Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Waiting for FEMA

Waiting for Godot as staged in New Orleans.

"If no one walks out," Samuel Beckett once told the American producer of Waiting for Godot, "then you're doing it wrong."

Well, no one walked out of the Classic Theatre of Harlem's production at the ICA last weekend - but were they nonetheless doing it "wrong"? One wonders if Beckett himself might have thought so; set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with its central pair of tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (or "Didi" and "Gogo") played as homeless African-Americans, the question of racism hung over the production, and was indeed perhaps its raison d'être. Yet Beckett (below left) had been clear all his life that he did not want the question of racism entangled with the master/slave relation his masterpiece ponders. Indeed, he once attempted to stop an A.R.T. production of Endgame that in his mind "mixed" the races inappropriately.

Why did he feel that way? Perhaps because opposition to racism provides too easy an answer to the questions his work raises; Beckett's view of enslavement is one of relentless inquiry, and genuinely frightening dimension. Indeed, in the world of Godot, the question of freedom and slavery is a kind of universal, open-ended dilemma. The tramps Didi and Gogo not only watch as a horrid parody of the master-slave relationship plays out before them (in the persons of the brutal Pozzo and his lackey Lucky), but then play-act at the same dialectic themselves; and what is their bond to the mysterious, unseen Godot, whom they faithfully obey, but one of self-willed slavery? Indeed, when one ponders their existential melancholy, and their pathetic gropings at suicide, one begins to wonder whether the name of the debased, but single-minded Lucky is really "ironic" after all; perhaps, Beckett is whispering, he's the lucky one.

So once literal, political slavery becomes the context of Godot, existential slavery, its true subject, is easily obscured. Still, the wonder of the CTH production last weekend was that it often managed to keep both themes in view - indeed, unlike that A.R.T. Endgame, this version seemed to respect its text, and at times honestly grappled with the contradictions of its own concept.

Designer Troy Hourie's model for the Godot set on tour.

And as a backdrop for the blasted waste the play conjures, post-Katrina New Orleans of course could not be beat. Originally, the production played out in the open air on that city's desolate streets; in New York, Didi and Gogo crouched on a rooftop, surrounded by three feet of water (with Lucky and Pozzo entering by boat!). Alas, the ICA wasn't flooded last weekend to accommodate that particular theatrical coup, but the touring set (above) effectively conjured the Gentilly section of New Orleans, one of the production's original venues (above), and included such nice touches as a Calvary-esque trio of telephone poles to echo the tramps' banter about Christ on the cross. There were other flashes of inspiration: the re-imagining of Pozzo as some lost bushwhacker, broadcasting his commands through a bullhorn, was a stroke of genius, as was the long, disturbing sequence in which the black Lucky silently did his white master's bidding - a once-common American scene willfully edited out of our national consciousness.

Still, powerful as these sequences were, they amounted to an exploitation of Godot for other, worthy political purposes (much as Susan Sontag had done years before in Sarajevo). For in the end, Didi and Gogo aren't waiting for physical rescue, and if, as Beckett insisted, Godot isn't God, then he certainly isn't FEMA. Perhaps as a result, director Christopher McElroen's staging trailed off inconclusively whenever Godot's messenger actually made an entrance (he even appeared to be voiced by the stage manager!). In other ways, however, McElroen seemed to be grappling with some of the issues his concept raised; his Didi and Gogo, for instance, passed the time by trying to play basketball, or imitating Michael Jackson, or indulging in little raps - clichéd gestures of "black" pop culture that the production seemed to be hinting were essentially meaningless before the larger questions facing African-Americans.

This was perhaps the most politically unsettling idea in the show; but the audience tended to take these interludes as a relief from Beckett's bleakness, which undermined their subversive impact. Still, as Didi, the versatile Billy Eugene Jones always seemed aware of these underlying ironies, even if the production didn't seem to know how to make the leap from the political to the spiritual. As Estragon, the talented J Kyle Manzay was more problematic; always amusing, his Gogo was a distant, self-aware comic with little connection to the seeming despair of his situation. And both took a back seat to Pozzo and Lucky whenever they stumbled onstage. Christian Rummel's Pozzo was perhaps the best performance of the role I've seen, with a highly original emphasis on the character's weakness, while Glenn Gordon's Lucky was probably the most disturbingly debased (although it's too bad director McElroen pulled his big breakdown toward rap). When these two took the stage, this Godot held a power that wasn't quite what its author intended, but didn't betray his intentions either.

No, don't give to Harvard

I couldn't have said this better myself. Although it's really just a variant of the argument I've been making about several major arts organizations around here for some time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More from the Voice of America

I've been slow to post my thoughts on the second half of the "Voice of America" concert I heard last Friday, but that doesn't mean I wasn't enthusiastic about it. Indeed, this was probably the most rewarding Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert I've yet heard. Although I confess I don't often hear this group; to me, there's sometimes a problem built right into their concerts - they're funded by the composers being played. I don't mean to criticize this as a way of getting new music out before the public, and to be honest, what I've heard at BMOP has always been highly accomplished. It just often falls into a certain academic mode (no surprise, as many of the composers are academics) that I'm not always that interested in. You know the (postmodern) drill - a vaguely Asian cast to the piece, exotic timbres and textures, an idiosyncratic, often fractured, structure, and high - sometimes wildly high - technical demands. This is all fine, of course, only it often lacks what "new" music should really be about: an original voice - something new.

But this time around, there was some new music at the end of the program that really sounded new - Goback Goback, by Andy Vores (at left), which actually is only new-ish, as it was written in 2003. But then the opening pieces had been culled from works written as early as 1982, the year Ronald Perera composed Crossing the Meridian, a late-Britten-like meditation on alienated transcendence that often sparkled, but was perhaps a little too static for its own good, despite the able singing of Charles Blandy and the playing of a very cohesive ensemble. Something of the same sense of stasis hovered over John McDonald's "Speech Made by Music" and "Put These in Your Pipe," both of which were, again, highly accomplished, and somewhat self-consciously ecstatic and/or half-mad. Better was the charming, but slight, The Gold Standard, from Scott Wheeler, a discussion of economics by two sweetly befuddled Buddhist monks that went about where you'd expect it to. Here again, the instrumental ensemble - under the direction of Gil Rose - impressed, although the vocal balance was off: baritone David Kravitz all but overwhelmed tenor Blandy.

Kravitz was back, and in fuller voice than ever, for Goback Goback, which I should say partly impressed me because it introduced me to a writer I hadn't known before - W.S. Graham (at left), a Scottish poet who has been slowly recalled from obscurity by passionate admirers such as the late Harold Pinter. And no wonder - judging from the verses set by Vores (from "The Greenock Dialogues"), Graham deserves a spot near Philip Larkin's among modern poets writing in English. And Vores has somehow found the perfect "voice" to open up the poems - the rushing harmonic energy of minimalism, but applied to the pastoral English tradition. The results were often transporting, and were suffused with an intuitive connection to Graham's text - a long series of meditations on the approach of death, viewed as if from a dream of mid-life. And Vores's seemingly limitless gift for orchestration drew an astonishing number of moods from his ensemble - which he needed to match Graham's constantly-morphing poetry, in which mind moves through and into landscape at will ("Gently disintegrate me/Said nothing at all," goes one telling line). By the time Kravitz sang the final verse (which explains the odd title), I was wondering whether this wasn't the best piece of new music I'd heard in these parts for some time. Probably.

And the beat goes on . . .

In case you haven't heard, James Levine just had another health crisis (remember those rumored warnings before he took the job?), Citigroup may or may not pull out of its naming rights deal with CitiCenter (now that it's pulling out of Boston), and Brandeis still may sell the Rose collection, or parts of it. What does Drudge say? "Developing . . ."

A steady ring

Hugh Jackman interrupts a performance of A Steady Rain on Broadway to deal with a ringing cellphone.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Barber songbook

Samuel Barber (near left, with his lover Gian Carlo Menotti) once described himself as "a living dead composer," and indeed, for most his life his commitment to romantic feeling in the modern age consigned him to the dustbin of critical opinion. But history has a way of upending that dustbin, and Barber's gift for lyrical simplicity, cemented in the popular mind by his Adagio for Strings, has enabled him to outlast his detractors. Today Barber's reputation seems secure as a minor, but wonderful, composer, and he's taken his place in the pantheon of 20th century music that people actually like - next to Copland, Sibelius and others who found personal ways to communicate tonally to their time.

Central to Barber's achievement were his songs, which showcase his strengths (a melodic gift supported by intelligent craft) while sidestepping his great weakness (the lack of large, original architecture). So last weekend's "Barberfest," produced by the Florestan Recital Project as part of the "Voice of America" Festival at Tufts (in conjunction with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) was a welcome chance to hear his entire catalogue. I attended Friday evening, and was struck by how well said catalogue held up; it's rare to hear a concert devoted entirely to one composer without sensing an eventual underlying repetition, but Barber's works (here both early and late), though certainly all sourced in one voice, steadily surprised in their subtle variety.

It helped that the composer, by all accounts a literary man, had terrific taste in texts. Sometimes I think more than half a song's success (or failure) can be traced to its lyrics, and so I was pleased to find Barber's selections ranged from Joyce to Rilke to Houseman to (yes) Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Actually, one of the Joyces didn't really work - Barber's attempt to set the sardonic romance of Finnegans Wake fell oddly flat. The other selections from Joyce (cameos, really) were far more successful. But then almost nothing on the program "failed," although my favorites were probably the brief, but hilarious "Dere Two Fella Joe," the po-faced "Monks and Raisins," (Villa) the exquisitely mournful "Of that so sweet imprisonment," (Joyce) the gently admonishing "Thy Love," (Browning) and the casually surreal "A Green Lowland of Pianos" (Milosz!). The central thread in the concert was a deep yet somehow luminous sense of melancholy - Barber struggled all his life with depression - and this registered perhaps with greatest force in the settings of five poems from Rilke, "Mélodies Passagères," which were meant as a tribute to the gay French master of modern art-song, Francis Poulenc and his partner, baritone Pierre Bernac (one, "Un cygne," is sung below by Thomas Hampson).

The evening's singers all acquitted themselves well, although the fulsomeness (and vibrato) of Sarah Pelletier's soprano sometimes seemed to overwhelm the material. Better matched to Barber were the more transparent Shadi Ebrahami, who delighted with "The Daisies" and "October Weather," and Joe Dan Harper (at left, with Anne Kissel), who worked wonders with "Of that so sweet imprisonment" and "Mélodies Passagères." Even Pelletier seemed to find the right level of attack with "La Nuit" and "O Boundless, Boundless Evening." But alas, at that moment the evening had to end; would it had indeed been boundless.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Shakespeare Expounded

Caroline Devlin, Richard Neale, Terence Wilton, Dale Rapley, and Rina Mahoney - the entire cast of King Lear.

No lover of Shakespeare could take Harvard's "Shakespeare Exploded" series seriously - but bardolators can get a fix of the sweet stuff out at Wellesley this weekend, where the Actors from the London Stage are performing a touring version of King Lear at 7 PM on Friday and Saturday night at Houghton Chapel.

It's even free.

AFTLS scales Shakespeare's Everest with just five climbers - three men and two women (above), all of whom, fortunately, know the lay of the land, and make it well up the slopes, if not quite to the pinnacle, of Shakespeare's most piercing tragedy. To be honest, the tiny cast size forces a few scenes into a straitjacket (the same talented bloke plays both Edmund and Edgar, for instance, resulting in some rather forced antics when the two do battle). But deft use of simple costumes and props (scarves, sashes, hats) allows the actors to slip in and out of character and interact with each other and their other roles with relative ease.

Indeed, this was probably the clearest and least impacted version of Lear I've ever seen. Although to be honest, it wasn't quite the best (that would probably be Brian Bedford's version at Stratford a few years back), although it ranks high among the local efforts of the past twenty years or so. It would be hard to argue, for instance, that lead Terence Wilton genuinely sank into madness as Lear, and as Goneril and Regan, Rina Mahoney and Caroline Devlin never came to full evil flower. Perhaps the strongest performances in the production belonged to Dale Rapley, who subtly and skillfully delineated his Kent and Gloucester, and Richard Neale, who brought a welcome, if somewhat broad, energy to both Edmund and Edgar (although he eventually grew shouty as both).

Above all, this production gave us Shakespeare shorn of concept and trend. Which is always something to be grateful for.

And the Rose affair takes down Reinharz

Someone send Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz some roses.


He has just announced his resignation, no doubt due to the ongoing Rose Art Museum affair - actually, make that his resignation has just been announced, as his resignation letter, it turns out, is dated August 31. Apparently the leak had to wait for the publication of the oddly non-committal report of the university's "Future of the Rose" Committee - which stated that “The Rose Art Museum [should] remain the Rose Art Museum. It should remain what it is and what it has been since its beginnings: a university art museum open to the public,” without ever stating anything specific about the works of art that were in that museum.

Needless to say, today everyone is crazily reading the available tea leaves for some sign of the university's direction on the fate of that collection. Odds seem good that much, if not all, of it will be sticking around, but I wouldn't bet the farm on that quite yet. Indeed, it's possible that Reinharz may be serving as the scapegoat for a decision that's going to go through anyway; organizations have a penchant for working that way. I do think the best parts of the collection will stay off the block until a new President is installed, and by then, a new financial picture for Brandeis could well emerge.

As for Reinharz, something tells me that it was the collateral damage from the Rose brouhaha that brought him down at least as much as the initial decision itself. To be blunt, what has emerged over the past few months is that Brandeis's financial situation is a mess, and its long-term budget planning nearly non-existent; the Rose situation was merely an unfortunate off-shoot of that larger problem. And Reinharz's subsequent maneuvering revealed him as clumsy and maladroit, if not openly dishonest - not good things for the public face of a major university to be. So his days were definitely numbered. Let's hope the days of the Rose Art collection aren't.

The Shepard Fairey boomerang

Bad art, meet bad politics: Shepard Fairey and Yosi Sergant at the ICA.

If you have a genuine life, you probably haven't been paying attention to the NEA brouhaha that has been brewing over the past few weeks. Long story short, red-state, neocon and "birther" sites have been bubbling over a recent NEA conference call, apparently led by NEA Communications Director Yosi Sergant (above, with you-know-who), during which, as progressive bête noire FoxNews says, it was apparent that the NEA was soliciting work from artists that could further the Obama administration's agenda.

In a word, this kind of thing is wrong. It was wrong when the Bush administration did it, and it's wrong when the Obama administration does it. The NEA should not be sponsoring propaganda, even if it tiptoes around the letter of the law to solicit it, and even if the initiatives in question are desirable.

After the outcry, Sergant was initially demoted; yesterday he resigned. It seems to me a few more heads should roll at the NEA, but this may be enough to stem the political hemorrhage for the time being. (The White House has also issued new "guidelines" for its communications.) What the Obama administration needs least is any defensible critique that could legitimize the nutjobs on the far right.

I've been dismayed, however, by the reaction of the reliably-lefty cultural blogosphere to all this (needless to say, they're appalled that anyone could oppose the politicization of the NEA when it comes to their own politics). So I just thought I'd say out loud: I thought Yosi Sergant should go, and I'm glad to see his exit has come to pass. I'm sure I'm not the only cultural observer to think this (perhaps privately, in most cases), but I would like to add one new twist to the ongoing debate:

This isn't just good for Obama, it's actually good for art. When politics become the justification for art, you wind up with second-rate, feel-good agitprop like the posters of Shepard Fairey (above, with Sergant, at the ICA, in some kind of cosmic alignment of middlebrow cultural posturing). If we want truly great art, we must always battle the political assumptions that have covered so many academic and artistic institutions like group-think kudzu. So maybe FoxNews has proven to be good for something after all.

Do the math

This weekend marks the last performances of Gioia De Cari's award-winning one-woman-show Truth Values (above) at the Central Square Theater. I've been a bit reluctant to write about the production, I confess, because I've become a bit involved with it personally - I've been trying to find a way to get it on videotape, and perhaps even on the air. I've come to realize this could be a long process - but in the meantime, you still have a chance to catch this smart, snappy take on what it was like to be a female graduate student at MIT in the 80's. The piece was marketed as a riposte to Larry Summers's famously sexist musings on women in science, but it's actually more a personal journey - and one that, ironically enough, might be seen as backing up Summers's position rather than undermining it.

But that's always the way of honest art - it rarely aligns with a political position, however enlightened. The good news is that because of her honesty, De Cari deftly side-steps political correctness and comes up with a piece that does, indeed, skewer with deadly accuracy the sexist stupidity of so many men in math and science, but also connects with deep questions of self-determination that all young people must face. And it also represents the first time I've ever seen MIT life (I graduated a few years before De Cari enrolled) accurately depicted on a stage in Boston, or maybe anywhere (Truth Values is basically what Good Will Hunting pretended to be). This alone is noteworthy, and actually rather politically intriguing - as were the attitudes revealed in the comments of several reviewers, one of whom noted he had hoped the show would "strafe MIT from the air." I'm glad De Cari disappointed him - indeed, the Institute instead comes off rather well in her account, even if its male denizens don't. After all, MIT has been engaged in a concerted, self-critical push to engage women in the hard sciences for ages (over my years there, the percentage of women students leapt from something like 20% to nearly 50%); if anything, it's society that has lagged behind the Institute. And of course Larry Summers has, too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

If you thought the blogosphere could compete with the MSM . . .

Ponder the following chunks of juvenilia currently available on the web from theatre bloggers:

You're a whore and that's OK. Own that shit, wilya? Nothing wrong with being a prostitute but a self loathing working girl - one who wants the money from blow-jobs in the alley but also wants folks to consider her a lady - is just kind of pathetic. You don't get to be both. Ladies don't charge $125 for that Jeff Daniels starring pile of pig shit "Turd of the Century." Ladies don't eschew all concepts of risk in order to dress up a sad, underdeveloped staged version of a kind of crappy Patrick Swayze movie.

In the theatre, the spoken word and the body are the agents of repudiation, and as it repudiates the desiccated phenomenal consciousness it welcomes a new consciousness through ecstasy and the recognition of mortality. Hence the erotic, the internal knowledge of the body's decay, the dead. If repudiation is in the service of this new knowledge, the word and the body conduct this repudiation in transgression and new experience, ever at risk of loss. "If I am asked where the most immediate knowledge of that inner essence of the world, of that thing in itself which I have called the will to live, is to be found, or where that essence enters most clearly into our consciousness, or where it achieves the purest revelation of itself, then I must point to ecstasy in the act of copulation. That is it! That is the true essence and core of all things, the aim and purpose of all existence."

What a delightful surprise, then, to find that this New Brunswick-based trio has actually come up with something as zany as "The Toxic Avenger Musical." While it's not nearly as polished in its performances, the group numbers like "What Are We Going to Do (With All These Dead Prostitutes?)" are ebullient, and some of the actors have terrific belting voices . . . A little can-do can go a long way, and most of the cast acquits itself well by just powering through.

It doesn't really matter who wrote the posts quoted above - because at least they all somehow deal with the supposed topic of the blog, the theatre. Many, many more posts on "theatre" blogs are political screeds (and many of these actually don't make much internal sense). And many more are simply personal - they're advertisements for the writer's new show (or praise from critics whom the writer himself has praised). Or complaints that the writer isn't being paid enough. Or that his or her minority group (never anybody else's) isn't being represented enough onstage.

But you get the idea. The blogosphere is only a few years old, and already it's a vast wasteland. It almost makes me nostalgic for the Boston Globe . . .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thank heaven for The Savannah Disputation

Boston's "golden girls," Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, glitter once again.

When it debuted in New York, Evan Smith's The Savannah Disputation got no respect. Oh sure, it was funny, the critics admitted - but who could take this Christian/Catholic smackdown seriously as thought? Indeed, the play was widely dismissed, as Times reviewer Charles Isherwood put it, as "a Very Special Theological Episode of The Golden Girls."

It was one of those comments that unwittingly crystallize an unconscious (and unearned) snobbery. But now that Smith's divine comedy has become popular across the country, it's slowly being admitted that The Savannah Disputation is about as smart a play as you're likely to see this year (unless Tony Kushner suddenly pulls together The Intelligent Homosexual, etc.). Indeed, the show all but crackles with genuine wit (the kind that leaves Catholic catnip like Nunsense in the dust), and it's quite serious in its intentions - to thoroughly dismantle the premises of both the Protestant and Catholic faiths, while actually charming the members of said churches in the process.

Now you may not believe it, but Smith completely succeeds at this double hat-trick. And luckily for us, Boston's own Golden Girls of the theatre, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, are performing said feat brilliantly under the taut direction of Paul Daigneault at SpeakEasy Stage. Indeed, it's easily SpeakEasy's sharpest show so far this year, and sets a heavenly standard for the rest of their season.

True, Smith doesn't quite hold the feet of us secular humanists to the same hellfire he applies to the toes of the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention; in the end, he's writing high-end entertainment, not existential tragedy. But he does tighten the screws of mortality on his two heroines, Mary and Margaret, quite deftly. One is bitchy, the other gently ditzy, but they're both church ladies of a certain age who are so devout they have the local priest over for dinner on Thursdays, and even have Vermeer's portrait of the original Christian sisters, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, on the back wall (of course all this doesn't mean they like the Kiss of Peace!). But there's a persistent message on the answering machine begging one of them to "please call us about the results of your test," so we know the Great Hereafter is on their minds - just as the perky Melissa, a "missionary to Catholics" from the United Church of God Church (or something like that), pops up at their door, pamphlets in hand.

Melissa (Carolyn Charpie) seduces Margaret (Paula Plum). All photos by Mark L. Saperstein

At first Mary gives the pert pest the heave-ho ("I know Jesus loves me; it's you he hates!"), but on Melissa's second try, the doubting Margaret allows this sweet, blonde serpent into their claustrophobic little garden. And once she's in, Melissa's litany of "Catholic error" proves so persuasive that Mary has to call in the big guns (in the person of Father Murphy, who does it old-school) to save Margaret's soul in a go-for-broke theological smackdown; as Mary puts it to Murphy, "We want you to crush her."

Jesus Christ, it's a Catholic/Christian battle royale, with Carolyn Charpie, Timothy Crowe, Paula Plum, and Nancy E. Carroll!

But this proves amusingly hard to do as Melissa has almost as many tricks up her sleeve as Father Murphy - although to the audience, it's apparent that over the course of this "disputation" (as in so many before it), each church utterly undermines the other's one foundation. Protestants, of course, rely on the Bible to rebuke the moral, spiritual and sexual sophistries of the Catholic Church - "fundamentalism," irritating as it may be, is really just the basic Protestant principle at its most extreme. Catholicism, meanwhile, remains a monument to Infallible Interpretation, sometimes actually adding to the Bible's precepts (the Trinity, celibacy), but more often embroidering them where they're lacking, or even offensive to common-sense morality (Limbo, Purgatory). Smith, thank God, knows precisely how to target both M.O.'s (he is, after all, a Southern Catholic). Melissa, for instance, is stumped by the fact that even the earliest Biblical texts disagree (and sometimes, amusingly enough, feature crossed-out words); so much for fundamentalism. As for the Catholics - where to begin? By their deeds shall ye know them, as the Good Book says, and dogma, as Melissa points out, has led to torture, anti-Semitism, and child molestation.

Alas, Smith doesn't quite take Margaret and Mary to the final step in their journey - to the sad realization that both literalism and interpretation lead to spiritual dead ends. Nor, for some reason, does he wrap up, or even nod to, his early device of having This Mortal Coil on call waiting; and at times, to keep the debate going, he leans on other devices too heavily (the sudden cell-phone ring, etc.). There's also a diatribe from Father Murphy at the finale that leads one to wonder if some subplot or other wasn't dropped during development.

But who cares when the lines are as good as Smith's are? Not me. The Savannah Disputation isn't just the most intelligent argument I've heard on stage in eons, it also allows all its participants, not just the liberals' darlings, to retain their dignity until the final curtain. (And even Tony Kushner doesn't do that.) What's more, Smith's comedy ultimately derives from character, and so the roles here are meatier than most. Paula Plum is all but unrecognizable as the mousy, uncertain Margaret; somehow she's completely expunged all her usual no-nonsense smarts from her persona, to touching effect. Meanwhile Nancy E. Carroll has gone to town with the brainy, bitter edge that sometimes etches her performances - yet as she prowls Eric Levenson's tchotchke-ridden set, she still hangs onto the Swiss-watch timing that is her trademark, while never losing a sense of proud Mary's essential poignance (for after her many lonely years, much hangs on these end-of-life questions).

I must add that the surprise of Savannah, however, is that newcomer Carolyn Charpie more than holds her own against these two old pros, while unfortunately Trinity Rep stalwart Timothy Crowe can't quite keep up. Crowe (who himself went to seminary) does paint an accurately world-weary portrait of a man for whom the by-ways of faith are well-traveled, but he doesn't really limn the relationship that brings him to Mary and Margaret's every Thursday (or what actually prompts that final tirade). Or perhaps Paul Daigneault's inattention to this detail may count as the one gap in a stretch of direction that is perhaps his best in recent memory. What can't be disputed is that The Savannah Disputation is the most entertaining show in town.

Teachout's reach-out

I'm not always a fan of Terry Teachout (at left) - especially not politically - but I do applaud his ongoing effort to get out of New York City and see more regional theatre. His latest trip brought him up here to the Hub, where he took in, and then raved over, the Lyric's Kiss Me, Kate.

Teachout welcomed "the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's engaging new production, directed by Spiro Veloudos, whose small scale does nothing to diminish the charms of Porter's play-within-a-play." He then cooed, "To cram a classic Broadway musical into a 200-seat house requires considerable ingenuity, and I was especially impressed by the choreography of Ilyse Robbins, whose production numbers, especially "Too Darn Hot" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" (the second of which shows off the excellent dancing of Michele A. DeLuca to sumptuous effect), are all the more exciting for being performed in the lap of the audience. I'm no less pleased to report that Jonathan Goldberg's seven-piece offstage orchestra plays Porter's score with infectious verve."

So congratulations to the Lyric! What's particularly exciting about Teachout's trip (if this is the first of many) is it could begin to demolish the prejudice against Boston theatre that so many out-of-it locals still harbor. To these types, the Hub simply can't compete with the Big Apple. Only what if the New York critics feel otherwise . . .?

The remarkable production of Madame LeMonde

Rarely do you see a posthumous world premiere from Tennessee Williams.

Even more rarely do you see a remarkable production of such a premiere.

But those happy circumstances swung together in Beau Jest's recent mounting of The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, a twisted, sexually explicit sketch the great playwright penned in his final years. The show took two bows at the Charlestown Working Theater last Friday and Saturday, and will re-appear out in P-Town at the Tennessee Williams Festival this weekend. Hopefully, for those who can't make ferry-fare, CWT or some other local venue will bring this macabre one-act back for an encore.

But a word of warning: LeMonde may not be "appropriate" for many Williams fans (gay and straight), at least not those who are unprepared to have the scales fall from their eyes. For in it, the once-closeted playwright drops a whole lotta aesthetic and emotional baggage with a resounding thud. Right up front, the female "beards" of Blanche and Maggie and Laura and his other crippled heroines have all been shaved away; Williams's avatar in LeMonde is "Mint," a stunted gay man (his tiny legs are paralyzed) who has been reduced to swinging from hook to hook (above left) in the eerie attic of the eponymous rooming house. Needless to say, the hooks in question are meat hooks, and Mint is indeed, a piece of meat to his many visitors, particularly the Brando-esque son of his brutal landlord, who periodically breaks in (an obvious boner pushing at his fly) for a bit of the old in-out with his helpless prey (acts which are staged as shadow-play that's more squirm-inducing than anything I've seen on a Boston stage).

Creepier still, Mint seems to half-long for his own rape - and at any rate, he's not treated much better by his other guest, a sadistic school chum who drops by for tea. Yep, that's right - after the rough trade, it's time for tea and cake in this bourgeois abattoir; sounds like fun, doesn't it. Well, it isn't for Mint, who begs for crumbs as his buddy "Hall," who's a kind of seedy avatar for "the Establishment," scarfs up every single one, all while subjecting Mint to a sewer-stream of dirty stories mixed with contemptuous jibes. Enter the formidable Madame LeMonde - red in tooth and claw, as well as perm and petticoat, who quickly makes damn sure their revels now are ended (she even offs her own son with the swipe of a single paw), then briefly ponders the heartlessness of her domain (not for nothing that symbolic surname!) before settling down to future business. "The world is accident-prone," she mutters grimly, "and the loss of one fool makes room for another." How true.

And how very Absurd. For this frigid, Ionesco-like dénouement caps a vaudeville that constantly echoes that famous Theatre, and it's fascinating to watch Williams find his way into a new aesthetic and set up shop there (indeed, the real shock is how well his familiar tropes, freed from his once-lyric naturalism, fit into the new neighborhood). More intriguing still, here Williams seems both more openly brutal and yet more exquisitely poetic than the rest of his new crowd. The trouble with LeMonde, however, is that it runs a bit long, given that its politics feel borrowed, and it doesn't even have as much plot as your average Beckett or Pinter; Williams sets out his perennial themes in a startling new frame, but doesn't actually advance them an inch.

Jordan Harrison and Larry Coen do high tea in The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde.

Still, the play is a valuable addition to the Williams canon, and probably provides a more harrowing window into his tortured soul than any of his other works (barring, that is, whatever other "Grand Guignol"-style pieces he wrote to accompany it). What's more, Beau Jest Moving Theatre and director Davis Robinson have devised a premiere production that gets almost everything right. The always-game Jordan Harrison (who's been equipped with a body puppet, above, to enable all that swinging) makes Mint both pathetic and slightly revolting, and Larry Coen likewise brings a disgustingly haute delicacy to Hall (as in "Music-Hall?"), the public-school twit who torments him over tea. (My only quibble with the resourceful Coen is that perhaps the sadistic lowness of his Hall is made a bit too clear a bit too quickly.) Meanwhile Nick Ronan was just about any sado-masochistic bottom's midsummer night's dream (although shouldn't he be in torn blue jeans, à la Brando and Dean?), and Lisa Tucker dispatched her minions to the great beyond with convincingly cruel panache. Special praise must go to costume designer Rafael Jean, whose costumes were thematically appropriate and, indeed, to die for.

All in all, this was a remarkable night for small theatre in Boston - precisely the kind of evening our academic theatres should be providing, but which they really wouldn't be caught dead doing. Thank God we've got Beau Jest, the Charlestown Working Theater, and the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival to take us where our would-be teachers fear to tread.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beyond the Infinite, and the Pale

As a Stanley Kubrick fan, I found this irresistible (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). For the record, this is actually a recording not of a school orchestra, but of the "Portsmouth Sinfonia," a British art-school stunt in the 70's in which the only entrance requirement was that players be unfamiliar with their chosen instrument. For a while, Brian Eno was a member (he played clarinet). For a latterday, less conceptual iteration of this hardy meme, check out the Really Terrible Orchestra, which, alas, I just missed in Edinburgh this summer.

What to see right now

This weekend confirmed for me that we're in another of those moments - which are becoming more and more common these days - when all the most exciting and intellectually challenging theatre in Boston is actually on our smaller stages rather than at BU or Harvard. Right now the best shows in town are Truth Values, at the Central Square Theater, which just got extended in their studio space for another week; Beau Jest's remarkable world premiere of The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde (the witty trailer below), which played the Charlestown Working Theater for only two nights but will re-appear in Provincetown this weekend, and The Savannah Disputation, Evan Smith's clever (and hilarious) dismantling of both evangelicals and Catholics, from SpeakEasy Stage at the BCA through Oct. 17. Full reviews to follow, but why wait?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Huntington swings for August Wilson's Fences . . .

John Beasley as Troy Maxson in August Wilson's Fences.

. . . but doesn't quite connect in its new production of this much-lauded Pulitzer Prize-winner. Not that you're going to get that critique from the print critics, who know only too well that criticizing Wilson carries with it a certain - how to put this - racial charge (just ask Bob Brustein). Add to that the Huntington's new penchant for launching pogroms against its reviewers, and you may sense the interesting level of critical insulation this theatre has recently achieved.

Still, no more insulation, you could argue, than Brustein himself had for the A.R.T., with its Harvard/New Republic connections. And at any rate, the fact that many critics will inevitably hail Fences as a "masterpiece" will still be okay, because the play is certainly worthy, and the production is often pretty good (and features one great performance, from Crystal Fox). It's also wonderful to see the Huntington return to some level of seriousness after last spring's multiplex-friendly follies like Pirates! and that anal commedia thing.

Still, as we gain more historical perspective on August Wilson (who died in 2005), can we not also begin to gain some critical perspective? Mr. Wilson devoted his creative life to examining African-American history in the twentieth century, and his comprehension of the theatrical dimensions of that subject was breathtaking. And in its way unsparing. Fences, for example, is a laudable attempt at balancing the legacy of this country's racism with a vision of a flawed hero who is responsible, to some degree, for his own ongoing oppression. Indeed, the play is set right at the cusp of the civil rights movement - 1957, the year the Little Rock high schools were integrated - but its greatest dramatic questions hang on whether its characters will be able to take advantage of their new opportunities.

Now this kind of thematic material is, I think, basically taboo for white dramatists (and appropriately so); and this is part of what makes Wilson so valuable - his work is actually not about the injustice of racist oppression, but rather about how African-Americans responded within their own community to their terrible situation. Indeed, in Fences Wilson doesn't even bother bringing white people onstage; their abuse of their power is taken for granted, it simply isn't what he's writing about. So I wonder if the playwright would agree with the white Globe reviewer who opined that the hero of Fences has been left "with a permanently wounded self, and . . . will eventually inflict so many wounds on his wife and son that he will virtually tear his family apart." Or rather I wonder whether the playwright wouldn't perceive that statement as an elision of his central question, which is whether his hero, the unfulfilled baseball player Troy Maxson, could have transcended his wounds - and precisely how much responsibility he bears for the havoc he wreaks on his family. In short, is Troy Maxson a hero - or an anti-hero? And what happens to a dream deferred when it is deferred again by its own dreamer?

The Huntington production answers these queries with a moving, but not entirely convincing, blast of light from Heaven at its finish. But the question still lingers, perhaps because it's one of the great dramatic questions - essentially a variant on the great tragic question. And it's certainly true that Wilson perceived the depth of the issues he was grappling with, and often evoked them beautifully in stand-alone speeches. Indeed, the playwright understood perfectly every emasculating humiliation that the white establishment had visited on his hero (Maxson has been reduced to collecting garbage), and how these experiences funneled inevitably into the social and sexual issues plaguing so many African-American families. 

But truth be told, Wilson rarely managed to embed these insights in satisfying dramatic action. Fences has more structure than some Wilson plays, but its action often pokes awkwardly out of the dialogue (which is sometimes between the hero and himself). And the drama is studded with obvious symbols - a fence slowly rising around Maxson's home, a fantasy baseball made of rags - that feel applied to the play rather than integrated into it. (The very solid and convincing set, by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, is below.)

John Beasley and Eugene Lee hang out on a seeming actual chunk of Pittsburgh.

Still, even without the mysterious resonance of genuine dramatic metaphor, Fences could be compelling as oration, as many of its speeches are powerful and complex (in a way, Wilson often strikes me as more of a stage preacher-man than a playwright). But in this long, demanding, sometimes-nearly-solo turn, John Beasley impresses with a strong natural presence, but his performance lacks the kind of modulation, development, and build that might hold us transfixed through his decline and fall. And on opening night Mr. Beasley stumbled several times over lines and stage business, at least once giving the sense that he had lost his place in the play. Thus the production feels repetitive, and sometimes even stop-and-go, despite the efforts of a sterling supporting cast.

Although those supporting performances may be worth the price of admission all on their own. Crystal Fox (at left) brings award-worthy strength and subdued fire to the role of Maxson's long-suffering wife, Rose, and as best buddy Bono, Eugene Lee is just about pitch-perfect.

There's likewise spirited work from Warner Miller as son Cory - who realizes he must defy his father to realize the dreams he can now see on the horizon - as well as a haunting turn from Bill Nunn, as the damaged brother who now believes he's the angel Gabriel.

All these actors seem to know precisely what they're doing, and no doubt have benefited from director Kenny Leon's individual attention, but their efforts to raise the stakes as the production progresses are of little avail. As Mr. Beasley further internalizes his role, and manages to convey the impression of a man sinking beneath a welter of contradictions, Fences may indeed fly out of the park.

 But not until then.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Peter Urban R.I.P.

Sadly, word reaches us that local photographer Peter Urban, well known for his beautiful dip- and triptychs, lost his battle with cancer last weekend. A memorial service will be held on Friday, September 18th at 11:00 AM in the First Parish in Brookline, 382 Walnut Street. (Above, "The Bubble," featuring the granddaughter of Arlette Kayafas, who showed Peter's work at Gallery Kayafas.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Adrift in the South Pacific

The cast of Mister Roberts.

The New Rep's publicity for Mister Roberts, the WWII-era Henry Fonda vehicle that won a Tony on Broadway and then Oscars on the big screen, says that it's "timeless."

But that's precisely what the play doesn't seem to be in Kate Warner's classy but slightly slack production. This is partly because its sailor hijinks and officer-corps conflicts feel tired (admittedly, because they became the source for so many Caine-Mutiny/Sergeant-Bilko imitations). But perhaps more importantly, the script's post-war attitude toward armed conflict is simply out of synch with our own. Indeed, seen through the contemporary prism of our conflicts in the Middle East, the longing of its eponymous character to see action seems less idealistic than slightly insane. And it doesn't help that Warner lacks an actor who can convey that supposed idealism as poignantly as Henry Fonda could - nor, it must be said, does her own handling of the ensemble rise beyond the assured to the inspired.

To be fair, the show is probably still seaworthy, even if, like the old junk Mr. Roberts is stuck on, it seems to drift; perhaps it chiefly disappoints because hopes for Ms. Warner's debut have been running so high. When I met her last spring, Warner struck me as smart and savvy, and in the meantime she seems to have won over just about every theatre constituency in town; you could all but feel a wave of good will rolling her way as she stepped onto the stage to introduce her maiden effort. Even greater expectations have been riding on her shoulders (and soldiers) since the recent premiere of Diane Paulus's asinine Donkey Show at the A.R.T. (which has been met with private cries of dismay by the local critics, whatever their reviews may say). Thus Warner had begun to seem like our one hope that a female artistic director could produce work at the same level as Rick Lombardo's, or perhaps even Robert Woodruff's.

Well, I'm afraid the jury's still out on that one, although Warner might prove to have the right stuff, given the right material. But Mister Roberts definitely isn't the right material, and Warner's choice of it for her debut remains one of the season's major mysteries. For to put over its gently rueful (but sometimes slight) mix of comedy and drama, you'd have to have a crack ensemble with a built-in rapport all but tailored to the play; instead, Warner has assembled a talented cast that consists largely of near-misses when it comes to type. Jonathan Popp, for instance, is rather too convincing a lothario for the Jack Lemmon role, and the reliably crusty Paul D. Farwell this time lacks the wit Jimmy Cagney brought to the ship's boorish martinet of a captain. Most damaging of all, Thomas Piper's Mr. Roberts (above, with Farwell) strikes us as somewhat brooding, rather than haunting us with the doomed idealism that Henry Fonda exuded without even trying. So it's no surprise that the sense of masculine intimacy (and even whimsy) at the core of the drama never actually materializes, however heartily everyone carries on. (It doesn't help that Patrick Lynch's generally-evocative set places key scenes high up on a top deck.)

Indeed, a sense of lost idealism is probably the missing key to the puzzle of this competent, but hardly dazzling, play's original popularity. For what writers Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan (yes, that Joshua Logan) managed to do within its confines was tap into an already-incipient nostalgia for "the good war's" sense of moral purpose. Mr. Roberts, you see, actually longs to join the battleships he sees passing in the night, steaming toward unseen conflagrations, as any man of quality faced with the choices of World War II might do. And in 1948, the crowds that flocked to the play understood and identified with that longing, too, even as they understood that Mr. Roberts's idealism would destroy him - and that his bureaucratic nemesis represented the "company man" the nation had come to be dominated by. But today, despite the cries of those who would exploit the horrors of 9/11, the country has decidedly not coalesced around a sense of shared purpose, and the trust in our military ideals, on which this text depends, is all but extinct. Thus it's now a nostalgia piece twice removed - a rather tenuous basis for a subtle ensemble comedy - and it plays within a strangely sad frame of failed wish fulfillment. This simply isn't the way America is anymore, and a dozen revivals of Mister Roberts can do nothing to change that.

Off-topic, but seriously, how can I resist

You'll understand why I'm publishing the beefcake above when you learn that the hunk in the picture is none other than Republican Scott Brown, one of our current state senators, who just announced that he will be running for Ted Kennedy's vacant Senate seat. What he forgot to say in his press release, however, is that he posed nude for Cosmopolitan in 1982 (and even won a cash prize), back when he was "footloose and carefree" at - wait for it! - Boston College.

Ah, where to begin? (Besides wondering aloud, how did I ever miss this before??) That's Scott today, at left; at 50, he's obviously still doable. The only problem? He hates the gays! Yes! Ain't it ironic? The centerfold that might have caused a zillion queens to jump the fence (politically, at least) will instead only be used for - well, I'll leave that to your imaginations . . . just remember to confess it to Father Flanagan, boys! (Of course he's probably got his own copy.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to the Forties

As I watched the New Rep's production of the WWII-era drama Mister Roberts last night (review to follow), I wondered why, exactly, we seem to be in a slight resurgence of 40's nostalgia. Right now the Stoneham Theatre has actually programmed The Good War, "a musical collage of World War II" against Roberts (Henry Fonda's publicity for the film, at left), which was itself something of a nostalgic (if poignant) look back at the war when it opened in 1948. Later in its season (which has been dubbed "American Stories") the Huntington will be mounting Arthur Miller's 1947 drama All My Sons, which confronts the aftermath of moral failure during WWII. And I don't think it's a stretch to point out that even Quentin Tarantino has gotten into the game by rewriting the history of "the good war" in the repellent Inglourious Basterds.

Of course it's hard to ignore the fact that we've basically been at war in the Middle East now for over six years (longer than World War II). It's also worth noting that while Inglourious Basterds has been doing boffo at the box office, movies like The Hurt Locker, which is set during our current Middle East conflict, have struggled to find a popular audience.

So one wonders precisely what kind of projection is actually going on down at the moviehouse - or on our local stages. Perhaps it's natural that, given the questionable ethics of our current conflicts, we should turn to "the good war" for our latest round of war stories. But it's worth wondering when (or if) our culture will actually begin to engage with the present day.

Superheroines still soar, still have issues

Last weekend marked the long-awaited return of The Superheroine Monologues, the witty conflation of The Vagina Monologues and the comix that writers John Kuntz and Rick Park (with director and costume designer extraordinaire Greg Maraio) first sprang on the public to great applause last spring.

At the time, I wrote the show had "a charming grrl-power vibe, some of the grooviest costumes ever seen in the Hub, and a purrrr-fectly fetching and talented cast." And it still does.

But I also felt the hip, campy extravaganza had a few issues, and alas, its newest incarnation hasn't successfully worked through them. Some of the skits have been renovated, a few bits have been tightened, and an intermission has been added - a good idea. But other sequences have been expanded (a bit awkwardly), a so-so musical number has been added, and the underlying issue of the overall shape of the show hasn't really been addressed. It's still a groovy good time, and if you haven't seen it, you should. But since the occasional step forward has sometimes been canceled by a step back, it's still at roughly the same level it was last spring.

Which is actually a good place to be - and I have to report that the friend I brought to the show responded to it much the way I did last April: it's witty, clever and sweet, and improbably balances nods to fanboys, gays, and hipsters in equal measure. There were a few new faces in the cast I saw, but both Molly Kimmerling (Supergirl) and Elizabeth Rimar (Batgirl) quickly showed they'd earned the right to don their capes and spandex. Meanwhile Cheryl D. Singleton had surprisingly deepened as Storm, while the other returning performers basically held their earlier high-flying level (although Elizabeth Montigny's and Amanda Good Hennessey's delivery sometimes edged toward super-sonic speed).

But then there's that pesky structure. The show has been written by two of the funniest dudes in the local scene, but they don't seem to have been able to agree on an overall arc for their show. The piece opens, appropriately enough, with the first superheroine of them all, Wonder Woman - but her episode has been expanded into fanboy detail that doesn't really work theatrically, while the return to her situation at the finale doesn't resonate as it should; I sense competing keyboards essentially writing different scripts. And witty as the decade-by-decade procession of the show may be, the monologues still aren't stitched together with much in the way of connecting theme. Said themes are actually there, from Lois Lane's internalized sexism to Catwoman's druggy abandon to Phoenix's final battle royale with another woman (her mother) rather than a man, but the show itself doesn't seem to understand its own progression. Which doesn't mean it isn't the most fun to be had on a local stage right now. It just means that there's still one more writing adventure out there to be embarked upon!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A kissable Kiss Me, Kate

Mary Callanan, R. Patrick Ryan and the chorus in Kiss Me, Kate.

Lyric Stage director Spiro Veloudos has a penchant for squeezing full-size musicals into his intimately-scaled space, and sometimes he gets them to fit (1776, Urinetown) and sometimes he doesn't (Follies). But you can't really blame a man when his reach extends his grasp, and at any rate, with his latest, Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Veloudos generally comes up aces - because this time around, he and his designers have found clever ways to shoehorn Porter's Shakespearean spectacle into the lower-case wooden "o" that is the Lyric.

But there's more good news about Kate - Veloudos has wisely adopted most of the renovations of the recent Broadway revival, and at least musically, this may be the strongest Lyric show yet. The band sounds terrific under Jonathan Goldberg's direction, and the singing, which is unamplified (so we feel more of the actual vocal presence of the singer), is by and large superb. And that's good news indeed when the show includes such standards as "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Too Darn Hot," "Always True to You (In My Fashion)," and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." The show's dance moves were perhaps one step behind its musical standard - I didn't feel Ilyse Robbins, the Lyric's talented house choreographer, was quite at the top of her form; but she may have been constricted by the set - when things opened up a bit for "Too Darn Hot," she came through and then some.

So musically and vocally the show is a hit - but I have to say that dramatically, it isn't the hoot it should be. Or at least it hadn't quite gelled by press night; it still may over the course of the run, because the opening had that slightly strained, "now-I-do-this-and-now-I-do-that" feeling that big, detailed shows often have in preview. There does seem to be a fundamental problem in chemistry, however, right at the heart of the production - as the warring Kate and Petruchio figures, Amelia Broome (left, with Timothy John Smith) and Peter Davenport both come across as smart, subtle actors rather than the larger-than-life figures the show requires. Indeed, part of the problem may be that these two are simply too naturally subtle for their roles - but on the other hand, I have to add that they seem slightly mis-directed. Broome gives us a highly-strung, serious "actress" rather than a demanding diva, and Davenport plays vanity rather than ego; and neither seems really all that interested in the other sexually. And in a show whose biggest number is "Too Darn Hot," that's a problem.

Still, each is easily talented enough to be appealing when they're going solo - it's their clashes that don't quite connect. Luckily, there's stronger (read: warmer and broader) work around the edges of the production, including great turns from the reliable Mary Callanan and Timothy John Smith, two performers with naturally big stage personalities (and great voices) who know precisely how thick to slice the ham. Meanwhile the equally-reliable Neil A. Casey and J. T. Turner neatly underplayed their roles as the two gangsters who crash this star-crossed production of Taming of the Shrew (and even wind up onstage in doublet and hose); still, I have to say that their classic "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (at right) could use a little more polish, and a few more moves. Other performances were more mixed; in particular, R. Patrick Ryan and Michele DeLuca couldn't make much sense of their Hortensio/Bianca romantic subplot (but then who could, it's the weakest part of a book which, despite claims to the contrary, often serves as just a frame for Porter's revue-style songs). DeLuca showed potential, however, and could truly soar once she learns to sell a song as well as she sings it.

Still, I found that whenever it seemed a performance lagged, there was some deft bit of stage business, or a particularly snazzy costume, to distract me. (Set designer Janie E. Howland, and particularly costume designer Rafael Jean, are definitely in the running for award nominations for their brilliant evocation of Shakespeare-by-way-of-the-40's.) So I think in the end, fans of both this terrific composer and this terrific musical would be satisfied by Spiro Veloudos's latest folly, which is always true to Cole Porter in its fashion.

And more fun with Don Hall . . .

You may be tired of him, but I'm not.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sins of the Mother is one of the best of the year . . .

. . . but it still could be even better.

And that, I think, is good news. Already it's the strongest local "new play" of 2009, and the production up at Gloucester Stage (which closes this weekend) is likewise one of the best of the year, and a splendid finish to the company's 30th anniversary season (which has been consistently strong). It's also a testament to the phenomenal staying power of Israel Horovitz, who at a spry and vital 70 has demonstrated once again that he hasn't lost his touch - even if this time he hasn't quite attained his full reach.

Although to be bluntly honest, he's had the time - Sins first took a bow as a one-act six years ago, and the current two-and-a-half-act version has already hit the boards in Olympia, Washington (and is rumored to be destined for New York). As a result, it's highly crafted. Highly crafted - at times the dialogue could serve as the basis for a master class in late naturalism. And the actors at Gloucester - some of whom have worked their way through the material before - have, under Horovitz's own direction, matched his craft with an ensemble of performances impressive in their subtlety and technique.

The violence (from Robert Walsh) may not surprise, but it still shocks.

The setting (as it has so often been for Horovitz) is Gloucester, in particular its working class underbelly, where down-on-their-luck stevedores and fishermen rub elbows with the town hookers and drug dealers - and in hard times even join their ranks. That's the dark secret casting a long shadow, in classic theatrical style, over a quartet of unemployed men hanging out in a union hall in Horovitz's taut first act, in which the playwright almost revels in his pitch-perfect ear for the local dialect, while steadily insinuating the threat of violence beneath his characters' camaraderie.

Needless to say, that threat becomes all too real in Horovitz's first-act climax, which is hardly surprising (yet still an effective shock). It's hard to say more, however, about Horovitz's second act without giving too much away about the dramatic cards he has up his authorial sleeve. Yet I admit I'm itching to, because I feel that even in this latest iteration, the playwright is still palming his ace. Suffice to say Horovitz has constructed an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse for his second act, which leads to a surprisingly original twist - one that could potentially vault the play into small-classic territory. But Horovitz doesn't develop this shift nearly enough (I will say that it represents the moral difference between impulsive and pre-meditated crime); instead he basically reprises material from his first act to hustle the characters through his last moral hoop.

Which is too bad, because he has a fine cast here that would certainly be up to further challenges. The sudden shuffling particularly short-changes the charismatic Francisco Solorzano (as the returning native who sets the gears of the plot in motion), and the appealingly dim David Nail (as the buddy caught by mischance in fate's machinations). Most of the second-act dramatic riches instead go to leads Robert Walsh and Christopher Whalen, and both are particularly memorable; indeed, I don't think Walsh, a mainstay of the Actors' Shakespeare Project, has ever been better. Meanwhile Whalen, who hails from New York, proves a particular find, and neatly essays a classic method-acting problem (he plays identical twins) while keeping the two characters' externals (even their accents) exactly alike. One last note to the author, though - a central theme, that of the interlocking "known-ness" of the Gloucester community, is beautifully evoked throughout. Surely, therefore, the strange, subverting presence of the second, "shadow" twin deserves a bit more contemplation. That - and a deeper development of the second-act twist - could make this Mother nearly immaculate.

Is Stratford better than New York?, Part II

Geraint Wyn Davies waves to the mob in Julius Caesar.

In this part of my annual Stratford Festival recap, I'll be looking at the productions that proved problematic or even outright unpleasant. But first I have to put forth the proviso that "problematic" doesn't always mean "less satisfying" - indeed, the first production on my list, James MacDonald's Julius Caesar, was easily the best production of this tragedy I've ever seen. To be honest, I've only seen three (plus the two film versions), but this only points up how rarely the show is done, considering its fame (I've seen just about every production I had a chance to). This is partly due no doubt to the drama's casting requirements (you need a large bevy of solid middle-aged male players, and at least three stars) - but also partly to its misshapen structure.

I call it "misshapen" because the play's obvious climax - the assassination of Caesar - occurs halfway through, at which point what was already an unusual form of tragedy (in which one sympathetic hero plots to kill another) shifts gears awkwardly into new psychological, political and aesthetic territory that remains vague in its form (and limits) until the very finish. We realize we're supposed to shift our allegiance to a new "tragic hero" (who has just killed the title character), and question the seeming motivations of nearly everyone we've met so far. But during this intriguing process the play all but abandons the clear elucidation of the history at hand, and at any rate its psychological and moral investigations come to an inconclusive pass; the ending of Caesar is multivalently ironic, and whether Shakespeare himself saw Brutus's end as tragic will, I think, always be debated.

I've yet to see a production (or movie!) make it through these straits unscathed, and the Stratford version was no exception; although it seemed clear that the director and actors understood the aesthetic questions at hand, even if they couldn't quite answer them. Perhaps it was this meta-awareness that made the production compelling despite its flaws. Or perhaps it was the fact that, to put it simply, when the play was coherent - and of course through its entire first half it's brilliant - so was James MacDonald's robust direction. Much in the first half thrilled; Macdonald's management of the Roman crowd was superb, and his delineation of the relationship between Cassius and Brutus was subtle and insightful. The dueling funeral orations (and their consequences), were rousingly staged, with the mob surging up and down the theatre's aisles, and even the near-hallucinatory sense of Rome tipping toward chaos was powerfully evoked.

Still, the remainder of the play disappointed, because while MacDonald proved a great stage conductor, he hadn't drawn compelling personal performances from his Brutus (Ben Carlson), Cassius (Tom Rooney), or Antony (Jonathan Goad), and the only way the fractured second half can grip us is through the power of these distinct personalities (ironically, the first half of the play can work via the interlocking plots of their public personae; but once the war begins, the script depends on their private dramas). Ben Carlson made an appropriately intellectual, but somehow rather too placid, Brutus, and Jonathan Goad, when not being manipulated by MacDonald, didn't seem to understand how he might connect the contradictory sides of Mark Antony. Meanwhile Tom Rooney provided a capable, but rather low-key Cassius. Still, the able Geraint Wyn Davies (at left) made just about the perfect Caesar, and there was admirable support in a number of minor roles (although not from the women, who seemed to have wandered in from another play).

There are several other plays to cover, btw, so my apologies for running on about Caesar. But I do have to add the one thought that kept surfacing during my experience of the production: "Why can't Boston have something like this?" Not even a great production of Julius Caesar, but merely an intelligent, interesting one? Why can't Harvard or BU see their way clear to funding that?

Well, we'll have to ponder that at some later date; for at the moment there are still three more Stratford productions to consider. And perhaps the most frustrating of these three was Martha Henry's production of Three Sisters, which to my mind seemed almost like a mirror image of Julius Caesar in its issues and effect. Henry, a highly lauded actress herself, drew superb performances from three of her actors - Lucy Peacock (Masha, at right in photo at left), Tom McCamus (Vershinin), and James Blendick (Chebutykin), and at least intermittently compelling ones from two more, Juan Chioran (Solyony) and Kelli Fox (Natasha). Henry even offered a few compelling new insights into the text (she hinted, for instance, that Natasha was pregnant before her marriage to Andrei - although perhaps not with his child). But in a play that, like all Chekhov, depends upon its ensemble, several key performances (including two of the three sisters) were weak - and Henry didn't seem to know how to compensate for this technically. Particularly in the final act, she left her actors flailing, whereas a director/conductor like MacDonald would have attended to pacing and orchestrated something more cohesive. The results were therefore on the one hand, occasionally shattering (particularly when Peacock and McCamus were onstage), but on the other hand, exasperatingly tedious. And as everyone knows, the trick to Chekhov is to not allow the tedium that the characters all complain of to extend to the audience, too.

An unusually passionate moment from Phèdre.

Particularly when tedium ruled another Stratford outing, a rare production of Racine's Phèdre (from a slightly mannered new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker - remember her?). The National Theatre's recent broadcast of Ted Hughes's freer, more dynamic translation (yes, two major Phèdres in a single year) gave a pretty good idea of how the play can succeed - via coiled, destructive passion - but director Carey Perloff took a very different route, to pretty disastrous results. Indeed, Perloff's direction felt almost like a textual thesis inappropriately deployed as a theatrical approach - sensing the strict discipline of Racine's verse, and the Catholic aura of sexual suppression in his moralism, Perloff ran with those as the core of her interpretation, rather than sensing actual drama would require some sort of conflict with those precepts. Thus the usually phenomenal Seana McKenna was stuck working in a kind of straitjacket, and of the supporting cast, only Tom McCamus brought much interest to his Theseus (and then only in a worldly way that made little sense of his impulsive actions). The seventeenth-century-inspired fashions were lovely, and occasionally the production did achieve a tone of something like muted transcendence, but that was hardly enough to carry it through even its relatively-brief 100-minute running time. During the performance I attended, a patron actually fell asleep and rolled off her chair like a log. Luckily, she wasn't hurt by a response that, as criticism, couldn't have been more pointed.

My final production at Stratford was a studio version of George F. Walker's Zastrozzi (Rick Roberts, at right, as the title character), a play which at the time of its writing (the 70's) was quite popular up north, but never achieved much of a profile in the U.S. (Walker has become better-known since, although this is the first piece by him I've seen). The script was graced by a truly brilliant production, directed by the up-and-coming Jennifer Tarver and featuring a dazzling cast led by Sarah Orenstein (late of the Shaw), Oliver Becker, Andrew Shaver and John Vickery. But alas, as one reviewer put it, this only made it obvious that the flaws in the show were indeed built right into the script.

Said script is certainly an odd duck, and one that perhaps too often flies in circles, but which sometimes takes wing with a surreal resonance. Zastrozzi, an evil genius and self-proclaimed "master criminal of Europe," is bent on killing Verezzi, a self-proclaimed artistic visionary whose visions are, for the most part, psycho-art-babble. Zastrozzi's motive is simply the mediocrity of Verezzi's art - he's killed off plenty of second-rate artists before; indeed, he argues that he can't wait for God to administer artistic justice, because he's an atheist.

But there are other, deeper psychological issues moving beneath Zastrozzi's M.O., including the murder of his mother - and he soon finds himself mixing it up with a whip-wielding dominatrix (Orenstein), a priest searching for salvation (Vickery), a hatchet man with an axe to grind (Becker) and a virgin who's always in the wrong place at the wrong time (Amanda Lisman), all of whom seem to be floating in a non-determinate space which director Tarver suggests might be an insane asylum. Walker's method throughout is to spike twisty metaphysical argument with sitcom-level one-liners, an amusing enough mix, to be sure - but we find ourselves wishing he'd stick with one line of argument for longer than he seems able or willing to do. The results are therefore more superficial than the playwright intends, or pretends; still, the play remains intriguing enough that I hope to see more Walker in these parts sometime soon.