos" (as I believe they call themselves - don't ask me how I know that). Instead, he's digging around in our current culture of tolerance for something, anything, that might bring down into the modern drama something like the fury of Greek tragedy (indeed, Albee tosses in a ref to the Furies themselves, and designer Eric Levenson has cleverly given us a set that's a kind of new age Greek temple, with a family photo on its altar). For after all, Oedipus was the original motherfucker, and other Greek heroes and heroines were prone to such indiscretions as dismembering their own children - ancient tragedy all but depended on taboo. With that principle in mind, Albee wants to take us to the brink of real extremity, and he understands that in doing so, his tragedy must vacillate on the edge of farce.

And the current Gloucester Stage production often trembles on this thrilling edge, at least when actress Anne Gottlieb (above, with Robert Pemberton as Martin) is melting down before our eyes as wronged wife Stevie, who gets one of the best arias of outrage in the Albee canon. I wondered if Gottlieb (whom I myself have worked with before, and was impressed by) could make me forget Plum, but to tell true, she makes the role utterly her own; she manages to make Stevie more vulnerable, tortured, and vengeful than I remembered, even while hanging onto the precise farcical mechanics which power her speeches, and make them horrifying hilarious (Stevie basically smashes everything in the house over the course of her big scene).

Co-star Robert Pemberton keeps up with Gottlieb here and elsewhere, but on his own he seems much less confident in his portrayal of Martin, and director Eric C. Engel doesn't seem to understand the tone of the opening scenes, in which Martin's dark secret tugs at his subconscious mercilessly (he finally spills the beans to his best buddy, an adequate but not quite forceful enough Dennis Trainor, Jr.). The last man in the cast doesn't fare too well, either - Jesse Rudoy seems determined not to play toward gay cliché as the couple's bewildered son, but hasn't quite developed a credible alternative for the role, either.

But all this is forgotten in the last, wrenching scene, in which Stevie returns to her ruined hearth and home, having made good on her promise of revenge - and poor Sylvia makes her only on-stage appearance. Fortunately, at this point Pemberton threw himself utterly into Martin's emotional death throes, and Gottlieb was more chillingly believable than ever. And somewhere, the Furies were smiling.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More festivity

Today I'm off to my final summer theatre festival - the one I've been going to for something like 25 years, Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The eight plays on tap for the weekend are: The Importance of Being Earnest, A Midsummer Night's Dream (at left, with Yanna McIntosh and Geraint Wyn Davies) Julius Caesar, Bartholomew Fair (Jonson), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Three Sisters, Phèdre, and a new play, Zastrossi (George F. Walker). This means that, after the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe, I've actually seen more plays this month than there were days in the month - 32 different productions, in fact. (Take that, Larry Stark!) Not that I wouldn't be happy to do it again next month (indeed, I'm planning a Chicago theatre outing for the fall). In the meantime, stay tuned for the Canada recap.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A glittering La Cage

It's a little weird shifting gears from the homophobic oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino to the glitzy, too-gay world of Jerry Herman, but I owe Reagle Players a quick look back at their La Cage aux Folles, which closed last weekend.

Reagle has had something of a rollercoaster ride this summer, with the local press paying more attention than usual now that the North Shore Music Theatre, the only other bastion of the American musical in the area, has gone belly-up. The season was given over to a celebration of Herman's three biggest hits - Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage, all of them solid showcases for Reagle's nostalgic formula of professional leads, community support, and the budget to "recreate" the scale and flash of the original productions. Alas, the press spotlight shown most intensely on Reagle's Mame, a generally solid production that was hobbled by its star.

With La Cage, the company bounced back - with, sadly enough, not many in the press paying much attention. Even more ironically, the show's success (like Mame's failure) was largely due to the talents of its star, David Engel (at left), who was just about everything you'd want in both a leading man and lady. Engel is a serious triple threat - he can act, sing, and dance; only make that a sextuple threat, because he can do all of those in heels and a boa, too. He's also a looker, and a seriously glamorous presence in pants - which actually probably isn't quite right for Zaza, who is often portrayed as a bit of a frump offstage (while hubby Georges is the suave glamourpuss). But that hardly mattered when Engel tore into a take-no-prisoners version of "I Am What I Am," which probably counted as the most powerful vocal performance of the year so far.

Engel towered over the production, although he received solid backup from Broadway vet Jamie Ross, who immediately established an easy rapport with the audience as Georges (Ross had played the role against George Hearn in the original Broadway run). Still, in terms of sheer performance energy, Ross couldn't quite keep up, and though the couple easily pulled off the surface emotion of Herman's beautifully schmaltzy love scenes, their underlying emotional connection remained, well, elusive.

The audience didn't seem to mind, though - indeed, they ate the show up, as straight crowds of a certain age always do. This is because Herman (and book writer Harvey Fierstein) have smoothed away any stray strands of controversy from the original farce (the hints of drug use, the parody of domestic violence) and poured on the long-term-couple-nostalgia, complete with French love songs on accordions and sugary old stars glittering in the twilit sky. The cynic in me has to mention, of course, that even though Georges and Albin are both male, the gender roles in their relationship are completely "traditional"; thus if one of them is a drag queen, why should a good Republican mind? After all, don't a lot of Republican wives begin to look like drag queens anyway? (Oh stop it, you know I'm right.) Two gay tops thrashing out a relationship would be quite a different musical, I'm afraid, but in the meantime you could almost hear all the straight couples in the crowd singing along with "Song on the Sand." No wonder this show was a hit.

Of course that hit status was also largely due to the "Cagelles," the famous high-kicking chorus in which the girls might be girls, or might not! In the original Broadway production, the gender line was, indeed, tantalizingly indeterminate. This was perhaps less true at Reagle, but again, it hardly mattered - those boys (and girls) could kick and do splits better than the best Rockette (and here they re-appeared at the curtain call in their gender-specific street clothes, which was a nice, we're-all-just-folks touch). Indeed, the first act's long show-within-a-show was probably the highlight of the Reagle production; the costumes were smashing, the glittering backdrop just right, the Cagelles tossed off back-flips, and Engel held court in high, campy style - the whole thing made me nostalgic for the lost world of classy after-midnight entertainment that existed before drag began to go the way of pro wrestling. Sigh. Forget about romance - even being gay isn't what it used to be!

But back to La Cage. Director David Scala did a solid job with the show, and was credited with "recreating" the "entire original production" in the program - but I began to wonder at the wisdom of this idea. Reagle simply doesn't have the resources, in the Waltham High auditorium, to "recreate" the sets of a Broadway house (the costumes are a different story), and the resulting realizations, though they went through some miraculous transformations given their confines, looked a little threadbare; the show was most dazzling when it relied on simple, but effectively glamorous, backdrops and drapes. Perhaps a general trend toward simple-but-elegant could benefit Reagle in the set department. With so much being done well in these shows, it would be nice to see their physical settings truly sparkle as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Did Tarantino prime us for Cheney?

Did one inglourious basterd facilitate our acceptance of the other?

I confess I've been checking in regularly over at Parabasis as Isaac Butler has gone into full ethical meltdown mode - I can't even keep track of the conflicts of interest and levels of hypocrisy he's now juggling on a daily (or maybe hourly) basis. Still, you have to hand it to Isaac, the Vassar-speak and self-regard keep flowing in about equal measure, however ludicrous the self-serving arguments become.

But at the same time I've been drawn into an interesting debate elsewhere on the site about Quentin Tarantino. I've simply mentioned that as one of the leading forces in the mainstreaming of torture into American pop culture (via Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, various scenes in Kill Bill, and of course his producer credits on Eli Roth's Hostel movies), it seems obvious that there's a link between Tarantino's oeuvre and the political culture that aids and abets American torture today. In historical terms, Tarantino is Dick Cheney's artistic avatar.

This, of course, leads to all sorts of complicated arguments and denials, some of which it's worth working through, I think, for the light they shed on the assumptions of our critics and the film-going audience. Many people like to imagine that "sophisticated" aesthetic thinking must insulate the artist from his political milieu (and his influence on said milieu) - yet at the same time, of course, the efforts of "politically correct" critics to condemn, say, racism in film, etc., must be absurd if we simultaneously accept their thesis on Tarantino.

My gut is that, yes, Tarantino has always been a sadistic political reactionary cloaked in a "progressive" pop disguise, and that this irony is intensely abhorrent to his fans (for obvious psychological reasons). To me, the correspondence between Tarantino (and Roth, James Wan and Leigh Wannell and the rest) and the likes of Dick Cheney and John Woo, is at least suggestive, and generally, I admit, convincing; my gut feeling is that there is a moral loop between the political and the cultural spheres. But how Tarantino has operated within the political context of the past two decades is a longer topic than I can manage in a single post. Perhaps there's yet ANOTHER multi-post series in the Hub Review's future . . .

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Signs of the times, postmodern irony division

Sigh. Do I find it dispiriting that Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basturds (yes, that's my own idiosyncratic spelling, but it's drawn from an error-ridden title card in a lost print of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box) should be enjoying a huge, widely-promoted release right now, with its Cannes award for best actor touted in all the publicity, while Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (above), which actually won top prize at Cannes, is nowhere on the local film horizon (it's not even coming to New York until Christmas)?

Well, yes, but I find it no more dispiriting than, say, Sarah Palin's career. Come to think of it, there's some deep correspondence between Tarantino and Palin, it seems to me. Then again, everyone and everything I hate strikes me as having a deep correspondence with Sarah Palin.

At any rate, to you few Haneke fans out there, the trailer for Ribbon emerged last week, and you can see it (in German) here. And ponder "a world in which the serious art film is more marginalized than it ever was" (to parody the trailers at the Kendall Square) - despite the rise of the "arthouse," and DVDs, and Netflix, and what-have-you - all while Tarantino's brand of perv-y popcorn (this time even on the same subject as the real thing, i.e., Nazi Germany) is sold in its place. (Meanwhile, if you want to see a "real" movie about a "real" war we're currently in, there's still time to catch The Hurt Locker).

In other news, "I told you so" division, word reaches us that Isaac Butler of the blog Parabasis, who has insisted that he is not, in effect, a "journalist," is now doing his "first ever" review for Time Out New York. So he is a journalist after all. That didn't take long. I eagerly await Isaac's convoluted justification for this - as well as his posting a video of his new employer on his site; no doubt he'll be able to make his motives sound as pure as Mother Teresa's. Meanwhile, maybe Matthew Freeman and 99 seats will begin, at last, to smell the coffee . . . or whatever it is Butler's serving . . .

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How did this happen?

At a time when the MBTA seems to be falling a little bit further apart every day, I thought it would be nice to give a little credit where credit is due. The new Maverick Square Station on the Blue Line (above, photographed by yours truly) has just opened in my neighborhood, and it's pretty wonderful - far better than anyone had a right to believe it could be (below left, the modernist bunker it replaced, which looks like something that crawled out of Government Center - truly, a building only Robert Campbell could love!). How was this allowed to happen? It's incredible how much the designers got right - even the traffic flow in the square has been improved by the new curb and crosswalk designs. Why didn't some committee within the MBTA shoot this down? How come neighborhood input didn't ruin the design? Clearly someone was not doing their job!

But thank God DMJM Harris (now AECOM), a global engineering outfit specializing in transit, was doing their job - which may be why the design is an unmannered combination of traditional forms, sparkling with lightness and transparency,with a dozen good ideas squeezed into it (the brand-new bike racks below; there's even a tiny clock tower at one corner). It's not, I admit, perfect - the concrete floor down below looks like it may not hold up well, and there's the usual lack of construction craftsmanship here and there. But these caveats seem like nothing before the overwhelming success of the above-ground pavilion. Yes, Virginia, good public design is possible - even in Boston.

Opening the Curtain on Emily Glassberg Sands, Part III

Once again we interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to return to the ongoing saga of Emily Glassberg Sands and her struggle to find evidence of sexism on the stage! This week we'll ponder the really interesting part of Sands's study, the one that has generated the most "controversy" - and the one section which could prove a genuine contribution to our understanding of this fraught topic.

No doubt you've heard this by now, but as part of her widely-discussed (though rarely-read) undergraduate thesis, Sands conducted a clever experiment with regional-theatre artistic directors and literary managers as its unknowing subjects. Sands was trying to tease out data regarding sexist reactions to scripts by female playwrights - but how to do it? How to control for everything in the complicated world of play development except for that single variable?

Drawing on the recent tradition of "audit studies," Sands hit on an ingenious solution to her problem. Posing as a researcher into the process of play development, she sent out (to some 252 theatres) unpublished passages from scripts contributed by leading female playwrights - Lynn Nottage, Julia Jordan, Tanya Barfield, and Deb Laufer (Nottage top left, Jordan middle right, Barfield lower left, Laufer bottom right). Only Sands changed the names on half the sample to "male" pseudonyms (she thoughtfully controlled for potential reactions to the synthetic names themselves by choosing bland, but not too bland, sobriquets like "Michael Walker"). In the end, half of her (randomized, as far as possible) sample got the original script with the female name attached; the other half got the same script with a male name attached. Hence Sands effectively controlled for every variable except the gender of the playwright. To entice busy artistic directors to participate in her survey, she even promised that if they read the scripts in question and answered her questions, their theatre would be entered into a lottery with a cash prize (this struck me as the most astutely deceptive ploy in her entire paper; trust me, Emily will go far).

But the results of this experiment, as is well known, elicited gasps from feminists everywhere: while men rated the plays in question exactly the same regardless of gender, women judged the samples more harshly when they believed a woman had written them. And by a rather significant margin.

Since then, argument has raged over the cause of this counter-intuitive result. Yet I've seen little discussion regarding the content of the texts in question, which to my mind could have some bearing on these findings. For there could be a subtle behavioral problem buried in Sands's method that no mathematical analysis could address. To understand what this might be, you first have to appreciate that the negative ratings which Sands found were derived not from any "global" assessment of script quality, but from two axes of response - the likability of the play's characters (particularly its female characters), and the perceived probability of the play's success.

As it seems probable, given the genesis of this study, Sands's occasional fudging of her data to fit her own views, and the general response to her results, that there is a widespread female faith in the existence of sexism in the theatre, the low "probability of success" rating for a female-written play is hardly surprising. (Nor, to be fair, is male indifference to this possibility; the self-flattering denial of possible sexism by men is a well-known phenomenon.)

But when it comes to that "likability" rating, I think we have to dig a little deeper, and consider the texts in question. After all, Sands sent out only four scripts, and a character described simply as a "female" data point might actually range in profile from Lady Macbeth to Anne of Green Gables. And would it be such a shock if women reacted differently to a controversial female character written by a woman rather than a man? It's no secret, after all, that minority audiences unconsciously view characters as social emblems - and thus a negatively-drawn female character written by a woman could stir up greater feelings of unconscious betrayal in women than in men. Perhaps that's unfortunate, or even wrong - but is it the same thing as sexism? If a Jew reacted more acutely to an unlikable Jewish character written by another Jew, would we accuse him or her of internalized anti-Semitism? I don't think so. (Indeed, we might take it as evidence of pro-Semitism!)

And it's worth noting that this is a key difference between Sands's study and earlier studies such as Cecilia Rouse's famous paper on sexism in the classical music world. Rouse found indisputable evidence of sexism in orchestral auditions - a bigotry which has been (slowly) corrected by "blind auditions," in which the performer plays behind a screen. (After this practice took hold, the number of women in America's orchestras exploded.)

But while classical music reflects on its audience, composer, and performers, of course, we still "identify" with its content and style in a less specific way than we identify with stage characters. In other words, if a member of a minority plays a specific musical passage, it's unlikely that his or her listeners would consider its musical content a critical portrait of their own minority. But that's what theatre audiences tend to do, almost automatically. Characters serve as direct avatars in a way that musical statements do not. And thus feelings about characters are inevitably bound up with who wrote them.

So the response of female readers to female characters in female-written scripts could be scrambled if the characters were perceived as "negative" in some way. But again, almost no one in the press or blogosphere seems to have read the material at hand. Sands included the four excerpts distributed to her literary managers and artistic directors as an appendix to her study, and so after I had finished her paper, I went on to read them as well.

And I have to confess I was slightly disappointed in their quality. Two were tight and punchy, and I imagine good actors could make something of all four. But none were particularly original, indeed most echoed the works of other (male) writers. And none were better than the best entrants I saw in the recent Boston Theatre Marathon, or other original scripts I've seen recently. It was hard to feel, therefore, that these particular texts would stand out in the commercial marketplace, given the stiff competition - likewise, it was easy to see why artistic directors might not get too excited about them.

And yet these authors had been heaped with awards - between them, they boasted a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur "Genius" grant, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, The American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg Citation, the Kleban Award, and the Francesca Primus Prize; they have been Lucille Lortel Fellows and Juilliard Fellows and Resident Playwrights, and have received grants from Lincoln Center. And yet these seemingly awesome talents aren't any better, minute by minute, than the women and men writing for free for the Boston Theatre Marathon! I inevitably found myself pondering a possible gap between the soft politics of the awards scene and the quality demands of the marketplace. (If you think I'm being harsh, you can read the texts yourself here.)

I also think it's worth noting that most of the scripts were at least implicitly political - not always an easily sell - and most had women as lead characters, and none of these women was particularly, well, likable. Neither were the men, it's true; indeed, there was an at best sardonic attitude toward all the characters (of course this tone may have modulated or disappeared over the course of the entire play; Sands only distributed a roughly 10-page scene from each - still, that's what her participants read). The men of the plays were either corrupt, weak, or dopily immature - one unseen male was described as "nasty, bitter, nihilistic, misogynist, but likable" - but they were still portrayed as more powerful and self-directed than the women, who were usually seen as dependent, selfish, or, as the same playwright described one of her female characters, "increasingly bitter and angry." Meanwhile another woman was deemed "the ultimate five-armed mother; controls every situation and everyone around her." (Hmmmm. Sexist cliché, anyone?) The one exception to this loose, general rule was a woman dallying sexually with her best friend's college-age son - a controversial form of empowerment, to be sure, and one I can well imagine raising hackles in mature female readers with horny sons of their own.

What was obvious to me was that none of these female characters was drawn particularly positively - at best, they had their points to make, but I felt neither sympathy nor identification with any of them, and certainly none of them were "heroines." And to be blunt, in a sexist (or perhaps more accurately, a perceived sexist) environment, this could cause trouble for a playwright. I could also hear a certain axe grinding away behind much of the dialogue - the expected edge of disgruntled feminism was obvious throughout at least three of the scripts, with its unhappy whine aimed at women as well as men. So the "quality" of the texts was inevitably entangled not only with how female readers might feel about women portrayed by other women, but also how they felt about feminism portrayed by other women, another fraught topic if ever there was one.

So perhaps the results of Sands's audit study shouldn't surprise us at all. Indeed, perhaps these ironic artifacts of the assumption of sexism are what's important about her study. For it's worth remembering that Sands has utterly failed to find any hard data proving sexism in the theatre - which, of course, does not mean it doesn't exist; yet when you also consider that the one piece of hard data she's got actually only proves a belief in sexism on the part of women, one does have to wonder what portrait, exactly, of the theatrical scene her study paints. Indeed, I have to say I find something deeply funny about this whole affair - Sands's female correspondents seem to be in knots about issues that her male correspondents don't even see. Meanwhile, if none of these female-written scripts ever saw production, it's hard to say that we'd have missed anything special! Funnier still, Sands's study could be seen as indicating that the best way to fight sexism would be to have only men read new plays. More on that, and other ironic fallout from the Sands affair, in future posts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Beyond the Fringe

The startling power and grace of Circa.

The thing you must understand about the Edinburgh Fringe is that it is impossible. You tell yourself there cannot really be over 300 venues. There cannot be over 1,000 performances a day. There cannot be hundreds of thousands of visitors. All that is impossible.

And yet there are, there are, and there are.

And so it's appropriate that this impossibility takes place in a fantasy of turrets and towers, a kind of stone coral grown from the ridge running from the crags of Edinburgh Castle to the lawn of Holyrood Palace (the Queen's crib when she's in town), with hundreds of buskers and performers swimming through the arches and "closes" and "wynds" like so many pilot fish in a gothic barrier reef.

You must also understand that this is all addictive. I was scheduling myself for four shows a day (things get going around 10 am and don't stop till after midnight). But still I found myself thinking, "I have two hours and a half hours between Merrily We Roll Along and Death of a Samurai - if I hustle, maybe I can squeeze in Faust!"

But what you must realize is that everywhere you go in Edinburgh, you will encounter stairs. Everywhere. And they all go uphill. So dashing from one venue to the next is the equivalent of a turn on a Stairmaster. With a mime by your side. Thus exhaustion begins to track you like a phantom, no matter how much you really want to see that rap version of Origin of Species. You must eventually rest.

The witches from an unconventional production of Macbeth take to the streets.

And, of course, eat. Which brings us to what you must also understand about Edinburgh: the Scots do not view food the same way we do. Not for them the four basic food groups, or the nutrition pyramid, or your average daily requirement of those effeminate abstractions known as vitamins. This is, after all, a land where men go commando in wool skirts, god bless'em, despite daily high wind. So it's no surprise the Scots do not have a diet; they have an attitude. There are six things available to eat, and these things are: 1) Haggis; 2) Whiskey; 3) The local stout, but no other; 4) Scones with butter; 5) Smoked Salmon; and 6) Haggis. What more could you want? If you do not like these things, simply do not go to Scotland (as you won't last long). Although even if you do like them, you may sense a growing vitamin deficiency over the time of your stay. So pack your 1-a-Days, girly-man.

Although there may be a full complement of iron, at least, in some of the single malts available, due to the "peaty notes" one constantly hears they conceal. Yes, peat = dirt, but never you mind. Aren't you used by now to wine that tastes "grassy"? So drink up.

And btw, you have until dawn to do so. During the Fringe, the pubs stay open till 5 AM. (Normally that cruel last call is at 3!) In Boston, of course, this would be a recipe for overturned cars, smashed windows, dead students, and other mayhem. In Edinburgh, it leads to college boys, arm in arm, slurrily singing in the street at 2 AM. Perhaps they save their aggression for soccer matches; or perhaps they're just more good-natured than we are - certainly in Edinburgh I sensed that the level of distrust and paranoia that is all but constant in the States had mysteriously lifted. Strangers chatted in the street; when I was caught in a sudden downpour, a lady offered me her extra "brelly"; when a friend was jostled in a pub and spilled his drink, the guilty party happily bought him a new one.

Jane Austen's Guide to Pornography, a show I wish I'd seen!

I suppose it may be silly to link this sociability to a habit of theatregoing, but it's a tempting thesis, particularly when one perceives that at the Fringe, audience participation - even of the ribald sort (!) - was an eagerly indulged constant. People expect to make contact, they expect a forgiving spotlight may be turned their way, they don't want to have a mediated experience, they'd rather have an actual one. They don't want to relate to a screen or a site or a brand or a fucking rock band, they want to relate with other people in a communal fashion. And I immediately understood why the A.R.T. was famously booed at their one Edinburgh Festival appearance ("a torrent of jeering, derisive, mocking laughter issued from the stalls" - ah, if only that could happen here!). There is some seriousness at the Fringe and Festival (though more comedy); but there is very little pretension.

Perhaps because there's just no time for it; or perhaps because of the overwhelming atmosphere of practicality. Seeing a show at the Fringe goes something like this: first you find the venue on your tattered map of Edinburgh, with its 300 different little markers; sometimes you discover it is one of several tucked under the arches of an ancient bridge (as at the Underbelly, at left), or at the end of a back alley. Then you find your queue and get in it, grabbing a beer first if you have time (the Fringe runs on alcohol as well as adrenaline). At the last minute, the door to the venue suddenly swings open, and the previous audience files out. Then you file in - filling the seats up row by row. When the last person is seated, the door to the venue closes, and the house lights dim. And another show starts.

Under these conditions, it's true, I saw a lot of crap - that Merrily We Roll Along quickly ran aground, Faust in a Box should never have been opened, and there were other disappointments. In general I learned not to check out the weird classics-with-wild-new-angles, as the texts often had to be trimmed mercilessly to fit into the hour-and-a-half slots at most venues. I likewise learned to sniff out collegiate groups masquerading as professional ones.

Not that the local papers (or the Web) were much help: many of the Fringe reviewers turned out to be untrustworthy (just like the ones here!), although it was fun to become re-acquainted with purple pronouncements like "I don't think I could ever love someone who missed this show!" Word of mouth, however, was generally trustworthy, particularly about comics and physical theatre (so if you go, ask around in the line for tickets). And the powers-that-be were straightforward about content: "warning: extreme nudity" meant two naked people (above left) bumping uglies inches from your nose; "some nudity," by way of contrast, meant the occasional bare bum or boob safely up on stage. "Adult language" meant blueness deeper than the deep blue sea; the average f- or c-bomb didn't rate a mention. The only real surprise was the overweight Greek dude in skin-tight swim trunks (and wing-tips) who did some impromptu crowd-surfing and tried to kiss the guy in front of me.

The Royal Holloway Theatre production of Crave.

There were a few triumphs. The Australian troupe Circa (at top and left) took Cirque-du-Soleil-style gymnastics into genuinely troubling emotional territory, and climaxed with a squirm-inducing sequence in which a woman climbed over her near-naked paramour in spike heels. The Fall of Man, from Red Shift Theatre Company, smashed the banality of a squalid affair against Satan's rhetoric from Paradise Lost, to often unsettling effect. A one-man version of The Odyssey was a dazzling display of Lecoq training, even if it didn't quite limn the depths of Homer's masterpiece. Likewise a worthy production of Sarah Kane's Crave (promo above) opted for a too-too solid set (a diner, in fact) which in the end didn't illuminate much of this goth classic's darkness. Meanwhile Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen's "dark" cabaret act, "Dead Men Tell a Thousand Tales" was a macabre hoot - sample "dark" lyric: "Sodomy ain't just for animals, and human flesh ain't just for cannibals." (As an added bonus, these "Transylvanian troubadours" donned Mexican hats and deftly skewered the doomy whistling that always accompanies Quentin Tarantino's Taco Bell existentialism.) John Hinton's folk-rock take on The Origin of Species (Darwin's a local hero) was likewise charming - I'm still humming the number about the sex lives of barnacles, in fact. So what's that, six hits out of twenty tries? Not too shabby, I'd say. And will I be back next year? God willing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Off-topic, but the funniest thing I've seen in months

This is just crying out to be transformed into a sketch at the Boston Theatre Marathon. And I have to add #3 to his "lessons learned" at the finish: he is so lucky this happened to him - otherwise he might still be with this basket case.

The rude beast of conservative terrorism slouches nearer

Yes, I'm going to tell you all about Edinburgh, but first I have to say something about Amurrica.

One thing that was fascinating about being in Scotland for a week was perceiving the horrifying politics of my native land through a foreign lens. Over there, disbelief and hilarity met reports of the brownshirt-like antics of Republican and industry plants at health care "town halls," not to mention the claim that if the great Stephen Hawking had lived under the British national health care system, he would be dead by now (of course he's alive and well). In short, the British think we're insane about healthcare (and we are). Meanwhile the possible release of the dying Lockerbie bomber was being considered carefully (and with understandable debate) in the land where the notorious crash occurred - while Americans continued to scream, as has become our habit, for eternal and merciless vengeance.

Of course as some commentators have pointed out, the right-wing "crazy tree" is forever in bloom. But now comes this. For the second time, weapons - this time an assault rifle - have been seen outside a presidential event. I worried a few weeks ago that it was only a matter of time before we would experience a major outbreak of conservative, Republican-fomented terrorism on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing. And every day it seems we take a few more steps toward that terrible moment.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A note from Edinburgh

I have a few hours between shows this evening, so I thought I would post some lines to my half-forgotten blog. I've been seeing four shows a day since my arrival - and in between dashing to different sights in Edinburgh - so I'm fairly exhausted, if happy. The Fringe Festival is, indeed, like no other theatre festival I've ever attended - even if, to tell true, there's no quality control (anyone with the chutzpah and determination to snag a venue is officially on the list). But then again, did I really expect that the hand-puppet Much Ado About Nothing or the lip-synched Faust in a Box was going to work? In short, at the Fringe there are a few major, well-funded productions (which quickly sell out), and then zillions - and I mean zillions - of no-scenery, collegiate or amateur pet projects that are strictly hit or miss. Sometimes, it's true, they do hit the mark (both the rap and the folk-rock versions of Darwin's "Descent of Man" were, believe it or not, a riot), but I've been enduring a fair number of misses, too. Every time you step back out onto the Royal Mile, however, and find it teeming with thousands of theatregoers, and buskers, and live performers (within yards you'll find an African choir, a group of acrobats, and the cast of Sweeney Todd), you immediately find a weary smile has returned to your face. It's just incredible to be in a city in which it seems everyone is living and breathing theatre or music or dance. And then there's Edinburgh itself - a gothic fantasy of towers and turrets and dungeons and dark passages that feels like some sort of theatrical character in its own right. More when I return - I have to get ready to check out some sort of "Black Sea Cabaret" in a few minutes. That is if I return. I may just stay on till the money runs out.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Gone fishin'

The Hub Review has gone fishin' for fine performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I may find some free time to post. But I hope not.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Farewell to Venice

Titian's Danaë: the orgasm as blessing.

I confess it was with a heavy heart that I made a final pilgrimage to Titian Tintoretto Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the MFA last night. And indeed, my partner had to almost pull me bodily out of the gallery to get me to leave. I'm off to Scotland tonight, and so yesterday was my last chance to revisit the show (you still have a few opportunities, however, as it closes August 16), and so the pleasure I've gotten from these images was undercut by the melancholy realization that I will never see most of them again in my life.

If you're like me (and I know you're not), great pictures like Titian's Flora, at left, seem to you like both performances and talismans: you know you have to see them "live" to truly experience them, and yet they exist continuously somewhere, like beacons, or perhaps even charms, forever sending out their humanizing signals. After a lifetime of travel, you know where your favorites are in the major cities, and it's hard, if you're nearby, not to just duck in for a moment and make contact, however briefly. (This is why the popularity of tourist meccas like the new MOMA are such a disaster for people like me - this kind of drop-in communion has become almost impossible.)

Thus I won't feel the way I've felt at the MFA the last few months until I'm in Paris again, or Venice - although, actually, I'd also have to be in Rotterdam, Madrid, Naples and a dozen other cities, because the show cast such a wide international net. So, no, I will never feel this way again - I'll never see anything quite like the central, scarlet-draped room in this show, which faced off Titian's Danaë (above), Venus and Adonis, and Venus with a Mirror with Tintoretto's Susannah and the Elders. The only exhibition I've ever seen which equaled this experience was the famous Vermeer show in D.C. back in the 90's - where The Lacemaker, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Girl with a Red Hat all eyed each other from opposing walls.

Titian's Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and a Rabbit.

Yesterday's melancholy was at least somewhat alleviated by my finally getting a chance to hear curator Frederick Ilchmann, the exhibit's true begetter, discuss his triumph. Mr. Ilchmann proved insightful and brilliantly articulate, and was justifiably, yet charmingly, proud of the many coups he'd pulled off in his installation (that orgasmic "red room" was just one of many gambits). Ilchmann was coy about how, exactly, he'd managed to pull off the greatest Old Master show in our city's history - although it was clear that for years he'd been compiling a "little list" in his head of the secondary Titians and Tintorettos in Venice (and elsewhere) that he might someday be able to borrow - and then, when the MFA returned a group of antiquities of uncertain provenance to the Italian government, he made his move in an attempt to take advantage of the resulting good will. Eventually snagging the Louvre as a producing partner helped no end, of course (that's where one of my favorite Titians, the Giorgione-esque Madonna of the Rabbit, above, usually resides). But it was clear that this show, like all artistic triumphs, derived from an intersection of preparation, talent, and opportunity. And it was also clear someone should write Mr. Ilchmann a blank check for his next show immediately.

Of course any exhibit organized in the "Three Tenors" manner of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese is open to the criticism that its format limits our exposure to the full range of each artist. I suppose that's true, but who cares? Since we hardly ever see works of this quality by these artists (okay, there's one at this level in the Gardner), the criticism is essentially moot. Yet it's worth pointing out that the show simply could not evoke Veronese's true monumentality (you have to go to Italy for that), and could only give a partial sense of Tintoretto's truly bizarre range. (Although works like St. Louis, St. George, and the Princess, above right, with its dead ringer for Tintoretto revealing a beauty astride a very phallic dragon - while gazing at her own reflection in the artist's armor - gives you some idea of his sexual-mystical turmoil.)

Then again, maybe the early self-portrait at left could have given you another hint - the sense of raw sexuality, the woundedness, the sheer intelligence, it's all there in those louring, red-rimmed eyes. Seeing all that drain away in the show's final image, a second Tintoretto self-portrait (below right) done after the deaths of his rivals, was Ilchmann's most poignant gambit. All exhibitions are a kind of journey through an artist's life, but few give that impression as forcefully as Titian Tintoretto Veronese does. And that sense of mortality is hard to come by in today's art world, I think - perhaps because only age can understand it. Which is one reason why contemporary artists seem so superficial compared to the Old Masters.

Will play Schoenberg for food

In today's Exhibitionist, Geoff Edgers reminds us how lucky we are that the BSO is so expensive, and will remain so, thanks to its recent salary negotiations. Thank heaven we're not like Houston or Minneapolis, in which salaries were reduced! Only actually, in Minneapolis salaries weren't really 'cut,' as Geoff says - instead, wages will be frozen this year, and then rise at a slower rate over the next few years. Man, that's rough. Meanwhile, in Houston, musicians will have to take two weeks' unpaid furlough but a (small) pay increase will go through. Man, this recession's a bitch!

Only I wonder - the argument of many who supported the BSO's extravagant salaries was that orchestral salaries in distant cities were equally high. This was repeatedly described to me as "just economics." But if symphony salaries have slid in other cities . . . doesn't that same argument require that they should have slid here, too? (Well, maybe we'll have to wait until New York and L.A. begin to feel the pressure!)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The poster boy fights back, or The Decline and Fall of the Blogosphere, Part 2

Well, it didn't take long for Isaac Butler to react. Today he attempts something like a riposte to my post yesterday, in which he claims I made him "the poster boy for everything wrong with the blogosphere," but which was actually about the way his (self-admittedly) compromised position as a blogger made him unreliable as a web journalist. As I read his post, however, I found myself wishing he had mustered more of an argument - only because if he had, I might not have to slog ahead with my own thoughts about what is, in the end, a central problem of blogging, and an issue that could hold back its cultural profile.

But alas, he hasn't. Not that he realizes it. For as all thoughtful readers of Parabasis know by now, Butler is nothing if not fatuously self-congratulating. That's probably why I read him, actually; there's a certain charm, I admit, to checking in on someone who imagines you care that he's having a bad hair day. It's considerably less charming, however, to plug all the way through an intended self-justification and realize that, in the end, no real content has come to the fore. And what's more, that the post's author hasn't realized that.

But, wearying as it is, I'll briefly slice up Butler's "arguments":

First, he spends a good deal of time decrying that fact that I pointed out his self-interest is much like that of the corporations he has previously criticized:

"I would hope that most people can see very clearly the difference between what I'm talking about doing and what happened in the MSNBC-Fox-Olbermann-O'Reilly feud," he huffs.

But these differences - that he thinks we may have missed - turn out to be: a) Isaac Butler is not a multinational corporation, and b) he has no vested interests in the Iraq War. And these points are true. Forgive me, gentle readers, if you finished my post under the impression that Isaac Butler was a large corporation involved in the Iraq War!

None of this, of course, has any bearing on the principle involved in these two cases, which is, in a nutshell: self-interest. MSNBC and Fox News perceived that the Olbermann-O'Reilly feud was damaging their respective interests, so they silenced it. Butler perceives that criticisms of certain people would be a bad career move, so he doesn't post them.

But Butler adds:

"I'm openly discussing the dynamics that influence this blog and inviting people to further discuss them . . . Olberman [sic] is a professional journalist whose job it is to inform the public. I am an unpaid blogger who writes about issues I care about on a near-daily basis, etc."

Now the trouble here is that this isn't so much a valid justification as a re-statement of the problem. It's quite true that Butler has "openly discussed" the "dynamics" - i.e., the self-interest - that "influences" his blog. But as for "inviting people to discuss" that self-interest . . . well, what is there to discuss? It seems an opening statement might go something like, "Isaac, you really shouldn't let self-interest determine what's on your blog," to which he in turn would respond, "But that's not in my self-interest." Which would be true. And the 'discussion' would be over.

And let me add, in Keith Olbermann's semi-defense, that there's something mortifying about Butler's seeming belief that there's more honor in blithely admitting wrongdoing than in attempting to hide it. Can you imagine, for instance, Olbermann going before a camera and saying (as Butler did):

I've been writing about and engaging in the national political scene for awhile now and everyone knows everyone and I'm not exactly at a point in my career where I can afford to go pissing people off willy-nilly. So my choices become: attack a major politician (or their work) to whom I want access, or attack another journalist (or their work) that I have to work with. Shit where I live or fuck up my career. Those are the choices. Not being an idiot, and not enjoying bad either/or scenarios, I tend not to broadcast things that will fall into those categories. It's not that I don't think about those things, or have those conversations with friends. To give one example: there was a major policy based on false research that the administration was trying to push through Congress. Everyone who saw the bill that I talked to knew about it. Several of the people I talked to about it were journalists. But we talked about it in a bar. Not on the television. I don't really want to go slagging off an administration in which the general counsel and the majority whip are both friends of mine to the end of...what, exactly?

I only make this parallel to point out the speciousness of Butler's self-justification. It's hardly to his credit that he could airily talk in this manner; in fact, it's almost certainly to his discredit. Perhaps Olbermann's silence on his own compromises is due to some sense of shame, for heaven's sake. Which could prove morally useful in the future.

But Butler is only just getting going:

"I have no institution backing me up (unlike Dana Milbank or Judith Miller or David Broder)," he tells us. "Without an institutional stamp of approval, the only reason why anyone reads me is that I have proven myself to them over time. To me, talking about the dynamics that go into my writing a post is a way of exercising a kind of openness and honesty, and inviting dialogue. It's a way of creating trust between me and my readers. Actually, pretty much every post is a way of doing that, if it's done right. And that's one way in which I try to approach my posts here on the site. Generally my thinking is I have this thing I want to say. How do I say it in a way that is authentic, that constructively adds to the dialogue and that's interesting to read and also feels at least somewhat spontaneous. I don't always succeed in those things, but those are the factors i'm trying to balance . . . The proof, in other words, is in the pudding."

In its sheer discombobulated self-involvement, doesn't this strike you as somehow Sarah-Palinesque? Let me get this straight: Isaac's all alone out here (sniff!), and to him, talking about the fact that he's selectively honest in his posts is a way of "exercising a kind of openness and honesty, and inviting dialogue" . . . admitting that he's editing his posts out of self-interest is actually "a way of creating trust"! And as for "the proof being in the pudding" - the point is that you are leaving things out of the pudding, Isaac!

Oh God - maybe this puppy isn't so cute anymore!

I suppose it's true, of course, that Isaac has "never recommended a show on this blog I thought wasn't worth seeing." And yes, it should be said: he has "frequently talked about my problems with larger theaters . . . " Okay, maybe so; but probably only as long as he has no work prospects at those theatres, correct? In short, Isaac Butler has not openly lied on his blog. He has merely shaped and shaded the truth to benefit his career.

And then there's:

"There's also a difference between Thomas and my positions. I am a working artist. Thomas is a former professional theatre reviewer who cares about theatre and writes passionately about it on his blog. We're going to be coming at these things from different angles fundamentally."

Ah, what can I say, except - bingo! That's it, Isaac! You are a self-promoting ha- - sorry, 'working artist' - while I still try to hang onto some level of integrity and objectivity. That's kind of the whole point (it's also Matt Freeman's point). And no, there's no way for me, or anyone, to prevent you from blogging. Go at it!

The trouble is that, despite your protestations, you and your ilk are steadily seeping into the cultural space that used to be occupied by journalists. Who had plenty of ethical failings, too, it's true, but who at least pretended they had integrity.

The question is, of course: how to ensure the integrity of the blogosphere (if it has any)? Admittedly, that's going to be tough - for the Internet itself, despite what its promoters claim, is hardly a sphere of free speech or unimpeded action; it is, instead, a privately-designed construct, a kind of false agora, which tracks, and even attacks, its users constantly. As the former "bastions" of free speech - the print and broadcast media - stumble and perhaps fall in the Internet age, we'd best think long and hard about the limits and weaknesses of this brave new medium.

The Torch-Bearers doesn't quite burn bright

Ham on wry: Katie Finneran, Edward Herrmann, and Andrea Martin bring down the house (literally) in The Torch-Bearers.

The second Williamstown Theatre Festival offering I caught last weekend was George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers, which was clearly meant as the festival's summer crowd-pleaser - a neglected minor classic that recalls such seasonal favorites as You Can't Take It With You and Hay Fever, but still boasts its own wry (even cynical) insights and charms.

The crowd at the Williamstown Main Stage, however, was not entirely pleased, even though adapter/director Dylan Baker had streamlined the text, and cast such stars as Andrea Martin and Edward Herrmann as the amateur thespians at the center of the script. It turned out that star power, however, wasn't quite enough to get the production to gel; what was required was a certain technical directorial intelligence, the kind that can fill every second of stage time with a building sense of wit. In short, the show needed someone like Nicky Martin in the driver's seat, or perhaps the director of last year's Feydeau, John Rando, who could have constructed a gleaming perpetual-motion machine out of Kelly's keen-eyed satire. But while Mr. Baker has some skill (and he's actually directed Torch-Bearers before), he isn't in the same league as Martin or Rando, and it shows; the comedy's central set-piece, for instance - a saga of backstage calamity that should cascade, like Noises Off (a clear descendant) into something like chaos - never got any momentum going, despite some hilarious moments. And there were subtle, but persistent, problems in the ensemble: dropped lines and flubbed physical bits surfaced on more than one occasion, and in a parody of amateur theatricals, that's not a good thing.

To be fair to Mr. Baker, however, time and circumstance may have prevented the production from reaching a high polish: it lost two cast members over the course of the summer (rather like its production-within-a-production). And in subsequent performances, some loose ends will surely be sewn up: cues will tighten and the slapstick will brighten. The show already boasts a smart comic turn from Katie Finneran (as a particularly wooden would-be starlet), and an even better dramatic one from John Rubinstein, who lightly sketches both affection and something like contempt into his portrayal of a husband so appalled by his wife's emoting that he actually succumbs to apoplexy. Meanwhile, in the central role of Mrs. J. Druro Pampinelli, the solemn high priestess of the eternal mysteries of community theatre, Katherine McGrath has what it takes to be fine once she's steady on her lines.

But other performances are slightly disappointing. The lovable Andrea Martin (a late addition to the cast) nails her laughs, of course - because she's a great pro who understands where all her jokes should land; but she hasn't yet internalized a character for her character (a prompter who pulls focus by always needing prompting). Likewise Edward Herrmann hasn't come to full flower as the troupe's flamboyant star, Huxley Hossefrosse (although to be fair, he has his moments; his entrance through the flats during that central star-crossed performance may alone be worth the price of admission). Alas, other supporting performances feel muddled (Yusef Bulos), unclear (James Waterston) or just bizarre (Jessica Hecht). And in the role of that atrociously-acting wife, Becky Ann Baker (wife of the director) was sweet but muted, and unresponsive to the happy, intimate chemistry Rubinstein was all but pouring in her direction; thus the domestic comedy threaded through the script (which also foreshadows many an I Love Lucy episode) never took flight. Perhaps this was due to the perceived sexism of the nearly-century-old text; after her disastrous debut, our leading lady is patted back into her domestic role, it's true (and there are other hints that an unspoken battle of the sexes is being waged on the bohemian boards). But the way to deal with this issue dramatically is to make her character stronger, not weaker - and certainly not dazedly submissive. And able to realize that yes, she's terrible onstage (this important arc was all but missing from the final act).

If that sounds like a lot to fix - well, it is; but productions have had rougher opening weekends and nevertheless come together (as I know from experience). Williamstown has at least done the show up right; David Korins's set is accurately crafted (if not quite inspired), and Ilona Somogyi's costumes rightly mix bourgeois propriety, art-nouveau mysticism, and happy flapperdom. And certainly The Torch-Bearers bears reviving; its witty take on the innocent egotism of self-appointed artistic avatars (who are "bearing the torch" of dramatic art into the darkness of the suburbs) is as deadly accurate as ever. So here's hoping over its run at Williamstown this flickering production really catches fire.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The decline and fall of the blogosphere, Part 1

In between attacks, Isaac Butler (above) blogs about his hair.

The bizarre reaction in the blogosphere to my articles about Emily Glassberg Sands has made me ponder once again the central flaws in the concept of blogging-as-journalism. What struck me about the generally negative reaction to my analyses was that a) my attackers, almost to a man/woman, admitted they hadn't actually read the study in question, but were going to sling mud anyway; b) they were insulted by my politics (which they misunderstood), and my skeptical "confidence"; and c) they knew, or wanted to know, or wanted to work with, some or all of the people I was criticizing.

All this is troubling to anyone who imagines that the arts blogosphere can function as something other than a forum for self-promotion, log-rolling, or ignorant pseudo-argument.

Of course I know it was naïve to imagine that blogs could operate for long as an improvement on print journalism - but really, did they have to sink to, or perhaps even beneath, the standards of print so quickly? Already the local "blogosphere" is choked with "blogs" that are either adjuncts of print outlets, or p.r. vehicles for various producers. And many of the supposedly "independent" bloggers, like Matt Freeman and Isaac Butler, have begun saying openly that hey, they can't really be trusted on the issues, because they're trying to make a career in theatre, and so can't afford to offend anybody.

Take the following paragraph(s) from Isaac Butler of Parabasis:

I've been writing about and engaging in the NYC theatre scene for awhile now and everyone knows everyone and I'm not exactly at a point in my career where I can afford to go pissing people off willy-nilly. So my choices become: attack a peer (or their work) or attack a larger theater (or their work). Shit where I live or fuck up my career. Those are the choices . . . . Not being an idiot, and not enjoying bad either/or scenarios, I tend not to post blog posts that will fall into those categories. It's not that I don't think about those things, or have those conversations with friends. To give one example: A major off-broadway theatre put up a play earlier this year that was clearly unfinished and not ready for production on a script level. Everyone who saw it that I talked to knew it. Several of the people I talked to about it were bloggers. But we talked about in a bar. Not on the internet. I don't really want to go slagging off a show where the director and light designer were both friends of mine to the end of...what, exactly? It's not like the theater's lit manager is going to write in in my comments and engage with me on the issue of their shitty new work program that does plays that aren't ready for prime time. For what it's worth, I tried to corner their lit manager at the TCG conference so that I could ask him about it, but couldn't find him . . . Anyway, the point is is that I have to think at least a little bit strategically here. So this blog won't always say all the shit that goes through my head. Every now and then I gotta hold back.

"I gotta hold back." Uh-huh. (Amusingly, in a great post just a few days earlier, Butler quite rightly criticized MSM corporate parents for making the same calculations he himself is making.) Of course Butler isn't alone in this admission - Matt Freeman said much the same thing about my posts on Sands; he admitted he envied "the ability to be unfiltered."

So, if we know these guys' posts are "filtered" out of (understandable) self-interest, why, exactly, should we trust them? It's an interesting question - one solved, partially, by the MSM via the fact that it (once) had an independent source of income (subscriptions, advertising) which could support some level of editorial independence. As we all know, that model is collapsing. But it's also worth noting that the arts blogosphere has no model for editorial independence at all. So how can we really pretend that the blogosphere can "replace" the MSM? I sense another series coming on . . .

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sophomore slump

Wendie Malick and Betty Gilpin in another Noah Haidle opus that hasn't come to term.

Last summer marked Nicholas Martin's first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and it proved a brilliant one (anchored by his sparkling Huntington production of She Loves Me). So perhaps it's understandable that his sophomore year should have been marked by a slump, according to many critics; maybe there was nowhere to go but down, at least in the short term. Still, I was keeping my hopes up as I ventured west to catch both What is the Cause of Thunder?, Noah Haidle's latest, and a revival of George Kelly's unfairly-forgotten comedy of theatrical manners, The Torch-Bearers.

Unfortunately, however, I discovered the negative reviews have been pretty accurate - and sometimes very succinct: an audience member summed up What is the Cause of Thunder? by wondering "What is the cause of this blunder?" in the lobby after the show. And I suppose the answer is, in a word, Martin's ongoing sponsorship of Haidle (he produced the disappointing Persephone at the Huntington two years ago, and before being struck by a stroke last fall - from which he has recovered - he was helming Haidle's Saturn Returns at Lincoln Center). Now I understand young playwrights need ongoing support, even through the inevitable misstep - thus Haidle's been getting a whole lotta love from the theatre community since the success of Mr. Marmalade some years ago (the lionized Bartlett Sher wrapped up Saturn Returns when Martin fell ill).

But Haidle hasn't returned the love with deeper, better-crafted plays. Indeed, so far he hasn't matched his first success, Mr. Marmalade, which may have been effective and original, but was hardly a masterpiece - thus, the thinking went, with attention and support from the literary departments of major theatres, and more money behind his productions, he might deliver something like a major work. But things haven't turned out that way - Haidle's scripts have instead been growing self-consciously pretentious in conception yet hopelessly slack in execution; What is the Cause of Thunder?, like Persephone before it, is a rambling tease derived from an interesting idea that might, with luck, have formed the basis of a surreally satiric one-act.

To be fair, that interesting idea does look like fun at first: we meet self-involved soap actress Ada (Wendie Malick, of TV's Just Shoot Me) as she's interrupted from prayer by a troubled nun who lets us know in no short order that the zoo animals have escaped, the priests have been fondling "the wee ones" (even Blind Thomas!), and God himself has died, His last words being "What did I do?" - a neat little book-end to Christ's penultimate lines on the cross. Immediately the stage is set for a smart Catholic comedy along the lines of Christopher Durang (another Martin favorite, btw), and at first Haidle seems to know exactly what he's doing. His ideas are hardly new, but they're sturdy - they're a skewed update of the realizations of undergraduates everywhere - and we sense his soap-opera conceit could prove fertile dramatic ground for the kind of horror-comedy that Christian theology always devolves into onstage. For as Ada herself points out, soap opera may revel in the wackiest evil imaginable, and be obsessed with sin, suffering, and redemption, but its victims always live on to suffer another day, and its villains are always forgiven: unlike in real life, nobody ever dies on a soap.

But then Haidle starts up with Ada's homelife, and we sense a growing lack of dramatic focus fueled by structural meta-shenanigans. Ada's pregnant daughter Ophelia - and indeed everyone else in her life, as well as on the soap - is played by the same actress (the versatile and resourceful Betty Gilpin), and her living room looks slightly surreal, as if it might be - wait for it - a mental, rather than physical, construct. Meanwhile Ophelia complains that Ada's always confusing her with her TV daughters, good and evil twins Bathsheba (who's prone to quoting Hamlet) and Harper (who tends to slip in and out of a coma). And just in case we've missed the point, she also sighs that "everyone thinks I'm a metaphor."

Indeed we do. That palindromic first name for our leading lady also raises a symbolic red flag - along with memories of the back-and-forth structure of Nabokov's Ada, which Haidle loosely apes. Clearly Ada's soap and her life are just two sides of an ongoing psychological complex, that kicks into high gear when management decides that yes, they're going to kill her off on the soap. But there's so much other cultural flotsam in this stew - a brief summary would include not only King Lear (the source of the title phrase), Hamlet and Ada but also Oedipus Rex and The Killing of Sister George - that we soon lose track of any coherent symbolic matrix or throughline, and so does Haidle. Does the "thunder" of the title represent God's death, or Ada's death, or just "death" - or perhaps birth? (Haidle tacks that one on at the last minute, when Ophelia's water breaks, onstage.) We can't tell, and we don't care - and even though Malick and Gilpin keep us laughing, intermittently, we know all the protacted goings-on are just another half-baked metaphor for our collective denial of both physical and moral reality, or something like that.

Which, pardon me, is hardly an original hook for a new play. Indeed, the problem with recent Haidle is that he becomes so involved in half-working out his fanciful paradoxes and parallel universes that he doesn't attend to the one thing we really care about - a tightly crafted, novel structure to convey his fun-but-familiar themes. What is the Cause of Thunder? plays like a rough draft, and of course it's the third Haidle play to surface in two years - so maybe it's time to hold off on the high production values evidenced here (the convolutions of Alexander Dodge's endlessly-morphing set hold us more than the writing does). When Haidle has actually finished another script - say, maybe two years from now - he may deserve another high-profile production. But right now, what I'd tell Noah is "Three strikes and you're out."

Next: a Torch-Bearers that sometimes shines, but more often flickers.

Meet the new Shepard Fairey

Posters like the one at left have apparently been popping up around Los Angeles and Atlanta. They're shocking, I know, but you have to admit they're devilishly effective. I wonder if the ICA will be giving this artist a retrospective in twenty years. Because frankly, in graphic terms his work is at least as punchy as the Shepard Fairey "Hope" poster, and equally inspired in its pastiche of the proto-fascism of The Dark Knight with "birther" racism (the Joker's whiteface does brilliant double duty here). In short, it's a great poster. So I wonder - will we soon see the emergence of a new, far-right form of "street artist," one that doesn't color within the politically-correct lines of the contemporary art world? I've long been telling Shepard Fairey fans that if they only stripped the politics out of his borrowed imagery, they'd perceive his work very, very differently. Maybe the "Obama Socialism" poster will help them see my point.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Get me rewrite!

Sorry for the misleading post a few days back (since deleted) on the Rose Art Museum imbroglio - but rather than unwind my slapdash compositional methods and woozily wishful thinking in public, I'll instead simply refer you to Greg Cook's blog, which has been following the ups and downs of this ongoing conflict in admirable detail. And I promise - no more posting after Beer Pong!